Sage words from Morris Cohen

…in a 1919 edition of The New Republic (thanks to a lead on Leiter’s blog). Cohen was writing, under the pseudonym “Philonous”, in response to someone who had said that those not in ardent support of post-war efforts to rebuild were “slackers”:

My fellow philosophers for the most part are too ready to
assert that theoretic philosophy can justify itself
only by its practical applications. But why the
fundamental human desire to know the world is any
less entitled to satisfaction than the desire for
kodaks, automobiles, india-paper or upholstered
furniture, they do not tell us. Indeed, just exactly
what is practical, and what is the good of being
practical at all, are just the kind of theoretic studies
that they frantically refuse to undertake.


The great philosophers, like the great artists, scientists and religious
teachers have all, in large measure, ignored their
contemporary social problems. Aristotle, Leonardo
da Vinci, Shakespeare, Newton, Buddha, Jesus of
Nazareth and others who have done so much to
heighten the quality of human life, have very little
to say about the actual international, economic and
political readjustments which were as pressing in
their day as in ours. The great service of Socrates
to humanity was surely not in his somewhat superficial
criticism of the Athenian electoral machinery
of his day, but rather in developing certain intellectual
methods, and suggesting to Plato certain
doctrines as to the nature of the soul and ideas,—-
doctrines which in spite of all their impracticality
have served for over two thousand years to raise
men above the grovelling, clawing existence in
which so much of our life is sunk.

What grand writing! I’m proud to admit that I came into possession of one of his spoons, now on display in my office.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Items of the academy / learning, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Sage words from Morris Cohen

  1. Chris Rawls says:

    Awesome, but also problematic. We cannot have a theory of knowledge that is absolute and ignores one’s constructions of meaning and symbol that they rely on, of which are produced and derive from the cultural context one is a part of. George Yancy illustrates this phenomenological point perfectly in his work ‘Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race in America.’ But Judith Butler and others have also shown such things philosophically and with great logic and merit. I love this writing you’ve posted, and I agree with some of it, but it too easily allows one to release themselves from seeing the very real epidemic, for example, of child abuse, particularly child sexual abuse, that is extremely common in our country and times. Alice Miller has written extensively on the implications of this insanity and subtle, indirect cultural acceptance (through not knowing or wanting to know or seeing it and its prevalence), especially the overall health of a society and political implications. We must pay attention to our times and we need to do so ethically and epistemologically at the very least.


  2. Huenemann says:

    It is wonderful when philosophers turn their minds to engage constructively in pressing social problems. But I agree with Cohen that that’s not the only way to make valuable contributions, and there is great merit in looking past our immediate circumstances and trying to say something of lasting value.


  3. Vince says:

    I love reading Schopenhauer for two reasons — his wonderful written imagery and his visionary attempt to write an encompassing philosophical system. I lose interest in bit-by-bit thinking associated with the engineering of solutions to an isolated problem in technology, physics, or philosophy. I love the grand thinker that puts the whole story together.

    The epic philosophical visions of Plato, of Schopenhauer, of Kiekegaard, of Nietzsche, of Levinas thrill me because of their writing and their broad vision. The vision which attempts to order all reality may not be uniquely ‘true’, but they do capture the vision of reality from where each one stands.


  4. Vince says:

    OK, OK. Perhaps Levinas’s writing is muddied by his bit-by-bit phenomenological approach. However, I see Levinas through Buber’s more visionary writing style.


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