David Sipfle

4 May 2017
David Sipfle, William H. Laird Professor of Philosophy and Liberal Arts, Emeritus (pic 1989)
David Sipfle, William H. Laird Professor of Philosophy and Liberal Arts, Emeritus (pic 1989)

David Sipfle ’53 died at age 84 on April 30th due to complications from pneumonia. David taught Philosophy at Carleton from 1960 until his retirement in 1998 as the emeritus William H. Laird Professor of Philosophy and the Liberal Arts. In addition to twice chairing the Philosophy Department and serving on many committees, David was elected as Chair of the Faculty in 1975.

David loved Carleton in large part because it allowed him to focus on his students, teaching, and the “vicarious thrill…of watching a student’s eyes light up as he or she first experiences the seductive power of a whole new array of questions and a whole new way of thinking about them.” His enduring philosophical interests included the problem of free will, the nature of time, and issues in the philosophy of physics, and these were brought together in a symposium at his retirement entitled “Freedom, Time, and Physics”.

While his teaching was serious in purpose, there was always an element of humor and he was known to several generations of students as “Zenoman” (complete with a cape and a big “Z” on his chest) because of his freshman seminar on Zeno’s paradoxes. David’s gift for teaching also extended to his years as the Nordic Ski Team coach. A more complete obituary will be forthcoming soon.

A memorial service for David will be held on Thursday, June 15th, at 10am, in Great Hall.

Donations in memory of David may be sent to the David Sipfle Memorial Fund c/o The Development Office at Carleton.

Please keep all of David’s family and friends in your thoughts and prayers.

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  • 2017-05-04 16:12:35
    Louis Newman

    I have such fond memories of David, who was already a well-established and popular teacher when I arrived in the fall of 1983. David's good humor, as well as his willingness to raise hard questions from the floor of the faculty meetings, made him a valued colleague. I know that many generations of Carls were challenged and enriched by their contact with him. I will always remember him as a friendly presence on the 3rd floor of Leighton and a senior colleague who made me feel welcome.

  • 2017-05-04 21:04:56
    John Lyon, '90

    I remember him as the High Priest of the crazy Zeno cult that inaugurated my freshman year.  His intelligence and sense of humor were infectious and I still admire his willingness to meet freshmen at their level and then challenge them to bring their thinking to a much higher one.  His seminar had a profoundly positive influence on my college career and subsequent academic path.  He represented so much of what made Carleton a special place.

  • 2017-05-05 09:11:06
    Laura Ruetsche, '87

    Farewell, David Sipfle, High Priest of the International Siblinghood of Zenophiles. I have no idea who or what I would have turned out to be if I hadn't stumbled into your Zeno seminar.  I'd meant to drop it, to make room for some pre-med coures, but hearing you describe it my first day on campus ("we'll pursue difficult questions, rigorously -- but that doesn't mean we can't also have fun") changed my mind. You remain a model of what's good about philosophy, and I am grateful for that, for your high expectations, for your low-key warmth, for your humor and sense of adventure.  I will miss you very, very much.

  • 2017-05-05 13:10:23
    John Collins

    Mr. Sipfle was my comps advisor and my instructor in several philosophy classes. I have very warm memories of him and his classes. I still have tape cassettes of his comments on my comps and on my philosophy of time paper. I also sent my first ever email in his class, in 1989. He helped make Carleton the special place that it is.

  • 2017-05-05 13:54:48
    John Carroll, '82

    My cohort of Zenophiles fondly referred to David as the HPS. He introduced me to the topic of motion in a fun, mathy way, and thereby hooked me on philosophy. I was fortunate to see David a couple of time in the last 7 or 8 years. He loved his profession--so much so, that he always made me feel like it was the most important work anyone could ever undertake.

  • 2017-05-05 14:00:56
    Colin Hubbard, '85

    Prof. Sipfle graciously allowed me to take Modern Philosophy my sophomore year, although I was wholly unqualified to do so. This was my first introduction to academic philosophy, and led me to change majors. He was a demanding professor, expecting much from his students. He was impatient with lazy thinking, but also imparted a real enthusiasm for the subject. Somewhere I too have the tape cassettes which contained the critical comments to my papers. There was something comical and endearing about listening to his serious and thoughtful comments regarding the philosophical issues, which were punctuated by the farting noise produced by his tape recorder every time he pushed the pause button. I am very grateful to have had him as a professor.

  • 2017-05-05 14:40:30
    Jerome Lonnes '60

    I graduated the June before David joined the faculty in September, so I never had him as a professor. However, I I was a professor of philosophy myself in the 1960s and 1970s, so I got to know him at meetings of the American Philosophical Association. He was a wonderful person and an astute philosopher. I last saw and spoke with him at my 55th reunion in 2015. He and the other emeritus professors of philosophy at Carleton got together at the philosophy department lounge. I had donated several framed prints of philosophers and busts of Socrates and Plato to the Department and I asked if I could meet with the professors (including the emeritus professors), so Anna Moltchanova, then the chair, arranged a get together. David will be missed.

