2003 Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching: Robert Pippin, the Raymond W. & Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social ThoughtBy Seth Sanders
Unlike the Nobel Memorial Prize or the MacArthur Fellowship, the Mellon Foundation award is earmarked entirely for teaching and research. So far, Pippin has helped fund three conferences--Critical Inquiry's colloquium on the future of criticism, a conference on the French philosopher Vincent Descombes' critique of cognitive science's theory of mind, and one centered on the eminent Slovenian philosopher, critic and humorist, Slavoj Zizek.
A professor at Chicago since 1992, Pippin has focused his work on modern German philosophy. In books such as Kant's Theory of Form, Hegel's Idealism, and Idealism as Modernism: Hegelian Variations, Pippin has worked "to understand what's happened to us since the 16th century."
He explained his interest in German philosophy as connected to its effort "to understand European modernization. These attempts reflect an anxiety about the nature of modern tradition and the attempt to create secular foundations for life."
Pippin's graduate teaching tends to have high intellectual stakes. In a course this year on Modern Theories of the State, "we discussed Rousseau, Kant and Fichte, but concentrated on Kant's 'Doctrine of Justice' in his Metaphysics of Morals. In the Kant course, I was interested in what sort of wrong it was--given Kant's basic moral theory--if human beings were not to cede the right to decide their own cases to a central authority or general will. This is interesting in Kant because he is primarily a moral theorist. He's concerned with what persons should do and why, and it's not clear what he thinks should be done when others are not fulfilling their obligations. As a result of working through this material with the students, I believe I developed a new interpretation of the basic response Kant gives to this question.
"In a second course, on the German philosopher and cultural critic Theodor Adorno, we looked at Adorno's treatment of his forefathers: the classical German Idealist tradition. For neo-Marxist theorists like Adorno, this tradition is often seen as the most conceptually sophisticated expression of the self-understanding of the bourgeois society that they want to understand and criticize. We looked at how Adorno made use of Kant and Hegel especially to justify his own position.
"As is usual at Chicago, I had a great mix of students in the seminar--from Philosophy, Social Thought, Germanic Studies, History and Political Science--and the discussions were lively, very well informed and quite helpful."
Pippin described Chicago's teaching environment as one that enables him to learn from his colleagues. "The Committee on Social Thought makes possible a lot of team teaching, and I have always audited several courses taught by my colleagues. I've learned a lot from team teaching with Jonathan Lear, Nathan Tarcov and Mark Strand, and from sitting in courses taught by David Grene, John Coetzee and my colleague in philosophy, Candace Vogler.
"I've never experienced or heard of such a collaborative atmosphere anywhere else. It's been extremely valuable to me."