Ted Cohen Remembered
It is daunting to speak of Ted Cohen on this occasion. Almost all of you here will have known Ted well. It was his fate to possess a personal charisma so powerful that he was the center of every group of which he was a part. He was the speaker on the panel, or the master of ceremonies, whom everyone wanted to hear. His table in the hotel dining room was the focal point of conversation worth having at the philosophy meetings. Indeed, Ted was a kind of legendary character in the philosophical world. Partly this was because he was able to make his own experience--of literature, of music, of art, and above all of jokes – the subject of philosophical reflection. He was, of course, the master of jokes – the master teller, and the master understander – and for reasons he made clear, the sharing of a joke is often a form of intimacy that brings the teller and the hearer closer in a shared pleasure.
Of course, it is this inimitable, irreplaceable figure whom we mourn and celebrate. Ted was my very good friend for over 50 years. We met as graduate students at Harvard, where he preceded me by a year. I think Francis Dauer introduced us in Emerson Hall, and I know that Ted was the teaching fellow from Quine’s logic course who helped me and a number of other first year graduate students to negotiate the Logic PreLim. Ted had a far wider acquaintance among the Philosophy graduate students than I did, knowing them all, but we became friends and occasional fellow movie goers. I preceded him by a year in the University of Chicago Philosophy department, but because he had been an undergraduate there, he was able to reveal to me to me some of the mysteries, and some of the unique beauties of that place, when he returned to the department. It has been my experience that the friendships forged at this relatively early period in life remain the strongest. We did a lot of things together in that period – marching after the Democratic convention in 1968, attending an occasional Cub game at Wrigley Field (where the crowds were sparse on those spring and summer afternoons, and let us say, Ted was not rooting for the Cubs.) We taught a course together over more than one term, on Aristotle, Hume and Kant on ethics and aesthetics – a course in which I profited from Ted’s masterly teaching as much as the students did, and they were mostly undergraduates who became professional philosophers. We even wrote, gave readings of, and published a paper together, “More on What We Say” – that I recently reread and recalled the pleasure of that collaboration. Ted even roped me in to participate in Kenneth Northcott’s public radio program, for which we went to movies, concerts, plays, even to Doc Watson and then talked about them on the radio. After I left Chicago, in the early seventies we kept in pretty close touch until his death. This was facilitated by our meeting at least once a year at the meetings of the American Society for Aesthetic. The high point of those meetings for me was gathering with Ted and Andy and other old friends (and Andy and I have managed to take long fast walks in a lot of American cities, another high point.) So I too mourn my dear friend – and I find it difficult to think about a world from which he is absent.
However, I wanted today to say a few words about Ted as a philosopher. He was, of course, a superb teacher and mentor to generations of undergraduate, and graduate, students. He was a skilled and successful administrator when called on – but all of this was grounded in his identity as a philosopher. I said earlier that Ted had the relatively rare capacity to take his own experience as the subject of his philosophical reflection. By this, I don’t just mean that he cared about music, or movies or jokes, though of course he did. He cared enough to make that experience the touchstone for philosophizing on those subjects. One of the most striking things about Ted’s work is that he is always thinking for himself – never proceeding on the basis of someone else’s authority. There were philosophers whom he admired, naturally, and who persuaded him sometimes but only when checked against his own experience. This is, I believe, even true of his writing on, for example, Hume or Kant. Take the beginning of his wonderful essay “Three Problems in Kant’s Aesthetics”:
What does the faculty of Understanding do during the execution of a judgement of taste? How are singular judgements of beauty related to general judgements of beauty? For what reason is beauty the symbol of morality? The first question has a tentative answer, although one not obviously congenial to Kant. The second two questions have no compelling answers.
This is a paper addressed to those reading a journal of aesthetics so it presupposes some familiarity with the Critique of the Power of Judgment but the paper proceeds to encounter, and to attempt to understand, the Kantian text without rehearsing the traditions of scholarship on these topics. Moreover, it makes explicit that a part of the achievement of the paper is not to answer some of the questions. The state of being unable to provide an answer belongs to the text, not to Ted. Ted’s work often takes this form. His piece on humor for the Routledge Companion to Aesthetics concludes with his reflections on why there has not been and cannot be a successful theory of humor. My point is not that Ted’s work is always negative, but that it is always reflectively critical. However, his marvelous books on jokes and on thinking of others are not just works critical of other accounts of jokes and metaphors. They are deeply felt studies of what it is to be human. Ted liked to try out ideas, but his standards of clarity were incredibly high. His command of logic was both admirable in itself (and he was by far the best logic teacher I have ever encountered) and provided him with a base from which he could criticize theories that weren’t theories but that claimed a spurious authority from a supposed technical complexity. Though he was respectful of others, he was in awe of no one.
So I think that American philosophy has lost a unique voice, and all of us have lost a unique and wonderful man. Our hearts go out to Andy, and to all of Ted’s family at this sad time.