Skip to content

An Effort at Reconciliation

Free author Lea Ypi discusses how she came to adopt multiple forms of expression to tackle the themes that interest her.

The pioneer of the modern memoir, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was a philosopher, and in the 250 years since his Confessions dropped, several other philosophers have followed his lead. Friedrich Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Stanley Cavell all produced excellent memoirs. But beyond such special cases, philosophy and autobiography have always been a tricky fit. Literary personal narrative requires a set of inclinations and skills that are only rarely present in humans in general, and are also in tension with philosophy’s tendencies toward impersonality, abstraction, and technicality. The academic professionalization of philosophy in the 20th century didn’t help much either: no philosopher’s tenure case has been aided by writing a memoir.

It’s been both surprising and welcome, then, over the past five years, to see a significant uptick in well-crafted memoirs penned by philosophers, including John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story and Hiking with Nietzsche, Chloé Cooper Jones’ Easy Beauty, Andy West’s The Life Inside, Regan Penaluna’s How To Think Like a Woman, and Clancy Martin’s How Not To Kill Yourself. (I’m hoping for a boxed set of those last two books.)

A standout in this new wave of philosopher-memoirists is Lea Ypi, a 43-year-old Albanian professor of political theory at the London School of Economics. Until recently, Ypi was mainly political-philosophy-famous, for her wide-ranging, historically informed, analytically sharp, and innovative writing on global justice, democratic theory, Enlightenment political thought, and Marxism. Since the publication of Free: Coming of Age at the End of History in 2021, she has been famous-famous: her best-selling memoir has been plastered on Tube station walls, serialized by BBC radio, and listed as a book of the year by The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, and The Washington Post.

Free recounts Ypi’s childhood and teenage years in Albania, which took place during her country’s momentous transitions from communist dictatorship to neoliberal experiment to civil war. The story is told largely in the voice of Ypi’s child self, a smart, feisty, sensitive kid tasked with making sense of her family, her nation, and the whole course of the 20th century. In the first half of the book, the result is both hilarious and gripping. (Why are Ypi’s parents so cagey about their past?) In the second half, when both the narrator’s illusions and her homeland are shattered, the impact is heart-breaking. The book offers a captivating window into the details of everyday life under communism and is imbued with extraordinary psychological acuity and empathy, alongside, of course, philosophical insight into the question of what it means to be free.

I like a funny, illuminating, and moving personal history of the clash between communist and capitalist conceptions of freedom as much as the next person—I’m only human!—but I also have special reasons for being interested in Free. I published a book, Artful Truths, on the philosophy of memoir a couple of years ago and have also been writing my own memoir about philosophy. (My sister calls them “your weird book twins.”) I find memoirs by philosophers fascinating both for their form—usually a hybrid of personal narrative and philosophical theory—and for their content—which often includes meditation on the nature and value of philosophy itself alongside the author’s particular philosophical preoccupations. Writing a memoir as a philosopher is a borderline radical act: it pushes the author far beyond their professional zone of operations and challenges prevailing assumptions about the relationship between the personal and the impersonal, the particular and the general, the true and the beautiful.

I wrote to Lea and asked her some questions about her life story, her philosophizing, and how they shape each other.

The Raven Feather

HDB: You have a highly dramatic personal history (to understate it). Politically, you lived through what reads like a compressed version of the entire 20th century in the span of 20 years. More intimately, your childhood was marked by pervasive deception, financial instability, and the trauma of war. What, if any, of this background contributed to your decision to pursue philosophy as a degree and career? (We can’t pin this on your parents: you describe both of them as allergic to philosophizing!)

LY: I grew up in communist and later postcommunist Albania in an environment that was generally hostile to philosophy—during communism because there was only one legitimate way of seeing the world, and later because there was none. Ideas were held responsible for the tragedies of the 20th century. Philosophy was the forbidden fruit, so to speak. I read many philosophical texts (by Plato, Descartes, Nietzsche, Camus) as a teenager and was attracted to philosophy, but I had never really thought of turning it into my life’s occupation.

