Jerry Cohen, a personal appreciation

by Chris Bertram on August 6, 2009

A few unsystematic thoughts about Jerry Cohen:

Jerry Cohen's valedictory lecture

A friend called yesterday to tell me the news about Jerry Cohen and then I spent the day feeling disoriented, sad, confused, not really knowing what to feel or think. For me, and I’m sure, for many friends, colleagues and former students, Jerry was a constant presence. If I’m writing something I often hear Jerry’s voice telling me that I’m being evasive, that I’ve failed to explain a distinction, that such and such is “bullshit”, and so on. At the same time, Jerry was quite brilliant at striking the right balance between the discipline of following the argument where it leads and the importance of hanging onto one’s deepest convictions.


I first met Jerry during the 1981-2 academic year. I had arrived at University College London as a graduate student but had been assigned to someone else. I wanted to work with Jerry so I knocked on his door. A voice greeted me in French, so I replied in French, and that was how the whole conversation was conducted. Jerry’s disconcerting playfulness at work. Supervision sessions at UCL were usually free-form seminars on historical materialism—I was a bullshit Marxist trying to become a non-bullshit one under the influence of Karl Marx’s Theory of History. Another of his students and I worked out that if we pooled our sessions we’d get twice as many hours, so that’s what usually happened. We’d see him again during the weekly sessions of his two-year cyclical Marxism course and then, later I think, at the seminars where he was trying to grapple with self-ownership and property for the first time. All of those seminars would also feature his old friend Arnold Zuboff who would chip in with often brilliant objections or simply crack jokes. As a graduate supervisor Jerry was very generous with his time. Unlike others, I don’t remember a lot of careful commentary on my work, but I do remember a lot of conversation about matters philosophical and political, walks around Bloomsbury and Hampstead, and conversations on the phone (you could ring him up to discuss ideas!). Some things were sacred though: I once made the mistake of calling him during an episode of Dallas, his favourite TV show of the moment.

Later in my career, I also got the benefit of Jerry’s time. When I got a job lecturing in Oxford (and another tutoring at Magdalen), Jerry and I would often get the same train from London to Oxford in the morning. In that era, there were still trains with compartments and we’d often have one to ourselves – non-philosophers being dissuaded from entry by the manner of Jerry’s consumption of an Egg McMuffin (or similar) – and talk about political philosophy. Daily conversation with one of the great minds of the subject about Marx, Nozick, Rawls etc. How lucky I was.

One thing I’m going to find it difficulty to convey is not just how Jerry was, but how he was the way he was. It would be easy to come up with a series of anecdotes that might appal or amuse, depending on the listener. My first supervision session, as a postgraduate student, for example, contained a long digression about Jerry’s itchy arse, and what the doctor had said about it – not really what you expect from your supervisor! But the way Jerry was made some of his chat, his disarming personal questions about bodily functions or personal relationships, and so on, different from how it might have been from someone else. For Jerry was completely lacking in inhibition, and because of that he could say things that in the mouth of a more uncomfortable person would have seemed creepy. Jerry was frequently disconcerting but never creepy. Jerry could say stuff and we’d laugh, because we were thinking it anyway but lacked his unembarrassment.

His lack of embarrassment might also be a key to how his was in philosophical encounters. Where others might shut up and let things go, Jerry would interrupt. “Come on! What does that mean?” “But that’s nonsense!” Sometimes that could be intimidating, though Jerry would try his best to make allowances in his degree on irritation for the status of the speaker: an underconfident junior person would be chided constructively; an evasive “name” might get harsh treatment, especially if Jerry suspected dishonesty. Philosophers can be quite badly behaved in seminars, by the standards of other subjects, and it wouldn’t be entirely true to say that testosterone and ego were not also present in Jerry’s contributions, but if he said something it was always because he wanted to get at the truth, to get an argument right.

In his own philosophical development, reading Nozick was a key moment. Before he encountered Nozick, he hadn’t really taken political philosophy seriously as a branch of the subject. He found Anarchy, State and Utopia unsettling because he shared many of Nozick’s premises and, to a large extent, his conception of philosophical method, but, obviously, not his normative conclusions. Jerry took the task of replying to Nozick seriously, for himself. It wasn’t just a matter of ideological struggle—and, sadly, one gets the impression that far too many moves in political philosopy are just about attachment to a camp—but of thinking through problems (like the problem of self-ownership) until he had answers and arguments that he could live with himself, that were honest, rigourous. And when he believed something but thought his grounds for doing so were insufficient, he would explain that too, never afraid to expose his own weaknesses.

