A few unsystematic thoughts about Jerry Cohen:
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.