The decision to study it at university came in very unusual circumstances. It was 1997, and there had been a financial collapse in Albania. The country was in a state of anarchy and civil unrest. The school was closed for months, there was shooting every day on the streets, many people were killed, others fled the country, and many died at sea trying to cross to Italy in smugglers’ dinghies. I was finishing my A levels and had to decide what to study at university. My parents encouraged me to pick a subject that would turn into “a profession,” by which I suppose they meant something that would enable me to find a job easily.

But no “profession” made sense. An economist in the middle of financial collapse, or a lawyer given the general state of anarchy? All I had were questions. And I suppose I thought of philosophy as the kind of subject that would help me ask better questions. I had just read Plato’s Apology, and I was inspired by Socrates’ idea of the examined life. I suppose it was a strange way to think—this idea that you need to examine your whole life when you’re only 17. But one can see how it made sense given the circumstances. Living through war means you might be dead any time, so any day is as good to examine your life as any other. 

You now teach an annual course on Marx at the LSE. When I teach Marx, my students tend to divide into two camps: those who dismiss communism out of hand as unworkable and those who wave away the institutional and psychological challenges as irrelevant to the theory’s merits. If I find both of these camps frustrating, I suspect you find them infinitely more so. How does it feel to teach this material, given the determinative effect of Marxism on your own life? How do you help your students think more subtly about it?

I have experienced engaging with Marx from both sides of the divide: as both a saint and the devil. In Albania, as in several other East European countries, Marxism tends to be viewed with great suspicion because of the historical experiences with socialism. Many people think that only the history matters; the philosophy has been discredited. On the other hand, in the West, the paternalism with which the real-world experience of communism is dismissed by many on the left is also frustrating. Only philosophy matters, the history can be put to one side, especially if it’s the history of remote places.

The truth is—as with many other things—dialectical. I find it helpful to read Marx so as to engage with the contemporary challenges the world faces: he was one of the most insightful critics of capitalist globalization. But of course, he lived in a different era, and we must do our thinking for ourselves. In that spirit, it is also important to reflect on how the world has changed since then and on the real-world obstacles to the realization of socialism. It is crucial to engage with the different contexts with nuance, without eliminating differences between them. The experience of Albania, for example, was very different from that of neighboring Yugoslavia, and there is something to be learned from both of them.

In general, I think philosophy is most productive when it engages with empirical disciplines like history and political science, even though one must also defend the role of abstraction. This, at least, is what I tell my students, and in my course on Marx we explore both historical and philosophical questions, from a variety of different methodologies, both analytical and text-based.

One of the very many things I admire about Free is your professorial restraint. Though you’re an acknowledged expert on political philosophy, you never slip into lecturing your readers. The majority of the book is narrated in your child voice (though with a layer of adult irony that’s often hilarious). Even when you turn directly to, say, the socialist conception of freedom or the political history of your country, you do it through the voices of others—your teachers, your parents, your neighbors. Was it sometimes hard for you to resist letting your professor voice rip?

Yes, at the beginning. But once I started, the story, the characters, the memories took over. I wanted to write a story about freedom in which many voices could be heard speaking freely, each with their own interpretation of events, their own system of values, and in conversations that did not try to resolve questions for readers but opened other questions or shed a different light on them. In many ways, Free is a book about the promises and perils of paternalism, and I was determined to write it in a non-paternalistic way. One of the central messages of the book is that freedom cannot really be taught—we make sense of it (and its opposite) in the course of acting.

The child’s perspective helped to discipline me. It was crucial to enable the philosopher to stand back, let ideas develop in a more fluid way, and let readers absorb them through character, plot, and other literary techniques. A child has no authority of their own, they are usually receptive to others’ views, and they cannot be accused of patronizing anyone. Sometimes I would show bits of the text to my son (who was then just over 10) and ask if he could make sense of what I wrote. Other times I shared drafts of chapters with my mother, who is one of my fiercest critics, and if she said “this is just playing with words” (which is her way of dismissing philosophy), I would go and try to rewrite.

