I note with sadness the passing of John M. Cooper, the Henry Putnam University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, and one of the pre-eminent scholars of ancient philosophy of the last several decades.
He was my undergraduate mentor and thesis advisor, on Aristotle, at Princeton decades ago. I remember settling on the idea of doing a thesis on Aristotle early in my senior year, and having to hunt down an advisor. I started by asking Cooper, who begged off, telling me to ask Alexander Nehamas. I dutifully did as I was told, only to be told by Nehamas to go back and ask Cooper. “Trust me, ” he said, “I’m doing you a favor.” He was.
From a comment I wrote on Leiter’s blog:
He spent an hour a week with me, every week for a full academic year (1990-91), trying to make me make sense of Aristotle. He was one of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered everywhere. I can’t even say that I ever tried to emulate him as an instructor myself; there seemed little point in trying to ascend that particular Olympus. I live in Princeton nowadays, and had been meaning to drop him a line, but kept putting it off. I now wish I hadn’t. He was an unforgettable presence. My condolences to friends and family.
To this day, decades after the fact, I still hear John’s voice offering an insight on a particular passage in Aristotle, or prodding me to be clearer on what at first seemed a brilliant thought. “I really have no idea what you’re trying to say,” was his typical (if unintentionally terrifying) response to some of my less-developed interpretations of the Nicomachean Ethics. Then he’d sit there, patiently but impassively, like a Prime Mover Unmoved, as I struggled to give my thoughts some semblance of clarity. God knows (well, I guess, John knew) how well I ever succeeded. It’s sobering to think how infrequently I’ve approximated the brief moments of lucidity I reached during the hours I spent in his office. On the plus side, there’s some consolation in the fact that I reached them then, at least once a week.
He leaves behind an enormous, hard-to-measure, hard-to-describe legacy. He’ll be greatly missed.
Here’s the obituary from The Daily Memphian, his hometown paper.
From the home page of the Princeton Philosophy Department:
Remembrances from Leiter’s blog: