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‘Yeah, Yeah’: Eulogy for Sidney Morgenbesser, Philosopher With a Yiddish Accent

As his 10th yahrzeit nears, a remembrance of Sidney the teacher, Sidney the humorist, Sidney the arguer, Sidney the Jew

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Many have heard the story about the British philosopher who asserted in a lecture that, whereas in many languages a double negative makes a positive, in no language does a double positive make a negative. Instantly, from the back of the room, a voice piped up, “Yeah, yeah.”

While the story is well-known—and true—many do not know that the “yeah, yeah” came from Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004), a professor at Columbia University who later became the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy, and whose 10th yahrzeit will be marked this summer. Those who did not experience Morgenbesser could not fully appreciate James Ryerson’s words in his superb portrait in the “The Lives They Lived” issue of The New York Times Magazine: “The episode was classic Morgenbesser: The levity, the lightning quickness, the impatience with formality in both thought and manners, the gift for the knockout punch.” (Ryerson has long been working on a book about Morgenbesser.) Nor could most people know that this comic genius was revered by philosophers and other literati, including people of eminence and fame, as one of the truly spectacular philosophical minds of his timesomeone whom, reportedly, no less a figure than Bertrand Russell considered one of the cleverest (that’s British for “smartest”) young men in the United States.

Sidney Morgenbesser was born on the Lower East Side of New York. He earned ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a bachelor’s from CCNY, and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He published little, but his fame spread; yet the Lower East Side never left him. He was not a believer—in fact, as his ALS progressed, he quipped to a colleague, “Why does God make me suffer so much? Is it because I don’t believe in Him?” Yet he requested an Orthodox memorial service on the Lower East Side, where a local rabbi officiated. Hearing the liturgy and the rabbi’s eulogy on the one hand, and knowing the worldviews of the largely academic audience on the other, made for a rather anomalous experience.

I had the privilege and consummate pleasure of studying with Morgenbesser in graduate school and talking philosophy with him on and off for a quarter century thereafter. My debt to him is beyond my powers of expression. I am deeply grateful to Tablet magazine for inviting me to publish the eulogy I delivered at the funeral. I hasten to add that no one address could capture Morgenbesser and that my own picture of him has since been enriched by savoring other powerful tributes: a eulogy at the funeral by his dear friend, sociologist Allan Silver; the cavalcade of encomia offered by a virtual “Who’s Who” list at a memorial service at Columbia; Ryerson’s essay; and reminiscences published by philosophers David Albert, Arthur Danto, and Mark Steiner, as well as by Leon Wieseltier, who devoted an essay in The New Republic to recounting, inter alia, his experience with Morgenbesser as an undergraduate. I’m sure there were others.

As the eulogy explains, Morgenbesser felt a certain discomfort and ambivalence about his astonishing gift for humor. But how could anyone resist reporting this Morgenbesserism referenced by Danto: “We were having lunch once when someone he knew stopped and told us how busy he was: ‘So busy I don’t know whether I exist.’ To which Sidney said, ‘Think a little,’ and went on eating.”

Eulogy for Sidney Morgenbesser

August 2004

Even before his illness became severe, Sidney used to call people in the morning and say, “I’m dying.” Then he’d call back in the afternoon and say, “I’m feeling better.” One morning a few years ago he called and asked me to deliver a eulogy at his funeral. I was honored, needless to say, but I was in denial—I thought it would never come to that. And anyway I felt overwhelmed by the task. So, what I had three years to do I’ve instead had to do in a few days. I can only hope that the reality of our loss will sharpen my perception.

The portrait that follows is born of love and is offered with the deepest respect. I fervently hope that Sidney would have been satisfied with my understanding of him and would not have thought that I’ve overlooked some distinction of the sort he was forever making.

***

To use the language of philosophers, I’m not sure there is a general theory of Sidney. There may be no unified way to bring together Sidney the philosopher, Sidney the teacher, Sidney the humorist, Sidney the Jew, Sidney the friend, Sidney the devoted son, Sidney the baseball fan, Sidney the moral champion. Perhaps we can’t explain Sidney, but only Sidney “under a description,” for those familiar with that philosophical distinction. But in what follows I’ll do my best to talk cogently and affectionately about some diverse things that strike me as relevant.

Sidney Morgenbesser crackled with life and energy and power. He was as vivid a person as we’ll ever meet, and possibly the most exciting and unusual philosopher. His mind was a titanic force whose quickness and depth often left his interlocutors in the dust. His range was incredible, taking in all of the vast field of philosophy at a time when specialization was (as it still is) the order of the day. He would apply his acumen anytime, anywhere, and to any subject matter. Harry Frankfurt described him as a force of nature, and indeed he was. His personality was like a cannon shot; he would take over any room he walked into, usually bringing the assembled to merriment and raucous laughter . He was effusive in his warmth and his love, dispensing hugs and kisses that made you feel you had the truest friend in the world. He’d sometimes end a conversation by saying, “So long, friend,” and you knew that you were near and dear to him.

