Update: A memorial service will be held for Prof. Ted Cohen at 5 p.m. April 12 at the Quadrangle Club, 1155 E. 57th St.
Ted Cohen, a philosopher whose agile intellect and wry humor made him a UChicago campus legend, died Friday after a brief hospitalization. He was 74.
Over a career that spanned more than 50 years, Cohen, professor in philosophy and the College, turned his eye to a vast range of subjects that included jokes, baseball, television, photography, painting and sculpture, as well as the philosophy of language and formal logic.
“He was proud of bringing philosophy to everything he looked at,” said his daughter Shoshanna Cohen.
While some philosophers aim to construct large-scale theories, others “look with a very fine, acute eye at specific phenomena and work from the example outwards, beginning with the ordinary and exposing the extraordinary within it,” said Cohen’s longtime friend and colleague Josef Stern. “Ted was that kind of philosopher.”
Endlessly curious, “if he was working on Velasquez one day, he could be working on metaphor the next,” said fellow friend and collaborator Joel Snyder, professor in art history and the College.
TAKING HUMOR SERIOUSLY
Many remember Cohen, AB’62, for his legendary wit. But humor was more than a hallmark of his personality—it was also the subject of some of Cohen’s major contributions to his field.
Indeed, “he’s one of the first philosophers who took jokes seriously,” said Stern, the William H. Colvin Professor of Philosophy and director of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies.
Cohen’s 1999 book, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, offered a lively and accessible take on how and why jokes work.
Liberally sprinkled with some of Cohen’s favorite groaners (“What do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh have in common? They have the same middle name”), Jokes examines the role of humor in creating intimacy and a sense of community.
“I need reassurance that this something inside of me, the something that is tickled by a joke, is indeed something that constitutes an element of my humanity,” he wrote. “I discover something of what it is to be a human being by finding this thing in me, and then having it echoed in you, another human being.
“Of course I want you to like the one about Winnie the Pooh…But I also need you to like it, because in your liking I receive a confirmation of my own liking.”