George Pitcher, scholar of contemporary philosophy beloved for his 'sheer humanity,' dies at 92

Jan. 24, 2018 3:19 p.m.

George Pitcher, beloved professor of philosophy, emeritus, at Princeton University, died Jan. 12 at his home in Princeton after a brief illness. He was 92.

George Pitcher

George Pitcher

Pitcher's scholarship focused on issues of contemporary philosophy, including theory of knowledge and philosophy of mind.

He was an expert on early 20th-century Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and George Berkeley, an Irish philosopher during the Age of Enlightenment, and wrote books on both: "The Philosophy of Wittgenstein (1964) and "Berkeley" (1977). Pitcher also is the author of "A Theory of Perception" (1971) and wrote numerous articles for philosophical journals.

Pitcher was born May 19, 1925, in West Orange, New Jersey. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1947, he was commissioned as a lieutenant and served three years on ships in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. While a graduate student at Harvard University, he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War, after which he returned to Harvard, earning his Ph.D. in 1957.

Pitcher joined the Princeton faculty in 1956. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1965-66 and was a member of the American Philosophical Association.

When Michael Smith, the McCosh Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy, arrived at Princeton as an assistant professor in 1985, he met Pitcher by chance, not long after he retired.

"I introduced myself one day when he came into the department to collect his mail, as I was already a huge fan, having got through two courses as an undergraduate by reading his books 'The Philosophy of Wittgenstein' and 'A Theory of Perception,'" Smith said.

Pitcher taught a number of undergraduate courses including "British Empiricism" and Special Topics in the History of Philosophy," and graduate courses including "Problems of Philosophy," "British Empiricism," "Theory of Knowledge" and "Philosophy of Mind."

Paul Benacerraf, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, sat in on Pitcher's "Problems of Philosophy" course one semester. He said he was "happy to be guided, along with students, through the labyrinth of the 'Tractatus' [the only book-length work published by Wittgenstein in his lifetime]."

Benacerraf described Pitcher's work on Wittgenstein as "a fine example of true scholarship." 

Benacerraf also credited Pitcher, who served for a number of years as acting chair and associate chair, for steering the department through a period of rapid growth. He said Pitcher "helped keep the department on an even keel, despite the disruptive influence of accumulating a star-studded faculty and a doubling or tripling of the size of the graduate program. His kindness, good sense and sheer humanity shone through."

Shortly after moving to Princeton, Pitcher made the acquaintance of the composer Edward T. Cone, a professor of music at Princeton, who became Pitcher's life companion for almost 50 years, until his death in 2004. Cone, a 1939 Princeton undergraduate alumnus and 1942 graduate alumnus, retired in 1985.

Pitcher served from 1992 until his death as a trustee of the Edward T. Cone Foundation. For Pitcher's 88th birthday, Jeffrey Edelstein, a research affiliate at the Center for the Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton, commissioned composer and 2009 graduate alumnus John Supko to create "A Free Invention for George Pitcher," a piece of generative software that  interweaves recordings of Cone teaching a counterpoint class at Princeton in 1973 with sampled acoustic instruments, electronic tones and the sound of the wind; it performs a new version of itself each time it is activated.

Pitcher and Cone shared a love of classical music, opera, art, travel — and dogs. In retirement, Pitcher wrote a memoir, "The Dogs Who Came to Stay" (1996), about two of those dogs — Lupa, a stray pregnant dog who turned up in their gardening shed, and one of her pups, Remus (they found homes for the other pups). They took their dogs everywhere, including to restaurants and to France on the QEII.

Smith said that when he gave his children a copy of "The Dogs Who Came to Stay," one of them insisted on meeting the author. A visit was arranged in 1999. "George was totally charming," Smith said. "The world is a much better place for having had George Pitcher in it."

"Stray people, stray dogs, stray ideas: they were all made welcome by George," said Paul Muldoon, the Howard G.B. Clark '21 University Professor in the Humanities, professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts and director of the Princeton Atelier.

"George was reminiscent of his great hero, Bishop Berkeley, in that he combined an extraordinary brain with an extraordinary heart, " Muldoon said. "He was quite simply one of the kindest people I've ever met. When [my wife] Jean and I first arrived in Princeton, George and Ed took us under their wing. Their dinner parties were great culinary experiences, of course, but also great cultural experiences."

Upon arriving at Princeton, Patricia Kitcher, a 1974 graduate alumna and the Roberta and William Campbell Professor of Humanities and a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, opened her first issue of The Philosophical Review. There she saw an article by a professor who was going to teach one of her first-semester seminars — on Wittgenstein’s "Philosophical Investigations."

"It was George Pitcher's wonderful essay on 'Pain Perception,'" Kitcher said. "I was sure that I had made the right choice of graduate school — the people from whom I would learn my craft were the leaders in the field."

Kitcher asked Pitcher to supervise her dissertation "because I thought he would provide both philosophical strictness and personal kindness. He did and I have been grateful ever since," she said. 

Pitcher transferred to emeritus status in 1981.

In the last decade of his life, he gathered around him a circle of friends known as "the Gang," composed of graduate students from a variety of academic disciplines and public intellectuals. He hosted them weekly for dinner and conversation.

Will Evans, who earned his Ph.D. in English from Princeton in 2013, was a member of "the Gang" from its inception. After meeting Pitcher in 2009 through a mutual friend — Edmund White, professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts — Evans and his roommate at the time, Jim Steichen, a 2014 graduate alumnus in music, began bringing opera DVDs to Pitcher's house.

"George would cook and we would have dinner between the acts. Soon we introduced George to other graduate student friends, who introduced others in turn, and the Gang began," said Evans, an associate at the New York City law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.

"George offered something more profound than mentorship: his unconditional love," Evans said. "He was far too modest to talk about his own considerable accomplishments as a philosopher. Instead, through his example, he reminded us of the values which first drew us to the liberal arts, but which are often forgotten amid the strange pressures of graduate school: civility, curiosity, generosity."

Long after he left Princeton, Evans never let more than a week go by without a lengthy phone conversation with Pitcher. "He made us think less about our careers and our dissertations and more about the individuals we were and would become."

"George created a family for us in Princeton," said Amelia Worsley, a 2014 Princeton graduate alumna in English, and an assistant professor of English at Amherst College. "He read our writing, came to our dissertation defenses and took joy in our personal successes, but he was just as attentive if things weren’t going so well."

Members of the Gang also came from academic disciplines outside of the arts and humanities.

Robert Pagels, a graduate student in chemical and biological engineering, said: "I think that a lot of graduate students at Princeton can suffer from impostor syndrome — the feeling that they aren't accomplishing enough — and, for me, one of George's most important roles in 'the Gang' was to be a cheerleader. He had unending confidence that we could achieve anything we wanted, even when we didn't feel quite so certain."

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on April 21 in the Princeton University Chapel. Contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.

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