All of us were anguished during the last few years to see what had become of this extraordinary power. His voice became a whisper or less. He would tire of talking almost before the conversation began. The end stage of his ailments was torture for him. But even in those dark days his power burst through. First there was his ability to inspire devotion. I don’t just mean the incredible longstanding dedication of Joann [Joann Haimson, his longtime companion] and, over the past two years or so, the caring of his nurse Steve Jallim; their efforts to keep Sidney comfortable and functioning were heroic in the extreme. I mean also the amazing regularity with which people would call and visit, week in, week out. Speaking to Sidney, even from overseas, became part of their week. His power was there in another way. As soon as you began to discuss philosophy, the eyes suddenly opened wide with that piercing stare, and the voice would rise with alertness and vigor. Though his speech eventually faltered, to the end his mind retained its strength. To nearly the very end Sidney argued about philosophy. In the emergency room during his final days, what was he doing? Well, he was arguing with Mark Steiner about the philosophical status and nature of the equator.

That great life force was given, then, to the activity of arguing. In the 1968 riots, I am told, he argued, characteristically, with both the student protesters and the police. Now, often he was arguing against something rather than for, firing off objections with incredible rapidity. He could be terrifying in that way, whether you were a student or a colleague or a visitor delivering a paper at a faculty seminar. He’d say, “Let me see if I understand your thesis,” and then you’d watch the thesis crumble. Sometimes anger would flash forth in what amounted to a logically ordered tirade, spiced with salty language.

That anger was usually directed at pomposity and bombast. Sidney, as you know, was the very opposite of pompous; he kept his Lower East Side accent and mannerisms all through his John Dewey professorship at Columbia. He simply detested phoniness and put-ons. But often his criticism stung those who were simply sloppy or who had not thought things through all the way. (Frequently he would ask later, “Was I rude? Did I come on too strong?”) This critical side of his philosophizing should not obscure the incredible assistance he gave students and colleagues in constructing their positive arguments. He gave you huge chunks of time. And through his objections, as Mark Steiner noted, he would help you formulate your thesis in the best way even if he disagreed with it. Only through his criticism could you get where you needed to be. He could also be very generous with praise, often describing this or that person’s work as great or terrific. When you wrote something he liked, you felt you had passed the highest test. Still, there was this critical edge to much of what he did, and it is worth reflecting on it.

Criticism implies dissatisfaction, and Sidney at times seemed dissatisfied with anything less than a fully defensible thesis. He also at times gave the impression there is no such creature. Alan Berger tells me that Sidney remarked to him, “Yiddish is such a versatile language. It has so many ways of expressing negativity.” A revealing remark, I’d say. Sidney applied his high standard to himself. With a mind that moved with the speed of lightning, he cut through to problems instantaneously. He was perhaps too rough on himself, too self-critical for his own good. Part of this may have been modesty; part may have been not feeling sure of himself. He wasn’t a skeptic—he had firm convictions—but Jonathan Lieberson wrote that no one generates uncertainty about what one believes more skillfully than Morgenbesser; maybe this had some reflexive effect. He published relatively little—even if more than people realize—and at times characterized himself as not playing the game the way his colleagues did. He would joke that “if my alte bubbe knew it, it’s not worth publishing.” And: “Moses published one book—what did he do after that?” But jokes aside, how did he really feel about not writing up his ideas? Ideas and distinctions that made other people famous, like Donald Davidson’s concept of events under a description, had been developed by Sidney years earlier and only later independently by Davidson. His failure to put ideas into print was sad because it impeded his getting his due.

Most of what he left us is in the form of Torah she-be-al peh, an oral tradition of arguments, questions, criticisms, and distinctions. As David Albert pointed out, this is hardly inconsequential—it means he shaped the philosophical world not through writing but through conversation. Still, the mongering of distinctions, which Sidney excelled at, could go on endlessly, making it difficult to write. Jonathan Lieberson remarked in a New York Times article that students of Morgenbesser have trouble breaking free of that image of Sidney peering over his glasses to evaluate what they were writing. Some students found themselves writing in a way that sought to cover every conceivable objection and distinction. Lots of brilliant works were produced this way, thanks to Sidney. But there is a potential here for self-destructiveness, not only because of the feeling of pain and torture inherent in getting things exactly right, but because the more subtle the argument, the finer the distinctions, the less people appreciate it. Sidney’s writing was brilliant but difficult, incorporating perhaps a few distinctions too many and too much subtlety even for the taste of philosophers if they were unused to his style of discourse. It may be fair to say that in some respects he gave his students confidence while giving himself grief.

For all the seriousness with which Sidney took arguments, his humor was a hallmark of how he did philosophy. This most serious and austere of disciplines took on a hilarious cast and became loads of fun. As Josef Stern wrote to me, Sidney brought “liveliness, joy, and freshness.” The jokes could not help but endear Sidney to his audiences. Look on the web and you’ll see countless citations of his classic “yeah, yeah” joke, or his claim that pragmatism works in theory but not in practice. Occasionally one sharp Morgenbesser line could topple a whole thesis. Wittgenstein once remarked that you could write a book of philosophy consisting entirely of jokes. We all know who could have authored that book. Jonathan Lieberson, who made that connection to Wittgenstein, described Sidney as a combination of Spinoza and Groucho Marx.

