People I Wish I’d Known: Sidney Morgenbesser

Some years back a friend told me a joke about a paper on linguistic philosoply being presented at a seminar. The speaker observed that–like mathematics (I suppose he must have said)–although a double negative in English implies a positive meaning, there is no language in which a double positive implies a negative. From the back of the room, so the story went, someone said loudly, “Yeah, yeah.”

I always supposed that story was apocryphal, but then I happened upon the Wikipedia entry for Sidney Morgenbesser and found out that it was true. I had never heard of the late Professor Morgenbesser, and that appears to have been a regrettable gap in my knowledge. He joined the Philosophy Department at Columbia in 1955, attaining the lofty positions of John Dewey Professor (1975-1991, when he retired from full-time teaching) and editor of the Journal of Philosophy (1963-1988). He studied the philosophical aspects of the social sciences, among other areas, including fundamental aspects of choice and belief.

Professor Morgenbesser died in 2004, at the age of 82, from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He is clearly remembered  best, and certainly most fondly, for his astonishing wit. To read his famous quotes, most of which appear to have been created instantly in the course of intellectual sparring, is to be granted insight into difficult concepts as well as to be moved to laughter. Here are just a couple of my favorites:

  • of George Santayana: “There’s a guy who asserted both p and not-p, and then drew out all the consequences…”
  • On the independence of irrelevant alternatives: After finishing dinner, Sidney Morgenbesser decides to order dessert. The waitress tells him he has two choices: apple pie and blueberry pie. Sidney orders the apple pie. After a few minutes the waitress returns and says that they also have cherry pie at which point Morgenbesser says “In that case I’ll have the blueberry pie.”

Then there’s one that should be included in every list of common internet commenting fallacies (see Fen @ 10:04):

On Jewish logic: “If P, so why not Q?”

But I can’t imagine a better way to be remembered as the professor of whom the great Robert Nozick said that as a student he “majored in Sidney Morgenbesser.” By today’s standards, Morgenbesser seems not to have written nearly as much as he thought. In that aspect, his career is a reminder of what the academy once was, and is not quite so now–a place where inspiration and delight were to be found in the pursuit of understanding, without low politics or the relentless imperative to publish without having anything much to say.

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