Interview with Joseph Cohen

© Joseph Cohen and Figure/Ground
Dr. Cohen was interviewed by Andrew Hines. July 1st, 2012.

Dr. Joseph Cohen is Lecturer in Contemporary Continental Philosophy at University College Dublin and Directeur de Programme at the Collège International de Philosophie (Paris). Alongside this, he is a member of PHILéPOL Research Group at the University of Paris – Descartes, the secretary of the Irish Phenomenological Circle and a member of the Editorial Committees for Les Temps Modernes, Paris, Gallimard and Cités, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France. Along with Raphael Zagury-Orly, Dr. Cohen acted as the editor of Judeities: Questions for Jacques Derrida, which was published in English by Fordham University Press in 2007. His French works on the question of sacrifice are currently being translated into English and more recently he has authored The Husserl Dictionary in collaboration with Dermot Moran which was published by Continuum in 2012. He is the recipient of a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques.

 How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

I can’t really say it was a conscious choice, not a decision per se, to be honest. It imposed itself upon me to be more precise. I always viewed the possibility of teaching and of engaging in research as a vocation and a vocation is never a decision. It is rather an exposition to that which precedes any conscious decision. In many ways, I feel that to circumscribe teaching and research within the parameters of an autonomous decision is also to impede on the possibility of teaching and researching. It could seem slightly paradoxical, but to discover, for myself, is never to predetermine discovery by anything, including the resolute choice made by a conscious subject to engage in the process of discovering. When I look back on my intellectual development, I am always struck by the fact that “being in school” and living in the environment of an institution where research and teaching is performed was the most natural place for me. It developed naturally, so much so that I can’t even recall a singular time when I said to myself “yes, this is what you want, what you desire, what you enjoy.” In this sense it was not a career decision and by association, nor was the subject of my study in philosophy a career decision either. Some people study a particular subject because they figure out that if they study such a particular subject there will always be a need for that expertise in a University. Consequently, through this career decision they hope to maximize their possibilities of employment. But for me, this way of evolving in academia was something somewhat suspicious. Thinking, research, even teaching a vocation as philosophy remains without a determined goal or end. Something like an exposition towards the infinitely surprising and absolutely unpredictable: an experience of freedom.

When you did enter into academia, who were some of your mentors in graduate school? Can you think of any important lessons you learned from them?

My first encounter with an important philosopher was my thesis director who oversaw my doctorate: Jacques Derrida. If I can say to have had a mentor, it was him. Even if Derrida himself would have never accepted the position of mentor. Derrida was always very fearful of any kind of community that could assemble or constitute itself around him. In this way to call him a mentor is to do violence to his thought and to his “Philosophy.” But I was influenced tremendously by Derrida, by his writing, by his singular manner of posing philosophical questions and of interpreting the philosophical tradition. I was influenced by him as a person, by him as a professor, by him as a writer and as a philosopher. It is through Derrida that I learned how to read the history of philosophy, how to write philosophy, how to deploy philosophical problems and interpret philosophical authors. But also, I think one of the most radical events in entering academia is the community of students, of young aspiring philosophers that made up the everyday life of my graduate studies. With them, I organised conferences, wrote texts and took position in the public philosophical debate. Most of these friends have become themselves academics. I’m thinking now of my good friend who is in Israel at the University of Tel Aviv, and who is the director of the MA program at the Bezalel School of Fine Art, Raphael Zagury-Orly. I’m also thinking of another close friend, who is today a psychoanalyst in Paris, Stéphane Habib. We did our Doctorates at the same time and the days and evenings we spent reading, writing, studying, discussing together was in truth invaluable. We bounced off ideas, confronted positions, rendered philosophy alive, inspired each other – those friendships and the moments we lived together learning how to philosophize were also as important as any mentor, because it is through this that each of us developed into independent thinkers.

 You are a university professor now. In your experience, has the role of being a professor evolved since when you were a student?

It has evolved in the manner of teaching, most certainly. When I was a student, especially an undergraduate, there was very little room for engaging in what is known today as “class discussion” with our professors. At the graduate level it was slightly different. There were some discussions (in the seminars), but the teaching of the professor was always ex cathedra. Today, it’s much more communicative, much more dialogical. The relationship between professor and student is much less hierarchical than the time I was studying. When I was a student, we went to the class, we received the “good word,” and then we were off to the library to read. Today that has changed and probably for the better. I say probably and not absolutely since there is something to be preserved in the Professor-Student hierarchy. There is, it is important to say, the necessity of respect towards scholarship. This respect, not reverence, but a certain exercise of humility in front of, not only a professor but also an entire tradition. It is important to remember that thinking does not happen overnight and that we have a tradition behind us, a tradition which requires and commands that we also make our own. I would go so far as to say that this respect is ethical, that it carries with it an ethical obligation: “know the tradition.” I would put that statement on the Academy. Not only because it ought to tone down any over pretentious attitudes, but because it also obliges the professor to grasp that, in his manner, he is also a student. He never leaves the realm of being a student as long as he is thinking. In this sense, I believe in a certain hierarchy but only insofar as one understands in this a respect towards the philosophical tradition which precedes us, which we inherit, which inhabits our thinking before we even begin to engage in thinking.

This is why I’m not particularly favourable toward all the forms of evaluation that seem to be taking over the student – professor relationship. The simple reason is that, if it’s true that the study of philosophy is a vocation, then the point of judgment, the point where the student judges the professor, or vice versa, the professor judges the student, must be seen in a different type of light than one of simple evaluation.

We’re speaking about aspects that involve the university environment. In reference to the university environment, Marshall McLuhan declared in 1964 that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?

That’s a very complicated and complex question. Obviously the university is in crisis. There is a crisis at probably every level of the university. Not only financial, not only political, not only exterior or simply interior to the university. I would say there is a crisis between the different sciences that ought to be working together in the university. The great divide that we see developing between the so called “hard sciences” and the “human sciences.” This crisis is not getting any better; on the contrary, it’s getting worse and worse. In the face of the very rapid evolution of technology and of media, where this rapid evolution ought to bring us some hope of coming out of this crisis, it seems everywhere to be radicalising the crisis and aggravating the divide between different faculties in the university as well as between the university and the exterior world, what we call civil society. It ought to be bridging that divide, but it is, on the contrary, aggravating it.

The phrase by McLuhan, I see it as a hope of bridging the gap between university and civil society as well as within the university itself. McLuhan was a very strong optimist. Unfortunately, I fear that some of the optimism of McLuhan is now facing a difficult moment. Will we be able to overcome this critical moment? Of course, crisis is always overcome. The question however which needs to be posed here is are we in crisis or have we entered an epoch of nihilism, whereby all the old “solutions” to critical moments in our history are no longer applicable and on the contrary aggravating the crisis we are seeking to escape or overcome?

To follow up on that, you mentioned Derrida earlier. In Of GrammatologyDerrida writes about phonetic writing as “the medium of the great metaphysical, scientific, technical and economic adventure of the West.” One of the things that has characterized the information age is talk about “the end of writing.” Writing has been central to universities since the beginning. What is the position of writing in the university today, and specifically in the age of interruption?

It’s a good question. It permits me to go back to another concept which I find extremely negative in academia, the concept of evaluation. Today, academic writing is constantly confronted with this manic drive to evaluate. Today, we evaluate reviews, journals, publications, teaching, and universities. The example of publications is particularly telling and most oppressive: we evaluate publications in philosophy without any worry, so it seems and to rank these according to a ranking of journals which is set up by so-called experts. On top of that we count and are accountable for our publications in a purely quantitative measure. All this logic is highly disturbing and very problematic. I believe it is properly destroying the very tradition we have been speaking of and the very heritage you are recalling by quoting Derrida’s Of Grammatology: the heritage of writing. That’s the first point.

The second point is that, as a professor of philosophy, I would say, philosophical writing in the university has always been working within a double injunction: that of continuity with its tradition and, inversely, that of the necessity to break with that tradition. A great philosopher is one who manages to keep the rapport with the tradition as well as takes it upon himself to break away from that very tradition. Thus the question that is being posed by our present epoch is this: is this double injunction of writing valued in universities and most particularly in philosophy at the university? The sad reality is no, it is not being valued. We are progressively entering a type of hyper-specialization based on one predetermined format deemed “good research.” This is often imported directly from the natural sciences and this is often taking away from the double injunction that philosophical writing ought to live up to. Furthermore, there are many manners of bringing about this writing, many traditions within the tradition. In this sense, it is a devastating undertaking to at all costs seek to standardize philosophical writing and even more devastating to require that it mimic scientific writing.

