Sidney Morgenbesser

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Sidney Morgenbesser
File:Sidney Morgenbesser (1921 – 2004).jpg
Born (1921-09-22)September 22, 1921
New York City, U.S.
Died August 1, 2004(2004-08-01) (aged 82)
New York City, U.S.
Education University of Pennsylvania (M.A. & Ph.D.)
Alma mater
Occupation Philosopher and academic

Sidney Morgenbesser (September 22, 1921 – August 1, 2004) was a Jewish American philosopher and professor at Columbia University. He wrote little but is remembered by many for his philosophical witticisms. One of the best known anecdotes has J. L. Austin claiming that, although a double negative often implies a positive meaning (as is the case with "he is not unlike his sister"), there is no language in which a double positive implies a negative. To which Morgenbesser retorts: "Yeah, yeah."[1][2][3] Another concerns Heidegger's "Why is there something rather than nothing?" To this Morgenbesser's response was: "And if there were nothing? You'd still be complaining!"[4][5]

Life and career

Sidney Morgenbesser was born on September 22, 1921 in New York City and raised in Manhattan's Lower East Side.[6][2]

Morgenbesser undertook philosophical study at the City College of New York and rabbinical study at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He then pursued graduate study in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. There he obtained his M.A. in 1950 and, with a thesis titled Theories And Schemata In The Social Sciences,[7] his PhD in 1956.[8] It was also at Pennsylvania, Morgenbesser records, that he would have his first job teaching philosophy.[9]

Morgenbesser taught at Swarthmore College and then The New School for Social Research.[8] He then took a position at Columbia University in 1954.[8][10][2][6] He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1963.[11] And by 1966 he was made a full professor at Columbia.[12][13] He was visiting professor at the Rockefeller University in 1967—1968 and in 1975 was named the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia.[2][8] This position he held until retirement.[14]

Morgenbesser was known particularly for his sharp witticisms and humor which often penetrated to the heart of the philosophical issue at hand, on which account The New York Times Magazine dubbed him the "Sidewalk Socrates."[15]

He published little (about which he commented: "Moses wrote one book. Then what did he do?")[2][3] and established no school, but was revered for his extraordinary intelligence and moral seriousness. He was a famously influential teacher; his former students included Hilary Putnam,[10] Jerry Fodor, Raymond Geuss, Alvin Goldman, Daniel M. Hausman, Robert Nozick, Gideon Rosen, and Michael Stocker. In 1967, Morgenbesser signed a letter declaring his intention to refuse to pay taxes in protest against the U.S. war in Vietnam, and urging other people to also take this stand.[16]

Morgenbesser's areas of expertise included the philosophy of social science, political philosophy, epistemology, and the history of American Pragmatism. He founded the Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs along with G.A. Cohen, Thomas Nagel and others.[17]

He died on 1 August 2004 at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan at the age of 82.[6]

As Rebecca Goldstein records, "he kept up his instructive shtick until the end".[18] Near the end of his long final illness he remarked:

"Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don't believe in him?"[18][2]


(Also see Morgenbesser's Wikiquote page.)

  • Morgenbesser is leaving a subway station in New York City and lights up his pipe. A policeman tells him that there is no smoking allowed. Morgenbesser points out that the rules cover smoking in the station, not outside. The officer concedes the point but says "If I let you do it, I'd have to let everyone do it." Morgenbesser retorts, with the misunderstood and phonetic double entendre, "Who do you think you are, Kant?" and finds himself hauled off to the police station. There a colleague has to explain the Categorical Imperative to the officers to secure his release.[2][3]
  • On the independence of irrelevant alternatives: Morgenbesser, ordering dessert, is told by the waitress that he can choose between apple pie and blueberry pie. He orders the apple pie. Shortly thereafter, the waitress comes back and says that cherry pie is also an option; Morgenbesser says "In that case I'll have the blueberry pie."[19]
  • 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..."[20]
  • 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."[2][6]
  • On being asked, as a potential juror, whether he had ever been treated unjustly or unfairly by the police, Morgenbesser responds "unjustly... but not unfairly." Asked for clarification he recounts that he had been hit, without provocation, by a policeman with his baton during the campus protests of the 1960s and thus hit unjustly. Queried by the prosecutor, he explains it wasn't unfair because "he was doing the same to everyone else."[21][22][23]
  • Morgenbesser described Gentile ethics as entailing "ought implies can" while in Jewish ethics "can implies don't."[3]
  • When asked his opinion of pragmatism, Morgenbesser replied "It's all very well in theory but it doesn't work in practice."[3]
  • According to Columbia colleague David Albert, Morgenbesser joked, "What is it that you maximize in Jewish decision theory? Regret."[24]
  • Asked to prove a questioner's existence, Morgenbesser shot back, "Who's asking?"[25]
  • A student once interrupted him and said, "I just don't understand." "Why should you have the advantage over me?" he responded.[25]