But Sidney worried about this very gift. He worried that all that people would know of him would be that he was outlandishly funny—they would think he was a clown. Yet he was who he was, and wasn’t going to become dull and humorless just to dispel that worry. At the same time, there was this sad side, his nervousness about what this great and wonderful gift of humor would do to his reputation. He feared being misrepresented, his substantive contributions obscured. Philosophers knew him as one of the great minds. But on the popular level he did not get his due. My searching Google under “Sidney Morgenbesser” found the results inadequately sensitive to his greatness as a philosopher even while abundantly aware of his witticisms. It saddened me; Sidney was on to something.

The traits I have described—self-doubt, worry—are stereotypically Jewish traits. Sidney was quintessentially Jewish. He handled his Jewishness as if he had nothing to hide and everything to show. He chastised a distinguished Columbia faculty member who believed in obscuring one’s Jewishness: “Oh, I see, your motto is incognito ergo sum.” He used Yiddish expressions abundantly, and I recall his telling a gentile student in a course, “I bet you never thought you’d be at a disadvantage in Columbia graduate school in philosophy because you don’t understand Yiddish.” There was the time he illustrated the distinction between appearance and reality with the example, “I saw the pope this morning and he looked to me goyish.” There was his acute differentiation between the shlemiel, shmegege, and shlemazel. There was the time at Oxford when he was asked whether he wanted port or sherry and responded with a request for Manischewitz. There was his characterization of the law of a discipline called Jewish logic: “If P, why not Q?” He studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary and reported that at one point Mordechai Kaplan had expected him to be the leader of the Reconstructionist movement. He would return over and over to biblical concepts, worrying endlessly about the concept of kedushah (holiness) and about topics in the Bible. There’s his line about contradictions in Jewish biblical ethics: “Jewish ethics is so hard even God doesn’t understand it.” He described the difference between gentile and Jewish ethics as follows: “In gentile ethics [as Kant taught], ‘ought’ implies ‘can’; in Jewish ethics, ‘can’ implies ‘don’t’.”

In thinking about his love for things Jewish, I’m reminded of a story I heard about Sidney and his teacher Ernest Nagel. Nagel delivered a lecture and the young Sidney asked a very impressive question. Later on Nagel spoke at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He saw Sidney and asked, “What are you doing here?” To which Sidney replied, “That’s not the first time you asked me a question I can’t answer.” We don’t really know what he was doing there, what made him so Jewish, as it were. Two clues: Harry Frankfurt relates that he asked Sidney, “What do you love?” and Sidney responded, “The Jewish people.” And in some impromptu remarks at a conference of the Shalom Hartman Institute honoring his 75th birthday, Sidney said that he had been brought up on the Lower East Side to believe that one should seek truth and knowledge and that it was all of our responsibilities to do what is right and make the world better. He saw these as truths of Judaism.

In that last connection it must be pointed out that Sidney also had an exquisite moral sensibility. He was kind and loyal. One of the most endearing stories about him, related to me by Allan Silver, is that when Sidney had a heart attack, he transported himself not to a hospital near Columbia but to Beth Israel downtown—so that his mother on the Lower East Side would not have to travel far to visit him. I’m told that he called his mother 3 to 4 times a day (in Hebrew, that is known as kibbud em). On a larger plane he was very powerful in his criticism of moral failings and in his attempts to apply social philosophy to action. Bigotry enraged him. He was a founding member of the Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs. Human rights and equality were foremost on his agenda despite the seeming particularism of Judaism; he could make jokes about Jews and gentiles, but he believed in the equality of all people and believed further that Judaism championed social justice, despite elements in the tradition that left him uncomfortable. In ethics too his wit shone forth. Years after the Columbia riots, where he was clobbered by the police, he was being questioned for a panel for jury duty. One of the questions was, “Have you ever been treated unjustly or unfairly by the police?” His reply was classic: “I’ve been treated unjustly but not unfairly. They were clobbering everybody.”

***

The Sages in Ethics of the Fathers declare “ha’amidu talmidim harbeh.” That means not just “establish many students” but “make your students stand up on their own feet.” This Sidney did to a remarkable degree. His students, undergraduate as well as graduate, became among the most illustrious philosophers in the world. A number of those philosophers dedicated books to him. He shaped the field in ways that can’t be measured by publications, in ways related more to conversation and sheer presence and force of personality. His impact staggers the mind.

We bid shalom to this most exciting and wonderful of men, whose memory is as indelible in death as the image of him was powerful in life. So long, friend, and may your memory be a source of blessing to the legions who loved you.

***

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‘Yeah, Yeah’: Eulogy for Sidney Morgenbesser, Philosopher With a Yiddish Accent

As his 10th yahrzeit nears, a remembrance of Sidney the teacher, Sidney the humorist, Sidney the arguer, Sidney the Jew

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