Ted Cohen, University of Chicago philosophy professor who took humor seriously
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter March 24, 2014 9:26PM
Ted Cohen, a U of C professor.
Updated: April 27, 2014 6:17AM
The University of Chicago tends to be associated with hyperintellectuals, the splitting of the atom and a passel of Nobel laureates. Humor, not so much.
But philosophy professor Ted Cohen valued the highbrow and the lowbrow alike and mingled them with relish. While lecturing on the aesthetics of Hume, he could find a way to inject a Yiddish-flavored joke, or two.
He also had a way of making the difficult simple, something that endeared him to students.
“If you needed someone to explain [mathematician] Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorum, he was a wonderful, clear explainer of difficult logical problems,” said his wife, Andy Austin.
Mr. Cohen also turned his intellectual rigor upon the pop culture he enjoyed. He loved jazz, baseball, TV’s “Hill Street Blues,” the film “North by Northwest,” Groucho Marx, Buster Keaton, Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers and Steven Wright. He thought comedian Andy Kaufman was a genius.
Mr. Cohen was “one of the first philosophers who took jokes seriously,” said a colleague, Josef Stern.
He wrote a 1999 book that analyzed what makes humor work, “Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters.” It included what the university called “some of his favorite groaners,” including this one: “What do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh have in common? They have the same middle name.”
“He had the most inquiring mind, and he loved humor because he felt it was a way that people connected,” said his friend Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawski mysteries.
He played pool with physicist friends at Hyde Park’s Quadrangle Club, where the repartee caromed like billiard balls. “They liked to argue about all kinds of stuff,” said his son, Amos.
He moderated the university’s famed 67-year-old Latke-Hamantash Debate, where some of the world’s best thinkers line up to thrash out the relative merits of two humble yet mouthwatering gifts of Jewish cuisine, the potato pancake so beloved at Hannukah vs. the tricorner pastry that’s a staple of another holiday, Purim.
Mr. Cohen died of lung disease March 14 at the University of Chicago Medical Center. He was 74.
He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree and doctorate from Harvard University.
He taught nearly 50 years at the Hyde Park school, but his roots were in Hume, Ill., a farming community about 150 miles south of Chicago near Terre Haute and the Indiana border. His paternal grandfather, Max Cohen, immigrated from Russia, where Jews faced obstructions to land ownership. Max Cohen wanted a place where he could own real estate. He wound up establishing a general store in Hume.
They were the only Jewish family in town, but Hume embraced them. It was a good place to grow up.
One of Mr. Cohen’s favorite memories involved the Memorial Day parade there. Hume was full of military veterans, but their marching grew rusty after years of civilian life. Young Ted Cohen, who took drum lessons, was called to provide the cadence at their practices. It never failed to move him when they began to march again like young men.
“On parade day, they were ready to go,” his son said, “and he liked that he could help.”
“His roots were really kind of small-town, back-porch,” Paretsky said.
Mr. Cohen was buried in his hometown cemetery.
Perhaps because he grew up in Hume, he moved smoothly between worlds.
“He was an internationally famous philosopher and was a good amateur musician and was involved in jazz,” Paretsky said. “Ted just felt at home in a wider sort of social stratum than most Hyde Park people.”
When he chatted over pool with Paretsky’s husband, University of Chicago physicist Courtenay Wright, “He always wanted to know more, deeper,” she said. “He wanted to know more about how you see color, and why is the sky blue.”
Decades later, he could still recount Wright’s alchemical explanations.
Shoshannah Cohen said her father met her regularly for breakfast. She recalled what happened one time when he spotted another man leaving the restaurant with a paper napkin still tucked under his chin. He didn’t want the man to embarrass himself, so “my father managed to make it a joke [by telling the man] — ‘Get that out of there,’ ” she said.
He took his daughter and son out of school each year for Opening Day in Chicago. Though he was a White Sox fan, he’d bring them to Wrigley Field if the Cubs opened their season first.
In 1992, he met Austin at a Hyde Park dinner party. His wit and energy intrigued her.
“Afterward, Ted said we were the only people at the dinner party who didn’t have a Nobel prize or a MacArthur grant,” she said.
They would have been wed 20 years in June.
He enjoyed the Modern Jazz Quartet, the music of Beethoven and Aaron Copland, as well as drumming by Max Roach and Joe Morello.
In addition to Hitchcock, he admired director Howard Hawks and his film “Rio Bravo” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.”
Mr. Cohen liked eating at Piccolo Mondo and Salonica in Hyde Park, and traveling to Czechoslovakia, Israel and Turkey.
He often accessorized with berets and scarves.
He was always kidding around, even at the end, when the heavy smoker lost his voice. A nurse asked, “Are you comfortable?”
“I make a living,” he wrote in a note.
Mr. Cohen is also survived by a brother, Stephen; an aunt, Peg Kay; a grandson, Asher Cohen; a stepdaughter, Alexandra Austin-Schmidt, and step-grandchildren Camilla and Russell Schmidt.
A memorial service is planned April 12 at the Quadrangle Club.