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Two American Philosophers: Morris Cohen and Arthur Murphy

  • Marcus G. Singer


It may be thought odd that these two philosophers should have been selected for discussion together. They had no special connection with each other. They were not personally close. They did not teach or write in the same place. Nor were their personalities at all similar. None the less there are similarities of thought and perspective that make the conjunction illuminating.

It may be thought even odder that these two philosophers should have been selected for discussion at all. After all, who today reads them, or has even heard of them? Very few. If they ever were in fashion, they are not in fashion now. But this situation results from ignorance, which this series aims to dispel. Remember, it was meant to be a revelation to the ignorant as well as an inspiration.



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1 Murphy, Arthur E., The Uses of Reason (henceforth UR), p. v. The books of Cohen and Murphy cited within are cited by abbreviated titles; the keys are contained in the appended list of Sources (see infra, pp. 325–6).

2 Again (in 1929): ‘When the public at large is urging us, on the authority of our leading representative, Professor Dewey, to abandon the technical problems which occupy philosophers and to go back to the problems of men, it is surely opportune to insist in all seriousness that we shall never help humanity very much by neglecting our own special task, the only task for which we are as philosophers properly trained. It is true, of course, that in science as in the arts technical problems tend to become too complicated, and it is often advisable to retrace our steps and to find a new path through our tangled difficulties. But the value of a new approach is to be tested by whether it enables us to see the old problems in a new light’ (FL, 369; cf. p. 289).

3 Cf. Murphy, 's ‘Problems of Men’, The Philosophical Review 56 (1947), 194202.

4 I owe this account, both in substance and in wording, to Abraham Edel, who handled discussion sections for Cohen for some seven years prior to Cohen's retirement from City College.

5 Some passages from this 1940 MS are reproduced infra Annex B.

6 Murphy, , ‘Ideas and Nature’, in Studies in the Nature of Ideas, University of California Publications in Philosophy, Vol. 8 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1926), 211.

7 Murphy's best because most incisive account of this phenomenon, and also of contextual analysis, is in his ‘Dewey's Epistemology and Metaphysics’, in The Philosophy of John Dewey, Schilpp, P. A. (ed.), Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. I (Evanston: Northwestern University, 1939), 195196, 198. Cf. ‘Two Versions of Critical Philosophy’ (1938) and ‘Moore's Defence of Common Sense’ (1942), both reprinted in Reason and the Common Good.

8 A. I. Melden, Introduction to The Theory of Practical Reason, xixii.

9 I am grateful to Abraham Edel for useful information and suggestions about Cohen, and speculations about why his reputation went into eclipse. For similar information and ideas about Murphy I am indebted to A. I. Melden, Edmund Pincoffs, and Frederick L. Will. I am also grateful to H. S. Thayer for collecting and sending to me materials on or by Cohen available in the City College Library. In particular this enabled me to see the remarkable production (privately printed), ‘A Tribute to Professor Morris Raphael Cohen, Teacher & Philosopher’, published by ‘The Youth Who Sat at His Feet’ (New York, 1928), which records the speeches made and letters read at the testimonial dinner, attended by more than a thousand people, given for Cohen at the Hotel Astor on 15 October 1927, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his joining the teaching staff of the College, which contains, besides Cohen's speech of response, essays on Cohen as a teacher by several of his former students, such as Sidney Hook, Ernest Nagel, and Paul Weiss. Although I had before heard about this banquet, it was only through seeing the book that I was able to realize what an extraordinary occurrence this whole thing was. And it occurred nearly eleven years before Cohen's retirement from the College.

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Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements
  • ISSN: 1358-2461
  • EISSN: 1755-3555
  • URL: /core/journals/royal-institute-of-philosophy-supplements
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