Jerry Cohen is dead

by Chris Bertram on August 5, 2009

Jerry Cohen valedictory lecture

I got a call this morning to tell me that Jerry (G.A.) Cohen has died suddenly and unexpectedly of a massive stroke. I want to write an appreciation of him as a friend, mentor and philosopher in due course, but I’m too numb to do it at the moment. I know that his other friends, colleagues and fellow students of his feel the same acute sense of loss.



dsquared 08.05.09 at 3:01 pm

Oh god that’s awful.


Sam C 08.05.09 at 3:38 pm

This is rotten news. Cohen was – in my few interactions with him – kind, funny, and devastatingly sharp. I wish I’d known him better.


lisa 08.05.09 at 3:45 pm

This is incredibly sad. One of the great ones.


Paul Gowder 08.05.09 at 3:53 pm

Oh god — this is devastating news … I only met him once, but he was such an inspiration and such a just all-around delightful and sweet as well as brilliant person.


Harry 08.05.09 at 4:09 pm

Terrible news. Really terrible.


Liam 08.05.09 at 4:12 pm

I never met him unfortunately, but have a great appreciation for his work. Very sad.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 08.05.09 at 4:21 pm

Having never met him, Cohen was nonetheless an enduring inspiration from afar as it were. I’ve yet to read his latest book in toto but I’ve read and returned frequently to everything else he’s written. After reading ch. 11, “The future of a disillusion” in Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995), I reaffirmed a vow never to hide my Marxist inclinations and commitments (including a commitment to ‘socialism’), to remain firm to values and ideals to which Marx gave eloquent if not always sophisticated expression. I was very moved by the autobiographical snippets leading up to his discussion of the virtues and limitations, from a Marxist vantage point, of “market socialism.” And now I’ll honor him in death by a careful reading of Rescuing Justice & Equality (2008) .


Adam Swift 08.05.09 at 4:30 pm

In case anybody wants to listen to a bit of Jerry in action, I’m told that should work, though I can’t get it to.

Perhaps my computer is in shock, like me.

Another possibility, posted by Les Green on Facebook, is

You’ll want his ‘closing comments’, especially the last 5 minutes.


CV 08.05.09 at 4:57 pm

[moderator’s edit: link is to Pete Seeger’s version of Solidarity Forever. CB]


harold 08.05.09 at 6:05 pm

Slight correction, information about the performance of “Solidarity Forever” is incoorect. This version was recorded in 1941 by Pete Seeger (lead) and the Almanac singers and reissued with new material by Folkways as an LP in the 1950s (now available from Smithsonian Folkways). Personel of the Almanac Singers included Cis Cuningham, Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax Hawes, , Lee Hayes, Millard Lampell, Josh White, Cisco Huston, and Arthur Stern.


Other players that came and went, or recorded with various Almanacs, included Carol White, Butch Hawes, Sonny and Terry, Alan Lomax, Lead Belly, Burl Ives, and doubtless countless others.


Tim Wilkinson 08.05.09 at 6:12 pm



harold 08.05.09 at 6:30 pm

I mean the information on Youtube about the performance in incorrect it’s not by the Weavers.


NPTO 08.05.09 at 7:36 pm

It´s very hard to express my feelings without cursing. It’s not like we have an excess supply of extraordinarily brilliant leftist thinkers, these days. Elster is going to have to work double hours, now.

The first text anyone gave to me when I arrived in Oxford was called “On the concept of Bullshit, and why a particular kind of bullshit is so popular in France”, by G.A. Cohen. It was extraordinarily funny (and clever), and meant to be accompanied by other papers on the kinds of bullshit that thrived in Britain, the US, and Germany. Unfortunately, I never got my hands on those.

Can’t believe he died.


Jan Narveson 08.05.09 at 7:58 pm

I knew Jerry quite well. He had a wonderful sense of humour – inimitable, and was one of the most remarkable and lovable among brilliant people I ever met. He and I disagreed about political and social matters down through the decades, and I feel I’m much the better for having known his work, even if I never managed to persuade him to my way of thinking (nor he me to his). The philosophical world will really miss him, for his brilliance, his wit – and by the way, for his inadvertent contributions to the demise of the Marxism he spent too much of his life defending.


anxiousmodernman 08.05.09 at 8:40 pm

Rest in peace, Jerry. It’s up to us to convince the world how right you were.


will u. 08.05.09 at 8:45 pm

I’ve only read “Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence” — forgive me! grad study in science is my day (and night) job — and found it be a model of clarity and logical rigor in its reconstruction of historical materialism. So much so that I abandoned rigid historical materialism, but that’s much to his credit; if I had turned to, say, Althusser, I would be cloaking hismat’s deficiencies in a cloud of meaningless verbiage like “relative autonomy of the superstructure,” etc.