Jerry had and set really high standards in philosophy. In his published work and in professional contexts, he always presented his arguments with honesty, rigour, insight and humour. Many of the other people who have written about him in the last day or so have made this and similar points. I’d like, though, to pay tribute to another way in which he approached his work and responsibilities as a scholar. Many of us, facing competing demands for our time and attention, are tempted to adjust our efforts in the light of our expected audience. I might fret and worry about getting things right before a professional audience, but be more relaxed about the prospect of a group of students or a lay audience. Jerry, if anything, did things the other way around. Faced with the opportunity to talk about social justice, equality, capitalism or socialism to an audience of ordinary people, Jerry would be absolutely meticulous about explaining himself clearly and engagingly to them, about getting the ideas across. He knew, I think, that he was smarter than most professional philosophers and could, in conversation with them, live by his wits if he had to, but with lay audiences he left nothing to chance. Years ago, he gave a talk on the TV as part of a BBC2 or C4 series on capitalism to which I think Milton Friedman also contributed. My mother, not a socialist, and definitely not a philosopher, was captivated by the anticapitalist case that Jerry put. (I’ve forgotten the details, but I seem to remember that the argument centred around the parable of a “schmoo”, a sort of living-brick?) He was effective in such contexts because justice mattered to him, because it really does matter, and not just as as an exercise in the academy.

We’ve lost someone who was not only a great philosopher, but a great person. And he managed to be both by being his own uninhibited (and sometimes disinhibited) self. Yes he was funny, yes he was smart, yes he was committed, yes he was kind, yes he was frequently outrageous. Marx wrote of Milton that he wrote Paradise Lost “in the way that a silkworm produces silk, as the expression of his own nature.” I really can’t divide up the things that Jerry did and was. Jerry’s jokes and his arguments sprang from a single source.

{ 26 comments }

1

Chris Brooke 08.06.09 at 9:23 am

On schmoos, see this bit of Erik Olin Wright’s Class Counts.

2

ingrid robeyns 08.06.09 at 9:32 am

Many thanks for this, Chris. It is very sad for all of us, political philosophers, that he is gone, but I can see from your piece why it is so much more of a loss to those who were his close friends. I would love to learn more about what he did for a non-academic audience, since I’m (both intellectually and politically) concerened with the gap between very abstract theorizing about justice and political action/change. If he managed to do what you describe he did for non-academic audiences, there is more for me to learn from him (I only know his academic work).

3

Salient 08.06.09 at 11:32 am

I share Ingrid’s desire to learn more about what Cohen did for a non-academic audience, as well as the feeling that there is much more for me to learn from him… and share the sadness expressed by the other commenters who also did not know G.A. Cohen personally but who have been deeply influenced by what he has written.

Thank you for sharing this with us, Chris. Reading this has deepened my appreciation for this admirable and formidable philosopher.

4

Another Damned Medievalist 08.06.09 at 12:20 pm

Nothing to say, Chris, except that I’m sorry for your loss.

5

Katherine 08.06.09 at 2:04 pm

Another person saying sorry for your loss.

And now I must go away and read that copy of “If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?” that I bought ages ago.

6

Jo Wolff 08.06.09 at 2:10 pm

I have memories of Jerry from about 1980, attending his lectures on Locke and Nozick, and his first classes on Marxism in 1981. Apparently until 1980 there had been a University of London option ‘Hegel and Marx’ taught jointly by Jerry, Richard Wollheim and Hide Ishiguro, to very few students, but then Jerry had persuaded his colleagues to allow him to put on an undergraduate option just on Marx. Very few undergraduates took it for credit, but the room was packed with post-grads like Chris (a couple of years ahead of me) other faculty and visiting academics. This is essentially the course I still teach at UCL now.

The piece about ‘schmoos’ that Chris refers to was on TV, and then reprinted in the Listener, a BBC magazine which contained transcripts of radio and tv programmes, under the title ‘No Habitat for a Shmoo’, in September 1986. It must still be available in university stores. It was based on a cartoon by Al Capp – details here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shmoo

The basic idea is that the greatest desire of a shmoo is to meet the needs of human beings, which it can and will do. But the capitalists realised that if the workers can get all they need then they cannot be exploited for profit, and so the capitalists ensured that the shmoos were hunted to extinction. I can’t remember exactly how Jerry used this story but it certainly made an impression. For example a friend who is an engineer told me how striking he found it.

Jerry has a book in press Why Not Socialism? written for a general audience, advertised to appear in October, in the same format as the Frankfurt ‘Bullshit’ volume. It is a work of argument rather than political advocacy, but it is certainly aimed at a non-academic audience; closer to some of the essays in ‘If You’re An Egalitarian …’ than Jerry’s most recent work.

