Cohen, Morris Raphael (1880–1947)

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Morris Raphael Cohen, the American naturalistic philosopher, was born in Minsk, Russia. When twelve years old, he was brought to New York City by his parents, who immigrated to America in search of greater opportunity and freedom. In his early youth he came under the influence of the Scottish freelance scholar Thomas Davidson. Cohen was graduated from the College of the City of New York (City College) in 1900 and received his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University in 1906. At Harvard he studied under Josiah Royce, William James, and Hugo Münsterberg.

From 1912 to 1938, Cohen taught philosophy at City College. He was an outstanding teacher, and some of his students became eminent teachers, philosophers, and lawyers. He was a visiting lecturer in philosophy at Johns Hopkins, Yale, Stanford, and Harvard and from 1938 through 1941 was a professor at the University of Chicago. For years he gave courses at the New School for Social Research. He was also a lecturer at the law schools of St. John's University, Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Cornell, the University of Buffalo, and New York University. Although an agnostic, he had been a dedicated Jew. His wit, his critical spirit, his erudition, and his interest in a wide range of friends made him a colorful and animating person.

Cohen's philosophic interests included the philosophy of science, metaphysics, logic, social philosophy, legal philosophy, and the philosophy of history. His contribution to legal philosophy has been especially widely recognized.

Metaphysical and Logical Principles

Cohen's general philosophic outlook is naturalistic. There is no place in his philosophy for the extranatural and no place for extrascientific methods to attain knowledge. His outlook is also rationalistic, for he assumed that rationality is inherent in nature. His philosophy is based on three principles: rationality, invariance, and polarity. These three principles, coherently interwoven, provide his view of reality.


In its long history the concept of rationality has acquired a variety of meanings. It has meant logical order, inductive generalization, and wisdom. Each of these meanings has been significant. Cohen did not offer an inclusive definition of rationality, but in his philosophy of nature the first meaning is dominant and in his ethical and legal philosophies the third meaning is central.

Rationality as logical order may be considered methodologically or ontologically. Methodologically, it is a procedure to order our objects of thought in a logical way. Most philosophers, except for mystics and irrationalists, feel the necessity of such a procedure. Yet Cohen went beyond the methodological use of rationality and insisted on its ontological status. The rules of logic and pure mathematics "may be viewed not only as the principle of inference applicable to all systems but also as descriptive of certain abstract invariant relations which constitute an objective order characteristic of any subject matter" (Reason and Nature, p. 142).

For Cohen, as a logical realist, the formal aspects of logic apply to everything. As against idealists, positivists, and pragmatists, he was firm in insisting that the rational order is independent of human or superhuman mind. Idealists, according to him, deny the objectivity of logical order by giving it only a psychological status, but the psychological description of reasoning as a mental event cannot determine, according to him, whether a given logical argument is valid. Positivists, his arch philosophic enemies, fall short in a similar way. As sensations are considered the only deliverance of the external world, for positivists logical connections are mere fictions. Pragmatists, he argued, similarly depreciate the status of rational order. In their attempt to interpret the truth of judgment in terms of practical consequences, they consider logical relations as merely practical tools of thought without any ontological standing.

However, Cohen admitted an element of contingency in nature. "By no amount of reasoning," he wrote, "can we altogether eliminate all contingency from our world" (ibid., p. 82). The universe is ultimately what it is, and contingency cannot be eliminated. And by contingency Cohen meant that the world contains an irrational element in the sense that "all form is the form of something which cannot be reduced to form alone" (Studies in Philosophy and Science, p. 11).


Science is not, as Cohen rightly pointed out, a mere observation of particular facts; it is never satisfied with stating only what has occurred. The aim of science is to determine the universal, invariant relations of particular events. To say that sulfur has melted at 125°C. is a mere statement of fact similar to the statement that Russians for generations have used the Cyrillic alphabet, but to say that sulfur always melts at 125°C. means that if ever anything conforms to the category of sulfur, it melts at this temperature. The second statement expresses not only a historical event but also an invariant relation that belongs to "the eternal present."