I suppose it’s time to finally read “Self-Ownership”..


alkali 08.05.09 at 8:45 pm

I just started reading Cohen’s books a couple years ago. To the extent you can know anyone from reading, he seemed to me both very smart and very humane.


Satan Mayo 08.05.09 at 9:53 pm

I wish I could have heard that discourse on Samuel von Pooped.


Tom Hurka 08.05.09 at 10:07 pm

Very sad news … very wonderful philosopher and excellent friend. Bye, Jerry.


John Quiggin 08.05.09 at 10:20 pm

This is sad news.


Daniel Weinstock 08.05.09 at 10:49 pm

My intellectual course was set by hearing Jerry lecture in the Star Wars seminar (with Parfit, Dworkin and Sen) in 1986. I had never heard a philosopher speak with such precision and wit about the most important ethical issues imaginable, and it seemed then, and still seems now, a worthy goal to set for oneself to even approximate his level of philosophical penetration.
Though I did not know him well at Oxford, we chatted sometimes about the Jewish Montreal that we both hail from. I was happy when some of that background popped up in “If you’re an egalitarian…”, and flattered to no end when a review I wrote of that book for a (long-since silenced) obscure journal elicited a long, very thoughtful email from Jerry. We had a few exchanges subsequent to that, Jerry’s main concern being to get crystal clear on a point that I had been making (and in the process prompting me to get clear on it myself), rather than to dismiss the objection (as he could have easily done with a couple of sentences of his crystalline prose).

I am happy to have known him, if only a little, and am deeply saddened that he is no longer among us. This is a staggering loss.


Stephen Menn 08.05.09 at 10:56 pm

Like everyone else, I’m in shock. There definitely won’t be another one of him again. He visited here at McGill, his alma mater, for two terms, fall 2000 and fall 2001; I’m pleased to have been part of bringing him here. His seminars those terms, which lots of us went to, were a real center of intellectual life for the department. And his warm-up routines were memorable (he also did a separate comedy night): I remember especially “Nine Types of Moral Concern” and the Isaiah Berlin lecture and the Quine interview. We had hoped to bring him back again for another semester–I ran into him on the street a year ago, when he was visiting his brother in Montreal and showing his wife and stepdaughter around town, and he’d expressed interest in returning. It would have been wonderful. Apart from everything else that was remarkable about Jerry, as a philosopher and a person, for us here he was a link to the past, not just of McGill but the Yiddish working-class radical past of Montreal, lovingly recalled in “The Future of a Disillusion” and in his Gifford lectures, which was the source of so much human and intellectual energy. Old friends of Jerry’s from his teenage days would turn up at his events here, and it was wonderful to see them and to see him reconnect with them. It’s a world that’s now gone, and Jerry was one of its most brilliant products; and for all his success in England, and his international fame as a philosopher (and I think he was an absolute model of clear thinking and getting to the heart of the matter in political philosophy, he put Rawls and Nozick and the rest of them to shame), he never forgot where he came from.


Colin Farrelly 08.05.09 at 11:09 pm

I sad loss indeed.


Mg 08.06.09 at 12:05 am

Like will u. I’d just like to express what a wonderful work I found his Marx’s Theory of History, and what a great impact it has when you read it. His style certainly wrenched me out of Marxian dogmatic slumbers, though probably not with the consequences he might have liked back then. When somebody who affects you in such a way dies, you forget that you’d never met him.


Victoria Kamsler 08.06.09 at 1:06 am

Jerry was my supervisor at Oxford over the final course of a long and unusually wayward dissertation. His kind heart, capacity for intellectual empathy, and extraordinary comic brilliance existed side by side with the most exacting rigor, the most powerful grasp of his own and many another discipline, and monumental patience interrupted occasionally by a cranky but well-justified kvetch. I saw him last winter in Toronto, where he came to my office for a chat and I showed him some schematics for the solar airplane my company invented and plans to build. He was as delighted as an old Marxist with a new means of production. O brave new world, would that it had such creatures in it.


Alan Lockey 08.06.09 at 1:23 am

I’m just writing by postgraduate dissertation on Rescuing Justice and Equality and this has really upset me. I’m actually trying to defend Constructivism against Cohen, but having spent the last few weeks living in this book and swimming in the words, I must confess to finding him to be a complete and utter genius, with the most beautifully open, free and easy writing style, full of personality and humour. I was looking forward to meeting him at a conference at Manchester in November and although I have never had the pleasure of meeting him, this terrible news has left me feeling numb. His words will live on forever.


vivian 08.06.09 at 2:12 am

Awful news. For all of us, but especially for his friends. Chris, I am so sorry.


Alex Leibowitz 08.06.09 at 4:18 am

NPTO — do you have a citation for the article on bullshit in France? I would love to get a copy of that.


Rob 08.06.09 at 4:56 am

Cohen’s “Deeper into Bullshit” is in Contours of Agency: Themes from the Philosophy of Harry Frankfurt (MIT, 2002) and Bullshit and Philosophy (Open Court, 2006).


David Estlund 08.06.09 at 5:28 am

I owe Jerry Cohen a lot for, among other things, his early support of my career. I mention this because I’m not alone. I recounted that story and thanked him publicly at the beginning of my talk at the January Oxford conference in his honor. Many other such testimonials begin those recorded talks, all available for download here:,vpodcast/domain,itunesucategory/cat,Social.Science.110,Political.Science.101/feed.rss

Friends and admirers might enjoy browsing through the beginnings of those talks for some moving stories about the way Jerry affected the lives of these scholars.

When we lose a Jerry Cohen, I can’t help but wonder whether the next generation of philosophers (that’s us) can somehow carry the load forward: His moral conviction, his red-hot analytical mind, his crucial comedian’s sense of perspective, his affectionate but uncompromising fostering of students from several generations, and, above all, his intellectual honesty.

He said that he felt more than adequately well-thanked and honored, which is comforting, but the real tribute might be to turn this trepidation (if you share it with me) about whether we’re up to the task, into a commitment to try, somehow, in our own way. As of today, there’s no one like Jerry Cohen. But I hope we’ve learned from him, and I hope, at least collectively, we can keep some of that red-hot philosophical intelligence alive.


Shapour Etemad 08.06.09 at 8:14 am

Heard of sad news 24hours ago when back to office from sad events on Tehran streets.Have been thinking about him since yesterday. Never met him,but have been reading his works during the past 30years and have been inspired in various ways by his robust words and arguments. I will be missing him.


Thom Brooks 08.06.09 at 8:48 am

A great man who will be sorely missed. My own small tribute is here:


K 08.06.09 at 9:03 am

Terrible news. I was just re-reading something of his today.


Fabien Tarrit 08.06.09 at 10:22 am

I am deeply sad and surprised of his death. I met him first in Oxford in 2005 while I was writing my phd on his relation to Marxism. I had sent him eleven questions. He took me in a office and left me with his answer to my questions in 32 points. Yet we only could discuss on six of them. He had such a great intellectual involvement and a very subtle sense of humor.


John Gardner 08.06.09 at 11:30 am

I hadn’t spent much time with Jerry lately – worse luck – but he and I would frequently travel between London and Oxford together in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it was on those trains that I had my finest education as well as my wildest entertainment. His most memorable greeting: ‘Garboing today, Gardner?’ His funniest mockery of his own vast erudition: ‘Wasn’t it Pound who said (that’s Ezra, not Roscoe) …?”

Like Daniel Weinstock, I had first been introduced to Jerry the Philosopher at the Star Wars seminar in 1986. He was a model to me from the start because of the close integration of his thought with his life (and all set against the incongruous backdrop of the Old Library at All Souls!) It was only a year or two later that I began to have enough philosophical discrimination to appreciate that he was also one of the greats. And such a kind one. He gave me, as he gave so many, endless support in the early years, when I was his very junior colleague. His detailed comments gently disagnosed the precise quality and quantity of my stupidity, and made me laugh too.

I was achingly sad as I cycled up the High Street this morning, past the windows of Jerry’s former room at All Souls, and past the spot where I often used to see him dismount from his own bike wearing his woolly hat and his cycle clips. What a guy.


Melissa Williams 08.06.09 at 12:44 pm

Jerry Cohen was so full of life that it’s impossible to fathom the spark leaving him. He was a mass of energy that sent out flashes — of philosophical brilliance; of humane kindness, especially where his students were concerned; of wit that left your belly aching from the laughter. His love of humanity, of philosophy, of life itself, were infectious. We’re fortunate that he left so much of himself in his articles and books. I’m especially glad that he finished Rescuing Justice and Equality before leaving us.

