Faculty Spotlight: Robert B. Pippin

January 14, 2020

Robert B. Pippin is the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought, the Department of Philosophy, and the College at the University of Chicago. Focusing primarily on German idealism and philosophy, Pippin’s work has examined issues including political philosophy, modernity, self-consciousness, and the problem of freedom. Last year, Pippin was one of five UChicago scholars to be named 2019 Guggenheim Fellows. He shared information about his most recent book on film, his upcoming project, and what makes UChicago a unique place to teach.

Q. In addition to philosophy, you have a deep interest in film. Your most recent book, Filmed Thought: Cinema as Reflective Form, analyzes a number of classic films and shows that they are “modes of reflective thought.” Can you explain this concept in more detail and share an example?

A. Two of the chief goals of philosophy are contributing to self-knowledge and avoiding self-delusion, both on the individual and collective levels. This means philosophy needs some sort of access to how we experience and interpret ourselves and others, and that sort of experience—what it is like to be the subjects we are—cannot be made an object of analysis or science. There is no way for a film to express that experience without an implicit reflection on the moral lives it presents, including such issues as fairness, cowardice, nobility, pettiness, love, loyalty, and many others. So interpreting a film, trying to figure out why we are shown a narrative in this way and not some other, requires a philosophical engagement and assessment of some particular mode of expression in a film. Many philosophers have made an engagement with the arts important to their own reflection, and this is especially true of the philosophers I have worked on like Diderot, Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. I have found it especially exciting to extend this sort of engagement to the newest of the arts, film.

Q. You were recently named a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow and are using the award to support your new book, Idealism and Anti-Idealism in Modern European Thought. Can you give us a preview?

A. In terms of historical figures, the project is an assessment of the varieties of what I am calling “anti-idealism” in late modern philosophy, and the focus is on critics of Hegel’s version of idealism. The main critics are Marx, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger. But the issue at stake concerns the possibility of philosophy itself. Philosophy is not an empirical discipline. Its central questions are questions like, “What is justice? How could a material entity be conscious? Is the will free?” These questions require a priori answers and so assume that thinking alone, unaided by empirical data, could determine, if not a final and decisive answer, better answers than others. This is also connected to the most ambitious question in philosophy. Is thinking, the attempt to render everything intelligible, in principle adequate to such a task? 

The critics I am interested in claim that the kind of thinking characteristic of philosophy is, contrary to its own self-understanding, finite, limited, and constrained. The claims are that such thinking is always in the service of the interests of the ruling class, or is inadequate to the radical uniqueness of individual existence, or always originates in conditions unique to some historical moment, conditions so deeply presupposed that they are not themselves available for reflection. In more general terms, a great deal of European thought after Hegel—and this is a tradition that has had a profound influence on politics, literary theory, art history, cultural studies—is deeply influenced by such notions as the finitude and so the putative ultimate insufficiency of “thinking” as such. My attempt will be to respond to such criticisms.

Q. Tell us a little about UChicago’s John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought and what makes it such a distinctive program on campus, particularly for graduate students.

A. For me, during what is approaching now the last 30 years, the Committee on Social Thought has been an academic paradise. I’ve had colleagues in philosophy, classics, theology, literary studies, history, anthropology, art history, social theory, novelists like Saul Bellow and John Coetzee, poets like Mark Strand and Rosanna Warren, from whom I learned more than I would have ever imagined, and an atmosphere of complete permission to realize the unofficial UChicago ideal—to follow one’s ideas wherever they might lead, regardless of disciplinary boundaries. 

More than anything else, I have had extraordinary students. It is the talent and dedication of these students that has defined the experience of the Committee for me. Each of them ignored the advice to play it safe and go to a standard department, cared enough about their interests to pursue them outside disciplinary boundaries, and as a result, they have created a community of solidarity and loyalty and mutual concern and help unlike any I have been associated with. Graduate students tend to learn more from their peers than their professors, so this atmosphere has been just as paradisiacal for them, so it seems, as it has been for me.

Q. You’re a popular instructor among UChicago students. How do you effectively translate your research interests to the work you’re doing with students in the classroom?

A. Many of my colleagues in philosophy and all of my colleagues in the Committee believe that the philosophy or literature or whatever we teach is a humanistic enterprise, that it should have some bearing on human life as it is experienced, and that it should address the most important questions that arise in such a life. Acquiring an analytic, interpretive, and evaluative finesse in dealing with such questions is not easy. It requires a great deal of sustained work, the patience to deal with the complexities of the greatest texts that explore such issues, and the willingness to engage with other students in an atmosphere of respect and openness. So, it is not as if just being committed to such a humanistic goal immediately creates dramatically “relevant” insights. Accordingly, a good deal of teaching is creating the confidence in students that the work they put in—simple things like being willing to read the same text several times or see a film several times—is worth it. If a teacher believes that, and is genuinely passionate about that belief, then one can feel a common commitment growing, one that will sustain a sense of a communal exploration. 

Because the Committee allows me to teach whatever I want, I also have the privilege of approaching such issues in unusual ways. I can teach courses on Hitchcock or film melodrama or Proust as well as Kant and Hegel and Nietzsche, and that sense of doing something different, approaching things in a unique way, can also create a unique community of interest and a sense of excitement.