Sidney Morgenbesser

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Sidney Morgenbesser (September 22, 1921 – August 1, 2004) was a philosopher and professor at Columbia University. He wrote little but is remembered by his many influential students for his insightful and witty apothegms.[1][2][3]


Born in New York City, Morgenbesser undertook philosophical study at the City College of New York and rabbinical study at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, then pursued graduate study in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, where he wrote his Ph.D. thesis under the direction of Nelson Goodman. Morgenbesser began teaching at Swarthmore College, took a position at Columbia in 1953 and, in 1975, was named the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy there, a position he held until his retirement in 1993. Morgenbesser was known particularly for his sharp witticisms and humor, which often penetrated to the heart of the philosophical issue at hand and earned him the nickname from The New York Times as "the Sidewalk Socrates."[4]

He published little, and established no school, but was revered for his extraordinary intelligence and moral seriousness. He was a famously influential teacher; his former students include Jerry Fodor, Raymond Geuss, Alvin Goldman, Daniel Hausman, Robert Nozick, Derek Parfit, and Gideon Rosen. 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.[5] 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.[6] He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1963.

He died in New York City.


Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don't believe in him?[7]

"Yeah, yeah." In reference to a mention by linguist J. L. Austin that, while there are several languages that employ a double negative to denote a positive, "there exists no language in which the equivalent is true. There is no language that employs a double positive to make a negative."[8][9]


  • Morgenbesser, Sidney (1967). Philosophy of science today. US: Basic Books Inc. ISBN 9780465056835.
  • Morgenbesser, Sidney; Held, Virginia; Nagel, Thomas (1974). Philosophy, morality, and international affairs: essays edited for the Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195017595.

Stories and quotations[edit]

  • During a lecture the Oxford linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin made the claim that although a double negative in English implies a positive meaning, there is no language in which a double positive implies a negative. To which Morgenbesser responded in a dismissive tone, "Yeah, yeah."[1][2] (Some have quoted it as "Yeah, right.")
  • 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?" The word "Kant" was mistaken for a vulgar epithet and Morgenbesser had to explain the situation at the police station.[1][2]
  • 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."[10]
  • 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…" [11]
  • 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."[1][3]
  • During campus protests of the 1960s, Sidney Morgenbesser was hit on the head by police. When asked whether he had been treated unfairly or unjustly, he responded that it was "unfair, but not unjust. It was unfair because they hit me over the head, but not unjust because they hit everyone else over the head."[1][3] Some of his students then argued that it may have been unjust, because he had not been proven guilty, but it was not unfair because the others were treated in the same way.[2] This alternative version is sometimes attributed to Morgenbesser himself.[12][13]
  • 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.[5]
  • Morgenbesser described Gentile ethics as entailing "ought implies can" while in Jewish ethics "can implies don't."[2]
  • When challenged why he had written so little, he fired back: "Moses wrote one book. Then what did he do?"[1][2]
  • When asked his opinion of pragmatism, Morgenbesser replied "It's all very well in theory but it doesn't work in practice."[2]
  • 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!"[14]
  • A few weeks before his death, he asked another Columbia philosopher, David Albert, about God. "Why is God making me suffer so much?" he asked. "Just because I don't believe in him?"[1][2][3]
  • According to Columbia colleague David Albert, Morgenbesser joked, "What is it that you maximize in Jewish decision theory? Regret."[15]
  • Asked to prove a questioner's existence, Morgenbesser shot back, "Who's asking?"[16]
  • A student once interrupted him and said, "I just don't understand." "Why should you have the advantage over me?" he responded.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g The Independent, The Independent, Professor Sidney Morgenbesser: Philosopher celebrated for his withering New York Jewish humour, 6 August 2004
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h 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
  3. ^ a b c d Martin, Douglas (4 August 2004). "Sidney Morgenbesser, 82, Kibitzing Philosopher, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 July 2015.
  4. ^ Ryerson, James (26 December 2004). "Sidewalk Socrates". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 7 July 2015.
  5. ^ a b "An Open Letter" archived at Horowitz Transaction Publishers Archive
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ "Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World" by Tim Whitmarsh, Review by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 20 November 2015, New York Times.
  8. ^ Block, Melissa (August 2, 2004). "The Witty Professor: Sidney Morgenbesser".
  9. ^ Baum, Devorah (2017). The Jewish Joke: An essay with examples (less essay, more examples). Profile Books. ISBN 9781782831938.
  10. ^ Gaming the vote: why elections aren't fair (and what we can do about it), William Poundstone, p. 50, ISBN 0-8090-4893-0
  11. ^ "Language Log" blog, Language Log, If P, so why not Q, 5 August 2004
  12. ^ Fletcher, George P. (2007). The Grammar of Criminal Law: American, Comparative, and International Volume One: Foundations (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 2007), p. 4-5. I could find no source for the Allan Silver reference. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 4–5. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  13. ^ Rosen, Gideon (May 2002). "The Case for Incompatbilism". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. LXIV (3): 699.
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^
  16. ^ a b

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