Short Takes

by Gerald Dworkin

Hemingway was thought to have written the finest, very short, story. It was a classified advertisement whose text was “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” I have always been attracted to very miniature versions of linguistic expression. It is interesting to seek the minimum number of words for various categories. So, for example, I have never found a better, shorter sentence that Ring Lardner, Jr’s “Shut up, he explained.” For five words, I have Woody Allen’s “ I am two with Nature.” but once one has that many words available there must be many others. Best short Seder text:They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

For many years I have been collecting aphorisms, jokes, witty remarks, etc. for a someday-to-be published Common-Place Book. It is divided into two sections.; one on general Philosophy and the other on Morality. I do not restrict myself just to short passages. But I do tend to favor brief encounters. Ideally the upper limit would be something like Nietzsche’s limit on aphorisms. “ It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book—what everyone else does not say in a book.” One of his best “All truth is simple…is that not doubly a lie?” comes in at ten words.

So today I present a sampling, a taste, a nibbling of very short takes on Philosophy. If there is sufficient interest I will follow up with material from the Morality section. Where I know the source I give it. Where I do not I welcome information as to the original. I divide them, roughly, into categories although they are obvious enough that they could be omitted.

Definitions of Philosophy

You make a few distinctions. You clarify a few concepts. It’s a living.

Sydney Morgenbesser

The ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers.

David Hills

[Philosophy is] an attempt to see how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.

W. Sellars

Philosophy is the cure for which there is no adequate disease.

Jerry Fodor

A Philosopher is someone who worries that what works in practice will not work in theory.


The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.

B. Russell

Philosophy is the critical examination of other peoples fundamental assumptions.

R. Nozick

Characterizations of Philosophy or Philosophizing

The relation between science and philosophy is like the symbiotic relationship between the countryside and town. The former provides the latter with food receiving garbage in return.

L. Kolokowski

What is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic…if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?


Metaphysics is almost always an attempt to prove the incredible by an appeal to the unintelligible.


It’s not things, it’s philosophers that are simple/

J.L. Austin

I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect.

Oscar Wilde

If, while making love, a woman says “faster” I will try. But if she says “deeper” she had better be looking for philosophy.


Of course pragmatism is true; the trouble is it doesn’t work.

S. Morgenbesser

In relation to their system most systemizers are like a man who builds an enormous castle and lives in a shack nearby. Kierkegaard

There are two styles of philosophers: e.g. philosophers and i.e. philosophers – illustrators and explicators. Illustrators trust, first and foremost, striking examples, in contrast with explicators, who trust, first and foremost, definitions and general principles.

A Margalit

To have a system is to lack integrity.



This book fills a much-needed gap in the literature.


John Dewey wrote as ” God would have spoken, had He been inarticulate, but keenly desirous to tell you how it was.”

O.W Holmes

A student asked Harry Wolfson—the Harvard scholar of Jewish Philosophy—whether he thought solipsism was true? Wolfson replied, “Who’s esking?”

When a philosopher announced that the title of his talk was “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” Sydney Morgenbesser said to the man sitting next to him, “If there was Nothing he would still complain.”

When another visiting philosopher claimed that in no known language are two positive affirmations equivalent to a negative , Morgenbesser said “Yeah,Yeah.”

When Chisolm was once accused of making a circular argument he replied, “ I seem to be accused of the fallacy of affirming the antecedent.”

He is a quantum philosopher. I can’t understand him and his position at the same time .

S, Morgenbesser

He never opens his mouth without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.


There are three grades of criticism. Wrong. Completely Wrong. Not even Wrong.

His claim was the last.

W. Pauli

His paper has a beginning, a muddle, and an end.


There are two critical responses to any philosophical position. “Oh, yeah!” and “So what!”

Nicholas Sturgeon

That's not a counter-example to my thesis; that's my thesis.

Paul Grice

`For example' is not proof.

Yiddish proverb

Hegel loses a lot in the original.

D. Stove

It cannot be an accident…that thought and language arrive together , in Hegel, at the highest degree of corruption of which either is capable.


He speaks in semi-entendres.


Refutation of Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism is the view that the right thing to do is what will promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. There is no greatest number.

H. Putnam

Any competent philosopher who does not understand something will take care not to understand anything else whereby it might be explained.

David Lewis


Power corrupts. Powerpoint corrupts absolutely.

Steffi Lewis

Paul Weiss was once lecturing his class in metaphysics about the A'ness of B'ness and a wave of laughter started to spread through the classroom. When he realized the cause of the laughter he immediately switched to talking about the P'ness of Q'ness!

I’d like to make a distinction here. But I can’t think of one.


Shortest Philosophical Book: Our Duties to Others by Ayn Rand

Jewish philosophy

1) Logic: P, so why not Q?

2) Ethics : Can implies Don't

3) Metaphysics_:_This is the best of all possible worlds?

S. Morgenbesser

Causes of the Death of Philosophers

Thales: Drowning

Abelard: Nun

Ayer: Unverifiable

Ockham: Cut himself while shaving

What does the Lowenheim-Skolem theorem prove? Jews are smart.

H Putnam

One rabbi is arguing to another that David wore his hat in temple. He cites a biblical passage. But, the other rabbi replies, all that says is that David went into the temple.

The first replies, ” I know but between us would David go into the temple without his hat on.”

Too Long but a Favorite

A boy is going out on his first date and is very nervous about talking to his date. His father tells him that there are three topics which are guaranteed to get conversation flowing—Relatives, Food and Philosophy.

The date begins and after an awkward pause the boy asks “Do you have any brothers?” “No.” “Do you like bagels?” “No.” ” Desperate, he remembers Philosophy. “If you had a brother, would he like bagels?”