Books, (co-)edited

Select articles, book chapters (co-)authored

For a more complete record of publications see "Sidney Morgenbesser: A Bibliography" in the below.



  1. Shatz, David (June 27, 2014). "'Yeah, Yeah': Eulogy for Sidney Morgenbesser, Philosopher With a Yiddish Accent". Tablet Magazine. Retrieved September 28, 2019.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 The Independent, Professor Sidney Morgenbesser: Philosopher celebrated for his withering New York Jewish humour, 6 August 2004
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 The Times, Sidney Morgenbesser: Erudite and influential American linguistic philosopher with the analytical acuity of Spinoza and the blunt wit of Groucho Marx, September 8, 2004
  4. "G. A. Cohen - Wisconsin-Madison Lecture". Retrieved September 27, 2019.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. There are two errors in the the title of this book: A sourcebook of philosophical puzzles, paradoxes and problems, Robert M. Martin, p. 4, ISBN 1-55111-493-3
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Martin, Douglas (August 4, 2004). "Sidney Morgenbesser, 82, Kibitzing Philosopher, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. MORGENBESSER, SIDNEY, "THEORIES AND SCHEMATA IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES" (1956). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI0017254.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Schwartz, Robert (2005). "Sidney Morgenbesser (1921—2004)" In Shook, John R. (ed). The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers (2005) ISBN 9781843710370, republished in Shook, John R. (ed). The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers in America: From 1600 to the Present (2016) ISBN 9781472570543.
  9. Morgenbesser, Sidney (1998), "Response to Hilary Putnam's "Pragmatism and Realism"", The Revival of Pragmatism, Duke University Press, pp. 54–61, doi:10.1215/9780822382522-004, ISBN 9780822322283, retrieved September 27, 2019, My first teaching job in philosophy was at the University of Pennsylvania, where I encountered Hilary Putnam as a student.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 GARY SHAPIRO The New York Sun; (October 26, 2004) Columbia Pays Final Respects To Professor Sidney Morgenbesser [Archived by Wayback Machine [March 20, 2004]
  11. "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Sidney Morgenbesser". Retrieved September 26, 2019.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Sidney Morgenbesser, Esteemed Philosophy Professor Emeritus, Dies at 82 [Archived] Colin Morris, Columbia News,
  13. David Albert, Arthur C. Danto, Mark Steiner. "Remembering Sidney Morgenbesser". Columbia College Today. Retrieved September 27, 2019.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Morgenbesser would be succeeded as John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University in 1992 by Isaac Levi who had previously co-authored with Morgenbesser "Belief and Disposition" (1964)] and, with Leigh Cauman and Robert Schwartz, co-edited How Many Questions? Essays in Honor of Sidney Morgenbesser (1983). see: "LEVI, Isaac (1930– )" in The Dictionary Of Modern American Philosophers pps. 1453–1455
  15. Ryerson, James (December 26, 2004). "Sidewalk Socrates". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved July 7, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "An Open Letter" archived at Horowitz Transaction Publishers Archive
  17. Virginia Held; Sidney Morgenbesser; Thomas Nagel (1974). Philosophy, morality, and international affairs: essays edited for the Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195017595.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. 18.0 18.1 "Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World" by Tim Whitmarsh, Review by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 20 November 2015, New York Times.
  19. Gaming the vote: why elections aren't fair (and what we can do about it), William Poundstone, p. 50, ISBN 0-8090-4893-0
  20. "Language Log" blog, Language Log, If P, so why not Q, 5 August 2004
