Sidney Morgenbesser

by Chris Bertram on August 3, 2004

Brian Leiter reports that Sidney Morgenbesser has died at the age of 92 [Sorry, that’s what NPR said, the right age is 82]. NPR have an audio tribute with Arthur Danto . I’ll post links to obituaries as they appear. There was a rash of Morgenbesser anecdotes posted a while back, the best place to start is probably with this post at Normblog and follow the links back. My favourite:

Question:”Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Morgenbesser: “Even if there were nothing you’d still be complaining!”

Obits: New York Times , New York Sun , Columbia News ,

{ 6 comments }

1

Martin 08.03.04 at 11:39 pm

I believe that Prof Morgenbesser was 82, not 92 as stated. (He was born in 1921.)

2

chris borthwick 08.04.04 at 4:50 am

One of the Morganbesser anecdotes cited along the line of references -
“Sidney Morgenbesser walks into a restaurant, has dinner, and then asks the waitress what they have for dessert. She says apple pie and blueberry pie. Sidney Morgenbesser says he’ll have the apple pie. She comes back in a moment and says that they also have cherry pie. So Sidney Morgenbesser says “In that case, I’ll have the blueberry pie.”
Surely that has to be revised into the Monty Hall problem?
“Sidney Morgenbesser walks into a restaurant, has dinner, and then asks the waitress what they have for dessert. She says apple pie, cherry pie and blueberry pie. Sidney Morgenbesser says he’ll have the apple pie. She comes back in a moment and says that they’re all out of cherry pie. So Sidney Morgenbesser says “In that case, I’ll have the blueberry pie.”

3

Bob Talisse 08.04.04 at 6:03 am

I once heard it claimed that Morgenbesser said the following of George Santayana:
“There’s a guy who asserted both p and not-p, and then drew out *all* the consequences…”

4

Gilbert Harman 08.05.04 at 3:32 pm

The New York times repeats a misquotation from Sydney Morgenbesser:

He was once asked if it was unfair that the police hit him on the head during the riot. “It was unfair but not unjust,” he pronounced. Why? “It’s unfair to be hit over the head, but it was not unjust since they hit everybody else over the head.”

He actually said the opposite: “It was unjust but not unfair. It was unjust for them to hit me over the head, but it was not unfair since they hit everybody else over the head.”

The Times version doesn’t make sense. Sydney had been thinking about Rawls’ development of the idea that “Justice is Fairness” and this was one of the ways in which he saw a clear difference.

5

Larry George 08.05.04 at 7:16 pm

Fred Greenstein was once asked by an incredulous student whether it was really true that he, famous Princeton Professor and former President of the APSA had never read Plato. “Well, not personally,” was Greenstein’s reply. I never personally met Sidney Morgenbesser, but I feel like I knew him. I was educated primarily by Jewish intellectuals like Fred Greenstein, Sheldon Wolin, Stanley Aronowitz, Richard Falk, and Amy Guttman. (I’m sure they all wish more of it could have stuck, but one of the greatest compliments I ever received was at a Seder dinner once when somebody, I guess noticing my yarmulke, said “You don’t look Jewish” and Bob Sacks said, “No, but he thinks Jewish.”) The legendary Morgenbesser seemed like what many of us gentiles imagined the quintessential 20th Century Jewish philosopher to be: sort of Isaiah Berlin, Woody Allen, and Isaac Bashevis Singer all rolled into one. Indeed when I first heard the now canonical Morgenbesser anecdotes in grad school, I thought he was some kind of a Talmudic tall tale, a sort of intellectual Paul Bunyan of the Upper West Side, created to intimidate and inspire us more sluggish thinkers. Who could really have been smart enough to have rebutted the esteemed language philosopher J.L. Austin as Morgenbesser had? (When Austin asserted to a Columbia faculty audience that although in many languages two negatives make a positive (“He is not unlike his sister”), “we know of no language in which two positives make a negative”, Morgenbesser muttered from the audience, “Yeah, yeah.”) Interrogated by a student whether he agreed with Chairman 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.” He once said of the philosophy of Pragmatism, “It sounds good in theory, but it’ll never work in practice.” And on and on. For 20 years I’ve borrowed one or another of Morgenbesser’s lines when I can’t think of one of my own to kick off a speech or lecture. Some Midrash has it that God finally let King David die because He loved him so much He could no longer stand not to have him nearby. I think maybe sometime Sunday God couldn’t think of a good line, and said to the Angel of Death (the one with the black hood and sickle in Woody Allen’s “Love and Death”), “What I need is a Kibbitzer. Get me the best.”

6

john 08.06.04 at 5:49 am

These are all great stories, but can I register a moment of dubiety about the “double positive” tale (despite having passed it along myself)? For a few reasons: 1) I’ve seen the hapless speaker described as variously Austin, a law professor, and a hapless graduate student; 2) I don’t see that “positive” is a genuine linguistic category; what are the positive operators? “it is true that. . .”?; 3) Would anyone really see it as news that double “position” lacks the self-cancelling aspect of double negation? If this is being reported as linguistic fact, it seems that language simply follows logic (is that the surprising part?); and perhaps nitpickingly 4) “yeah yeah” doesn’t really seem to be a counterexample; I mean, unfortunately for Kobe Bryant, “no no” doesn’t yet mean “yes.”

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