April 9, 2004

Pippin addresses issues of freedom

A standing-room only crowd of students and faculty listened to Professor Robert Pippin address the question of whether modern life has made mankind free.

Before delivering the Nora Edward Ryerson lecture Thursday evening, Pippin was introduced by President Don Randel, who emphasized the merit of the speaker, noting Pippin's selection by his colleagues.

Pippin, in his opening remarks, described his appointment to give the Ryerson lecture as an "extraordinary honor," and as a "humbling and intimidating prospect." The title of Pippin's lecture, "Bourgeois Philosophy? On the Problem of Leading a Free Life," addressed the problem of what it means to be free in a contemporary society.

The approach employed by Pippin was of a historical nature, re-interpreting the ideas of the great philosophers to address contemporary issues. Throughout his speech, Pippin presented the ideas of great thinkers of different ages while conceiving what responses these ideas would have elicited from other philosophers.

Pippin, who specializes in German philosophy, used a broad spectrum of thinkers to furnish his argument, engaging the ideas of Hegel and Kant as well as Locke, Rousseau, and Marx.

It was Pippin's unique combination of theories on freedom that most impressed Jonathan Lear, professor of philosophy and a fellow member of the committee on social thought.

"Professor Pippin's recognition of the dependence on the interdependence of others is an important one," said Lear, who also commended Pippin for his work in developing a creative interpretation of older ideas as a means of analyzing the 21st century.

In a brief digression, Pippin spoke on the derivation of the term "bourgeois," revealing how its inner contradictions are central to a problematic notion of freedom.

The bourgeois is constrained in his actions by what others think, Pippin explained. "His range of independent action is limited not merely by his bad, craven character, but by the form of society that requires and rewards such cautious, reputation-protecting conduct," he said.

Pippin added that the contradiction in this philosophy develops with respect to the bourgeois man's core ideal of freedom: That of external constraint, free of being subjected to the will of others.

Despite the one-hour time limit, Pippin delved into a complex analysis of why mankind wants what he wants. Employing the example of Leontius in Plato's Republic, Pippin illustrated how freedom is more than simply what people want to do, since an inability to detach oneself from desire is not an expression of free will.

Another subject of the lecture was on the existence of freedom within the context of marriage, essentially a "contract to love." With a variety of examples, Pippin demonstrated how the concept of freedom couldn't be found in an assertion of independence from life's obligations.

Pippin concluded his lecture with a quote from Rameau's Nephew, by Diderot, in which the philosopher validates his practice of accepting the demands life has placed on him: "I know the sorts of action I would give up all I own to have done."

Faculty response to the lecture was praiseworthy. Ted O'Neill, dean of admissions, said that Pippin had presented the "perfect lecture for our undergraduates," citing his unique ability to engage the audience with his ideas.

Mark Strand, professor on the Committee of Social Thought, called the lecture "brilliant" and commended Pippin for his elegant way of treating difficult issues. Central to the lecture, according to Strand, was the idea that freedom is understood not only intellectually, but emotionally as well.