March 18, 2014

Ted Cohen, legendary professor and Latke-Hamantash moderator, dies at 74

Ted Cohen (A.B. ’62), professor of philosophy and the legendary moderator of the annual Latke-Hamantash debate, passed away on Friday, the University and several faculty members confirmed. He was 74.

Political science professor Charles Lipson, a friend and neighbor of Cohen, confirmed his passing in an e-mail, in which he said Cohen had suffered from emphysema for several years. “But illness took nothing away from his sharp intellect, outstanding teaching, and droll, self-deprecating wit,” he said. A cause of death was not immediately available.

Martha Roth, dean of the division of the humanities, also confirmed his death in an e-mail to faculty. She wrote that the funeral will be held in his hometown of Hume, Illinois, and the family will be sitting shiva on Friday, March 21 from 4 p.m. to sundown at his home in Hyde Park. A memorial service is planned for April 12 at the Quadrangle Club, with details pending.

The philosophy department website reflected the date of his death on his biography page as of Monday afternoon, and University spokesman Jeremy Manier confirmed the news as well.

Cohen taught at the University of Chicago for nearly 50 years, specializing in the philosophy of art. He also focused on aesthetics, the history of aesthetics—especially in the 18th century—and the philosophy of language, and previously served as the chairman of the department of philosophy and on the committees on general studies in the humanities and on art and design. He had been scheduled to teach a section of Philosophical Perspectives, a humanities Core class, next quarter, but the listing was removed from the Classes website on Monday.

Many students remembered him as an expert in his field and an excellent professor, always welcoming others’ insight and connecting his rambling anecdotes back to the text. The “classic image” of him smoking outside of Harper Memorial Library wearing a red beret will also be a part of that memory, said fourth-year Julie Huh. “His presence exuded such nonchalance, and he always took his time with his cigarette outside Harper.”

Huh took Cohen’s final quarter of the Philosophical Perspectives sequence as a first-year. “I received advice from upperclassmen that I had to take his class at least once, so that’s why I took it,” she said.

Taking one of Cohen’s classes seemed to be a goal for many students at UChicago, as the professor was highly recommended by seemingly anyone who came into contact with him.

Fourth-year Eric Wessan said that his father sat in on a lecture by Cohen during Parents’ Weekend and immediately texted his son to tell him to take a class with him before graduation.

As the co-organizer of the annual Latke-Hamantash debate, Wessan had the opportunity to work closely with Cohen, who moderated the satirical event. “This small, quiet man captivated the room as he landed joke after joke [at the debate],” he said. “The soul of the Latke-Hamantash debate was Cohen’s moderation.”

His humor often came out during class, according to several of his students, and he wrote a book titled Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. “He not only told jokes, [but] he talked about the jokes themselves, pushing us to think about what makes them really funny,” said third-year Frances Giguette, who took Cohen’s Philosophy and Literature course in the fall of 2012.

Lipson emphasized his friend’s quick wit and knowledge as well. “He seemed to know every joke ever told. In fact, some of my happiest moments with Ted came when I had heard a joke he didn’t know! Those, I can assure you, were rare moments indeed.”

Cohen tended to use stories from everyday life, including his own childhood, as examples in class, according to third-year Justin Wu, who took the third quarter of Cohen’s section of Philosophical Perspectives. “I do not believe I have heard anyone else explain Kant’s categorical imperative in a way that even remotely made sense,” Wu said.

“I probably learned more about life from taking a class with Professor Cohen than I did about aesthetics,” said second-year Paige Pendarvis, who took his History of Aesthetics course this quarter.

Fourth-year Jim Duehr shared his favorite memory of Cohen, who taught him in Philosophical Perspectives. During class one day, Cohen was describing his visit to the University of Edinburgh for an aesthetics conference. “He begins, ‘You know, they kicked Hume out of the University because they were suspicious he was an atheist, which of course he wasn’t, not exactly. But then I arrive on campus, and they’ve named a goddamn tower after him! Those fuckers, they kicked the guy out for his beliefs, and now they go and name a tower after him? The nerve!’”

“And we were all a little taken aback by his liberal use of language, right? But he was just all around brilliant, so who could really care?”