Robert (Bob) Sonné Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Physics at Boston University and cofounder of the BU Center for Philosophy & History of Science passed away at his home in Watertown, MA on June 19th 2017 at age 94. He is survived by his second wife, Karin von Trotha-Cohen, his three children, Michael Cohen, Daniel Cohen, and Deborah Strod, from his first marriage to Robin Hirshhorn Cohen, as well as many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even great-great-grandchildren.
In one of the three Festshrift volumes of Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science dedicated to Bob Cohen on the occasion of his 70th birthday, Kostas Gavroglu and Marx Wartofsky aptly described him as “Philosopher, physicist, historical sociologist of science, critical social thinker, master teacher, writer of clarity and wit, genial critic, prolific editor, organizer extraordinary, effective administrator, serious student of religion, of art, of history, vivid speaker, great listener, ubiquitous world-traveler and conferencier . . . inexhaustible conversationalist, teller of jokes, saxophonist and clarinetist, indefatigable reader - all of these, and more, and at once, is Robert S. Cohen”1 To this list we could add, Marxist, humanist, political activist, global citizen, and world ambassador for the philosophy of science.
Bob was born in New York City on February 18, 1923. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he met Adolf Grünbaum. Bob later recalled, “I found a friend who had read Bertrand Russell and who already understood that a life of the mind and a life of action were possible together, and even more that love of physics and love of philosophy could be joined.”2 The two friends would go on to found two of the most important centers for philosophy of science in the world—“Bobby” at BU and “Adi” at Pittsburgh. Bob went to Wesleyan University in 1939 (joined shortly thereafter by both Grünbaum and Gerald Holton) obtaining his B.Sc. in physics in 1943. He went on to graduate school at Yale, receiving his Ph.D. in physics in 1948, having taken many philosophy courses, including Kantian philosophy with Ernst Cassirer who had recently arrived at Yale.
Bob was an assistant professor of physics and philosophy at Wesleyan from 1949 to1957, after which he moved to Boston University, first as an associate professor of physics from 1957 to1959, and then as a professor of both philosophy and physics from 1959 until his retirement in 1993. During his time at BU, he served as Chair of the Physics Department from 1959 to 1973, Chair of the Philosophy Department from 1986 to 1988, and Acting Dean of the College during the1971-1972 academic year. He helped recruit many prominent scholars to BU, including Abner Shimony in 1968 and Alasdair MacIntyre in 1972. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Polish, Yugoslav, and Hungarian Academies of Sciences, and a Fellow of the AAAS. He held visiting appointments at MIT, Brandeis, the University of California – San Diego, and Yale, and was a research fellow in history of science at Harvard University.
While too many academics sought a quiet ivy-covered shelter from the political storms of the McCarthy period, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War, Bob was fearless in speaking out on behalf of the principles of justice and fairness that defined his fundamental political convictions. Often Bob’s political engagements exposed him to serious personal and professional risk, as when he served as Chairman of the American Institute for Marxist Studies from 1964 to 1982. In this regard, Bob’s students and colleagues have always looked to him as a model and inspiration. Indeed one former student described him as a “keeper of the Neurathian flame that lights the way for those who hold that the pursuit of wisdom and pursuit of justice go hand in hand.”3
Without a doubt, the two greatest achievements of Bob’s career are the founding of the Boston University Center for Philosophy & History of Science and the launch of the book series Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, both of which have had a transformative and lasting impact on the field. The Center was founded by Bob in 1960, along with his Philosophy Department colleague Marx Wartofsky, as an interdisciplinary, interuniversity collaboration, based at Boston University. In a twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Center, Bob recounted how the Center got its start: “We—Marx Wartofsky and I—began, with Philipp Frank’s blessing, as a continuation of the Institute for the Unity of Science, itself a graft . . . of the Vienna Circle. We had . . . five years of generous help from the National Science Foundation. The NSF accepted our first five volumes of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science to serve as our annual reports, and thereby finally launched our decades of pleasant cooperation with our publisher.” Bob served as Director of the Center from 1960 until 1993, when he became Director Emeritus.
The heart of the Center’s activities is the Boston Colloquium for Philosophy of Science, now in its 57th annual program, which brings together dozens of top scholars from around the world every year to discuss the history, conceptual foundations, and methodologies of the sciences. Bob brought together towering figures in the field, such as Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Mary Hesse, Williard van Orman Quine, Ernst Mayr, Stephen Jay Gould, Isaac Asimov, Paul Dirac, Alonzo Church, Marvin Minsky, Benoit Mandelbrot, and many more. The colloquia not only helped stimulate these thinkers’ research, but also helped the philosophy of science grow and blossom as a field by educating the next generation of scholars. Bob continued to attend the Boston Colloquium every year, most recently joining the colloquium’s celebration of the 310th anniversary of the birth of Émilie Du Châtelet this past fall and the colloquium on “Experimental Metaphysics 30 Years On” this spring (photographs and recordings of the colloquia can be found online at http://www.bu.edu/cphs/colloquium/).
The Boston Studies series, now called Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science and published by Springer, has expanded beyond the scope of the proceedings of the Boston Colloquium and at the time of Bob’s passing numbered over 325 volumes, over 50 of which were co-edited by Bob himself. Bob was also the founding co-editor, along with Marie Neurath, of the Vienna Circle Collection, which makes available in English translation many of the most important writings of Otto Neurath, Moritz Schlick, Hans Reichenbach and other key members and friends of the circle. Now including a total of 23 volumes, this series provides crucial documentation of the most important movement in the philosophy of science in the 20th century.
Particularly noteworthy is the role that Bob played in helping to establish the field of philosophy of science around the world. To this end, he organized a number of Boston Studies volumes such as Polish Studies in the Philosophy of Science (1982), Italian Studies (1982), Greek Studies (1990), Taiwan (1993), Mexican Studies (1995), Chinese Studies (1996), Spanish Studies (1996), Japanese Studies (1998), Estonian Studies (2001), Bulgarian Studies (2003), Turkish Studies (2005), and Brazilian Studies (2011). These volumes served to help coalesce a community of researchers in each of these countries and help introduce their work to the rest of the world.
If Bob were here today, he would encourage us to carry on in this important work of building a global and socially relevant philosophy of science. He would likely remind us of these words of Otto Neurath et al. that are no less relevant and crucial today than when they were written in 1929: “Thus, the scientific world-conception is close to the life of the present. Certainly it is threatened with hard struggles and hostility. Nevertheless there are many who do not despair but, in view of the present sociological situation, look forward with hope to the course of events to come. . . . We witness the spirit of the scientific world-conception penetrating in growing measure the forms of personal and public life, in education, upbringing, architecture, and the shaping of economic and social life according to rational principles. The scientific world- conception serves life, and life receives it.”
Alisa Bokulich (Boston University) and Don Howard (University of Notre Dame)
1 Gavroglu and Wartofsky (1995) Physics, Philosophy and the Scientific Community: Essays in the philosophy and history of the natural sciences and mathematics, In honor of Robert S. Cohen, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science Vol. 163, p. ix.
2 Cohen, R. (1983), Physics, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: Essays in Honor of Adolf Grünbaum, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science Vol. 76, p. ix.
3 Wayne Myrvold, private communication.