Robert Pippin: an essay for the “On the Human” project

The National Humanities Center’s “On the Human” project (which we first posted about here) has been inviting distinguished scholars to write position papers for their online blog, to which other scholars are then invited to respond (and then anyone, I believe, is permitted to contribute a further response: the blog is open to the public). I wanted to draw your attention to a recent post on that blog by Robert Pippin, entitled “Participants and Spectators.” Pippin’s post is, unsurprisingly, excellent and thought-provoking, but you will also want to read the high-quality responses already posted to it by a stellar group of scholars, which includes Richard Eldridge, Terry Pinkard, Joshua Landy, and many others. To access Pippin’s post and the responses, please click here.

The following is the On the Human website’s editorial introduction to Pippin’s post, which places it in the context of ongoing discussions and debates in their online forum:

Even if the “moving machine” picture is only roughly accurate, it is hard to see how we could simply declare that we are not in charge, the machine is, and simply “wait to see what happens,” what the machine ends up doing.

So argues Robert Pippin, today’s Forum Contributor, and well known to our readers as the author of “Normative and Natural,” one of our touchstone Guiding Papers. Pippin explains in the first piece that we may not be the sum of the physical processes happening to us, may be metaphysically distinct from the moving machines we seem to inhabit, may be agents capable of initiating actions.

The issue lurks just below the surface of Brian Leiter’s discussion—which is soon to be concluded with Leiter’s response to critics. Pippin’s response to scientism and nihilism places him squarely in opposition, for example, to Alex Rosenberg’s disenchanted naturalism. In the new essay, “Participants and Spectators,” Pippin affirms Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conviction that the so-called progress of the sciences has corrupted rather than improved human conduct. Modernization, with its glorification of science and technical reason, hinders rather than advances understanding as it chips away at the idea that we are agents capable of being held responsible for our actions.

In the current offering, Pippin acknowledges the tremendous pressure the sciences seem to be putting on what he calls the Humanist Inheritance. He allows that self-knowledge while possible is difficult and complicated, and that our thoughts are rarely undertaken freely — if by freely we mean the ability to step back from all commitments to act independently of them. And he grants that we probably have far less control of ourselves than we generally assume.

But what follows from these views? “Assume all this and that a Kantian-style dualism, even a practical dualism, is much too strictly disjunctive and abstract, . . . What then? The question is what it would mean practically, from the point of view of someone who must lead his or her life, cannot wait to see what happens, to acknowledge this, who must embody the acknowledgement and ‘live out’ this acknowledgement or act in the light of its truth.”

Pippin’s answer is that an adequate response will not be found if one expects a response in strictly philosophical or theoretical terms. Because the question is a practical one it requires as a response “an act of participation” in “a collectively sustained social practice.”

Robert Pippin, a member of OTH’s advisory board, is Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, the Department of Philosophy, and the College in the University of Chicago. He specializes mainly on the modern German philosophical tradition. Among his books are Kant’s Theory of Form, Marcuse, Hegel’s Idealism, Modernism as a Philosophical Problem, Idealism as Modernism, Henry James and Modern Moral Life, The Persistence of Subjectivity, and Hegel’s Practical Philosophy. Further books forthcoming in 2010 include Hollywood Westerns and American MythNietzsche, Psychology, First Philosophy; and Hegel on Self-Consciousness.

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