  21. Rosen, Gideon (2002). Wallace, R. Jay (ed.). "The Case for Incompatibilism". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 64 (3): 699–706. doi:10.1111/j.1933-1592.2002.tb00176.x. ISSN 0031-8205. JSTOR 3070984. Morgenbesser is being interviewed to serve as a juror in a case involving police brutality. Prosecutor: We have only one question. Professor Morgenbesser: Have you ever been treated unjustly or unfairly by the police? Morgenbesser: I've been treated unjustly...but not unfairly. Prosecutor. Could you please explain to the court what you mean by that? Morgenbesser: Well, it was during the riots at Columbia in the spring of '68. I was minding my own business, not bothering anyone, when a cop came along and clobbered with his nightstick. That was unjust. Prosecutor. But it wasn't unfair? Morgenbesser: Not at all. He was doing the same thing to everyone else.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Fletcher, George P. (June 11, 2007). The Grammar of Criminal Law: American, Comparative, and International Volume One: Foundations. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 4–5. ISBN 9780195103106. For another view about justice and fairness, a story is told about the late Sydney Morgenbesser, formerly professor of philosophy at Columbia University. In the 1960s he had been involved in the confrontation between the police and the student protestors at Columbia. A police nightstick landed on his head. According to Allan Silver, when Morgenbesser was once questioned for jury duty by the prosecution, he was asked whether the police had ever treated him unjustly or unfairly. "Unjustly yes, unfairly no," he said. Many of us have been in the position of the puzzled, probably irritated prosecutor, who sought clarification. The police hit me unjustly, Sidney said, but since they hit everyone else unjustly, it was not unfair.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. (Several newspaper obituaries [including The New York Times, The Independent and The Times] record a variation in which Morgenbesser responds that his treatment had been unfair but not unjust. As is indicated by the anecdote's use by Columbia scholar of law and legal philosophy George P. Fletcher [on the testimony of sociologist Allan Silver who was a close friend of Morgenbesser] as well as its use by Princeton philosopher Gideon Rosen, and as has been argued by Princeton philosopher Gilbert Harman those are misquotations that do not make sense. As Harman notes, Morgenbesser "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." The obituarist for The Times, who gives an 'unfair not unjust' version describes it as one of Morgenbesser's "least revealing bon mots" and this misunderstanding is why it would seem so.)
  24. Episode 36: David Albert on Quantum Measurement and the Problems with Many-Worlds, retrieved August 6, 2019<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. 25.0 25.1 Remembering Sidney Morgenbesser, Cary Shapiro, The New York Sun, 2 Aug 2004 (File Archived by Wayback Machine)
  26. Levi, Isaac (1961). "Review of Philosophy of Science, , , ; The Structure of Scientific Thought: An Introduction to Philosophy of". The Journal of Philosophy. 58 (14): 387–390. doi:10.2307/2022951. ISSN 0022-362X. JSTOR 2022951.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Stuewer, Roger H. (1968). "Review of Philosophy of Science Today, edited by Sidney Morgenbesser". Isis. 59 (4): 445–446. doi:10.1086/350432. ISSN 0021-1753.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Buchdahl, Gerd (June 1971). "Nagel's Message" (PDF). Nature. 231 (5302): 399. Bibcode:1971Natur.231..399B. doi:10.1038/231399a0. ISSN 1476-4687.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. (available for loan at Internet Archive with registration)
  30. (free to read online at JSTOR with registration)
  31. Misak, Cheryl (January 1985). "Leigh S. Cauman, Isaac Levi, Charles D. Parsons and Robert Schwartz, eds. 'How Many Questions?: Essays in Honour of Sidney Morgenbesser.'" Philosophy In Review. v.5, no.1: 7–9. [Review hosted at Internet Archive]

External links