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Columbia College Today May 2005
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Remembering Sidney Morgenbesser

Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004)
Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004)


John Dewey Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Sidney Morgenbesser, who died on August 1 in Manhattan, was equally celebrated for his kibitzing and witticisms as for his teaching skills and subject knowledge. After teaching at Swarthmore and the New School for Social Research, Morgenbesser joined Columbia’s faculty as a lecturer in 1953. By 1966, he was a full professor. His interests included pragmatism, human rights, philosophy of the social sciences and theory of knowledge. Popular with students and colleagues, Morgenbesser was honored with the Society of Columbia Graduates’ Great Teacher Award in 1982. (For more on Morgenbesser’s career, see September 2004 CCT, page 9.) Here, Morgenbesser is remembered by his colleagues and friends David Albert ’76, Arthur C. Danto ’49 GSAS, ’52 GSAS and Mark Steiner ’65.

Facing the Fear

By David Albert ’76

The first thing to say about Sidney Morgenbesser is that there can be no taking the measure of him, that there can be no putting one’s finger on him — not in a small piece like this, and not in one 100 times longer, either. He was too vast and too deep and too complicated and too funny and too fast. He took too many forms. We carry him around in too many different parts of ourselves. Those of us who knew him are going to be talking about him for the rest of our lives, and other people are going to be talking about him after we’re gone. And I suspect we are never going to get to the bottom of him, or have our fill of him, or hear the end of him.

In token, then, of not knowing where to start or what to emphasize, let me say that Sidney was among the bravest and the most dignified human beings I have encountered in my life. He was a philosopher in the nearly forgotten, gigantic, primordial sense of the word. He looked straight at the world. And the bravery in this was not at all a matter of Sidney’s being somehow unafraid of what he might see but of his being very much afraid of it, of his being aware that it was going to hurt him, that it was going to cost him — and doing it anyway. There was this breathtaking defenselessness in the way that Sidney comported himself toward the world, in the way that he opened himself up toward the world. And this had an intellectual dimension and an ethical dimension that were of a piece with one another, and came together.

Sidney was no skeptic, and anybody who says otherwise just didn’t know him. But Sidney knew incomparably better than most of us that knowledge is hard. He was somehow acquainted more intimately and more openly and more perfectly than anybody else I know with the excruciating reluctance of the world to be pinned down. What everybody knew best about Sidney was that he was as relentless and fearsome and hilarious an enemy of every imaginable variety of dishonesty and pretension as has ever walked on the earth. There are (really, literally) thousands of those stories. It was Sidney who said to B.F. Skinner, “Let me get this straight: Your objection to traditional psychology is that it anthropomorphizes human beings?”, and it was Sidney who pointed out that there is a natural-selection explanation for the fact that what goes up must come down, since “The stuff that didn’t come down isn’t here anymore!”, and it was Sidney who said that pragmatism was true but didn’t work, and it was Sidney who said that the most perfectly philosophical question he could think of was whether there could be Jews on other planets, and so on and so forth, forever and ever. And it was sometimes not appreciated, and it was sometimes difficult to imagine, that immediately behind all that lay an unfathomable ocean of subtlety and difficulty and struggle.

Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004)
Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004)


Sociology Professor Allan Silver gave a beautiful speech at Sidney’s funeral, in which he said that Sidney somehow raised embarrassment to a place of the very highest moral dignity. I think that’s just right, and I want to add that Sidney did very much the same thing with kvetching. Sidney once said to me that there were exactly two circumstances in which he was capable of feeling in touch with the eternal, in which he was capable of feeling that time had somehow ceased to matter. One was on seeing a student’s eyes light up on suddenly understanding exactly what it was that (say) some particular passage in Plato was getting at, and the other was on Yom Kippur, when he could sit in shul and listen to the kvetching of the whole world, and feel it roll down onto him, through all the generations, from the beginning of time. And he somehow made room for all of that suffering inside himself.

Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004)
"A philosopher in the nearly forgotten, gigantic, primordial sense of the word."


And he allowed every single particle of all of that suffering to hurt him personally. I remember Sidney and I sitting together in my office in 1992, on the morning after Clinton was elected. Neither of us had any illusions about Clinton, but both of us were caught up just then in the immense relief of Bush’s having lost. We were laughing and happy, and all of a sudden Sidney starts to kvetch. He said, “I can’t tell you what it’s been like for me, I can’t tell you how I have suffered, these past 12 years under Reagan and Bush.” And then he started to cry. At that, the floor just sort of came out from under me. I didn’t quite know what I was in the presence of, and I didn’t quite know what to do. And I could, of course, go on and on.

Suffice it to say that I love him and I miss him and I owe him more than I would have any idea how to say, no matter how much space there was to write.

David Albert '76

David Albert ’76 has been on the faculty of Columbia’s philosophy department since 1987, focusing mainly on the philosophical foundations of physics. He earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the Rockefeller University in New York in 1981.


A Philosophical Life Built of Doubts

By Arthur C. Danto

I met Sidney Morgenbesser in the early 1950s, when he had definitively abandoned any idea of a rabbinical career and was writing a thesis at Penn with Nelson Goodman — “the fastest gun in the East” — on the philosophy of the social sciences. Sidney already was a legendary figure. I had returned to Columbia after a year teaching at the University of Colorado, where I was introduced to the ideas of Wittgenstein by some young analytical philosophers who were scornful of most of what I had learned at Columbia. “Wait until you meet Morgenbesser!” I was told by some of the smart students who had crossed the street from Jewish Theological to study with Ernest Nagel, who taught logic and the philosophy of science, and was in touch with the ideas that were transforming philosophical practice everywhere else. Sidney’s friends called him Morgie and represented him as a romantic figure with uncompromisingly avant garde philosophical convictions. He believed, I was told, that everything should be translated into the language of symbolic logic, including War and Peace. We met not long after I published my first paper in the Journal of Philosophy, which Sidney read as a matter of course, as he read everything. Despite his reputation for logical ferocity, Sidney said, “Thank God someone had gotten out of the metalanguage!” and though there were a lot of objections, he appreciated the effort. We became close friends as well as collaborators, and part of one another’s lives.

Early on, we were required to serve as teaching assistants to a senior colleague in an introductory College course. This man was not someone either of us especially admired, and we were put off by his imperturbable complacency. The religious man never doubts, he told the students, but the philosopher always doubts. Sidney leaned over and whispered: “The Lubavitcher Rebbe has more doubts in a single night than that man has had in his entire life.” I think Sidney was speaking about himself, as well. He had told me of being offered an extraordinary position in New York’s most prestigious synagogue, but that he turned it down because he had doubts about the existence of God. His advisers at the seminary told him to go ahead, that he would work things out as he performed his rabbinical duties, but Sidney felt that would be immoral, and he became Hillel director at Swarthmore instead. There is a difference between methodological doubt — indispensable in philosophical pedagogy — and deep-down doubts that shake the soul. Sidney’s was a philosophical life built out of such doubts.

I think one of his doubts was whether anyone, however smart, is really right. There always will be something wrong, if one looks hard enough. Wittgenstein wondered how it was possible to stop doing philosophy — a question that never bothered me, since I could stop on a dime. But Sidney never stopped doing philosophy — it was not something he took off like a garment when he left the classroom. When we taught together, Sidney would say, no matter what the topic, that there were at least seven difficulties, and he would write 1 through 7 on the blackboard, and then proceed to go through his objections, some of which he invented on the spot. If he finished, he would just write some more numbers, and give some more objections.

If I asked for his criticism of something I wrote, he would do the same. I developed a sense for when the objections were of a kind nobody but Sidney would think of, and would publish the piece at that point. But Sidney could not think that way, which was why, I believe, he found it so hard to write. That is what made us such effective collaborators. I heard secondhand that someone said that while I did philosophy, Sidney lived philosophy.

