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August 1: The Sidewalk Socrates

Lawrence Bush
July 31, 2016

sidneyMorgenbesserPhilosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, who taught at Columbia University for four decades and was dubbed “the Sidewalk Socrates” by James Ryerson in the New York Times magazine, died of ALS at 82 on this date in 2004. Morgenbesser was a master of the hilarious, brainy quip (click here for some examples) and a beloved teacher. A product of New York’s Lower East Side, he earned rabbinical ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary and lived comfortably the world of Jewish ethics and values. (“Why is God making me suffer so much?” he said towards the end of his life. “Just because I don’t believe in him?”) Yet “to anyone who visits a library to gauge his influence,” wrote Ryerson, “Sidney Morgenbesser . . . is practically a nonentity . . . Not since Socrates has a philosopher gained such a reputation for greatness while publishing so little of note. Certainly no one else shaped so many seminal thinkers while leaving behind almost nothing in the way of major doctrines or ideas. ‘Moses published one book,’ Morgenbesser pleaded in his own defense. ‘What did he do after that?’ ” For much of his career, he was on the editorial board of the Journal of Philosophy and focused on the philosophy of science, theories of knowledge, and pragmatism and human rights. In 1967, Morgenbesser a letter refusing to pay taxes in protest of the Vietnam War. To hear him speaking about philosophers of American pragmatism, look below.

“During a talk on the philosophy of language at Columbia in the 50’s, [Oxford 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, a familiar nasal voice muttered a dismissive, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ . . . 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.” --James Ryerson

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.