Do you have a quick answer to this question? If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? Here’s mine: Sidney Morgenbesser. Unfortunately, he is of the latter category. A revered philosophy professor at Columbia University for five decades, he was in the business of blowing minds. Noam Chomsky once stated that he was “one of the most knowledgeable and, in many ways, profound thinkers of the modern period.” He was “a philosopher in the old sense,” Dr. Chomsky explained. “Not so much what’s on the printed page but in debate and inspiring discussion.” Some have even likened him to a modern-day Socrates.
Those unfamiliar with the man may be thinking he was a crotchety, elbow-patched academic. I bear no evidence of his choice in outerwear, but he was widely known for his witticisms, often wrapped around a prickly sense of humor, which he used to provoke meaningful discussions. Open, generous, sensitive, and unpretentious, he was loved for the intensity of his engagement and his passion for relevant discourse. He’s been described as not so much an idea architect but a distiller of truths. In defending himself to those critical of his lack of published works, he quipped: “Moses published one book. What did he do after that?”
My favorite zinger illustrating the deftness he so naturally possessed came from a lecture he attended as an audience member. The speaker was fellow philosophy professor, at Oxford, J.L. Austin, who said, “In English, a double-negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double-negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double-positive can express a negative.”
In a dismissive voice from the back of the room came Morgenbesser’s reply: “Yeah, right.”