May 13, 2005

Cohen ponders conflict and humor at brown bag

Ted Cohen, professor of philosophy, spoke with members of the University community on Thursday afternoon in the Reynold's Club as part of Rockefeller Chapel's ongoing series, "What Matters to Me and Why." Cohen reflected on his childhood and college years, shared his thoughts and opinions, and as usual, told a few jokes.

Cohen opened with an analysis of the Old Testament, saying he believed more than one individual authored the classic text. "Whoever this author was, she is a great story teller," he said, observing that the text has many levels of meaning. "It looks like a story for children, but everything is for old guys too." Cohen suggested that there are two especially important stories in the Old Testament, the story of Creation and the Tower of Babel.

"Why are we told that we come from the same ancestor?" Cohen asked, referring to Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. "No one is better than anyone else," he said, concluding that this was one important message of the Old Testament.

Cohen then turned to the story of the Tower of Babel, which, according to the Old Testament, was constructed by a united population with the intention of reaching the heavens. "God didn't like that," Cohen observed. "He scattered people across the face of the earth, each with a different language."

"The question is, how do you put these two stories together?" he said. "It's not just an academic or theoretical question, but a practical question."

Cohen used this question to segue into a discussion on the philosophy and nature of conflict and disagreement. He claimed that in disagreements, one party naturally assumes the other is wrong. "We have people on both sides that feel strongly about their argument and mostly what happens is people raise their voices and are assigned to categories," he said. Cohen noted that in the issue of abortion, those interested in the debate are usually classified under the categories of "pro-choice" or "pro-life," and that the former party usually refers to the latter party as "simple minded, stupid, and fanatical."

Such labeling suggests to Cohen that some people have not learned from the story of Creation and are "untouched by grace."

"People are different from you," he said. "The worst feature of academic life is adopting a system of thought like Marxism or Freudianism." Cohen suggested that individuals who subscribe to a particular framework are often unwilling to appreciate and consider competing arguments. "They don't take their opponents seriously," he said.

However, Cohen argued, sometimes people are wrong, such as in the recent scientific curriculum controversy in Kansas between Creationists and Evolutionists. "It matters now," he added. "I lived through McCarthy and Vietnam, and I have never seen this country polarized like it is now. It makes me wonder all the more."

Cohen explained that his critical approach to such matters began early, when he was about to enter the University as an undergraduate and continued throughout his undergraduate career. He recalled his adolescence, saying he was made to feel inferior, since he grew up in a small farm town. Cohen also recalled his insecurities that stemmed from his modest upbringing, especially in light of other students' more sophisticated tastes. "Some kids went to big schools and I wondered if they were better than me," he said.

Cohen briefly delved into his undergraduate studies at the University and discussed the strong core curriculum of the time, which he called the "last vestiges of the Hutchinson program." He also discussed his extracurricular pursuits, which often took him far away from the Hyde Park campus.

"I went hitchhiking to California," he explained, reminiscing on his affections for Beat literature and poetry. "I also went downtown to watch movies."

Cohen concluded with a discussion on jokes. "A joke is a small scale work of art," he claimed. "If you want to study art from any point of view, you may as well take a look at them." Cohen suggested that jokes should be considered as very short stories, and can hence contain many features, such as offense or falsehood.

"If you are interested in moral questions about art, jokes are a good place to go," Cohen said. "There is so much drama about human life in jokes."