Saturday, November 24, 2007

Howdy to Josh Cohen!

In the comments below to my recollections of the great Rogers Albritton, Joshua Cohen adds his support. Josh, long of MIT and now of Stanford, is hardly an intellectual slouch ... one of the great political philosophers of our day, star of this country's humanist and humane Left, and broad gauge intellectual through his editorship of the Boston Review ... not to mention my teacher in Marx when he taught for a couple of terms visiting at UCLA. Josh was one of those standout teachers - he never sought to entertain the crowd, and yet he managed to reach out with his mind and utterly engage intellectually those who were listening. The broader intellectual community knows what a great scholar and thinker Josh is; you should know what a privilege it was for me and others at UCLA to have him as a teacher. Those students included me, the legal philosopher Larry Solum, and the great Hobbes scholar Sharon Lloyd.

True, I've moved right since those days - I would say my trajectory is probably close to that of my fellow Telos editor and Hoover Institution fellow Russell Berman, who teaches in comparative literature at Stanford. Alas, Josh would likely not approve, or at least not agree - one of Josh's great virtues being his willingness to engage with those who don't agree with him - but I suppose I fit one of the particular definition's of neo-conservative, in the special sense of someone who started out on the left and moved right. I didn't start by reading conservative philosophers; the only one I really read, and read about, I suppose, was Burke. I read liberals and the left, and Josh's classes in Marx were and are an important part of that. I still go back and read sections of the economic and philosophical manuscripts, Capital, On the Jewish Question, Critique of the Gotha Program, the Manifesto, etc. My intellectual formation owes more to Marx than to any conservative philosopher (Josh, as the person who taught me Marx, I hope this is not causing you regret!). Indeed, I think of myself as having "moved right" largely in the sense that the Left has moved a different direction itself - first, an embrace of rights discourse in ways disastrous to the liberal conception of rights; second, an embrace of multiculturalism via the discourse of rights that is disastrous to liberty; third, ... heck, if I go on, I'll shortly celebrate myself as Keeper of the True Flame.

Then there's also the general problem that mainstream economics has turned out to be much more intellectually powerful than I, for one, as a philosophy student in the early 1980s, would have thought possible. It's not the end of the story, of course; it operates within a certain frame from which an immanent critique is certainly possible and a jolly good idea. But most of life is not really lived in the immanence, but well within the frame of supply and demand. Critical theory, as law professors have found to their sorrow, isn't so good at the detailed on the ground stuff of doctrine. Microecon does a much better job at explaining that stuff. Again, it is not that critical theory has no place, but immanence is not where we live. (Consider how it does come back in - for example, Gregory Clark's new book on the Industrial Revolution, Malthusianism, and international economic development - A Farewell to Alms - it finally concludes that conventional economic theory cannot explain the wealth and poverty of nations, and, though starting from an economic historian's frame, opens the possibilities of critical theory, anthropology, sociology, and possibilities beyond economists' rationality.)

The Boston Review is one of the best book reviews and intellectual sounding boards going. And note that although it is not new anymore, it is still a relatively latecomer to the world of literary book reviews, the world of the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books. I suggested a couple of years ago in a rundown of places still interested in reviewing books that the Boston Review was parochial, based around the Cambridge crowd - Josh dropped me a note correcting me about that, and he was right. I went back and subscribed, and over the last couple of years of reading it, have come to quite agree - it is not parochial and one of the few things in the US that gives the NYRB any competition and, truth be told, I prefer it (the NYRB tone of God Addressing Eternity eventually loses me). In the midst of all the rest of what Josh does, it is quite amazing. Okay, in order of my reading preference, the leading (we might say, remaining) literary reviews are the TLS, LRB, Boston Review, back-of-book-Wieseltier-land TNR, NYRB. (Another day I'll update my sense of the reviewing world.)

I'm sitting here in a Caribou Coffee house in downtown DC writing this over Thanksgiving weekend. I'm sitting here thinking about Josh, Rogers, the really astounding teachers and professors I've had over the years. I haven't even mentioned law school. I wonder how many students, back then or now, have that kind of intellectual opportunity. I don't think I provide that to my students - I think I give them a very practical education in lawyering, business, finance, international development, nonprofits, philanthropy, nonprofit finance and tax law, etc. but it's not fundamentally intellectual. I think I gave that to my high school students at NCS in the ethics and war class, but somehow third year of law school seems different. I've been privileged and, really, blessed. Anyway, Josh, it was great to hear from you - I'll email you at Stanford - and happy thanksgiving to you and yours.