7

dpinkert 08.06.09 at 2:28 pm

I loved “If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?”, and not just for the autobiographical bits. I’ve read that and the book on Marx’s theory of history. Can anyone with a knowledge of his entire body of work help to identify his most compelling contributions to political philosophy/social theory?

8

Lea Ypi 08.06.09 at 5:13 pm

I first met Jerry some time ago to interview him on the future of socialism for an Italian left-wing newspaper, Il Manifesto. He had asked me to read the manuscript of “Why not socialism?” in advance and much of the interview was based on that. In the end we agreed that given the complexity of the interview (it felt more like a seminar discussion than a journalistic exchange) we would wait for “Why not socialism?” to come out and then publish it together with a review of the book. He started the interview by singing the “International” and often interrupted my questions to ask for definitions of the terms employed, to correct them, to add a few distinctions or to challenge my assumptions. It was amusing and tremendously serious in equal measure.

The last time I had lunch with him was a few weeks ago to discuss his 23 pages of hand-written comments on one of my papers, and we ended up talking (as it was often the case) about the future of socialism and exchanging jokes on whether analytical philosophy mattered for that. We parted in front of his Manor Road office where he said: “to be continued”.

Here is a small passage from the interview. It is a reaction to my observation that “Why not socialism?” seemed to have inverted the old “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will” in “optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will” by providing a compelling normative argument in favour of socialism but displaying few hopes in its future realization. This was Jerry’s answer:

“I don’t regard the belief that a certain ideal is morally compelling as a case of optimism. Optimism and pessimism have to do with your expectations with what is going to happen, that is optimism of the reason. You expect lousy things are going to happen but you steer yourself with great resolve to face them with determination and not in a defeatist attitude. So the pessimism of the reason is the belief that things aren’t going to go well and optimism of the reason correspondingly is the belief that things are going to go well. Well, the book simply shows confidence, intellectual confidence, in the morally compelling nature of the socialist ideal. But I don’t accept that this is a case of optimism of reason. As for pessimism of the will, I don’t think the book tells you anything about your attitude, that is, how resolved you should be. Though there may be some optimism of the will in the very closing words about the struggle, about how we shouldn’t give up the struggle”.

9

Micah Schwartzman 08.06.09 at 5:25 pm

This is a wonderful tribute. Although I wasn’t formally his student, I knew Jerry during my years at Oxford. My first few interactions with him were much like what Chris describes above — alternating between sharp philosophical questions and equally sharp personal ones. (Or sometimes both: at one of our first meetings, Jerry asked me if I believed in God. Maybe it was my name that provoked the question — he had out his bible and read the verse from Micah about doing justice.) At the time, I was somewhat taken aback. Jerry certainly closed the distance quickly, in a way that others would (or maybe could) not. Even so, I wish I had gotten to know Jerry better. Reading Chris’s thoughts has helped me better understand some of my interactions with him. That is saddening, but also clarifying — and I’m sure Jerry would have appreciated that.

10

Paula Casal 08.06.09 at 5:38 pm

I should be able to answer that question. I have read everything he has ever written — from “Beliefs and Roles” which he conceived as a student and inspired Glover and Applebaum, to the socialist camping trip — and I have often thought about the way in which he has always been a trend setter, creating schools of thought, opening up whole new areas of debate, focusing the attention of the philosophical community on important issues, making us decide what sort of materialist, what sort of functionalist, what sort of socialist, what sort of egalitarian, what sort of responsabilitarian, what sort of constructivists were we…but it is raining and I just thought about a day Jerry cycled in the rain to supervise me because I had been ill for some time, and so he came and sat on the edge of my bed and wrote his comments on my draft leaning on his damp knees, with his socks still wrapping his trousers and I am now too upset to write any more.
This is the down side of being not only one of the greatest political philosophers today, and maybe the funniest philosopher in world history, but also perhaps the most deeply loved philosopher in the country: your students cannot focus on the ideas alone…but it does not matter because his ideas will survive us all.

11

Iain Gault 08.06.09 at 7:41 pm

Chris, I forgotten about Jerry Cohen’s tv programme. Amazingly, in light of what you wrote, I have a clear recollection of watching this programme with my father (who was equally impressed by its clarity and obvious the conviction that underpinned it). As far as I can remember it was C4 that screened it and I think it was part of a series of ‘alternative’ party political broadcasts in the run up to a general election (1987?). Anyway, it would be great to get hold of it somehow and see it again.

