Columbia University philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser died last weekend; he was best known for his response to J. L. Austin, “who noted that it was peculiar that although there are many languages in which a double negative makes a positive, no example existed where two positives expressed a negative. In a dismissive voice, Morgenbesser replied from the audience, ‘Yeah, yeah…'” I’ve quoted the anecdote (whose punchline I’ve also heard as “Yeah, right”) from Gary Shapiro’s obituary in the New York Sun, where you will find many other “Sidney stories” (“asked about Mao Tse Tung’s view of the law of non-contradiction, Morgenbesser replied, ‘I do and do not agree.’ Asked why there is something rather than nothing, he replied, ‘Even if there were nothing, you’d still be complaining!'”). I would have enjoyed taking a class from him. (Via Mark Liberman at Language Log, who adds still more stories and links.)

Addendum. Shapiro has a new Sun piece about a Columbia gathering to remember Morgenbesser, with plenty more good stories:

Aesthetician Arthur Danto, who got to know Morgenbesser in 1952, recalled one imperturbable scholar making the distinction that a religious man never doubts but a philosopher doubts.

Turning to Mr. Danto, Morgenbesser said sotto voce, “The Lubavitcher Rebbe has had more doubts in a single night than that man has had in his entire life.”

Thanks, Gary!


  1. I’ve heard the “Even if there were nothing …” story attributed to Martin Heidegger as well. Even if apocryphal, stories like this tell us something about figures like Morgenbesser: they let us know if they were the kind of person to whom such stories can be plausibly attributed. Not everybody is that kind of person.
    Another story similar to “yeah, right”, but with no names attached: Lecturer says, “The English language has examples of suffixes and prefixes, but no examples of infixes, even though these are not uncommon in other languages.” Voice from the room says, “Un-fucking-believable!”

  2. Huh, I had heard the fella in that “yeah, yeah” story was Wittgenstein.

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