Cohen, Gerald Allan [Jerry] (19412009), philosopher, was born on 14 April 1941 in Montreal, Canada, the son of Morrie Cohen and his wife, Bella, née Lipkin, both factory workers. From the ages of four to eleven he attended the Morris Winchevsky Yiddish school in Montreal, run by a communist Jewish organization. Later he went to Strathcona Academy, Outrement (a protestant school), and Outrement High School. He was never a practising Jew, and became disillusioned with communism in his early twenties. Yet he had a strong if increasingly ambivalent attachment to the state of Israel, and his major philosophical writings were indebted to the letter or to the spirit of Marx's work.
After graduating with a first in politics and philosophy from McGill University in 1961, Cohen went to New College, Oxford, to study for a BPhil in philosophy (which he completed in 1965). Under Gilbert Ryle's supervision he developed the unflinching analytical rigour and intellectual honesty that were to characterize all his work. In Oxford he also met Isaiah Berlin, who became a lifelong friend. In 1963, on Berlin's recommendation, he was appointed assistant lecturer (later lecturer) in philosophy at University College, London, where he remained for twenty-one years, for the last six as a reader in philosophy. In this period he prepared and published his most famous work, Karl Marx's Theory of History: a Defence (1978), and began the turn to normative political philosophy that was to occupy him for the later part of his career. In 1985 he was elected a fellow of the British Academy and took up the Chichele chair in social and political theory at All Souls College, Oxford, a chair previously held by Berlin, which Cohen occupied until his retirement in 2008. He then, briefly, returned to University College, London, as visiting Quain professor of jurisprudence. He married Margaret Florence Pearce (b. 1942), daughter of Henry Aubrey Pearce, gentleman's outfitter, at Bridge register office, Kent, on 24 July 1965. They had three children, Gideon, Miriam, and Sara. The marriage was dissolved in 1996 and on 12 July 1999, at Oxford register office, Cohen married Michèle Jacottet, née Perrenoud, daughter of Robert Perrenoud, headmaster, and former wife of Julian H. Jacottet.
Karl Marx's Theory of History is probably the best exegetical work on that subject ever written. It solved two major puzzles that had plagued Marxism from its inception. First, how can one reconcile Marx's view that the productive forces (roughly speaking technology) determine the relations of production (roughly speaking property relations) with his assertion that these relations causally shape the forces? Second, how can one reconcile Marx's view that the economic basis determines the political and ideological superstructure with his assertion that the superstructure causally shapes the basis? The answer to both questions, Cohen argued, was that Marx explained the relations (respectively the superstructure) by the consequences these entities have for the forces (respectively the basis). Relations of production persist because (and as long as) they develop the productive forces. The superstructure persists because (and as long as) it stabilizes the economic basis.
From an exegetical point of view Cohen's reading of Marx's theory was successful. His defence of the theory did not prove as persuasive. While his appeal to consequence explanations (a variant of functionalist explanation) was not intrinsically invalid he failed to link his account with Marx's theory of the class struggle and, more generally, to provide micro-foundations for the theory. Why would a worker in a capitalist society be motivated to struggle for the advent of a communist society on the grounds that in the latter technical change would take place at an even higher pace than in the former?
Nevertheless Karl Marx's Theory of History had an impact that went well beyond exegesis and substantive theories of historical change. It showed beyond any doubt that it was possible to address core issues of Marxism while retaining the highest analytical standards. As a result of its publication a number of Marxists in the United States and in Europe who had become impatient with various obscurantist forms of Marxism joined forces in what was variously called the September Group and the non-bullshit Marxism group. The group met annually and then bi-annually from 1979. Under the inspiration of Cohenits guiding spiritmembers of the group increasingly focused on normative issues of political philosophy.
Cohen's work in this areaincluding Self-ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995), Rescuing Justice and Equality (2009), and the posthumously published Why Not Socialism? (2009)amounted to a staunch and uncompromising defence of egalitarianism against a number of different theories. He notably took on the views of Robert Nozick, John Rawls, and Ronald Dworkin to criticize their anti-egalitarian or modified egalitarian positions. Against Nozick he argued that in the presence of negative externalities, free and voluntary exchange among consenting adults does not guarantee the justice of the resulting distribution. Against Rawls he claimed that the argument for deviating from equality on the grounds that even the worst-off benefit if the talented are paid more highly than the less talented is incoherent: incentives are not needed if individuals internalize the principles of justice, as Rawls claimed they would in a just society. Against Dworkin he argued that an individual should be compensated for having expensive tastes f they have been acquired involuntarily.
In his writings on political philosophy Cohen displayed analytical powers of the highest order. Unlike his work on Marx, however, the aims to which these were harnessed were often polemical or critical rather than constructive. Their purchase on actual social and political issues was minor, since like many philosophers of his generation he mainly argued by using stylized and invented examples. He concentrated on ideal theory, not on implementations or applications. In these respects one may usefully contrast him with Brian Barry, with whom he entertained a long-standing relation of mutual impatience.
Cohen had a wonderfully engaging personality. Although his wit came across in many of his professional writings, notably the partially autobiographical If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're so Rich? (2000, based on his Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 19956), his parodies and impersonations (many of them available in writing or on the internet) conveyed a richer picture, though still a pale one compared with the original. He was an unusually generous teacher and colleague, spending endless hours writing detailed commentaries on drafts and work in progress. He died suddenly, at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, on 5 August 2009, of a spontaneous intracerebral haemorrhage, and was survived by his wife, Michèle, and the three children of his first marriage. His funeral service took place at All Souls College on 11 August.
G. A. Cohen, If you're an egalitarian, how come you're so rich? (2000) · The Times (11 Aug 2009) · The Guardian (11 Aug 2009) · The Independent (12 Aug 2009); (15 Aug 2009) · Socialist Studies [special issue on G. A. Cohen], 8/1 (2012) · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · m. certs. · d. cert.
BFI NFTVA, documentary footage