12

Frank Vandenbroucke 08.06.09 at 9:32 pm

On this sad occasion, I cannot add much to the comments made by Chris Bertram and others, but this: Jerry Cohen was not only an exceptional political philosopher, but he could also be exceptionally generous with his students, investing a lot of his time, patience and wisdom in their work. This was my experience when he was my supervisor for my D.Phil. thesis in Oxford (1996-1999), and it certainly is an unforgettable one. Since my métier – apart from my stay in Oxford – is practical politics, I can certainly reassure Ingrid Robeyns, who also commented on this page, that I consider Jerry’s work, although very abstract, as highly relevant for a practical left-wing politician who wants to think through fundamental questions of the left.

13

Daniel Sjöström 08.07.09 at 1:48 am

I just started as a post-graduate at UCL this year, and I remember how angry I was when I realised that Ronald Dworkin had retired just before I came, and then how happy I was that he was temporarily replaced by Cohen (Dworkin did show up as a guest one night though, which was especially exciting since the subject was David Dyzenhaus criticising Richard Bellamy’s version of republicanism with the world’s premier socialist and liberal in the room).

How could you not like this man? He was so brutally honest. One got the sense that if he was truly convinced that egalitarianism was wrong (as I think he more or less proves in If you’re an egalitarian.. is not likely to happen given his upbringing and education), he would change his mind. This is of course as it should be, but sadly doesn’t seem to be the case very often. Whenever anyone said something with absolute conviction he would retort immediately (almost no matter the conviction, it seemed to me. He didn’t like arrogance). More than once he would preface the discussion with general paradoxes like ‘how come intelligent people disagree’ to try to keep minds open. And more than once his comments during almost the entire seminar would be jokes (nothing very interesting was said anyway, let’s crack a joke!). During just one spring he certainly managed to make an impression.

Paula, you’re lucky. ‘your students cannot focus on the ideas alone’; Surely a main point of his was that you live your philosophy. This seems to be the message in his critique of Rawls, and the title of If you’re an egalitarian etc. And he did :)

14

LFC 08.07.09 at 4:44 am

As a non-philosopher whose direct acquaintance with Cohen’s work is limited to If You’re An Egalitarian… (which I read quite a while ago with enjoyment and appreciation even when I wasn’t completely persuaded), I’d like to join the other commenters here in thanking Chris for his heartfelt and illuminating recollections.

15

Simon Halliday 08.07.09 at 8:00 am

I never had the pleasure of meeting Cohen, but his Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality affected me greatly after I read Rawls and Nozick. I’m an econ grad student, and Cohen’s work remains with me whenever I try to reconcile my understanding of economic theory with policy and its outcomes.

Chris, thank you for this message. Thank you too to those others of you who have told their tales – they make the author in my mind into an embodied, marvellous and intriguing being. Thank you again. My profoundest wishes to his friends and family.

16

Agustin Reyes Morel 08.07.09 at 10:36 am

At the end of the paper “The Future of a Disillusion”, Cohen refers to the letter that Engels wrote to Sorge the day after Marx died:

“Local lights and lesser minds, if not the humbugs [or the bullshiters], will now have a free hand. The final victory is certain, but circuitous paths, temporary and local errors—things which even now are so unavoidable—will become more common than ever. Well, we must see it through. What else are we here for? And we are not near losing courage yet”.

Well, something like that is in the mood today. Although we may be losing a bit of courage.

17

John Meredith 08.07.09 at 11:12 am

“The final victory is certain”

I know what you are aiming for, but I can hardly think of a less Cohenite point of view.

18

John Filling 08.07.09 at 11:55 am

Thanks for that fantastic appreciation, Chris.

Jerry was still supervising my (long-overdue!) DPhil when he died. (He had been my supervisor since I did the MPhil in Oxford in 2002.) I was just about to send him a chunk of the DPhil this week. I suppose I must be one of, if not the, last student Jerry still had on the books. Like so many others, I’m devastated by his loss. It’s bizarre to think I’ll never again have the privilege of having his tremendous intellect applied to my work.

But despite his intellectual qualities, I’ll still probably remember Jerry best for his jokes. Here’s one of my favourites.

A guy gets a job selling toothbrushes on street-corners. He comes back after his first day. His boss asks him how it went. “Terrible”, he replies. “I didn’t sell any toothbrushes.”
“No a single one?”, asks the boss. “What’s your sales pitch?”
“What’s a sales pitch?”
“A gimmick. Something to draw people in. Something to make them wanna buy a tootbrush.”
“Ok”, says the guy. “I’ll come up with a sales pitch.”

