Left Behind

by Harry on October 1, 2008

Ingrid’s post below (plus a couple of other events) prompted me to look for G.A. Cohen’s new book: Rescuing Justice and Equality (UK) is apparently already out in the US despite being published on November 1st. I bought several copies (so my students can read it with me), and hereby promise that I’ll have some sort of review here in January (January, because, unlike Richard Arneson, I need time to review books that haven’t officially been published yet).



lisa 10.01.08 at 7:47 pm

G.A. Cohen is evidence that a solid knowledge of Marx does wonders for one’s political philosophy. I realize in some quarters he’s a legend but I think in many others here in the U.S. especially, he has been neglected. He truly has got it going on. Maybe people will get that now.


matt 10.01.08 at 8:17 pm

I’m not sure that Cohen can be called neglected, even in the US! His work draws quite a lot of interest, certainly among philosophers. (It probably is less well known than a lot of others among non-philosophers, though, so if that’s what you mean you’re probably right.) That said, it seems to me that the ratio of jokes to arguments in his work has gotten pretty dangerous over the last several years, even more in person than in his writing. Since he’s pretty funny (especially for a philosopher) this is often enjoyable but I’m not sure it’s good philosophy.


josh 10.02.08 at 5:19 am

Cohen was here at Harvard last year, and gave two talks (plus a performance of his comedy routine). There were of course jokes; but, the (separate) comedy routine aside, it was mainly arguments — and mainly rather good ones, I thought. This makes me look forward, optimistically, to the new book (and it’s nice to be optimistic about something …)


Mike Otsuka 10.02.08 at 3:57 pm


Would you please supply the names of two or three articles, book chapters, or presented papers of Cohen’s in which the ratio of jokes to arguments is dangerously high? (His piece “Deeper into Bullshit” is something of a special case, so I hope you don’t pad out your list with that.) And then we can see how well your claim holds up to scrutiny. (My prediction is that your claim will not withstand any serious scrutiny.)


harry b 10.02.08 at 4:07 pm

I think Cohen would be better if he could make the philosophical arguments entirely in the context of jokes. Like Wittegnstein. Oh, maybe that’s not such a good idea afer all.


matt 10.02.08 at 4:09 pm

Mike, he’s not as bad as the later Jerry Fodor on this (some of Fodor’s later stuff was mostly jokes, it seemed) but I thought that was the case of much of _If You’re and Egalitarian…_ for example. It’s not that he doesn’t make arguments- he does- but just that jokes take the place of argument a fair amount. I thought this was so of the “facts and principles” paper too, though I’ve not read it for some time. (In person I think it’s often worse, where real questions are often dismissed with a joke rather than an answer.) This seems to me to be different from his earlier work, and when you’re a funny guy I’m sure it’s a hard temptation not to give in to, but it does seem real trend to me.


Chris Bertram 10.02.08 at 4:33 pm

Matt, I think you’re going to struggle to make that case for the Facts and Principles paper (and other things for that matter). Not that he doesn’t sometimes make jokes, but your claim is that they take the place of arguments. Still, if you want to take up the challenge of spelling out the specifics ….


matt 10.02.08 at 4:41 pm

Specifics will have to wait, I’m afraid, as I’m not at home and not w/ books. (Always a lame excuess but true here.) Again, the claim isn’t that there are no arguments, just that sometimes (too often for my taste) they take the place of argument.


Mike Otsuka 10.02.08 at 4:50 pm

Yes, some specific examples, please, of jokes taking the place of an argument where an argument is needed…

I suspect the answer will be along the lines of Sarah Palin’s answer to Couric’s “What other Supreme Court decisions do you disagree with?”

“I thought that was the case of much of If You’re and Egalitarian…” is already, I think, a bit Palinesque.

(Never mind whether I’ve just substituted jokes for arguments.)


harry b 10.02.08 at 5:00 pm

If only Palin would talk about Cohen. Maybe, we’ll see tonight.

A philosopher whose work is very funny, and I presume someone who Cohen knows reasonably well, is Brian O’Shaughnessy. The Will is full wit, though as dry as can be. He was (presumably still is) funny (but absolutely deadpan, more so than Paul Merton, so much so that he gave no awareness at all that he was being funny) as a lecturer and tutor, too.


matt 10.02.08 at 5:39 pm

I don’t know, Mike- maybe you’re just a bit biased, being one of Cohen’s students and all. As I said, I’m not at home but working and not with my books. I’ve not memorized long sections of Cohen and will have to wait. Without going back to the books I can only mention roughly what gave me that impression. I’m sorry if that’s not good enough for you for now. How about a presented paper? When Cohen was presenting work relating to his “facts and principles” stuff (I guess it’s in his new book now though I’ve only skimmed it) there were several questions about the idea that what justice requires can’t turn on questions of fact, in particular pushing him on the idea of the circumstances of justice. He said he didn’t think such things mattered to justice and when pushed on it told a joke. (I don’t remember it now, but several people thought this, and other instances, were evasive.) Obviously that won’t satisfy someone who wasn’t there and doesn’t think this is a problem w/ Cohen’s more recent work, as I do, but since you asked for an example that is one.


