Wednesday, August 05, 2009

G.A. Cohen (1941-2009)

I am very saddened to learn the news that Jerry Cohen has passed away.

Last year Jerry retired from the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University, a post he held since 1985. While I was never a student of Jerry's, the frequent occasions I did have the opportunity to get to know him always confirmed his reputation as a caring, generous, humorous man that possessed a razor sharp analytic mind. He profoundly influenced contemporary political philosophy. Here I wish to reflect a little on the ways in which Jerry has influenced me.

I first met Jerry when I was interviewed for a temporary position at Oxford in 2000, shortly after having finished my PhD. After I arrived (very anxiously!) at the porter's front desk at All Souls, Jerry came down to meet me and took me to the interview room. He started the interview by noting he had just read my recent paper (this one)- in which I criticised his critique of Rawls's theory of justice- and had a few questions about what I argued in the paper. When I think back to how nervous I was, having one of my first job interviews at Oxford (and this was the first time I had been to Oxford), and then having the interview with Jerry and having him start by bringing up the paper I had just published criticising him, I am amazed I was able to hold it together at all!

But the amazing thing about Jerry is that he was a "down to earth" person. He made me feel comfortable and it became obvious from the start that he was genuinely interested in hearing what I thought, and trying to resolve our disagreement about how to interpret Rawls. So despite the tense situation I found myself in, Jerry actually made me feel very relaxed and thus we had a very spirited and interesting exchange on these topics. And after the interview he encouraged me to take in the sites of Oxford.

And while I didn't get the job, Jerry sent me some detailed and useful comments on my paper a few days later and that was enough to lift my spirits from the disappointment of not getting the job. I had some periodic email correspondence with Jerry after that. But it wasn't until I had a sabbatical year at Oxford in 2006/7 that I had the opportunity to really interact with Jerry. I organized a reading group which he participated in, and there were also regular meetings with the members of the Centre for the Study of Social Justice. On all of these occasions Jerry's passion for philosophy, and sharp analytic mind, were in ample supply. I also read a draft of this new book and sent Jerry my comments. While I disagreed with much of what Jerry was arguing he genuinely appreciated hearing what these criticisms were and responding to them.

The last time I saw Jerry was back in March when he came to Queen's to give a few talks. He gave a very interesting paper on conservatism and then a bunch of us went for lunch. Jerry had an excellent sense of humour as well. On the way back from lunch we had our last conversation which involved a discussion of why the description of an image like that above is called "overlapping hands" rather than "underlapping hands". He will be sorrily missed.

In terms of Jerry's impact on my own research interests, the biggest influence has been Jerry's work on Analytical Marxism. Most contemporary political philosophers have long given up on Marx. But I believe that the explanatory power of historical materialism has yet to be fully realized and appreciated. And Jerry's ability to bring precision and clarity to Marx's work is second to none. Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence is, at least in my opinion, the best book written on historical materialism.

Perhaps it is fitting to finish with a quote from Alfred Tennyson's Ulysses (a poem Jerry cites in this recent talk and read once a week for 50 years):

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me,--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads,-- you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.