pulvis et umbra sumus

[Edit] Obituary: Peter Lipton (9 October 1954 – 25 November 2007)

the time between my first starting to think about historical causation and my being asked to teach a class on it is almost entirely nourished by my interaction with Professor Peter Lipton — who died, abruptly, last night. this whole day I have felt my existence scraped out thinly, like too little butter over too much bread; every now and then, without warning, I’ll be struck with a vertiginous incredulity … oh, this arbitrary, mortal world of ours, pale, fragile — and at times like these, so terrifyingly senseless. I make tea and stop in the act of lifting it to my mouth: it’s all nothing! nothing at all. an orange peel on the pavement is as laughable, ridiculous, as the notion of Peter Lipton — those blue, clear eyes focused at some distant point beyond the upturned faces of his eager students — a corpse. I stare at one with the same incredulity as I think about the other. my tea grows cold, and I don’t notice so much

He did this thing I only half-jokingly coined a verb for — to Lipton, I have told people, is to listen to the most garbled, incoherent, muddle-headed drivel that periodically emits from a student or otherwise member of an audience, and to restate it back at them in the most crystal clear terms, so that whatever point hidden in its murky depths is rescued & borne out of the swamps of obfuscation to receive enlightenment from high … seriously. Liptoning also involves clarifying complexity with enviable panache, but always without an iota of hubris — always that incredible modesty and respect for what one does not know — in short, to be an ideal teacher and thinker. What a gift! and how it suffers so, diluted in this stuttering eulogy, a murky swamp of words within which is buried the most heartfelt admiration for a great man and his work.

next month, next week, tomorrow, life continues blithely. it’s all too much, all this death and mortality — all this grief and, inexplicably, pancakes afterward

what a way to return after a long period of quiet. I am sorry.

[Edit]  From Askphilosophers.org

Q: If every life results in death, then what is the meaning of life?
A: Peter Lipton: The meaning of life comes from what you do in your life: your activities and achievements. These are real even though you die, and would be no more real if you lived forever (though, admittedly, you would have time for a lot more of them).


9 responses to “pulvis et umbra sumus

  • Tim

    Rachel, I’m so sorry. My best analogy is the worst. My advisor — Jean-Michel Rabate at Penn — has the same ability to Lipton as your Peter did, and I know how rare and precious and comforting that is. I very nearly lost my way when he briefly took a job at Princeton. I can only imagine how hurtful and sad your loss is.

  • S. Cuomo

    Dear Rachel, I have come across your blog by chance while trying to find out more about Peter Lipton’s death. I was taught by him too, and he contributed to getting me started on a career as a historian (and occasionally a philosophy teacher too). I just wanted to say that what I most fondly remember about him is precisely the Lipton-ing – translating whatever confused rambling had come out of our mouths into coherent, and almost interesting, thoughts. Few academics were as universally liked as he was.

  • mercuriuspoliticus

    I’m very sorry. I wasn’t taught by Lipton during my time at Cambridge, but he sounds like one of the special teachers that some of us are lucky enough to have who inspire and support a love of their subject – and can do so with real humour and humanity.

  • Jonathan

    He was my dissertation supervisor this year. The whole department is in a state of shock. I like your point about the “Liptoning,” and his contributions to Ask Philosophers were always brilliantly erudite.

    Whatever our personal feelings, they pale in comparison to what his family is going through and our sympathies must go out to them.

  • Rachel

    his family — I could collapse thinking about their loss

    the funeral was today

  • Jonathan

    You might like to know (I don’t know if you know already) that a link to + quote from your blog tribute about ‘Liptoning’ was emailed round King’s and the HPS department. Not by me – by the provost of King’s.

  • Rachel

    oh. I’m embarrassed & flattered. thank you for telling me; I am plugged into neither of those networks.

  • thoughts on teaching « a historian’s craft

    […] a student to elaborate a thought they’re in the process of having (and relatedly, I suppose, how to lipton); how to encourage students to speak to one another; how to gently guide a wayward conversation […]

  • sandrar

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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