Descartes said “L’ame pense toujours” (“The soul is always thinking”), and though he intended it as a general metaphysical truth, it was flagrantly true of Sidney, who never took time off, not even in baseball, which was a philosophical passion of his and a gold mine of examples, like the Yiddish language. He told me that the first time he saw grass was at Yankee Stadium. His legendary wit was the outward expression of living philosophically. 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.

Here is a spectacular example: We were walking across campus with Daya Krishna, an Indian philosopher who published in Mind. He was explaining his view of the difference between Eastern and Western philosophy through the kinds of illusions that thinkers respectively use as examples. The Western paradigm is the stick that looks bent in water: Though we know it is straight, we still see it as bent. Eastern philosophers illustrate their views with the rope that looks like a snake: When we see that it is only a piece of rope, we no longer see it as a snake. We live through the illusion, the whole world changes as we do so. Sidney said East and West meet with the example of what looks like a crooked snake in water that turned out to be a straight piece of rope. It was and was not a joke, like everything he said. The three of us collapsed in laughter, but Sidney was serious.

Sidney was a voracious and retentive reader. His office on the seventh floor of Philosophy Hall was so piled up with books that one could hardly move around in it. I took my daughter, Ginger, to visit him one day — she was his goddaughter — and she marveled at all the stacks. “I have another office for my books,” he told her. One day we were with Edward Said in a bookstore. “I didn’t know this was already out!” Sidney exclaimed, pouncing on a new book. It was an expensive book, and he felt he could not afford it. Edward offered to buy it for him, but Sidney could not accept that. He was impulsively generous, but diffident about being given something. He picked it up, set it down. Edward offered again, and Sidney finally said OK. His book-lust prevailed. Edward looked at him with astonishment, and said, “You forget that I’m an Arab!”

Morgenbesser with Joann Haimson, his companion of 34 years.
Morgenbesser with Joann Haimson, his companion of 34 years.

Not long before he died, Sidney and I were talking about the Islamic suicide bombers in Israel. I asked if the Jews had any conception of an afterlife. He said, “Yeah, you study Talmud. If you like studying Talmud, it’s heaven. If you don’t, it’s hell.” It was like him to see the difference between heaven and hell as a philosophical difference, momentous and indiscernible.

Sidney’s was not a life like any other, because living philosophy is rare, even for philosophers. When Jonathan Lieberson wrote an introduction to a Festschrifft for Sidney, it read like a compilation of zingers, and I know he was somewhat tormented by this as a portrait. He complained that people would think of him as a kind of standup comic. As well as I knew him, I never succeeded in arriving at an understanding of what wit meant in his case, existentially, so to speak. It certainly did not mean lightness of spirit, any more than, to cite the nearest case I know of, it meant that for Dr. Johnson. My sense is that it implied a view of the world that most of us have been spared. After all, living a certain way implies a certain vision of reality. Reconstructing the world of Sidney Morgenbesser exceeds my powers. It probably exceeded his. He would never be convinced that there was not something wrong with it, if one pressed hard enough. What made him priceless as a friend and teacher didn’t mean that it was easy to be him.

Arthur C. Danto '49 GSAS, '52 GSAS

Emeritus Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy Arthur C. Danto ’49 GSAS, ’52 GSAS has been on the Columbia faculty since 1951 and a professor since 1966. Danto served as vice president and president of the American Philosophical Association, as president of the American Society for Aesthetics, has written many books and articles, is an editor of the Journal of Philosophy and is consulting editor for other publications. He has been art critic for The Nation since 1984.

