Brooding over the bourgeoisie


After a year in Germany working on forthcoming books about Hegel, Nietzsche, and modernist aesthetics, Robert Pippin on Thursday delivered the 2004 Nora and Edward Ryerson Lecture. An eager crowd of professors, alumni, and students squeezed into Max Palevsky Cinema to hear his talk: “Bourgeois Philosophy? On the Problem of Leading a Free Life.”

Why are intellectuals and philosophers continually dissatisfied with modern society? Pippin, the distinguished service professor in the Committee on Social Thought, Philosophy, and the College, responded to his rhetorical question by chronicling the history of the bourgeoisie, people originally despised as philistines and poseurs: bourgeois (literally burg-dweller) referred to merchants and skilled craftsmen who held no noble status but lived within the manor township walls. Their growing affluence “gave them access to high culture but absolutely no idea what to do with it,” Pippin said, explaining that many philosophers from Rousseau onward assumed an aristocratic disdain for bourgeois mediocrity and phony fashionableness—effectively adopting a bourgeois self-hatred.

While this self-hatred swept French thought, Pippin said, the German Romantic philosophers (Kant, Hegel, and later Nietzsche and Heidegger) grappled with the issue of freedom. The meaning of freedom in a consumerist society, he argued, must be more than the ability to do and get what you want; the German Romantics insisted that real freedom is liberty from the things we want, a triumph over low habits and inclinations.

Joseph Liss, ’04

April 9, 2004