Columbia Pays Its Respects to Morgenbesser

One thing is for sure, Sidney Morgenbesser was much loved. The memorial at Columbia this past Sunday was touching, and it reminded me of his deep decency, humility and brilliance. Noam Chomsky told a story of his first encounter with Sidney. Chomsky, as a undergraduate, saw a flyer for a course on philosophy of the social science taught by the visiting Hillel scholar in residence at Swarthmore, a young Sidney. He described Sidney, I think accurately, as perhaps the most insightful thinker on the issue ever. The first lecture was apparently brilliant and left the young Chomsky riveted. He went back to the second class, where a morose Sidney walks in announces that he knows nothing about the issue and cancels the course. But most of what was said at the memorial was about how his mind and his compassion were so intertwined.

“‘There can be no taking the measure of Sidney, there can be no putting one’s finger on him, not on this occasion not on any other,’ said David Albert, after welcoming attendees on behalf of the Columbia philosophy department, describing him as too vast, deep, complicated, funny, and fast.

‘Most of us are going to be talking about him for the rest of our lives. And other people are going to be talking about him after we’re gone. And I suspect we are never going to hear the end of him.’

Mr. Albert described Morgenbesser as a ‘philosopher in the nearly gigantic, primordial sense of the word’ who knew better than most that knowledge is hard.

Mr. Albert recalled how at Morgenbesser’s funeral, sociologist Allan Silver said that Sidney had raised embarrassment to a place of high moral dignity.”

And it was a sight to see.