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Sidney Morgenbesser

Sidney Morgenbesser was a prominent figure at Columbia University throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. As the University’s John Dewey Professor of Philosophy, he taught classes on epistemology and the philosophy of science which were consistently packed with students eager to hear him lecture — but not because of his academic prestige or reputation as a generous grader.

Morgenbesser was widely known as one of the wittiest men of his age. His caustic irreverence and razor-sharp tongue produced an unmistakable — and inimitable — sense of humor. Through freewheeling intellectual banter that could be compared to sportive Socratic dialogues, he influenced generations of students, among them the philosopher Robert Nozick, who once claimed that he “majored in Sidney Morgenbesser.”

Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton, struggled to find the words to describe Morgenbesser, resorting to an image from nature: “You don’t ask what the wind does. It’s just power and self-sustaining energy.”

Noam Chomsky called him, “One of the most knowledgeable and in many ways profound thinkers of the modern period… a philosopher in the old sense — not so much what’s on the printed page, but in debate and inspiring discussion.”

The New York Times called him, “Socrates with a Yiddish accent”; I suggest Groucho Marx with a PhD in philosophy.

Here are some of his most famous rejoinders:

  • In the early 1950′s, the esteemed Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin came to Columbia to present a paper about the structural analysis of language. He pointed out that, in English, although a double negative implies a positive meaning (i.e. “I’m not unlike my father…”), there is no language in which a double positive implies a negative. “Yeah, yeah,” scoffed Morgenbesser from the back of the auditorium.
  • In the 1970′s, a student of Maoist inclination asked him if he disagreed with Chairman Mao’s saying that a proposition can be true and false at the same time. Dr. Morgenbesser replied, “I do and I don’t.”
  • Morgenbesser became something of a legend at the time of the 1968 student uprising for being beaten up when he joined a human chain protesting the police. When confronted about the incident, Morgenbesser was asked whether he had been treated unfairly or unjustly. His response: “It was unjust, but not unfair. It’s unjust to hit me over the head, but it’s not unfair because everyone else was hit over the head, too.”
  • Once during a heady philosophy lecture, Morgenbesser was asked to prove a questioner’s existence. He shot back, “Who’s asking?”
  • A colleague once challenged Morgenbesser’s tenure at Columbia, saying he had not published enough material to deserve a tenured position. Morgenbesser responded: “Moses wrote one book. Then what did he do?”
  • Morgenbesser was leaving a subway station in New York City and put his pipe in his mouth as he was ascending the steps. A police officer told him that there was no smoking on the subway. Morgenbesser pointed out that he was leaving the subway, not entering it, and hadn’t lit up yet anyway. The cop again said that smoking was not allowed in the subway, and Morgenbesser repeated his comment. The cop said, “If I let you do it, I’d have to let everyone do it.” Morgenbesser replied, “Who do you think you are, Kant?” Due to his accent, the word “Kant” was mistaken for a vulgar epithet and Morgenbesser was hauled off to the police station. He won his freedom only after a colleague showed up and explained the Categorical Imperative to the unamused cops.
  • In response to Heidegger’s ontological query “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Morgenbesser answered “If there were nothing you’d still be complaining!”
  • A central subject of Morganbesser’s investigations was the independence of irrelevant alternatives. Once while ordering dessert, Morgenbesser was told by the waitress that he could choose between apple pie and blueberry pie. He ordered the apple pie. Shortly thereafter, the waitress came back and said that cherry pie was also an option; Morgenbesser responded: “In that case I’ll have the blueberry pie.”
  • When asked his opinion of the philosophy of pragmatism, Morgenbesser said, “It’s all very well in theory but it doesn’t work in practice.”

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I found several of these quips and many other gems in Jim Holt’s stunningly clever and often very funny book Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes.

Sidney Morgenbesser