Robert S. Cohen (1923-2017)

A memorial service for Professor Robert Cohen will be held on Saturday, April 14, 2018 from 2-4pm in the GSU Terrace Lounge, 775 Commonwealth Ave, Boston. All are welcome. 
The event will be live-streamed on the Boston University Physics Department Facebook page ( A dvd will also be made available, please contact with any questions.

Robert (Bob) Sonné Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Physics at Boston University and cofounder of the BU Center for Philosophy & History of Science passed away at his home in Watertown, MA on June 19th 2017 at age 94. He is survived by his second wife, Karin von Trotha-Cohen, his three children, Michael Cohen, Daniel Cohen, and Deborah Strod, from his first marriage to Robin Hirshhorn Cohen, as well as many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even great-great-grandchildren.

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  • Bob in his office 1964

  • Special Report in Science on Bob, Marx, and the Colloquium in 1970.

  • Bob as Dean of College 1972

  • Bob's 70th birthday festschrift portrait

  • Bob with Vienna Circle member, Tscha Hung in China c. 2007

  • Dinner after the "50 Years of the Center for Phil & Hist Sci" colloquium (from left clockwise: Ernan McMullin, Bob Cohen, Heather Douglas, Alan RIichardson, Ted Richards, Abner and Ethan Shimony.

  • The third director, Alisa Bokulich, and the first, Bob Cohen.

  • Springer Editor of Boston Studies, Lucy Fleet, presenting Bob with Delft pottery on occasion of his 90th birthday.

  • Left to right: Center Director Alisa Bokulich, Erhard Scholz, John Stachel, Don Howard, Michel Janssen, Katherine Brading. Below: Co-Founder of the Center, Robert S. Cohen.

  • Bob Cohen with Carolyn Merchant and Pnina Abir-Am at 2016 Colloquium.

  • Bob with his second wife Karin von Trotha-Cohen.

In one of the three Festshrift volumes of Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science dedicated to Bob Cohen on the occasion of his 70th birthday, Kostas Gavroglu and Marx Wartofsky aptly described him as “Philosopher, physicist, historical sociologist of science, critical social thinker, master teacher, writer of clarity and wit, genial critic, prolific editor, organizer extraordinary, effective administrator, serious student of religion, of art, of history, vivid speaker, great listener, ubiquitous world-traveler and conferencier . . . inexhaustible conversationalist, teller of jokes, saxophonist and clarinetist, indefatigable reader – all of these, and more, and at once, is Robert S. Cohen” 1 To this list we could add, Marxist, humanist, political activist, global citizen, and world ambassador for the philosophy of science.

Bob was born in New York City on February 18, 1923. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he met Adolf Grünbaum. Bob later recalled, “I found a friend who had read Bertrand Russell and who already understood that a life of the mind and a life of action were possible together, and even more that love of physics and love of philosophy could be joined.” 2 The two friends would go on to found two of the most important centers for philosophy of science in the world—“Bobby” at BU and “Adi” at Pittsburgh. Bob went to Wesleyan University in 1939 (joined shortly thereafter by both Grünbaum and Gerald Holton) obtaining his B.Sc. in physics in 1943. He went on to graduate school at Yale, receiving his Ph.D. in physics in 1948, having taken many philosophy courses, including Kantian philosophy with Ernst Cassirer who had recently arrived at Yale.

Bob was an assistant professor of physics and philosophy at Wesleyan from 1949 to 1957, after which he moved to Boston University, first as an associate professor of physics from 1957 to 1959, and then as a professor of both philosophy and physics from 1959 until his retirement in 1993. During his time at BU, he served as Chair of the Physics Department from 1959 to 1973, Chair of the Philosophy Department from 1986 to 1988, and Acting Dean of the College during the 1971-1972 academic year. He helped recruit many prominent scholars to BU, including Abner Shimony in 1968 and Alasdair MacIntyre in 1972. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Polish, Yugoslav, and Hungarian Academies of Sciences, and a Fellow of the AAAS. He held visiting appointments at MIT, Brandeis, the University of California – San Diego, and Yale, and was a research fellow in history of science at Harvard University.

