Professor Sidney Morgenbesser

Philosopher celebrated for his withering New York Jewish humour

Sidney Morgenbesser, Emeritus John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University in New York, was celebrated for his extraordinarily quick wit, his deep irreverence and his ability to illuminate even the most complicated intellectual ideas with the street smarts of his upbringing on Manhattan's Lower East Side.



Sidney Morgenbesser, philosopher: born New York 22 September 1921; died New York 2 August 2004.



Sidney Morgenbesser, Emeritus John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University in New York, was celebrated for his extraordinarily quick wit, his deep irreverence and his ability to illuminate even the most complicated intellectual ideas with the street smarts of his upbringing on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

He was the quintessential New York Jewish intellectual: Isaiah Berlin, Woody Allen and Isaac Bashevis Singer rolled into one. His stories and one-liners were not just appreciated at Columbia, where he was on faculty for half a century, but were part and parcel of university lectures delivered halfway around the world by professors who had never met him, but remained in awe.

Generations of philosophers and linguists have heard the story of the Columbia lecture in the 1950s in which the eminent Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin explained how many languages employ the double negative to denote a positive ("he is not unlike his sister"), but that no language employs a double positive to make a negative. Morgenbesser, sitting in the audience, waved his arm dismissively, and retorted: "Yeah, yeah."

Asked by a student if he agreed with Mao's view that a statement can be both true and false at the same time, Morgenbesser replied: "Well I do and I don't."

Of the philosophy of pragmatism, on which he wrote and lectured, he once said: "It sounds good in theory, but it'll never work in practice."

Morgenbesser's reputation was at its height in the 1960s, when he joined the ranks of student protesters marching against the Vietnam War and got clubbed on the head for his pains. Asked what he made of his treatment, he said it was "unfair, but not unjust". Pressed for an explanation, he added: "It was unfair because they hit me over the head, but not unjust because they hit everyone else over the head."

Another unfortunate encounter with the police occurred when he lit up his pipe on the way out of a subway station. Morgenbesser protested to the officer who tried to stop him that the rules covered smoking in the station, not outside. The cop conceded he had a point, but said: "If I let you get away with it, I'd have to let everyone get away with it." To which Morgenbesser, in a famously misunderstood line, retorted: "Who do you think you are, Kant?" Hauled off to the precinct lock-up, Morgenbesser only won his freedom after a colleague showed up and explained the Categorical Imperative to the nonplussed boys in blue.

It was such episodes that caused the philosopher Robert Nozick to write that he "majored in Sidney Morgenbesser". Larry George, a political science professor at California State University in Long Beach who never met the man, commented:

When I first heard the now canonical Morgenbesser anecdotes in graduate school, I thought he was some kind of a Talmudic tall tale . . . created to intimidate and inspire us more sluggish thinkers.

Morgenbesser learned the fine art of kibitzing from his father, a garment worker in the Lower East Side of New York who can never have suspected how Jewish humour could be so witheringly applied to metaphysics and epistemology. Sidney Morgenbesser trained to be a rabbi before switching to academia, studying at the City College of New York, then the University of Pennsylvania. After teaching at Swarthmore College and the New School of Social Research, he joined the Department of Philosophy at Columbia in 1954, where he remained until retirement in 1990. For much of his career, he was on the editorial board of the Journal of Philosophy and he built up expertise on the philosophy of science, the theory of knowledge, pragmatism and human rights. He was, however, notably restrained in his publishing habits. As he once wisecracked: "Moses wrote one book. Then what did he do?"

Towards the end of his final long illness, he asked another Columbia philosopher, David Albert: "Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don't believe in him?"

Andrew Gumbel

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