August 07, 2004
From a NYT obituary of the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser that Joshua Sommer pointed out to me:
Dr. Morgenbesser's reputation for questioning other scholars, often in midsentence with barbed humor, struck fear in the hearts of would-be sages.
It went like this, according to Arthur Danto, a Columbia philosopher: "Let me see if I understand you," Dr. Morgenbesser would begin.
"He would restate the thesis, and that would be that," Dr. Danto said. "It was one of the ordeals you had to go through."
In an interview yesterday, Noam Chomsky, the linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who agreed with Dr. Morgenbesser about some things and not others, called him "one of the most knowledgeable and in many ways profound thinkers of the modern period."
Dr. Chomsky called him "a philosopher in the old sense - not so much what's on the printed page, but in debate and inspiring discussion."
Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton, struggled to define Dr. Morgenbesser's contribution, finally resorting to metaphor.
"You don't ask what the wind does," he said. "It's just power and self-sustaining energy."
But it was often energy with a humorous punch line, as Dr. Morgenbesser earned fame for witticisms. He insisted the jokes were openings to more substantive philosophic discussions.
An example: in the 1950's, the British philosopher J. L. Austin came to Columbia to present a paper about the close analysis of language. He pointed out that although two negatives make a positive, nowhere is it the case that two positives make a negative. "Yeah, yeah," Dr. Morgenbesser said.
Posted by tplambeck at 10:25 AM
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