John M. Cooper, RIP

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:

One thought on “John M. Cooper, RIP

  1. Sad he has deceased now. Fond memories of him in New York in 2005, where he hosted the session of the Ayn Rand Society, celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Rand’s birth. When he passed me in the street a day or two later, he didn’t pull the academic-snob bit of making no notice of your existence. We gave the respectful look in the face, nod, and smile. I’ll always be learning from him further in his written scholarship.

    Liked by 1 person

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