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On Cohen’s Response to ‘Reason and Violence’

Lelle:rs
Dear Editors
Jerry M Cohen in his discussion
of Roy Edgley’s article ‘Reason
and Violence’, presents himself
as both a victim of, and propagandist for, a brand of doublethink increasingly popular
amongst our so-called radicals.

on the one hand, he argues that
we should have no truck with the
meaning of words (a pursuit which
he derogatorily categorises both
as ‘historical’ and also as ‘a
concern with timeless essences’);
yet, on the other hand, he
apparently attaches no minor
importance to their meaning when
used by himself as labels:

he talks historically, as
liberals do, about the meaning
of the word. (my emphasis)
On the one hand, he suggests
that it is a mistake to focus on
‘the most abstract, rather than
the most concrete description of
an act’ (and, presumably, this
applies also to descriptions of
‘mystification’; while, on the
other hand, he advocates that we
see society not as a set of
persons, but as:

a system of social relations
into which various persons may
at times enter.

This particular piece of abstraction is of course necessary for

any pro-violence argument such as
Jerry M Cohen’s. Known as deh~­
manising the enemy, this ploy
facilitates the passage to violence, especially when accompanied
by such mystificatory phrases as
‘depoliticises the issue’, ‘the
grim reality of oppression and
institutionalised violence’ and
‘there are situations in which the
only adequate, human response is
a violent one’.

But perhaps we do Jerry M Cohen
a disservice. Perhaps, despite
his assertion that none of what
he says is ‘meant in any sense as
a glorification of violence’, he
really does intend his to be an
argument pro-violence. After all,
he does demand, in a fit of paternalism, that Roy Edgley’s paper
should be about ‘what in these
definite material circumstances
is the role of violence’, which
seems to suggest that some sort
of violence is necessary anyway.

The subject of Roy Edgley’s
paper – can violence be reasonable – is, it seems, unworthy of
discussion. Apparently, Jerry M
Cohen has already settled this
question and not, as he makes
clear, by recourse to the type of
argument advanced by Roy Edgley,
viz. that although harm, hurt,
discomfort or inconvenience is
necessarily involved in an act
of violence and are necessarily
reasons against it, there may be

overriding reasons in favour of
it. This type of thinking is
rejected by Jerry M Cohen since
it is part of ‘the liberal hoax’.

If Jerry M Cohe~really has
settled this question and’has
found that some form of violence
is necessary, he might perhaps
let us know how he has done this;
or are we perhaps to take his
justification to be the argument
he appears to adv~ce in his
discussion of Roy Edgley’s paper;
that as long as we label people
‘oppressors’, ‘liberals’, ‘capitalists’ or whatever, without
regard for the meaning of the
word, and see them as systems
not as persons, harming or hurting them is no reason why violence
should not be perpetrated against
1:fhem.

If this is ‘thinking which
takes its start from concrete
historical realities and possibilities’, then the ‘radical’

Jerry M Cohen might like to know,
before organising the bonfire of
all literature containing
‘liberal muck’, that such arguments were indeed concrete
historical realities – about
forty years ago in fact, although
i t seems a shame that Mr Cohen,
of all people, needs to be so
reminded.

Eluned F. Price
University of Sussex

Reviews
Popper for the people
Bryan Magee: Popper, Fontana
Modern Masters, £0.40.

Bryan Magee’s book about Popper
is not going to get a good review
from me.

T should explain, before
hostile readers jump to unwarranted
conclusions, that this is not
because I am so prejuJiced as to
think that a good book could not
be written about Popper: some of
what I think such a book should
contain will be evident from my
remarks below. The aim of
Magee’s book, to be a popular
exposition, rather than the little
gem some other writers in the
series have produced, is admirable.

Magee feels that Popper ought to
be a ‘household name among the
educated’, and sets out to give
‘a bold clear outline of Popper’s
thought which exhibi ts its systemati c
unity’.

He does succeed, in one
respect, at least, in this latter
intention, as we shall see.

However, the phrase ‘among the

38

educated’ is a give-away: the
very style of his presentation
belies the author’s avowed intention.

Popper’s ideas are not set
out as grist for thought and discussion, but as achievements to
be revered.

This is shown, too,
in the neglect of well known
criticisms and difficulties to
which Popper’s ideas have been
subject, some of which I will
mention below.

The sycophantic flavour of his
recent Sunday colour-supplement
article also pervades Magee’s book.

Names dropped in the first two
pages of the introduction include:

Sir Peter Medawar; Jacques Monod;
Sir John Eccles; Sir Herman
Bondi; Sir Ernst Gombrich;
Anthony Crosland; Sir Edward (now
Lord) Boyle;. Lord Clark of
Civilization. Adler and Schoenberg are also mentioned, but in
the normal manner, without
christian names (or titles!),
presumably because they are too
far removed from the contemporary
scene for their names to potently
confer that middlebrow elan

striven after by the gossip
columns of quality newspapers.

The exposition throughout the
book abounds in superlatives and
throw-away references to issues
of profound significance, well
taken, I suppose, by ‘the
educated’. The half-educated,
on the other hand, are not
encouraged to emUlate the
author’s facility with ideas,
but to admire the show from
their position in the suburbs of
intellectual life.

Even uneducated readers might
be excused if they were to wonder
quite why Popper’s ideas are
worthy of such exaggerated respect, since they are so notably
lacking in subtlety.

It would be
too much to expect, though, that
a book like this would say that
Popper is important precisely
because commonplace ideas are
elaborated and treated systematically in his work. A less serious
writer than Popper would have lost
heart long ago, and a less
scrupulous apologist sidestepped
a dozen of the difficulties Popper

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