You mention in your epilogue that you first planned to write an academic book on the intersections between socialist and liberal ideas of freedom, but that as you started to write “ideas turned into people—the people who made me who I am.” It sounds there like you slipped into the memoir form almost involuntarily. The last line of the book suggests, though, that you now detect some underlying motivations: “to explain, to reconcile, and to continue the struggle.” What has writing a memoir done for you—in these ways, but maybe also others—that writing standard academic philosophy hasn’t (and maybe can’t)?

My philosophical work is connected to my literary work. The themes are the same (freedom, history, politics, moral agency) but the modes of expression are different. I think of all writing as an effort at reconciliation. And I think of writing these different texts as speaking different languages: even within philosophy, one can engage with the history of philosophy or with analytical philosophy, and the writing will look different but ultimately the concepts are the same. Writing a memoir enabled me to engage with very complex and potentially divisive topics in a more open way—it really was more about explaining myself than forcing an interpretation on the readers.

Literature is a very democratic medium. There is a sort of equality pact between the writer and the reader: the work continues to be written in the mind of the reader, even when the author has officially reached the book’s conclusion. The reader is not a student or a scholar but a friend, and the writing takes a more confessional form. Having said that, I don’t think the boundary needs to be as rigid as we sometimes think it is: some of the greatest philosophical texts are also works of literature: think about the writings of Plato or Rousseau. And some of the greatest works of literature are also works of philosophy: think about Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Dostoyevsky’s The Demons, two of my favorite novels.

You have an undergraduate degree in literature, but this is the first time most of us knew you had literary talent. (Not to diss your previous academic books, which were also very well written.) Did you always see yourself as a writer, in the literary sense? Can we look forward to more creative writing from Lea Ypi in the future?

Yes, I will try again. But I may fail. I find writing literature extremely difficult and, unlike writing philosophy, very psychologically demanding. Balancing writing between description of characters, dialogue, psychology, plot, pace, and philosophical themes is hard because it requires you to trust the reader to grasp the significance of details that may not be immediately obvious. And as a philosopher you have a tendency to constantly stop, make distinctions, remove ambiguities, eliminate contradictions, and ensure the audience is following (which is exactly how to kill literature!).

On the other hand, I’m not the type of writer who believes that everything they write is inherently relevant—subjective perceptions are not automatically interesting. Writing about my family, my grandmother, my father, or my mother may be cathartic for me, but it will only matter to others if these individual characters and their particular experiences become the means to try and convey something of universal value. Overemphasizing the bigger picture risks becoming didactic, while excessive detail can distract from the central message. Maintaining this balance during the writing process is exhausting.

I heard through the grapevine that you’re now interested in doing some philosophy of memoir. Which questions are most compelling to you in that domain?

I’m not going to be explicitly writing on the philosophy of memoir but some philosophical questions surrounding memory—particularly its connection to historical injustice—are central to my next book project. I am interested in both the fragility and power of memory, how it helps us reflect on the past, and how we can reconstruct the meaning of a person’s life by remembering it. I am also interested in the mechanisms of memory transmission, both individual and collective, and on the impact of propaganda and ideology. All of these are crucial when you engage with questions of historical injustice and its links to injustices of the present. In the next book, I hope to approach these issues through a reconstruction and reimagining of the life of my grandmother, who is also a character in Free, and to thematize more explicitly these issues, including the relationship between truth and imagination, at the intersection of literature, history, and philosophy.

You’ve published an extraordinary number of books, articles, and op-eds, you teach graduate and undergraduate classes, you co-edit an excellent philosophy journal, you gave over 30 talks in multiple countries last year alone, you’re raising small children, and now you’ve written a best-selling memoir, with all the publicity that entails. Are sleeping and eating still things you do?

I once asked the same question to a very productive, excellent philosopher and his answer was “yes, but I do everything badly.” Something similar applies to me: most of the time I try to muddle through. But I also don’t think one should compartmentalize life. You can write while eating and think while travelling. Sometimes I think I am having my best ideas during my sleep (though I also often wake up to realize I have forgotten them). I often take the kids to events, and I wrote my book on Kant’s architectonic of pure reason during my second maternity leave, while breastfeeding, or when the baby slept. Was it good? Would it have been better if I had been less tired? As another friend and mentor (Bob Goodin) used to say: time spent worrying is time wasted.