Lectures on the History of Moral and Political Philosophy

Lectures on the History of Moral and Political Philosophy

G. A. Cohen
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Lectures on the History of Moral and Political Philosophy
    Book Description:

    G. A. Cohen was one of the leading political philosophers of recent times. He first came to wide attention in 1978 with the prize-winning book Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. In subsequent decades his published writings largely turned away from the history of philosophy, focusing instead on equality, freedom, and justice. However, throughout his career he regularly lectured on a wide range of moral and political philosophers of the past. This volume collects these previously unpublished lectures.

    Starting with a chapter centered on Plato, but also discussing the pre-Socratics as well as Aristotle, the book moves to social contract theory as discussed by Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, and then continues with chapters on Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. The book also contains some previously published but uncollected papers on Marx, Hobbes, and Kant, among other figures. The collection concludes with a memoir of Cohen written by the volume editor, Jonathan Wolff, who was a student of Cohen's.

    A hallmark of the lectures is Cohen's engagement with the thinkers he discusses. Rather than simply trying to render their thought accessible to the modern reader, he tests whether their arguments and positions are clear, sound, and free from contradiction. Throughout, he homes in on central issues and provides fresh approaches to the philosophers he examines. Ultimately, these lectures teach us not only about some of the great thinkers in the history of moral and political philosophy, but also about one of the great thinkers of our time: Cohen himself.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4871-3
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Editor’s Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Part One Lectures
      (pp. 3-64)

      0. I believe that the philosophically most fundamental motivation of Plato’s Republic is to reply to a staple proposition of fifth-century Greek thought, a proposition propounded by many of Plato’s Sophistic predecessors, and that is the proposition that there is a distinction between nature and convention, phusis and nomos, and that nomos, convention, human law, cannot be derived from nature, and, according to some, though not all, of those who believe all that, even contradicts nature. I think Plato was an extreme social conservative who found the line of thought that contrasted nature and convention threatening, and that it is profitable...

    • Chapter 2 HOBBES
      (pp. 65-102)

      1. The principal claims of Hobbes’s Leviathan are deliverances of a thought experiment in which we imagine away the existence of governmental authority and ask what the human condition would be like without it. We suppose, that is, that a state of nature obtains among people, as we know them, as they actually are, and we ask what its character must be. Notice that the qualification that the state of nature concerns people as we know them is extremely important. We are not thinking about presocialized people who are deprived of their political and, perhaps, social institutions. Hobbes must mean the...

      (pp. 103-119)

      1. It is a cardinal tenet of liberalism, in one central meaning of that semantically promiscuous term, that each human being is the sovereign owner of her own person, and, consequently, the sole rightful authority over the use of its powers, which means that she may not be required to exercise them on behalf of others, unless she has agreed to do so. Not all those who are now called liberals affirm that tenet, which I call the thesis of self-ownership. John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, whom it might be paradoxical to call nonliberals, fairly explicitly reject it. For they hold...

      (pp. 120-137)

      1. I turn now to Hume’s critique of social contract theory, and, more particularly, of the Lockean claim that legitimate government gains its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. The fullest presentation of that critique is in the essay “Of the Original Contract” (published in 1741), but much of what Hume says there is anticipated in book 3, part 2, chapter 8 (“Of the Source of Allegiance”) in the Treatise (of 1738), to which I shall therefore also have occasion to refer, and some points made in the Treatise are not repeated in “Original Contract.”

      It is clear that Locke...

    • Chapter 5 KANT’S ETHICS
      (pp. 138-182)

      Thomas Aquinas held that there were two avenues whereby men could come to possess knowledge, the way of reason, and the way of faith, of faith in revelation. These were exhaustive but not exclusive ways of attaining to true propositions. Exhaustive, because no other source of knowledge was entertained; but not exclusive, because there were matters on which both reason and faith were equipped to pronounce. One of these issues was the existence of God. It was guaranteed both by five proofs, devisable by reason, and by the promptings and attractions of revelation, capacity to appreciate which is conferred on...