While too many academics sought a quiet ivy-covered shelter from the political storms of the McCarthy period, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War, Bob was fearless in speaking out on behalf of the principles of justice and fairness that defined his fundamental political convictions. Often Bob’s political engagements exposed him to serious personal and professional risk, as when he served as Chairman of the American Institute for Marxist Studies from 1964 to 1982. In this regard, Bob’s students and colleagues have always looked to him as a model and inspiration. Indeed one former student described him as a “keeper of the Neurathian flame that lights the way for those who hold that the pursuit of wisdom and pursuit of justice go hand in hand.” 3

Without a doubt, the two greatest achievements of Bob’s career are the founding of the Boston University Center for Philosophy & History of Science and the launch of the book series Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, both of which have had a transformative and lasting impact on the field. The Center was founded by Bob in 1960, along with his Philosophy Department colleague Marx Wartofsky, as an interdisciplinary, interuniversity collaboration, based at Boston University. In a twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Center, Bob recounted how the Center got its start: “We—Marx Wartofsky and I—began, with Philipp Frank’s blessing, as a continuation of the Institute for the Unity of Science, itself a graft . . . of the Vienna Circle. We had . . . five years of generous help from the National Science Foundation. The NSF accepted our first five volumes of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science to serve as our annual reports, and thereby finally launched our decades of pleasant cooperation with our publisher.” Bob served as Director of the Center from 1960 until 1993, when he became Director Emeritus.

The heart of the Center’s activities is the Boston Colloquium for Philosophy of Science, now in its 57th annual program, which brings together dozens of top scholars from around the world every year to discuss the history, conceptual foundations, and methodologies of the sciences. Bob brought together towering figures in the field, such as Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Mary Hesse, Williard van Orman Quine, Ernst Mayr, Stephen Jay Gould, Isaac Asimov, Paul Dirac, Alonzo Church, Marvin Minsky, Benoit Mandelbrot, and many more. The colloquia not only helped stimulate these thinkers’ research, but also helped the philosophy of science grow and blossom as a field by educating the next generation of scholars. Bob continued to attend the Boston Colloquium every year, most recently joining the colloquium’s celebration of the 310th anniversary of the birth of Émilie Du Châtelet this past fall and the colloquium on “Experimental Metaphysics 30 Years On” this spring (photographs and recordings of the colloquia can be found online at

The Boston Studies series, now called Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science and published by Springer, has expanded beyond the scope of the proceedings of the Boston Colloquium and at the time of Bob’s passing numbered over 325 volumes, over 50 of which were co-edited by Bob himself. Bob was also the founding co-editor, along with Marie Neurath, of the Vienna Circle Collection, which makes available in English translation many of the most important writings of Otto Neurath, Moritz Schlick, Hans Reichenbach and other key members and friends of the circle. Now including a total of 23 volumes, this series provides crucial documentation of the most important movement in the philosophy of science in the 20th century.

Particularly noteworthy is the role that Bob played in helping to establish the field of philosophy of science around the world. To this end, he organized a number of Boston Studies volumes such as Polish Studies in the Philosophy of Science (1982), Italian Studies (1982), Greek Studies (1990), Taiwan (1993), Mexican Studies (1995), Chinese Studies (1996), Spanish Studies (1996), Japanese Studies (1998), Estonian Studies (2001), Bulgarian Studies (2003), Turkish Studies (2005), and Brazilian Studies (2011). These volumes served to help coalesce a community of researchers in each of these countries and help introduce their work to the rest of the world.

If Bob were here today, he would encourage us to carry on in this important work of building a global and socially relevant philosophy of science. He would likely remind us of these words of Otto Neurath et al. that are no less relevant and crucial today than when they were written in 1929: “Thus, the scientific world-conception is close to the life of the present. Certainly it is threatened with hard struggles and hostility. Nevertheless there are many who do not despair but, in view of the present sociological situation, look forward with hope to the course of events to come. . . . We witness the spirit of the scientific world-conception penetrating in growing measure the forms of personal and public life, in education, upbringing, architecture, and the shaping of economic and social life according to rational principles. The scientific world-conception serves life, and life receives it.”

Alisa Bokulich (Boston University) and Don Howard (University of Notre Dame)

1 Gavroglu and Wartofsky (1995) Physics, Philosophy and the Scientific Community: Essays in the philosophy and history of the natural sciences and mathematics, In honor of Robert S. Cohen, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science Vol. 163, p. ix.
2 Cohen, R. (1983), Physics, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis: Essays in Honor of Adolf Grünbaum, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science Vol. 76, p. ix.
3 Wayne Myrvold, private communication.