  • 2017-05-05 15:43:37
    Lawrie Cherniack 1966

    A wonderful teacher and a great human being. I was so happy to spend time with him last June at our 50th reunion. He was full of compassion and love. His interest in the learning process of his students led to his Socratic dialogues with them, which combined some frustration (why doesn't he just tell us what Kant means?) with a lesson in humility and real understanding. The care he took in his detailed comments on our papers was extraordinary. He will be missed, and he will be remembered!

  • 2017-05-05 16:02:34
    Jerry Relph 1966

    Memories abound to many to relate. David was one of the great minds but always tempered his dialog with wit and mirth. He always challenged you to step beyond your comfort zone and THINK. I so enjoyed the time I got to spend with him last year at the 50th Class Reunion. He will be missed.

  • 2017-05-05 16:56:45
    David Lovell 1968

    David Sipfle was always Mr. Sipfle to students at Carleton in the mid-1960's, where he taught the first quarter of a two-quarter ethics class, well known as a tough and engaging boot camp for philosophers and, in my case, a requirement for English majors. I got hooked right off the bat by the glimpse of clarity about fundamental issues, and as Lawrie reminds us, remained frustrated that one could never quite get it right. But Mr. Sipfle reached out and encouraged me in his comments and conversation, and eventually I obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy. He and his colleagues made teaching philosophy look fun and easy; only later did I realize how difficult it is to engage students as successfully as he did. I'm very sorry I won't have a chance to catch up with him at our 50th reunion.

  • 2017-05-12 15:15:00
    Stephen Kelly

    David was wonderful colleague, an immensely gifted teacher, a generous friend, and a great College citizen. He was one of my role models, though I rarely lived up to the original.

  • 2017-05-20 22:01:49
    Jim Schulman, AIA

    Dave Sipfle was not only one of my favorite Professors and Zeno instructor, but also my X-C ski coach, a task which he took as seriously as he did his seminars. Upon seeing one of his video tapes of my skiing, I was surprised to see that my kick was far better than I had imagined. During my Freshman(?) year he was injured and lost his beloved daughter in a tragic car accident in Vermont. When he shared with students that he had consequently lost his faith in God, I was moved to submit a poem about loss to the 'Tonian. I only remember a portion of the last line, but even as a fragment it evokes some of my feelings about Dave, knowing that he has left us: "...quick consuming the world, and our words, and our doubt, and our wry."

  • 2017-06-01 16:06:29
    James Stiles '74

    I remember so well the questions he asked me during defense of my comps paper, which at the time had only to answer the simple question "What is Philosophy". He helped me immeasurably that afternoon, literally steering me in the right direction as we sought to reach greater understanding. It was a lesson I retained for the rest of my life. The question is always more important than the answer, for without insightful questions there would be no useful answers nor advancement understanding...

  • 2017-06-14 10:28:41
    Steve Lindblad

    I'm very sad to learn of the HP's passing. His Zeno's Paradoxes freshman seminar in Fall 1983 is one of my key and most cherished memories of my lifetime.

  • 2017-06-15 19:02:48
    Dan Schroeder '84

    When I graduated he told me to call him Dave, but I'll always think of him as the High Priest of the International Siblinghood of Zenophiles. What a great teacher, advisor, and role model! He inspired by holding us to the highest standards while also caring about us individually and never missing a chance for a bad pun. In the Zeno course he exposed us to a remarkable diversity of subjects, writers, and viewpoints, and taught us to trust our own ability to absorb difficult ideas and express our opinions. That course also taught us to ignore the boundaries between disciplines, exploring not just philosophy but also math, physics, and even a little psychology. I learned as much about quantum mechanics in his courses as I did in my physics courses, and this background continues to influence my career as a teacher.

  • 2019-01-23 10:36:47
    Michael Steiner, class of 1969

    I truly regret coming so late to add my praise to David Sipfle as a truly inspiring teacher and fine human being.  His two quarter ethnics seminar remains one of most memorable, life changing courses I've had.  Professor Sipfle prompted us to read and think deeply and to invest ourselves in discussion.  He helped me find my voice and gave me confidence about my writing.  I often thought of David Sipfle as my teaching mentor during my forty years as an American Studies professor. Perhaps most important of all, I met the love of my life, Lucy Lefren, in his seminar. For more than fifty years,  Lucy and I have continued to talk about David Sipfle, his seminar, the people in it, and the many things it will always mean to us.

  • 2020-07-28 18:37:38
    Jim Anthony ‘71

    Mr Sipfle, more than anyone else, was a mentor for me at Carleton. He appreciated that I would not make much in the way of a contribution to philosophical studies, but he was patient and guided me toward a more interdisciplinary approach that has served me well. I am grateful.