G. A. Cohen (1941–2009)

Photo courtesy All Souls College
Photo courtesy All Souls College, Oxford

By McGill Reporter Staff

On August 5, the world lost one of its preeminent philosophers when Professor Gerald Allan (“Jerry”) Cohen died of a stroke at the age of 68.

Considered one of the foremost philosopher’s of the left, Cohen – who earned his BA from McGill in 1961 – published his most influential book, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, in 1978. In the book, Cohen applies the techniques of analytical philosophy to clarify and defend Karl Marx’s materialist conception of history. He illustrates how forces of production dictate relations of production, which in turn dictate legal and political arrangements, and how history is the history of the development of our productive capacity, driven by conflicts over the distribution of the proceeds of our efforts. The book gave rise to the school of Analytic Marxism, or, as Cohen famously called it, Non-Bullshit Marxism.

As a professor, Cohen was renowned for his generosity, wit and showmanship and included among his students such notable political philosophers as Michael Otsuka, Jonathan Wolff and Will Kymlicka.

After receiving his BA from McGill in 1961, Cohen did a BPhil in Philosophy at Oxford. He lectured at University College London (UCL) for 22 years before becoming Chichele professor of social and political theory at All Souls College, Oxford in 1985. He was made a fellow of the British Academy in 1985 and, on becoming emeritus in 2008, was appointed Quain professor of jurisprudence at UCL. Over the years, he maintained a close connection with his hometown of Montréal and with McGill, most recently in 2001 when he was a Visiting Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Political Science.

Cohen is survived by his second wife, Michèle, his children Miriam, Gideon and Sarah by his first marriage, to Margaret, and seven grandchildren.