Sidney Morgenbesser

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Sidney Morgenbesser
Sidney Morgenbesser (1921 – 2004).jpg
Born(1921-09-22)September 22, 1921
New York City, U.S.
DiedAugust 1, 2004(2004-08-01) (aged 82)
New York City, U.S.
EducationUniversity of Pennsylvania (M.A. & Ph.D.)
Alma mater
OccupationPhilosopher and academic
EmployerColumbia University

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.

Life and career[edit]

Sidney Morgenbesser was born on September 22, 1921, in New York City and raised in Manhattan's Lower East Side.[1][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,[3] his PhD in 1956.[4] It was also at Pennsylvania, Morgenbesser records, that he would have his first job teaching philosophy.[5]

Morgenbesser taught at Swarthmore College and then The New School for Social Research.[4] He then took a position at Columbia University in 1954.[4][6][2][1] He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1963,[7] and by 1966 he was made a full professor at Columbia.[8][9] 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][4] This position he held until retirement.[10]

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.[11]

Morgenbesser appeared on in an interview by Bryan Magee on the topic of American Pragmatism in 1987 that is available on YouTube.[12]

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


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."[13] According to one anecdote, when J. L. Austin claimed that, although a double negative often implies a positive meaning (e.g., "he is not unlike his sister"), there is no language in which a double positive implies a negative, Morgenbesser retorted: "Yeah, yeah."[14][2][15] In another commonly reported story, Morgenbesser was asked by a student whether he agreed with Chairman Mao's view that a statement can be both true and false at the same time, to which Morgenbesser replied "Well, I do and I don't."[2][1]

Another anecdote is given as follows by the Independent:[2]

[An] unfortunate encounter with the police occurred when he lit up his pipe on the way out of a subway station. Morgenbesser protested to the officer who tried to stop him that the rules covered smoking in the station, not outside. The cop conceded he had a point, but said: "If I let you get away with it, I'd have to let everyone get away with it." To which Morgenbesser, in a famously misunderstood line, retorted: "Who do you think you are, Kant?" Hauled off to the precinct lock-up, Morgenbesser only won his freedom after a colleague showed up and explained the Categorical Imperative to the nonplussed boys in blue.

Morgenbesser 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 included Jerry Fodor, Raymond Geuss, Alvin Goldman, Daniel M. Hausman, Robert Nozick, Hilary Putnam,[6] Gideon Rosen, Mark Steiner, 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]


Books, (co-)edited

  • (1960) with Arthur Danto [preface by Ernest Nagel], Philosophy of Science (New York).[17]
  • (1962) with James Walsh, Free Will, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.,).ISBN 978-0385030373
  • (1967) Philosophy of Science Today, US: Basic Books Inc. ISBN 9780465056835[18]
  • (1969) with Patrick Suppes and Morton White, Philosophy, Science, and Method: Essays in Honor of Ernest Nagel ISBN 9780312607258[19]
  • (1974) with Virginia Held and Thomas Nagel, Philosophy, Morality, and International Affairs: essays edited for the Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195017595.[20]
  • (1977) Dewey and His Critics: Essays from the Journal of Philosophy (New York). ISBN 9780931206009

Select articles, book chapters (co-)authored

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



  1. ^ a b c d Martin, Douglas (August 4, 2004). "Sidney Morgenbesser, 82, Kibitzing Philosopher, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e f The Independent, Professor Sidney Morgenbesser: Philosopher celebrated for his withering New York Jewish humour, 6 August 2004
  3. ^ Morgenbesser, Sidney, "Theories and Schemata in the Social Sciences" (1956). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI0017254.
  4. ^ a b c d 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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ a b GARY SHAPIRO The New York Sun; (October 26, 2004) Columbia Pays Final Respects To Professor Sidney Morgenbesser [Archived by Wayback Machine [March 20, 2004]
  7. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Sidney Morgenbesser". Retrieved September 26, 2019.
  8. ^ Sidney Morgenbesser, Esteemed Philosophy Professor Emeritus, Dies at 82 [Archived] Colin Morris, Columbia News,
  9. ^ David Albert, Arthur C. Danto, Mark Steiner. "Remembering Sidney Morgenbesser". Columbia College Today. Retrieved September 27, 2019.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ American Pragmatism - Bryan Magee & Sidney Morgenbesser (1987), retrieved July 20, 2022
  13. ^ Ryerson, James (December 26, 2004). "Sidewalk Socrates". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved July 7, 2015.
  14. ^ Shatz, David (June 27, 2014). "'Yeah, Yeah': Eulogy for Sidney Morgenbesser, Philosopher With a Yiddish Accent". Tablet Magazine. Archived from the original on October 16, 2014. Retrieved September 28, 2019.
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ "An Open Letter" archived at Horowitz Transaction Publishers Archive
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Buchdahl, Gerd (June 1971). "Nagel's Message" (PDF). Nature. 231 (5302): 399. Bibcode:1971Natur.231..399B. doi:10.1038/231399a0. ISSN 1476-4687.
  20. ^ (available for loan at Internet Archive with registration)
  21. ^ (free to read online at JSTOR with registration)
  22. ^ 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[edit]