John D. Norton
Center for Philosophy of Science
University of Pittsburgh

To do philosophy of science today is to work in a great mansion that Bob Cohen built. My sense of this fact comes from an experience that everyone of my generation had. When we were starting out years ago, any research project began the same way. We’d collect a stack of 3×5 index cards with the references we needed to track down. There was no internet. We had to go to the library. So I did, clutching my first little stack of cards. The next stop was the card catalog. We’d flip through the many drawers until we found the magic numbers that would tell us where to look in the stacks for each item on each card. I expected my cards to lead to many different places. But they all seemed to lead to just one: Q175 B… Then finally, when I’d marched up and down the rows of shelves, I found myself standing before an immense blue wall of books. It was the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science. It seemed that everything I wanted or needed was there.

My early impression was that “Cohen and Wartofsky” was some sort of editorial automaton or perhaps an immense collaborative, a kind of philosophical Bourbaki. It was only a few years later when I came to the US and even had an appointment in the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, that I met Bob. I then learned that he is no automaton, but a delightfully warm, smart, funny and caring human.

Bob–many thanks for your efforts. They told a generation what philosophy of science is all about. It is impossible to imagine philosophy of science today without Bob Cohen.


George O. Zimmerman,
Interim Chair and Chairman of the Physics Department
Boston University, 1971-1983

Bob Cohen came to the Boston University Physics Department in 1957 at just the time when most of the Department’s faculty, which was engaged and affiliated with the Boston University Physical Research Laboratory, left to join ITER, a company engaged in optical research and manufacturing for the armed services. He was appointed Interim Chair and then Chair of the Physics Department in 1959. At that time, the Astronomy Department and Physics were ‘joint,’ and so he was in charge of both. Most of the remaining faculty members were theorists which made the teaching of physics laboratory courses difficult to staff.

When he took over the Physics Department there were ten faculty members. One of them was an astronomer and only one was an experimental physicist. It was left up to him to build a viable Physics Department. By the end of the 1959-1960 school year four more of the ten Physics-Astronomy members were gone, but he was able to attract more with the promise and vision of a new department.

His easy-going manner of conducting the business of the Department and the collegiality it inspired, created a very congenial atmosphere, and therefore it attracted faculty from Universities with a more hierarchically established system. Some of the disadvantages of joining the Department were that it was not yet recognized as a mainstream area, and many of the research specialties were organized to avoid competition with other universities in the Boston area. The advantages were that one could chart one’s own course of research and be recognized for it.

By the time I came to Boston University in 1963, the Physics Department had a faculty of 14, four of whom were experimental physicists. The Department was housed at 700 Commonwealth Avenue which subsequently became 111 Cummington Street after a dormitory, Warren Towers, was built. The building was/is a two-story structure of the WWII era and commonly referred to as a ‘three story basement. ’The ‘three ‘ included the basement which housed rats for the Psychology Department. Bob’s office was on the second floor, which he occupied until 1983 when the Physics Department moved to its present location at 590 Commonwealth Avenue.

It is told that Bob was on the Boston University President Search Committee and that John Silber was in one of the classes Bob taught at Yale. When Silber came to Boston University, he appointed Bob as Dean of The College of Liberal Arts. That is when I became the Acting Chair of the Physics Department.

By that time the Physics Department consisted of 18 faculty members, eight of whom were Experimentalists. Two of the Faculty, John Stachel who was hired in 1964 and went for a time to Princeton to be the Editor of the Einstein Papers, and Abner Shimony who was hired in 1968 from MIT, collaborated with Bob at the Boston University Center for Philosophy and History of Science.

The support for the increased number of faculty, which brought in about $600,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory and other funding sources, necessitated the addition of support services. So did the teaching of laboratory courses. Thus, by 1971 Cohen was able to add a Machine shop and a machinist by the name of R. Allan O’Neill, a laboratory equipment curator, an assistant in charge of nonacademic personal and physical facilities, Alfred Stone, and two secretaries, one for the chairman and the other to handle faculty needs.

When John Silber announced the establishment of the University Professor’s Program, Bob was able to attract two prominent relativity experts as visiting scholars. One of them was Achilles Papapetrou from the Technische Hohschule in Stuttgart, Germany, and Felix A.E. Pirani from Carnegie. He was also able to attract Roger Penrose, mentor of Stephen Hawking, as a visitor to Boston University.

In addition to his publications connected with the Boston University Center for Philosophy and History of Science, Bob also published a textbook in 1976 entitled “Physical Science” with Holt Rinehart and Winston Publishers.

