Recap of the James A. Moffett '29 Lectures in Ethics with Lea Ypi

March 15, 2023

Written by: Gaby Nair, Department of Politics, graduate student in political theory

What can one woman’s journey to the authority for information concerning documentation of the former state security service reveal about her home country, her family’s past, and human dignity? What can the authority for information concerning documentation of the former state security service tell us about the possibility of human dignity, moral agency, and the exercise of freedom? How do identity, nation, and political vision come together and apart?

In her unorthodox 2023 James A. Moffett ’29 Lecture in Ethics, Lea Ypi, author and Professor of Political Theory in the Government Department at the London School of Economics, dealt with these questions and others. Through a gripping reading of a chapter from her forthcoming prequel to Free, Ypi narrated her experience learning about her family in the state security service archives in Tirana, Albania. Ypi explained that she was driven to do this archival research and to write this chapter, and the book of which it is a part, as a continuation of her exploration of the philosophical themes at the center of Free.Currently titled In Dignity, Ypi’s new project explores her preferred understanding of freedom, understood as the development and exercise of moral agency in both ideal and non-ideal conditions. At the center of the forthcoming book is Ypi’s grandmother, Leman, whose life spanned massive social, political, and cultural transformations in the Eastern Mediterranean, and through the character of her grandmother, Ypi deals with these transformations and their effects on the possibility of retaining dignity, asserting moral agency, and exercising human freedom.

Ypi opens her chapter with a taxi ride to the authority for information concerning documentation of the former state security service, and she describes the phenomenology of sifting through her family’s archives on the frustratingly unreliable computer in the cold government building. Throughout her narration of her experience in the archive, Ypi adds a layer to her already complicated story, bringing in metacommentary on the relationship between truth and history. Ypi considers truth to be elusive and always subject to interpretation, and she allows the narrative form to show her readers—and listeners—the complications of interpreting the archive, especially as researcher and family member.

In the chapter itself, Ypi weaves together the narrative and philosophical reflection. Central to her investigation is “essence,” understood as “what it is or what it was to be.” Ypi explores essence, its relationship to family history, and its relationship to national identity through the life of her grandmother. Leman Ypi was born into an aristocratic family at the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, grew up and settled in Albania, and became a single mother and deportee by age 40. Through her narrative unfolds through a discussion of her grandmother in this Albanian context, Ypi centers a complicated interconnection of national identity and self-determination. In her view, national self-determination and socialism came together in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, but in the end, the power of the state, with its bureaucratic, surveillance, and punishment apparatuses, smothered the forces working against capitalism, creating a noxious form of national identity that replaced earlier and more complicated attachments to place. Though the combination of self-determination and socialism was noxious in this context and was detrimental to her own family’s experience, Ypi remains hopeful that the two can come together in a more positive way in the future. 

Listen to the lecture here.