The Last Days of Morgenbesser

By Mark Steiner ’65

There is a Penguin Classic called The Last Days of Socrates, containing dialogues (written, of course, by his great disciple, Plato) purporting to describe the trial and execution of the great philosopher, who asked too many questions that powerful men could not answer. Professor Sidney Morgenbesser, has been compared to Socrates so often that a similar memoir seems appropriate, and since I was privileged to engage him in his last philosophical discussion, it is only natural that I should write the memoir. Unfortunately, I’m no Plato, and have no pretensions of writing for eternity. Furthermore, in any debate, Morgenbesser would have wiped the floor with Socrates by pulling his soup trick. (You don’t know what the soup trick was? So I’ll tell you: Morgenbesser walked into a West Side restaurant, sat down and ordered “soup.” Replied the waiter, “Well, we have vegetable soup, mushroom soup, consommé, matzo ball soup, goulash soup …” “None of those,” Morgenbesser cut him off. “I want just plain soup.” So much for Socratic/Platonic universals.)

I went to visit him one Friday at the home of his devoted companion, Joann Haimson, on West 111 Street. Since moving to Israel in 1977, I had been returning to Columbia to teach in the summers, and one of the things that made the heat bearable was the knowledge that I would be seeing Morgenbesser and consulting with him about my philosophical projects and problems. Of course, Morgenbesser would not “solve” the problems, but only confuse me more by posing questions I could not answer. I wasn’t always sure I even understood the things he said, but I knew it was worthwhile thinking about them — some of the things he told us in class in 1961, which I duly wrote down without understanding, have just recently become clear to me when I started working on the problems that exercised him then. Even after Morgenbesser contracted his disease, which left him a Cartesian mind without a body, unable to eat or do anything but think, his mind continued to sparkle. Once he began to speak about philosophy, he forgot everything but philosophy, and if I closed my eyes, I could imagine that I was still in his classroom in Hamilton Hall, watching him scribble an analytical outline of endless distinctions on the board: I, A, i, a, (1), (a), 1), a)... (he never got to any kind of “2” or “B”). It was only because of the loving care that Joann had lavished upon him that he had been able to survive physically and mentally so long, and I will never forget her. (His devoted medical care giver, Steve Jallim, also must be mentioned with eternal gratitude.) Whenever I visited, our conversations were continually been interrupted by calls from all over the globe, from people who wanted to know his opinions on every subject imaginable. This was in addition to what can only be called philosophical pilgrims who came to his bedside to learn what they could, for as long as they could.

That Friday, the rain poured in a fury. As I walked through the door on the third floor with the “Kerry for President” sign, I was shocked to see Joann, Steve and hospital attendants wheeling Morgenbesser toward the door. Joann had never consented to hospitalize him, preferring always to bring the necessary equipment (even X-ray machines) to his bedside, so I feared the worst. Morgenbesser, whose limbs were cold, extended his hand to me in greeting as he was wheeled by.

Morgenbesser was brought to a cubicle and hooked up to machines in the emergency room. I made a sudden decision to ignore the surroundings and speak to my teacher about the things I had come to discuss. “Professor Morgenbesser,” I said, “I’m teaching a class on science and objectivity now at Columbia and I wanted to know whether you think the difference between reality and objectivity is that the former is an ontological category and the latter epistemological.” Though his eyes were lidded, he nodded his head, and I was encouraged to ask another question.

“What is reality?” I asked. I should have known the answer by now, after teaching philosophy for 35 years, but I still wanted to hear what he would say, since he always treated philosophical problems as though he were hearing them for the first time, the way a great rabbi relates to a Talmudic text.

“Is my lap real?” he parried. Of course, all his questions were philosophical traps, and I preferred to answer his question with yet another question.

“Is the equator real?” I asked.

“F*!?+#@ Frege,” came the immediate answer, referring to the great logician and philosopher of mathematics, Gottlob Frege, who, in his classic work, The Foundations of Arithmetic, remarks that the equator, though objective, is not real. His speech was so slurred by now that he had to spell out some of the words, but the expletive was loud and clear.

“So what is the equator?” I persisted.

“A linguistic entity,” he answered. I don’t know what he meant by that and I’m afraid now that I’ll never know.