The next day the guy comes back having sold all his toothbrushes.
“That’s incredible!”, declares the boss. “What was your sales pitch?”
“I’ll show you in a minute. But first, try a taste of this dip.”
“Jesus Christ!”, exclaims the boss. “That dip tastes like shit!”
“It IS shit”, replies the guy. “Ya wanna buy a toothbrush?”

19

Agustin Reyes Morel 08.07.09 at 12:12 pm

I accept that the sentence: “The final victory is certain” does not belong to the Cohenite point of view. Maybe I should remove the sentence to reflect the real mood. Even so, if we do not accept that some kind of victory is possible (even the small victory that means prevent that the bullshiters have their hands totally free), what are we here for?

20

JoB 08.07.09 at 1:44 pm

Frank-16, as a ‘kameraad’ who did not necessarily admire all your practical politics but is all the same saddened by your sudden inability in putting your proposals in practice; can you give us a glimpse of where he was relevant to you. I only know J. Cohen from a couple of posts o’er here and, whilst I do not wish at all to scorn the sadness expressed here, I’m deeply interested how he inspired somebody in practical politics (as you coin it).

PS: your link doesn’t work; either it is amateuristic posting as Frank or you still need to adapt to life out of office

21

Heloise 08.07.09 at 3:00 pm

I had the good luck last year to attend a seminar given by Jerry as part of the Oxford Radical Forum, having earlier sat in lectures given by him whilst at university. It was a mixture of students (graduate and undergraduate) and ordinary members of the public (although admittedly many were SWP members). He was engaging, intellectually stimulating and treated the questions from the public with utmost respect, giving thoughtful answers to each, even where most people might have become irritated or dismissive. At the end, he led us in a rousing chorus of “the union makes us strong” which was surreal but incredibly entertaining.

He really was something special.

22

Maria del Mar Medina 08.08.09 at 3:03 pm

I didn’t have the opportunity to know him.

But he did have a great influence in me, already as an undergraduate, in Spain.

I thought he was a very intelligent and very rigorous political theorist.

I’m very sorry.

23

Marc Grinberg 08.09.09 at 4:09 am

24

Nicholas Vrousalis 08.09.09 at 10:33 pm

Following the recent touching tributes to Jerry by Chris Bertram and Chris Brooke, I have decided to post a rough summary of his intellectual voyage from the Second International marxism of Karl Marx’s Theory of History to the egalitarian political philosophy of Rescuing Justice and Equality. My hope is that people may decide to pick up some of Jerry’s sharp and ruthlessly sincere work in philosophy, and draw inspiration from it.

The post is here.

25

Faige Gutherz 08.10.09 at 6:31 pm

How touching for me and what a warm trip down memory lane reading about Jerry Cohen in the Gazette Newspaper Montreal, my h0me town!!
I only knew Jerry as a child growing up in the same neighbourhood. His brother, is it Michael? and another brother who sadly died at the age of 4. His parents Bella and Morrie were friends with my Parents Sonia and Joe Gutherz, and with my Aunt and Uncle Leon and Tosia Gutherz and all of us being involved with the Communist/Leftist Movement and Kinderland Camp. I have a picture of Bella and Morrie at my Wedding. I especially loved his Mother. Bella lit up a Room when she walked in. She was a shining light, bubbling over with love and exhuberance. I have very fond memories of the Cohen Family.
My warm and deep sympathies to Jerry’s family.

My prayers and love are with you.

Sincerely,
Faige Gutherz
email: faige@sympatico.ca

26

Thuyein Kyaw-Zaw 08.14.09 at 11:11 pm

I never had the previlege of being a Jerry’s student. I was brought up with strong admiration for egalitarian values, especailly Marxist ones. I deeply believe Marxist egalitarian values are morally superior to free-market driven moral behaviour. And I have this superstitious belief that if something is morally superior, it must be true, or at least it must be truer than morally inferior.
But after the fall of Soviet Union, communist ideas seemed to be in retreat and I was troubled by taunts from friends who know my religious affection to Marxism. Then in the fall of 2003, I took a course in Philosophy and found Jerry’s books in quick succession, first KMTH then Self-ownership. I think I even know some of the sentences in Self-ownership by heart. You can certainly feel an admirable socialist’s anger there. I definitely do.
I always wanted to meet him. A couple of years ago, I met my philosopher hero Jerry in a packed room at LSE. I think Jo Wolff was there, Michael Otsuka was there. I was too timid to greet him I must admit.
Now it’s impossible to get to meet him. Well…
I am forever grateful and respectful to him for his zealous defence of egalitarian ideals from liberals and the right.

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