 This leads us to a question about methodology and pedagogy. A criticism commonly raised in regards to Derrida, is that the sheer difficulty and obscurity of his work obscures any educational value. What are your thoughts on difficulty and obscurity in the context of philosophical education and university education in general?

I believe philosophy, and this is a claim that goes back to Plato, cannot or does not concentrate on that which is simply objectifiable. Philosophy is concerned with that which is not objectifiable. In this sense, it is obscure. Philosophy is obscure because it is oriented towards that which is obscure. You know the phrase of Plato, “the centre of the sun is dark or obscure.” I believe that this obscurity is a necessary element to the discipline of philosophy.

Now, how does one teach the access to the obscure? For me, there is no way to get around it in a simple sense. It is to confront that obscurity. Traditionally, the way that philosophers have demonstrated this is by deploying the history of philosophy: the manner in which philosophers have themselves questioned that obscurity. A first approach is to study the directing motif of the history of philosophy in such a manner that through this study is awoken the possibility of being exposed to the obscurity of the world.

On the other hand, as Kant said, “philosophy is not something you can teach.” You cannot teach someone to be a philosopher. You can teach them to have knowledge about philosophy, knowledge about philosophers, and knowledge about the history of philosophy. But because philosophy is not reducible to a knowledge precisely, it remains very difficult to elaborate a methodology of teaching philosophy. In this sense, to be a philosopher, and again we are back to the question about writing, is to confront that which is profoundly without method. And yet, in this without method, there is the history of that without which becomes a method. The history of that without method becomes the very method of what we do when we teach philosophy.

To ask a practical question about this “method:” What advice would you give to graduate students or aspiring professors today and what are the thinkers that you believe young scholars should be reading?

To generalize, I would say that you can’t pinpoint particular authors to educate a young graduate student. You cannot pinpoint particular authors to read in order to become an academic. Obviously there are classical authors to be read. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, St. Thomas of Aquinas, Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel. Then, for me, the line that I followed, Nietzsche, and then Husserl and Heidegger, Levinas and Derrida. These will vary according to whichever line you decide to follow in the history of philosophy because there are of course many lines in that history. But I would also say that to pinpoint one author is too constraining. What I want to say ultimately, is that no author will give you an answer. He will leave you with more questions which will lead you to other authors. That’s another element of methodology that could be brought about. You will never only stay with one author. If you only stay with one author, it means there’s something not too honest about the modality of your being a philosopher. An author will inevitably bring you to another author who will bring you to another author and who will perhaps, engage you to become an author. If you become an author in the history of philosophy, it is because in you, many authors already speak and write.

In regards to your own writing, what are you currently working on?

I’ve been working, for quite a long time now, on the question of sacrifice. This question for me is a very radical question that traverses the entirety of the history of philosophy, but also of anthropology and of course theology. But philosophically speaking, it has not been a central motif in the history of philosophy. It works in marginal manners. Therefore the question I am currently writing, what I am currently seeking is to elaborate a history of the question of sacrifice. To deploy in which manner it has constituted itself as a central question in the history of philosophy. But this of course requires a very radical change in the way of writing itself.

As all philosophers in the history of philosophy have marked, one must find a writing appropriate to the concept they are writing. Hegel for example, who was writing on Spirit, found a writing that is appropriate, that can access the question of Spirit. For Hegel it was speculative writing. Husserl deployed a writing that was appropriate to the very idea he was deploying, mainly intentionality. Kierkegaard elaborated a writing proper to the deployment of the question of subjectivity and appropriated by the problem for subjectivity in faith. This is why his writing is radically paradoxical. Because it is paradoxicality which is proper to the rapport between subjectivity and faith. In this sense, it is differentiated from and irreducible to Hegel’s writing of systematicity. For Kierkegaard, the true existential relation between subjectivity and faith is entirely paradoxical and this paradoxality becomes the very model of his writing. The question that is posed to me as a writer, if I can speak this way, would be what writing is appropriate to the question of sacrifice. What type of writing for sacrifice?

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to
Joseph Cohen and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Hines, A. (2012). “Interview with Joseph Cohen,” Figure/Ground. July 1st.
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