      (pp. 183-200)

      Hegel’s writings offer both a general conception of reality and of history, to wit, Absolute Idealism, and specific, and sometimes brilliant, analyses of particular parts of reality and episodes and tracts of history. Now although the phrasing of his insightful examinations of particular problems about people, their communities, and their lives is usually informed by his general philosophy, we can often delete the heavy-duty philosophical terms that consequently appear within his discussion of particular problems, and concentrate on those claims which Hegel made about those problems that do not, or at least do not appear to, presuppose his general philosophy....

    • Chapter 7 NIETZSCHE
      (pp. 201-244)

      Friedrich Nietzsche was of mixed Prussian and Polish origin, and he stressed the Polish side whenever he was particularly disgusted by the Germans.¹ He was born on October 15, 1844, at Röcken, near Lützen, in the province of Saxony. For two generations back, all the males on both sides of his family had been Protestant pastors, robust men who lived long lives. An exception was Nietzsche’s father, who died prematurely after falling down a flight of stairs, the blow to his head first driving him mad. Scholars used to debate whether or not Nietzsche’s eventual insanity, which overtook him in...

  6. Part Two Papers
      (pp. 247-267)

      In The Holy Family Marx draws an important distinction between the alienation endured by the worker and the alienation endured by the capitalist in bourgeois society:

      The possessing classes and the class of the proletariat present pictures of the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at home in and confirmed by this self-estrangement, recognizes its estrangement as its special power, and enjoys in it the semblance of a human existence; the latter feels annihilated in its estrangement, and glimpses in it its impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.¹

      My first task is to explain what Marx...

      (pp. 268-283)

      In this paper I want to defend Karl Marx against the kind of argument typified by the remarks of Schumpeter quoted above. The argument I propose to refute belongs to a class of arguments, the members of which are bound together by a shared formal structure. The arguments are pressed against many theorists, Marx being only one of them. What these theorists have in common is that they try to account for the workings of human thought by means of explanations which may be called reductive, since they end by assigning to human thinking a status lower than the one...

      (pp. 284-297)

      Jon Elster and I each worked sympathetically on Marxism for a long time, and each of us independently came to see that Marxism in its traditional form is associated with explanations of a special type, ones in which, to put it roughly, consequences are used to explain causes. In keeping with normal practice Elster calls such explanations functional explanations, and I shall follow suit here.¹ He deplores the association between Marxism and functional explanation, because he thinks there is no scope for functional explanation in social science. It is, he believes, quite proper in biology, because unlike social phenomena, biological...

    • Chapter 11 REVIEW OF KARL MARX
      (pp. 298-304)

      This addition to Ted Honderich’s imposing “Arguments of the Philosophers” series is, at the time of writing, the best philosophical introduction to Marx in English. It is a well-organized, well-written, and, with one big exception—to which most of this review will be devoted—supremely balanced work. Wood is properly and acidly skeptical about many of the claims about Marx and about the world which Marxists have made, but he is also largely persuasive in his enthusiastic recommendation of what he thinks is abidingly valuable in Marxism.

      The book is divided into five parts. The first part, on Alienation, begins...

      (pp. 305-324)

      1. You might think that, if you make a law, then that law binds you, because you made it. For, if you will the law, then how can you deny that it binds you, without contradicting your own will? But you might also think the opposite. You might think that, if you are the author of the law, then it cannot bind you. For how can it have authority over you when you have authority over it? How can it bind you when you, the lawmaker, can change it, at will, whenever you like?

      Now, in that pair of arguments mutually...

  7. Part Three Memoir
    • Chapter 13 G. A. COHEN: A MEMOIR
      (pp. 327-344)
      Jonathan Wolff

      G. A. Cohen, universally known as Jerry, died unexpectedly on August 5, 2009. Born on April 14, 1941, he had recently retired as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Thought at Oxford University, and had taken up a part-time post as Quain Professor of Jurisprudence at University College London. UCL was where he had begun his lecturing career in 1963, before his election, in 1984 at a youthful forty-three, to his Oxford Chair, which had previously been held by G.D.H. Cole, Isaiah Berlin, John Plamenatz, and Charles Taylor. He took up the Chair in 1985, the same year in which...

  8. Works Cited
    (pp. 345-354)
  9. Index
    (pp. 355-360)