At this point I had to run out for coffee, despite the downpour. When I came back I entered the cubicle together with a young intern.

“Is this man the philosophy professor?” the intern queried Joann.

“Are you surprised?” Morgenbesser shot back. By now, with Morgenbesser once again sounding like himself (“It took a lot of practice,” I can hear him saying), I felt I could leave, for the sun was declining and the Sabbath was approaching. Steve (who is not Jewish) confided in me that he was unhappy keeping Morgenbesser at St. Luke’s over the Sabbath, given the “non-Jewish atmosphere” there. I assured him that the patient’s welfare was the primary consideration, and that St. Luke’s was a good hospital. It has kosher food available, but in any case, Morgenbesser hadn’t eaten for quite a while, and even when he ate, was not known to avoid nonkosher foods. (He did tell me, however, with great pride, that when invited to dine at the Oxford High Table, and they asked him “Port, sir, or sherry?”, he created a scandal by ordering something they had never heard of: “Manischewitz.”) St. Luke’s, I’m told, even has an automatic elevator that stops at every floor, for the benefit of Sabbath observers, who don’t “ride” on the Sabbath, but I had never heard that Morgenbesser didn’t ride on the Sabbath. (He had once asked me, “Do you know the difference between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism?” Knowing there was no point in guessing, I answered, “What?” “In the Orthodox synagogue, the rabbi and the congregation walk to the synagogue on the Sabbath; Conservative, the rabbi walks and the congregation rides; Reform, the rabbi and the congregation ride; for the Reconstructionists,” he concluded, “the distinction between riding and walking is an untenable dualism.”)

On Monday, before my “Science and Objectivity” class, I returned to St. Luke’s to find Morgenbesser upstairs in the ward, sitting in a chair. His speech was also much better, and we were able to conduct a real conversation. It was a beautiful day, and we could see the Columbia campus from his room on an upper floor.

As usual, he asked me how the (philosophy) department was doing. After all, the Columbia philosophy department had been his real home for more than 40 years. The corridor on the seventh floor of Philosophy Hall had become for him what the agora was for Socrates. It was there that he delivered some of his most famous lines, as when he accosted a colleague — who had told a graduate student with writer’s block to “do what I do: Relax and let the material take over” — and shouted “Dick! I hear you’re being written by a book.” It was there that he argued untold hours with his colleague and erstwhile student, Isaac Levi ’57 GSAS, about the role of “decisions” in rational belief formation (or at least revision). But by now, of course, many of these colleagues were no longer on the seventh floor, or no longer alive. Instead, there were many new members whom he didn’t know personally, though I was amazed at how much he knew about their philosophical personae.

The conversation turned to my work, and I made a lighthearted remark in mock dismay about how the ranking of my book had slipped from 55,000 to 187,000 on the “bestseller” list. Morgenbesser did not find this funny, in fact his anger burned within him (Joann was happy that he was still able to get angry, but that didn’t make me feel better). “Whataya worrying about sales?” he said, making it sound as I had sold out to the forces of mammon. “Why don’t you care about truth?”

Truth. It sounded old-fashioned, but Morgenbesser really believed it. He certainly did not buy Richard Rorty’s idea that truth is whatever you can get away with saying in the faculty club. He didn’t even accept Levi’s idea that truth is fine, but that the indelible convictions that an excessive regard for truth encourages can stifle free inquiry. Instead, Morgenbesser was an unreconstructed Dewey liberal — there are propositions in whose truth I fully believe, but at the same time I continue to hold that I could be wrong. Morgenbesser was more aware than anybody of the problematic (and perhaps inconsistent) nature of saying that I am certain of something, yet could be wrong about it — aware of the charge that the Deweyan formulation is just a smokescreen for the view that nobody should ever be sure about anything. Yet there is no question that he lived by the doctrine, or rather that he was the personification of precisely this duality: passionate commitment (to the point of suffering physical violence in political demonstrations against the war in Vietnam) to what he believed was the truth, together with unceasing doubt about those very things. It was for this reason that he was willing to engage anyone in conversation, whatever his or her views. Voltaire is supposed to have said, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Morgenbesser went far beyond this — if he disagreed with what you said, he would help you formulate your (false and perhaps harmful) doctrine in the strongest possible way, so that the truth would be challenged in the most robust fashion.

