Sidney Morgenbesser

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Sidney Morgenbesser (September 22, 1921August 1, 2004) was an American philosopher, noted for his wit.


  • 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 in response to B.F. Skinner: "Are you telling me it's wrong to anthropomorphize people?" (quoted by Daniel Dennett: The Evolution of Purposes)
  • 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."[3]
  • 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…” [4]
  • 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][5]
  • 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 "unjust, but not unfair. It was unjust because they hit me over the head, but not unfair because they hit everyone else over the head.”[1][5] 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.
  • 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 Leibniz's ontological query "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Morgenbesser answered "If there were nothing you'd still be complaining!"
  • "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
  • 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][5]
  • Asked to prove a questioner's existence, Morgenbesser shot back, "Who's asking?"[6]
  • A student once interrupted him and said, "I just don't understand." He responded, "Why should you have the advantage over me?"[6]


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