The American philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004) was an odd case. For decades he held the prestigious John Dewey chair in philosophy at Columbia University. Before that, he was mentor to Hilary Putnam. Yet he rarely wrote anything. Instead, like Socrates, he was known for his viva voce philosophising. He was also known for his ‘zingers’, the most famous of which was allegedly uttered during an address on the philosophy of language being given by J.L. Austin.
‘In some languages,’ Austin observed, ‘a double negative yields an affirmative. In others, a double negative yields a more emphatic negative. It is curious, though, that in no language known to me, whether natural or artificial, does a double affirmative yield a negative.’ At which point Morgenbesser piped up from the back of the audience: ‘Yeah, yeah.’
Here are some of the other Morgenbesserisms that are told and retold among philosophers:
‘Professor Morgenbesser, do you believe in Mao’s law of contradiction?’ a student asked.
‘I do and I don’t.’
‘Professor Morgenbesser, why is there something rather than nothing?’
‘Oh, even if there was nothing, you still wouldn’t be satisfied!’
Morgenbesser to B.F. Skinner: ‘So, you’re telling me it’s wrong to anthropomorphise humans?
Morgenbesser on pragmatism: ‘Great in theory, doesn’t work in practice.’
Morgenbesser was also a rabbi, which helped him see the Jewish side of philosophy.
Jewish ethics: ‘can’ implies ‘don’t’.
Jewish logic: if not p, what? q maybe?
Jewish decision theory: maximise regret.
There is currently at least one major biography of Morgenbesser under way (by James Ryerson, an editor of the New York Times, to be published in the US by Pantheon), so there is little danger that his quips and quiddities will disappear into the ether. But I would here like to add one minor one to the catalogue raisonné, since I was uniquely privileged to hear it.
I was chatting with Morgenbesser one day about a philosopher named Bill Earle, who had been a student of his in the 1960s. Earle’s dissertation was on William James, and Earle was also the author of the article on William James in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I observed that the fellow’s full given name happened to be William James Earle. How, I wondered, could his parents have known at the baptismal font that their son would grow up to become a William James scholar? ‘Perhaps they had Earle-y knowledge,’ Morgenbesser said.