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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 17.2 (2003) 108-121

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Two Testimonies in American Philosophy:
Stanley Cavell, Henry Bugbee 1

Edward F. Mooney
Syracuse University

". . . [I]n a sense, to write your own words, to write your own inner voice, is philosophy. But the discipline most opposed to writing, and to life, is analytic philosophy."

—Stanley Cavell 2

". . . [O]ur whole lives may have the character of finding that anthem which would be native to our own tongue, and which alone can be the true answer for each of us to the questioning, the calling, the demand for ultimate reckoning which devolves upon us."

—Henry Bugbee 3

For classic American philosophers, say starting with Emerson and Thoreau, personal voice and evocation of a place are resoundingly essential. Walden's philosophical instruction is delivered through attention to the particularities of place and mood that Thoreau attends to—in just this voice, in just this phrase. At issue is self-discovery, intertwined with discovery of the proper placement or setting of the self. This allows Thoreau to address us intimately. We are informed of mood, insight, and place as their contours arrive in his articulations.

Yet on some construals of philosophy, voice and the particulars of its placement are impediments. The personal, on this view, is precisely what makes these early American writers not philosophers but preachers, poets, or sages. In its maturity, we learn, philosophy becomes professional and lean. It frames its questions with technical precision, and argues its case on the model of a scientific report or lawyer's brief. Call [End Page 108] this the positivist's construal. If it reigns, we lose something essential in Emerson and Thoreau, in Royce and James, and, on the European front, in Sartre and Wittgenstein. If not for all philosophers, then certainly for these, the timbre, color, or rhythms of their philosophic voice are not just packaging. The intimation of the writer's fit-to-world is part and parcel of the philosophy conveyed.

Cavell writes of philosophy as the search for one's voice, or as Cavell's teacher, Henry Bugbee, puts it, the search for the anthem native to one's tongue. Both Cavell and Bugbee find themselves in an ambiguous relationship to analytic philosophy precisely on this issue of the bearing of personal voice on bringing philosophy into the open. Cavell's A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises (1994) and Bugbee's The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form ([1958] 1999) bear witness to the struggle to find one's voice, and so to find one's stance, one's self, in philosophy as in life.


The American Philosopher, a recent collection of interviews with Quine, Davidson, Nozick, and others, repeatedly raises the question of what brings a person to take up philosophy. 4 The interviewer asks each respondent in turn to reflect on how their thought fits with the broader American tradition, with social and political events they might have been caught up in, with personal attachments or crises. These questions seem somewhat awkward initially. There is a touch of "TV talk show" atmosphere that we're afraid will trivialize, or miss entirely, the achievement of our professional colleagues. A Paris intellectual might thrive with such questions, but we expect only a handful of APA celebrities to flourish in this setting. Happily we find arresting stories here—Danto, on his early wish to be a painter; Cavell, on how a class on Thoreau got started almost accidentally; Putnam, on left-wing causes and Jewish mysticism. Still, we might be bothered. Are these revelations, however interesting, at last only marginalia, anecdotes smoothing the way to something else, something closer to the true center of philosophy? In the larger frame of things, what are we to make of Cavell's "Autobiographical Exercises" or Bugbee's "Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form"?

Cavell wants us to hear what was compelling in his early attraction to language and music, something inescapably there that led him to his vocation. And he explores this notion of vocation, of calling...


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