Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob
Teun Dekker inspired by Jerry Cohen
Political philosopher Jerry Cohen was a “bag of nerves” when he had to give a lecture. But once he was on stage, he made a show out of every appearance at Oxford University, Teun Dekker vividly remembers. The acting dean of University College Maastricht did his PhD with the man who loved drama, jokes and a lot of gaiety, many examples of which can be found on YouTube. “I inherited a lot of the theatrical from him,” Dekker grins, “a good lecture is a performance, with funny jokes, but at the same time clearly structured. Being funny always serves a purpose.”
At the same time, Cohen (in 1985 appointed Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory in Oxford; the former chair of Cohen’s supervisor Isaiah Berlin) was an out-and-out analytical philosopher. No loose ends or half-finished reasonings with him. “He was very good in formulating his ideas. All arguments had to be right, very rigorous, as focussed as possible to the highest level,” says Dekker. “The wonderful thing is that Cohen was a confirmed Marxist and a critic of capitalism. He came from a socialist family; his father worked in a dress factory in Montreal, Canada, and was a member of the communist movement. Jerry was caught between two worlds; he wanted to do philosophy with an almost mathematical precision, but he was also a supporter of Marx’s theory. He navigated between those two and searched for a way to do both justice.” This resulted, among others, in his famous book Karl Marx’s Theory of History. A defence (1978). There was also a movement of thirteen Marxists that he helped set up, otherwise known as the September Group, who wanted to express Marxism in the language of modern science. This was contrary to French philosophers in the nineteen-eighties, who tended to resort to a language that was accessible to few.
Dekker remembers this precision of his supervisor, who died in 2009, like it was only yesterday. “He returned the first chapter of my thesis with 118 points of disapproval. It didn’t depress me. It was about my arguments, not about me. Jerry could beat the living daylights out of you with regard to your work, but it was never with animosity. He was fantastically honest, told you the truth without hurting your feelings.”
Even though he was a bigwig in his field, he remained modest. “If you know you are really good, then nobody needs to tell you that. He also made no distinction between a first-year student and a visitor from Harvard. Everyone received an equal amount of attention. I feel it as a sense of duty to pass on his legacy. I am not the only one. All of my fellow-students felt that. It was an honour to be a student with him.”