Morgenbesser often joked about some of his colleagues, referring to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics, “He’s like an electron: You can’t tell where he is and where he is going at the same time.” Yet Morgenbesser himself had “quantum” properties — he seemed to me to be a “superposition” of incompatible propositions, as in the immortal (and, by now, oft quoted) line he said to David Albert ’76 shortly before Morgenbesser’s death, is “Why are you punishing me, God? Just because I don’t believe in You?” For someone who didn’t believe in Him, he spent an enormous amount of time with me, discussing such matters as how Adam and Eve could have sinned in the Garden of Eden, if the evil inclination was a result, not a cause, of the sin. Or why God was so much more angry at the Israelites in Numbers than in Exodus (“In Numbers, every time the Jews open their mouths — boom!” he told me). He worried that there would not be a minyan of 10 Jews at his grave. He was furious at one of his philosophical colleagues for suggesting that religion was nothing but a palliative, a placebo. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe,” he thundered, “has more anguish in one night than you’ll have in your entire life.”

Morgenbesser dancing on the beach at a wedding celebration.
Morgenbesser dancing on the beach at a wedding celebration.

Here was my mentor, castigating me for valuing sales more than truth, a more serious rebuke than I ever had heard from any rabbi. “Well, in any event,” I changed the subject weakly, “the Christians like my book.”

Immediately, his demeanor changed, and his familiar puzzled look replaced the anger. “I don’t understand the Christians,” he said, with complete seriousness. “I just don’t understand them. I think I understand Maimonides, but I simply don’t understand the Christians.”

Those were his last words to me.

The funeral was itself a Morgenbesserian superposition, in a small chapel on the Lower East Side, where Morgenbesser was born and spent his formative years, a group of colleagues, largely atheists, heard a rabbi with a long beard and a long coat, speaking the Galician dialect of Yiddish, inform the congregation that “Shloime ben Shimon” was a great “maymin” (believer) who had lived his entire life according to the ideals of the Shlomo Kluger Yeshiva which he had attended as a boy. More balanced, and moving, portraits were given by friends who knew better: by David Shatz, a philosophy professor (M.Phil. ’75, Ph. D. ’77, both Columbia), ordained rabbi, and Morgenbesser’s student, who had been asked by Morgenbesser to deliver the eulogy at his funeral three years before his death; and by Allan Silver, the Columbia sociologist, who had been a close friend.

When we went to the gravesite in Flushing, Queens (and, for the record, Morgenbesser needn’t have worried — there were far more than needed for a minyan), to pay the last respects to this great man, when the last clods of earth had been shoveled (by Steve, who couldn’t stop crying), the rabbi said: “Shloime ben Shimon has nobody to sit shiva for him, no sons to say kaddish for him. Don’t forget his name, Shloime ben Shimon. And if you ever find yourself in shul, please don’t forget to say a kaddish for him. Fargess nisht.” I often find myself in shul, and I don’t forget.

Mark Steiner '65

Mark Steiner ’65 was born in the Bronx and was educated in yeshiva elementary and high schools. Sidney Morgenbesser convinced him to change his major to philosophy from mathematics, and Steiner says his “period as an undergraduate

under his tutelage was one of the happiest in my life.” After studying at Oxford as a Fulbright Fellow and at Princeton (Ph.D., 1972), Steiner returned to Columbia, where he taught from 1970–77. Since then, he has been at the philosophy department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, returning yearly to teach in Columbia’s Summer Session. Steiner is married to Rachel Freeman ’65 Barnard.




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