Morris Raphael Cohen

views updated May 18 2018

Morris Raphael Cohen

The American philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen (1880-1947) distinguished himself as an expositor of the nature of a liberal society, as a teacher, and as a defender of academic freedom.

Morris R. Cohen was born probably on July 25, 1880, and spent his first years in a Jewish ghetto in Minsk, Russia. He early displayed a preference for the contemplative life. His education was that of an Orthodox Jew. In 1892 the family emigrated to New York, where, during the next 7 years, Cohen drifted away from organized religion and eventually gave up all belief in a personal God.

Cohen entered the College of the City of New York in 1895. His family's penurious, hand-to-mouth existence stimulated Cohen's interest in socialism. From his study of Marx and Hegel developed his earliest preoccupation with the technical aspects of philosophy. In 1898 he met Thomas Davidson, the Scottish scholar whose example would inspire Cohen throughout his life; under his tutelage Cohen read Aristotle, Plato, Hume, and Kant.

After graduating in 1900, Cohen continued his pursuit of philosophy, discovering in Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics a "renewed faith" in logic. In 1904 the Ethical Culture Society awarded Cohen a fellowship to do graduate work at Harvard. Two years later, shortly after he completed his doctorate, he married Mary Ryshpan; they had three children.

Ensconced in the philosophy department of the College of the City of New York, Cohen came into his own as a teacher. Demanding of his students and responding sarcastically to careless thinking, he nonetheless drew overflow crowds of students and won great affection and respect. Outside the classroom he led the struggle to uphold academic freedom against authoritarian interference. He was one of the founding members of the American Association of University Professors. As a tide of anti-Semitism rose in the 1930s, he helped organize the Conference on Jewish Relations to study modern Jewry scientifically; he was also editor of its journal, Jewish Social Studies.

Meanwhile Cohen was writing scholarly articles and books. In 1923 his edition of C. S. Peirce's essays, Chance, Love and Logic, appeared. In 1931 in his most important work, Reason and Nature: An Essay on the Meaning of Scientific Method, he developed the concept that characterized all his thought and came closest to representing a metaphysical position. That concept, polarity, held that ideas such as "unity and plurality, similarity and difference, dependence and independence, form and matter, change and permanence" were "equally real," and "the way to get at the nature of things" was to "reason" from such "opposing considerations." Hence the necessity of society's tolerating conflicting points of view.

Ever since he had shared a room with Felix Frankfurter at Harvard, Cohen had indulged a lively interest in jurisprudence, which resulted in Law and the Social Order: Essays in Legal Philosophy (1933). He believed that logical reasoning was critically important to all fields of thought. An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (1934), written with a former student, Ernest Nagel, became a popular college textbook.

In 1938 Cohen left teaching to devote himself to writing. His Preface to Logic (1944) elucidated logic's place in the universe. Faith of a Liberal (1946) sought to rescue the term "liberal" from connotations of sentimentality. Cohen had already manifested his lifelong fascination with history by helping found the Journal of the History of Ideas. He selected the philosophy of history as his topic when the American Philosophical Association chose him to deliver its Carus Lectures, later published as The Meaning of Human History (1947).

Cohen died on Jan. 28, 1947. He left many works half finished, which his son Felix, a scholar in his own right, published: A Source Book in Greek Science (1948), A Dreamer's Journey (1949), Studies in Philosophy and Science (1949), Reflections of a Wondering Jew (1950), Reason and Law: Studies in Juristic Philosophy (1950), Readings in Jurisprudence and Legal Philosophy (1951), King Saul's Daughter: A Biblical Dialogue (1952), and American Thought: A Critical Sketch (1954). Cohen's publications stand as a positive statement of his faith in a liberal civilization and answer those critics who found in him only the sharp tongue of a nihilist.

Further Reading

Cohen's autobiography, A Dreamer's Journey (1949), is a candid depiction of the life of a Jewish immigrant. In Portrait of a Philosopher: Morris R. Cohen in Life and Letters (1962), Cohen's daughter, Leonora Cohen Rosenfield, supplements lively anecdotes with extensive quotations from his diary and other unpublished manuscripts. For further appreciation and commentary see Salo W. Baron, Ernest Nagel, and Koppel S. Pinson, Freedom and Reason: Studies in Philosophy and Jewish Culture in Memory of Morris Raphael Cohen (1951).

