Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Quote of the Day

with 2 comments

Sidney Morgenbesser

During a talk on the philosophy of language at Columbia in the fifties, [the philosopher J.L.] Austin noted that while a double negative amounts to a positive, never does a double positive amount to a negative. From the audience, [Morgenbesser] muttered a dismissive, “Yeah, yeah.”

New York Times profile of Sidney Morgenbesser

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2014 at 7:30 am

2 Responses

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  1. I studied with Morgenbesser in the 1980’s. I felt sorry for Sydney. He struck me as unhinged and distracted. He gave me the impression that he had serious psychological problems. I also suspected he was a substance abuser–it seemed as though he was always on amphetamines.
    I had very little interaction with Sydney at Columbia, but all of it was entirely negative. He seemed to be deeply paranoid. He once came up to me and accused me of being antagonistic. I had no idea what he was talking about. After that, I tried to go out of my way to be nicer to him. This made him even angrier, and he then accused me of “sucking up” to him. You couldn’t win with Sydney when he was playing his silly, destructive games. No matter what you did, he’d bully you around.
    Sydney was extremely irresponsible. It was well-known that he almost never did any work, whether it was preparing for classes or writing philosophy articles. His research output was as skimpy as his class preparation was deficient. He also had a dreadful habit of borrowing lots of books from people and never returning them. His idea of being a professor was to take, take, take, and give back as little as possible. He didn’t come around the Department much, and when he did, he was there just to amuse himself, often at some unfortunate student’s expense. At the end of class, he usually jumped right up and left the building immediately so that no one would have a chance to ask him anything. The two minutes or so of time that professors typically devote to students immediately after class concerning such matters as term papers, etc., were more than he could bear. I don’t think he read any of the students’ papers anyway. You’d get a grade, but you’d never get comments. He probably assigned grades by flipping a coin: ‘B-‘ for heads, and ‘C+’ for tails. He was like Leona Helmsley, who notoriously said, “Only little people pay taxes.” Sydney seemed to think that “Only untenured faculty members read students’ papers and prepare for classes.”
    Sydney had the manner of a person who had never worked a day in his life, and had no intention of ever doing so. He must, however, have done some work a few decades before I met him, as he did have a PhD, as well as some vague notions about the dominant philosophical movements that had been in fashion during the first half of the 20th Century, long before I began my studies at Columbia. There was nothing clear, systematic or orderly about his class presentations on these movements. No matter what topic was under discussion, it was obvious that he never took it the least bit seriously. That was my chief objection to Sydney. If I had only been interested in learning how to crack jokes, I would have taken up stand-up comedy rather than philosophy. I could have apprenticed myself to Louis C.K., or at least studied his jokes carefully, rather than the works of William James. If I had enrolled in a physics program, I wouldn’t have been satisfied if a professor in that program had only discussed astrology in his classes.
    I can recall a few of Sydney’s inconsequential remarks in class. He drew a distinction between “tender-minded” and “tough-minded” philosophers, and seemed to think this was a distinction of great significance. In fact, it merely expresses the difference between incompetent philosophers and competent ones. He also pointed out, in his witty style, that contemporary anti-realism, as articulated by Putnam and Dummett, illustrated the point that “If you live long enough, you’ll see everything come back into fashion.” (British Idealism had been popular in the early 20th Century, but had become unpopular there and in the U.S. by the 1950’s. By the 1980’s, a different form of anti-realism was becoming fashionable again.) These comments were typical of Sydney’s teaching, which largely consisted of avoiding the hard work of carefully articulating philosophical positions and closely examining the arguments for and against them. I found his class to be an unusually dumbed-down version of a genuine philosophy class. It was something like a “Physics for Poets” class in which you use the minimum possible amount of math., or even no math. at all. Sydney’s class was more for poetry students than philosophy students–he used the minimum possible amount of rigorous, organized thinking about the arguments for and against philosophical points of view. For me, the class was a complete waste of time. His class might have worked well for college freshmen (or freshpeople!), however, and it’s easy to imagine a person like Robert Nozick–who, as an undergraduate at Columbia, studied with Sydney–finding Sydney’s classes stimulating. My class with Sydney, however, was for PhD students, and it shouldn’t have been taught as if it were for college freshmen.
    While I was at Columbia, the graduate program admitted quite a few Israelis, who had previously studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Sydney was rather fond of them and enjoyed talking with them. I personally found them loud and obnoxious. They talked a lot, but all I ever heard come out of their mouths was an endless stream of incoherent babbling. There was one, however, who was fairly quiet and who actually thought about what she said before she said it. She ended up as a full professor in the University of California system. I never saw her wasting her time talking to Sydney while she was at Columbia.
    I personally found Sydney to be a very nasty guy. I couldn’t see what others saw in him, and it took me by surprise to come across accounts of him written after his death by people who were very fond of him. As far as I was concerned, Sydney was quite worthless as a person, as a teacher, and as a researcher. It is hard for me to understand how he could have held an endowed chair at Columbia–he was the “John Dewey Professor of Philosophy” there–and even harder to understand how Columbia could have created an endowed chair in his honor after he died, the “Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy.” A few clever jokes don’t strike me as a sufficient justification for all those honors and accolades.


    March 28, 2016 at 8:48 pm

  2. Sorry for the belated reply—I found your perspective here very interesting. I didn’t know much about Morgenbesser aside from the usual tidbits and quips, and I’m glad you shared your personal experiences, which are worth preserving.


    April 24, 2016 at 9:03 pm

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