He was in Toronto only last fall — another thing I’m grateful for — and gave us his lecture on conservatism, punctuated with songs and the exegesis of their lyrics as an integral part of his philosophical argument about particular value. That evening, at the dinner in his honour, he serenaded us with songs from “My Fur Lady,” the Canadian musical produced by the Red and White Revue at McGill in 1957. (I can’t find information about whether he was involved in writing or performing it, but he certainly knew his lines, five decades later.) The next morning, as a warm-up to a seminar on his book on Rawls, he performed a pantomime of the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy.

There’s no one like him in the world. It’s smaller without him in it.


Mark Bevir 08.06.09 at 5:40 pm

Like Daniel Weinstock and John Gardner, I sat in admiration through the star wars seminar of 1986. By then I had already taken Jerry’s M.Phil course. His intelligence and humor were always apparent. I’d also like to mention his determined and at times almost brutal pursuit of clarity and rigor even when dealing with students. The harshness of his intellect sometimes obscured the kindness about which others have already rightly written. But, for me at least, it was for many years just as inspiring.


Sarah Song 08.06.09 at 7:03 pm

I took Jerry’s M.Phil course in 1997 – none of us had seen that combination of brilliance and kindness before. I hadn’t and haven’t laughed as much in a philosophy seminar. And there was the seminar he gave on humor. It wasn’t until his 60th birthday celebration at Yale that I learned of his love for Judy Garland songs when he led the audience on a sing-along. What a voice, what a mind, a huge loss for us all.


josh 08.07.09 at 12:27 am

Thanks for this, and for your reminiscence elsewhere, Chris.
I can only echo others’ sadness and shock — and add that, while I only met Jerry Cohen a handful of times, since hearing of his death and revisiting some of his more personal pieces, I’ve realized that he was one of my favorite people that I’ve met (I imagine this is true for many who knew him, whether well or slightly); it’s bitter to realize this only retrospectively.
I’d also like to add that, while he was always rigorously and sometimes fearsomely sharp, one of the things that was crucial to his personality and his effect on people was that he was a man of deep feeling, and able to express that feeling with unusual directness and lack of mawkishness. I remember running into him on a morning bus from Oxford to Heathrow once. Not only did he remember me from a single conversation several years earlier; as he looked out the window he launched into a reflection on the beauty of clouds, and how one can only really appreciate how wonderful they are when one has reached a certain age, and feels life drawing to a close. It’s terribly poignant to remember that moment now. (Thankfully there’s also the memory of Jerry doing his imitation of Stalin, complete with rubber Stalin mask, to balance it out.)


Geoffrey Brahm Levey 08.10.09 at 9:02 am

I met Jerry once only — and it was memorable. The year was 1994 or 95, and he had invited me to lunch at All Souls on the day, as it happened, that the Queen Mother was visiting the College. As we walked to the dining hall, he tapped every colleague we came upon on the shoulder and asked: “Excuse me, but are you the Queen Mother?” This continued until he did so to a middle-aged woman who responded indignantly “Do I look like the Queen Mother?” Jerry looked perplexed and wounded: perplexed that anyone could not see the humour in his stunt, and wounded that he’d evidently caused some hurt. The lunch discussion ranged widely over many political issues, but none more passionately by him than the modern Jewish condition. A few days later, a card arrived carrying the image of R.B. Kitaj’s oil and charcoal, “The Jew, etc…”, inscribed with humble thanks for the lunch. The very inverse of who owed whom. On the eve of his funeral, one realizes, again, that the College of which he was a star fellow could not be more appropriately named.


Chris Brooke 08.11.09 at 8:36 am

The Acknowledgments to Colin Kidd’s recent, excellent book, Union and Unionisms: Political Thought in Scotland 1500-2000 contains this snippet:

*** My daughter’s first question on arrival at All Souls was: ‘Does this College have cheerleaders?’ Special thanks, therefore, to Gerry Cohen who improvised an All Souls cheerleaders’ routine to amuse my children. ***


carolina 08.11.09 at 9:16 pm

bullshit the world is full of indeed, but compassion, now that’s a rare (& often unsought for) creature. remembering mr cohen is remembering that humour, precision, intellectual honesty & daring, fun, clarity, compassion, joy in pleasures, pleasure within humanity, & the freedom to say this is who i am & this is what i believe (absolutely not saying this is who i am & thus this is who is right) plus the ability to love & be loved . . . now that is cool.
so under the pavings still is the beach.

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