Sunday, December 27, 2009

In Memory of Dr. Sidney Morgenbesser

Sidney Morgenbesser was a philosophy professor at Columbia University, who was known for his razor-sharp wit that could penetrate almost any philosophical discussion, and cut right the to heart of the matter. Dr. Morgenbesser's offerings of logic, humor, and insight, would invite comparisons with Socrates - minus the Yiddish accent.

For example, he published very little, and when he was asked why, he replied, "Moses wrote one book. Then what did he do?"

And there was the time Dr. Morgenbesser was involved in a heated political dialectic with a student who had Maoist sentiments. The student asked the Good Professor if he agreed with Chairman Mao's saying that a statement can be both true and false at the same time. Dr. Morgenbesser came back with, "I do, and I don't."

The most famous Morgenbesserism, however, was reserved for the British linguist and philosopher, J.L. Austin, who was presenting a paper at Columbia about the close analysis of language. Austin had just declared that a double negative in English implies a positive meaning (e.g., "I do not want nothing"), while nowhere is the case supported where two negatives can equate to a positive meaning. From somewhere in the lecture hall Dr. Morgenbesser was heard to mutter dismissively, "Yeah, yeah!"


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