Thursday, August 13, 2009

G.A. Cohen

I was on vacation and away from blogging access when I received the sad news of G.A. Cohen's sudden passing. I seem to be among the few practicing political theorists who had never met him-- he was twice away from Oxford when I happened to be coming through to give a paper, and his last visitorship at McGill was five years before my arrival, though we had been in intermittent touch about bringing him back for a semester in the next few years. Given the tremendous personal presence described by his friends, students, and colleagues, I'm sorry not to have had the chance. In any case, I have nothing of personal note to add to the touching remembrances many have already posted. (See Chris Bertram, his roundup of others' notes, this delightful one from Chris Brooke, Jo Wolff, etc.)

But the following paragraph seemed to me to warrant highlighting here:

Like his immediate predecessor as the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford, Gerald Allan Cohen was born and educated in Montreal [indeed, both received BAs from McGill-- JTL]. There, the similarities end. Charles Taylor embodied the two founding cultures of his home city, French and Scottish, while Cohen recalled that he was 10 years old before he realised that there were some people who were neither Jews nor communists.

Cohen wrote of his "Montreal Communist Jewish childhood" in If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?, a partly-autobiographical work from 2006 that explores the roots of his own egalitarian commitments. In it he noted the complex place of McGill in the social world of his childhood: an object of "widespread hope and expectation," but also one to which Jewish children were taught "we would gain admission[...] only if we scored rather better than the minimum required for non-Jews," even years after McGill's "delicate discrimination" against Jews had ceased.

That reminds me to link again to Judith Shklar's autobiographical essay, and her remarks about her own undergraduate days at McGill-- when the discrimination was still in full force.

I do not look back fondly to my college days at McGill University either. That may have something to do with the then-prevailing entrance rules: 750 points for Jews and 600 for everyone else. Nor was it an intellectually exciting institution, but at least when I arrived there, just before my 17th birthday, I was lucky to be in the same class as many ex-servicemen, whose presence made for an unusually mature and serious student body. And compared to school it was heaven. Moreover, it all worked out surprisingly well for me. I met my future husband and was married at the end of my junior year, by far the smartest thing I ever did. And I found my vocation.

Originally I had planned to major in a mixture of philosophy and economics, the rigor of which attracted me instantly. But when I was required to take a course in money and banking it became absolutely obvious to me that I was not going to be a professional economist. Philosophy was, moreover, mainly taught by a dim gentleman who took to it because he had lost his religious faith. I have known many confused people since I encountered this poor man, but nobody quite as utterly unfit to teach Plato or Descartes. Fortunately for me I was also obliged to take a course in the history of political theory taught by an American, Frederick Watkins. After two weeks of listening to this truly gifted teacher I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. If there was any way of making sense of my experiences and that of my particular world, this was it.

Watkins was a remarkable man, as the many students whom he was to teach at Yale can testify. He was an exceptionally versatile and cultivated man and a more than talented teacher. He not only made the history of ideas fascinating in his lectures, but he also somehow conveyed the sense that nothing could be more important. I also found him very reassuring. For in many ways, direct and indirect, he let me know that the things I had been brought up to care for, classical music, pictures, literature, were indeed worthwhile, and not my personal eccentricities. His example, more than anything overtly said, gave me a great deal of self-confidence, and I would have remembered him gratefully, even if he had not encouraged me to go on to graduate school, to apply to Harvard, and then to continue to take a friendly interest in my education and career. It is a great stroke of luck to discover one’s calling in one’s late teens, and not everyone has the good fortune to meet the right teacher at the right time in her life, but I did, and I have continued to be thankful for the education that he offered me so many years ago.

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