Who Was Morris Raphael Cohen?
By Leonora Davidson Cohen Rosenfield
Professor Morris Raphael Cohen
CCNY Class of 1900
Presented by Alumni and Friends
In Commemoration of Twenty-Five Years of Service
Departments of Mathematics and Philosophy
Oct. 15, 1927
Painted by Joseph Margulies
Who was Morris Raphael Cohen whose centenary is being celebrated and why is his alma mater's library named after him?
My father, born on July 25, 1880, led a life seasoned by pride and prejudice and poverty. His pride as a son of the Cohanem was set against the prejudice of his time. Discrimination against Jews, flagrant under the Tsars, was genteel but real in this country. Poverty stalked the Cohens in the ghetto of Minsk. Malnourished, often sick and listless, little Morris for a while was called Kalyleh, Yiddish for half-wit. "Never mind; some day," predicted his mother Bessie Farfel, "they will all be proud to have talked to my Meisheleh." Indeed, at his death, her youngest son was hailed as an encyclopedic scholar, a kind of twentieth-century Aristotle. He had become a legendary Socratic teacher and gadfly in American philosophy and education, a prolific author, a rationalistic animateur of his age.
Morris was brought to New York City in 1892. In what he called "this blessed land of opportunity," the City College offered qualified students tuition-free higher education "without distinction of race or class or creed." Young Morris passed the entrance examinations to the College in 1895 with a gold medal from his grade school, and graduated in the class of "noughty-nought," 1900, with a B.S. and Phi Beta Kappa. He had already confided to his youthful diaries his dreams of becoming a philosopher, teaching at his alma mater, and of being able to support his parents in their old age.
By this time a peripatetic Scottish scholar, Thomas Davidson, had lent my father's life purpose and inspiration. He was encouraged, ceased brooding and broadened himself in Davidson's "culture sciences"—classics, philosophy, history and great world literature. (My parents carried on their teacher's mission after his death by launching the Breadwinner's College, with its free cultural education for the wage-earner. They named me after their mentor.)
From 1902 to 1904, while teaching mathematics at City College, Morris pursued graduate studies at Columbia. At Felix Adler's recommendation the New York Society for Ethical Culture awarded him a $750 scholarship to study at Harvard in its golden age—a good investment. By June 1906 there was Morris with his doctorate and his bride, Mary Ryshpan. He had once borrowed a three-cent stamp to write to her asking for a loan of $30—two more good investments. Now armed with what President John Finley was to call the finest recommendations he'd ever seen, my father returned to the College, where he continued teaching mathematics for the next six years. In 1912, thanks to Professor Harry Allen Overstreet of the philosophy department, he was finally appointed to the philosophy faculty—for a Jew, a precedent-shattering event.
He promptly initiated two new courses, philosophy of science and philosophy of law, to which he subsequently added the philosophy of civilization with, as novel textbook, Santayana's Life of Reason. Another innovative course was logic and scientific method, for which he brought out the text, An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method, with his gifted former student Ernest Nagel '23. He also taught four more courses at the College—metaphysics, ethics, ancient philosophy and history of philosophy.
Despite his asperity in class toward his City College students, who were at times the butt of his wit, they held a special place in his heart. I recall, as a six-year-old, spotting members of the Lavender track team running on the median strip of Broadway and calling out to my brothers, "Look, there go Papa's boys." My father drove himself mercilessly for his "boys," and served the College that meant so much in his life. His A Preface to Logic, translated into Italian, Japanese, German and Spanish, was dedicated to "The College of the City of New York and its students who gave zest to my life."
In the "outside world," Morris Cohen served as visiting professor or lecturer at Johns Hopkins, Yale, Stanford and Harvard, and was elected by the students of the New School for Social Research as their first professor. He taught or lectured at leading law schools and delivered innumerable lectures not only at establishment institutions but also at places like the Rand School and Cooper Union. He fought many a crusade for social justice, often side by side with his old friend, John Dewey. After his retirement from City College in 1938, he became professor at the University of Chicago.
Morris Cohen, who called logic the life-blood of philosophy, was a logical realist for whom relationships and universals were real, not nominal. He was an interdisciplinary pioneer. The Source-Book in Greek Science that he edited with his former student Israel E. Drabkin '24, the classical scholar, demonstrated that science is not a modern discovery; its history goes back to ancient Greece. He defined "scientific method," based on systematic doubt, for The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Above all, he introduced the concept of philosophy as a critical method to be applied by Everyman to the problems of man and society, to life and its pursuits. He sparked others with his inflamed defense of reason as man's best guide.
Contributing to The New Republic from its inception, he developed a clear, pithy style. Much of his work is readable to the layman. He bucked the tides of his times, sought realization of his projects rather than credits, eschewed indoctrination and left no school of followers. Yet his influence remains durable, particularly in law and jurisprudence. His friendships with the great minds of his age, Einstein for example, reflected honor on his college. Bertrand Russell was quoted by Harold Laski as saying that Morris Cohen was the most significant philosopher in the United States.
On May 3, 1953, under President Buell Gallagher, the City College Library was dedicated to and named for Morris Raphael Cohen. To it he had given the bulk of his life-time collection of books. At the College hang Joseph T. Margulies' oil portraits of my father and of my late brother Felix S. Cohen, the editor of our father's posthumous works and the brilliant successor to him in legal philosophy and teaching. Also on display in the Cohen Library is the bronze bust of my father by Anne Wolfe. One might almost mistake it for another Cohen son, Victor William '31, the late distinguished nuclear physicist.
Another posthumous day of triumph is soon to dawn for Morris Raphael Cohen. The new library in the soon-to-be-completed North Academic Complex on campus is to be dedicated to him, one of the "sturdy sons of City College…bound by ties that naught can sever."
The author is professor emerita, University of Maryland (department of French and Italian language and literature). She authored the first biography about her father, Portrait of a Philosopher.
Reprinted from: The City College Alumnus, v. 76 #2, December 1980, p. 8-9.