Additional Sources

Cohen, Morris Raphael, A dreamer's journey: the autobiography of Morris Raphael Cohen, New York: Arno Press, 1975. □

Cohen, Morris Raphael

views updated May 08 2018


COHEN, MORRIS RAPHAEL (1880–1947), U.S. naturalist philosopher. Born in Minsk, Belorussia, Cohen went to New York at the age of 12. He studied at City College, and later with the Scottish philosopher Thomas Davidson. At Harvard University, where Cohen earned his doctorate, he studied under William James and Josiah Royce. Cohen, known as an outstanding teacher, was appointed professor of philosophy at City College in New York in 1912 and continued teaching there until 1938. From 1938 to 1941 he was professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. He was president of the American Philosophical Association in 1928. In the later years of Cohen's life, as a result of the rise of Nazism, he began to champion Jewish interests. In 1933 he founded the Conference on Jewish Relations, an organization that assumed responsibility for scientific research on Jewish problems. He relates the details of this organization's activity in his autobiography, A Dreamer's Journey (1949), which also is valuable for its commentary on the Jews of Cohen's generation. An early interest in the plight of the working class – his parents had actively participated in the Jewish workers' movement in New York – eventually led Cohen to the study of legal philosophy. Reacting to the conservatism of American judges, who at that time tended to support anti-labor legislation, Cohen attacked the 18th-century concepts of natural law upon which this conservatism rested. He analyzed legislation strictly according to empirical criteria and his results were clearly socialistic; the sum of his work in this field is found in Law and the Social Order (1933). Cohen's naturalistic viewpoint and involvement with scientific methods as exemplified in his work in legal philosophy had been worked out earlier in his first, and perhaps most important, work, Reason and Nature: An Essay on the Meaning of Scientific Method (1931). An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (1934), written together with the American philosopher Ernest *Nagel, became a standard textbook in American universities and in the armed forces. A Preface to Logic (1945) is about the foundations of logic and its relation to the sciences. Cohen's interests also include ethics and the philosophy of history. In his work The Meaning of Human History (1947) he develops the theory that human history is expressed by a cyclical process of fruition and degeneration, not by a lineal progression. The optimistic note in this otherwise discouraging view is that Truth, despite its continuous repression and opposition, succeeds in reasserting itself from time to time. Similar views are expressed in his collection of essays The Faith of a Liberal (1946). In 1939 Cohen founded the organ for Jewish social research, Jewish Social Studies. He was also one of the editors of the Journal of the History of Ideas. Reflections of a Wandering Jew, a collection of short essays on Judaism, was published posthumously in 1950.

[Samuel Hugo Bergman]

His son, felix (1907–1953), was a legal philosopher. Born in New York, he was a solicitor in the U.S. Department of the Interior, 1933–48. He wrote Ethical Systems and Legal Ideals (1933), Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1941), and Readings in Jurisprudence and Legal Philosophy, which he edited with M.R. Cohen (1951). After his death, a collection of Cohen's articles was published as The Legal Conscience (1960), edited by L.K. Cohen and with a foreword by Felix *Frankfurter. The divisions of this work show the range of Cohen's interests: Logic, Law and Ethics, the Indian's Quest for Justice, and the Philosophy of American Democracy. Like his father, Cohen was a legal realist, who insisted that law cannot escape dealing with ethics.

[Richard H. Popkin]


A Tribute to Professor Morris Raphael Cohen: Teacher and Philosopher (1928); Feuer, in: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 11 (1949–50), 471–85; S.W. Baron et al. (eds.), Freedom and Reason: Studies in Philosophy and Jewish Culture in Memory of Morris Raphael Cohen (1951); M.A. Kuhn, Journal of the History of Ideas (1957), supplement; H. Cairns, in: Vanderbilt Law Review, 14 (1960–61), 239–62; L. Rosenfield (Cohen), A Portrait of a Philosopher: Morris R. Cohen in Life and Letters (1962).

Cohen, Morris Raphael

views updated May 09 2018

Cohen, Morris Raphael

(b. Minsk, Russia, 25[?] June 1880; d. Washington, D. C., 25 Jannuary 1947),

philosophy of Science.