Mike Otsuka 10.02.08 at 7:46 pm


I typed my second comment before your reply to Chris had appeared on my monitor, so it’s less hectoring than it may appear.

Even if Cohen often substitutes jokes for arguments in q & a and drafts of papers that he presents (neither of which I think he does), I suppose this doesn’t really matter if he ultimately manages to pull himself together and discipline himself sufficiently to refrain from this in his published work. So perhaps, when you have the chance, you couldd supply some specific examples from his published work. That way others can judge for themselves and won’t have to take my admittedly biased word that this is an unlikely objection.


Lex 10.03.08 at 8:29 am

Or, gosh darn it, you could just leave the dam’ thing alone as someone’s honest opinion, eh?


stuart white 10.03.08 at 9:27 pm

Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence: jokes?

History, Labour and Freedom: Themes from Marx: jokes??

Freedom, Self-Ownership and Equality: jokes???

If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? One chapter (taking up one page) that is explicitly a joke. Otherwise: jokes????

Plus: when G.A. Cohen made the joke in the seminar to which Matt refers, was he using humour to evade answering the question, or (as I suspect) using it to illustrate a point that formed part of his answer? It is not as if making a joke and making an argument are necessarily mutually exclusive things.


Matt 10.04.08 at 3:23 am

While it is touching to see Cohen’s colleagues and former students defending him so vigorously they should also read a bit more closely- it’s possible to disagree with my account, of course, but I did say I thought this was a trend over “the last several years”. That doesn’t fit, nor did I mean it to fit, the large majority of the books you list, Stuart. As for the lecture, well, I was there so you can take my word for it or not, but it certainly seemed to me and several others that I spoke with that when an question couldn’t be answered, rather than say, “well, I’ll have to think about that” or something there was just a joke made. Cohen’s obviously a good philosopher. When things calm down for me a bit I’m sure I’ll even enjoy going back over _If you’re an Egalitarian…_, but I also don’t think I’m the only one to get this impression.


Mike Otsuka 10.04.08 at 10:35 am


You write of ‘Cohen’s colleagues and former students defending him so vigorously’ that ‘they should also read a bit more closely’. You must be referring to Chris and me as well as Stuart. So how have either Chris or I misread your above posts? As before, I’d be very curious to know what you have in mind.


Matt 10.04.08 at 12:52 pm

Mike, in the “miss-reading” part I was only referring to Stuart, since he brought up a bunch of books I’d quite intentionally left out, pretty clearly so I’d thought. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.


Matt 10.04.08 at 1:16 pm

On a much more interesting question than the one we’ve been talking about, and one where I’d be very interested to hear from his students and colleagues, Lisa, who I probably never should have made an off-hand and only 3/4 serious reply to, also seemed to wonder why Cohen hasn’t had more influence outside of philosophy. I wonder this too. He’s obviously very influential within philosophy and the more directly philosophical political science departments, but doesn’t have as much impact in the broader intellectual world (I’m thinking in particular about law here, the area I know best, but also less philosophical political science, history, sociology, and the more general public) as have only slightly older philosphers like Rawls, Nozick, MacIntyre, Habermas, Michael Walzer, and Charles Taylor. In legal scholarhship by non-philosophers, for example, these people are regularly mentioned, usually in half-baked and annoying ways but still regularly mentioned. I don’t see that much for Cohen and wonder why. I don’t think it’s the quality of work- I think Cohen is at least as good as most of them- or that he’s harder to read- even though I think it’s wrong at many points his book on Marx is a model of clear exposition and scholarship as well as important in its own right. So, why hasn’t he penetrated general intellectual thinking more? I’m genuinely quite curious about this and suspect it has more of a sociological explanation than a philosophical one but am interested in what others think (including if they thing this is not in fact so! It might be much less so in the UK, for example.) Now, alas, back to some really tedious legal work.


Jerry Cohen 10.06.08 at 1:06 pm

I’ve found Matt’s remarks about my intellectual decline amusing, but I’m not sure how well they fare as arguments.


matt 10.06.08 at 9:30 pm


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