After he gave up his Chairmanship of the Physics Department, most of his attention and contacts were directed towards Philosophy and the Center. I remember meeting him in the corridor of 111 Cummington St. on a day when Graduation Ceremonies were taking place: I, in my academic robes, he in shorts. Informality was one of Bob’s strengths. We then met occasionally at some of the Boston University Center for Philosophy and History of Science events and on his 90th Birthday celebration.

He has influenced many lives and institutions. He lived a long and productive life.

Gerald Holton
Physics and History of Science, Emeritus
Harvard University

As other contributors to the Obituary Notices on Bob Cohen have correctly and amply recorded, Bob was a unique and altogether admirable person, as thinker, scholar, writer, teacher, mentor, educator, organizer, leader, family man, friend, and more. He was learned, wise, and fundamentally optimistic in the face of some cruel and undeserved setbacks. His contributions during his long life, in writings and institution building, will live far beyond those who knew him personally.

Yet there is one more aspect of Bob to celebrate—his early beginnings and the formation of his characteristic later aims and achievements. At it happened, I was lucky to get a glimpse of it. In fact, in the Fall of 1940, just a few months after having arrived in the USA as a refugee from war-torn Europe, I came to know Bob as my first (and longest) American friend, as fellow student and co-conspirator—while both of us were still teen-agers, all those nearly 80 years ago.

So, let’s open the time capsule.

Bob was at that point a sophomore student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, his major studies being physics and philosophy. I had arrived that year as a senior, interested in physics and the humanities. We both enjoyed life at the College, and eventually came to love that institution (so much so that decades later both he and I served on its Board of Trustees for many terms).

But in fact, during those student days, we both were in essential ways strangers in that little paradise. Wesleyan had only recently severed its ties to the Methodist Church that had founded it in the 1830s. The College’s Christian Association still had a high standing. Attendance at chapel was encouraged. The dozen or so Fraternities (and of course sports) largely set the main tone of social life. As to politics, the great majority of students went to rallies for Wendell Willkie, who was running that year against FDR. As to World War II in Europe–which would spill over to America and expand in the following year, causing most of the students to be drafted—that was then still at most the subject of puzzled ignorance.

The saving side for Bob and me, however, was the very good liberal arts education available from excellent teachers. We may have first met in one of the physics courses, offered by the superb teacher/researcher/mentor Walter G. Cady, chair of his three-person physics department faculty. Or we may have first seen each other at the Physics Club, with its dozen undergrads and grad students.

Either way, on first meeting young Bob, he essentially looked and felt as he did later, throughout his life: bright, with a welcoming expression, eager to learn, open to anything serious (with a reserve of skepticism) or funny, and full of ideas and curiosity. I think it would have taken hard work for someone not to like Bob on first encounter, then and later.

More hidden then was in Bob a certain degree of adventurousness and shrewdness, which I came to admire as I caught some signals of it. Take one of the great puzzles for me at Wesleyan at that time: Where were the women? Wesleyan students were all boys. Not one woman in the faculty of the 20 or so departments. None among the heads of the administration, or on the Board of Trustees. “Girls” came to the Campus only briefly, on special occasions such as the expensive Big Band dances (all well dressed, mostly well behaved). Or as special treats, such as the unforgettable meeting that year of the Wesleyan Debating Club; its opponents had come from Mount Holyoke College. On the docket: “Resolved: A Woman’s Place is in the Home”.

Of course I could not afford a “date” while at Wesleyan. But Bob, by some miracle, had frequent visits from a bright and endearing young lady, named Robin. The two seemed happy and much attracted to each other. Moreover, Bob knew how, for their meetings, to get away from Wesleyan, an institution that from its beginning by design was for “rustication” and isolation. For Bob had a car! A sweet little open one, with a rumble seat in back. As the two lovebirds sat in front while we were roaming through the countryside, by invitation I sat in back, amazed at my luck to be with them, and aware that nothing like it could have happened to me back in Vienna.

At some point that year, Bob and I discovered the mere beginnings of our common life-long passions: to write and publish books. Somehow we were contacted by the Schaum Publishing Company. It asked us to write for them an Outline of Physics. That joint book actually happened, as did our much desired pay-off from the publisher: $ 50.- each! Not bad at the time, at least for me, who never before in America had such riches at hand.

Finally: with Bob’s passing just at this disturbing political turn in our Nation’s history, his type of person, so precious for all who knew him and benefitted from him, has been, for so many, receding as an indisputable role model: an intellectual who got great things done, and who was also a dedicated fighter for justice and dignity for all.

It is that much more important for all of us to celebrate Bob’s life.

Robert S. Cohen Rememberances

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