Cohen came to New York City from his native Russia in 1892. He attended the public schools and was graduated with highest honors from the College of the City of New York in 1900. In his early youth he was influenced by Thomas Davidson at the Educational Alliance on New York’s Lower East Side. This influence and his natural bent led Cohen to the graduate study of philosophy at Harvard under Hugo Münsterberg, Josiah Royce, and William James. He received his Ph.D. in 1906 and taught mathematics at City College for several years. In 1912 he was finally appointed to teach philosophy and rapidly became a prominent figure in the emerging naturalistic movement, a first-rate teacher, and a developer of latent philosophic talents. In 1938, after retiring from City College, Cohen served as professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago until 1941. His health, never robust, then broke down completely. He spent the rest of his life completing, with the aid of his children, the books that summed up his major intellectual interests in science, law, and social ethics.

Cohen’s philosophy was a scientifically grounded naturalism. Unlike other philosophic naturalists of his time, he turned from an empiricist interpretation of scientific method to an older conception of rationalism as the ally of science on combating the forces of superstition, supernaturalism, and authoritarianism. He did not deny the reality of the concrete data of experience; he argued, rather, that only when the principles suggested by these data were universalized by rational logical or mathematical methods did they have any value in formulating a world view. His differences with his fellow naturalists were a matter of emphasis and a wholesome corrective to exaggerated stress upon the data of sensation.

Cohen went beyond this methodological principle to assert an ontological principle priciple of rationality. He believed that man does not merely impose the universal laws of science upon the external world of nature, but discovers them there. These laws express the invariant relations underlying all particulars. Cohen recognized the perspectival and contingent elements in the relations among particulars but rejected the romantic tendency to elevate contingency and change into basic ontological principles. Instead, he retained from his study of Hegel what he called the Principle of Polarity, that is, the principle that opposites involve each other. He applied this principle in explaining why he could not accept change as fundamental by maintaining that change can be attributed only with reference to some constant.

Aware as he was of the inexorable particularity of gross experience, Cohen was careful to point out that it is only the intelligibility of things, not their existence, that is dependent upon invariant scientific laws. Knowledge is of universals alone, but these universals are only as real as experienced particulars. Ultimately, Cohen insisted, we must recognize as one particular characteristic of the universe that it supports the quest for intelligibility. Thus in the end Cohen reconciled the polar elements of particularity and universality without importing explanatory principles from outside his system.


I. Original Works. Cohen’s major books are Reason and Nature (New York-London, 1931); Law and the social Order (New York,1933); An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (New York-London, 1934), written with Ernest Nagel; Preface to Logic (New York 1944); The Meaning of Human History (Lasalle,. III., 1947), the Carus Lectures; and A Dreamer’s Journey(Baston, 1949), his autobiography.

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Cohen are Salo W. Baron, Ernest Nagel, and Koppel S. Pinson, eds., Freedom and Reason; Studies in philosophy and jewish Culture in Memory of Morris Raphael Cohen (Glenoce, III., 1951), esp. the articles in pt. 1; Joseph L. Blau, Men and Movements in American Philosophy (New York, 1952), ch. 9, sec. 3; “Rationalistic Naturalism: Morris R. Chohen”; Yervant Krikorian, “Morris Raphael Cohen,” in Encyclopedia of philosophy Edwards. ed., II, 128–129; and Leonora Cohen Rosenfield, Portrait a Philosopher: Morris R. Cohen in Life and Letters (New York, 1962).

Joseph L. Blau

Cohen, Morris Raphael

views updated May 18 2018


Morris Raphael Cohen achieved prominence as an educator and author.

Cohen was born July 25, 1880, in Minsk, Russia. He emigrated to the United States in 1892 and earned a bachelor of science degree from the College of the City of New York in 1900 and a doctor of philosophy degree from Harvard University in 1906. Cohen was the father of Felix Cohen, who became a somewhat noteworthy philosopher/writer in the jurisprudential school of legal realism.

In 1899, Cohen began his teaching career as a history teacher at the Educational Alliance in New York. He also taught at Davidson Collegiate Institute from 1900 to 1901, and in 1902 he accepted a position as mathematics teacher at his alma mater, the College of the City of New York. He held that position until 1912, when he switched his interests to philosophy and served as a professor until 1938. In that year, he accepted a professorship at the University of Chicago and continued his career as a philosophy professor.

In addition to his permanent teaching duties, Cohen also served at numerous institutions as a temporary professor—including his presentation of a series of lectures at Columbia Law School from 1906 to 1907, 1914 to 1915, the summer of 1918, and the summer of 1927; at Yale from 1929 to 1931; and at Harvard from 1938 to 1939.

Cohen is the author of several noteworthy publications, including Reason and Nature (1931), Law and the Social Order (1933), and Faith of a Liberal (1945).

He died January 28, 1947, in Washington, D.C.

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