Although the essence of particular things is their invariant relations, our knowledge of these is only probable. Only in logic or in mathematics can we attain certainty; in the world of facts our knowledge is only probable, for we cannot prove that the opposite of a given factual statement is absolutely impossible.


According to the principle of polarity, opposites involve each other. As Cohen expressed it in Reason and Nature, "Opposites such as immediacy and mediation, unity and plurality, the fixed and the flux, substance and function, ideal and real, actual and possible, and so on, like the north (positive) and the south (negative) poles of a magnet, all involve each other when applied to any significant entity" (p. 165).

In addition to its methodological value as a guide to the clarification of ideas, the principle of polarity, like the principle of rationality, has ontological status. Empirical facts, such as the existence of the north and south poles, are said to be resultants of opposing tendencies. Cohen generalized this alleged fact as the principle of "the necessary copresence and mutual dependence of opposite determinations."


Historically, there have been two major opposing theories of moralitythe absolutist and the relativist. Cohen examined both of these theories and found them unsatisfactory. The absolutist is too rigid and uncritical; the relativist is too chaotic, without guiding principles. Cohen thought the principle of polarity could reconcile the two opposing views. Actually, these two views provide a vantage point for arriving at the truth. Concretely, every issue of life involves choice. The absolutist is right "in insisting that every such choice logically involves a principle of decision," and the relativist is right "in insisting on the primacy of the feeling or perception of the demands in the actual case before us" (ibid., p. 438). We may thus have an ethical system that is rigorously logical and at the same time richly empirical. Such an ethics must be grounded in what human beings desire and believe, and yet its primary condition must be the logical analysis of judgment as to what constitutes right and wrong, good and evilan ethic that is the rational formulation of our ends.


Cohen was a pioneer in introducing legal philosophy as a significant study to universities and law schools. As Leonora Cohen Rosenfield wrote, "His philosophical treatment of the law in relation to man and the social order may prove in time to be his foremost influence."

For Cohen law is essentially a system for the orderly regulation of social action. Jurisprudence must avoid the extremes of positivism and formalism. "Law without concepts or rational ideas, law that is not logical is like prescientific medicinea hodge-podge of sense and superstition," yet law without reference to the actual facts of human conduct would be empty. A law is both stable and dynamic; it is a balance between prevailing customs and the emerging demands of society. Cohen was especially critical of what he called the "phonograph theory of law," the theory that the judge arrives at his decision in a mechanical way, according to unchanging laws. Cohen effectively argued that the judge's opinions on social and economic questions deeply influence his decisions. One of the chief merits of his analysis of law is his insistence on the interdependence of the factual and the normative. As he maintained, "Justice and the law, the ideal and the actual are inseparable, yet identifiable."

See also Idealism; James, William; Philosophy of Law, History of; Positivism; Pragmatism; Rationalism; Realism; Royce, Josiah.


works by cohen

Reason and Nature: An Essay on the Meaning of Scientific Method. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1931. Cohen's major work.

Law and the Social Order: Essays in Legal Philosophy. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1933. Important work.

An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1934. Written with Ernest Nagel.

A Preface to Logic. New York: Holt, 1945. Important work.

The Meaning of Human History. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1947. Important work.

A Dreamer's Journey. Boston: Beacon Press, 1949. Autobiography.

Studies in Philosophy and Science. New York: Holt, 1949.

Reason and Law: Studies in Juristic Philosophy. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1950.

The Faith of a Liberal: Selected Essays Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.

works on cohen

Baron, Salo W., Ernest Nagel, and Koppel S. Pinson, eds. Freedom and Reason: Studies in Philosophy and Jewish Culture in Memory of Morris Raphael Cohen. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1951. See Part I.

Cairns, Huntington. "The Legal Philosophy of Morris R. Cohen." Vanderbilt Law Review 14 (1960).

Kuhn, M. A. Morris Raphael Cohen: A Bibliography. New York: City College of New York Library, 1957. Available in the City College library.

Rosenfield, Leonora Cohen. A Portrait of a Philosopher: Morris R. Cohen. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1962.

Yervant H. Krikorian (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael Farmer (2005)