anyone for an anecdote fact-check? (yeah, yeah)

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Dec 27 03:26:22 UTC 2004

Today's NYT, besides carrying the wonderful piece by Grant on WOTYs
(WOTIes?) in the Week in Review, featured their annual "The Lives
They Lived" Magazine issue, honoring each of various worthy
individuals who died during the past year.  This year's edition,
ranging from Marlon Brando to Spalding Gray to Mary McGrory, touched
on Sidney Morgenbesser.  In the course of his appreciation, author
Ryerson recounts an anecdote concerning Morganbesser, one that will
be familiar to many of you in one form or another...

(The relevant anecdote appears in the third paragraph reproduced
below; I've included the first couple to provide a context for why we
would *like* Morgenbesser to be the wielder of the witticism in
The New York Times
December 26, 2004 Sunday

  SECTION: Section 6; Column 1; Magazine Desk; Sidney Morgenbesser [
b. 1921 ]; Pg. 35

  HEADLINE: Sidewalk Socrates

  BYLINE: By James Ryerson.

  James Ryerson is an editor at the magazine.

   To Bertrand Russell, he was one of the cleverest young men in the
United States. To Noam Chomsky, he was one of the most profound minds
of the modern era. But to anyone who visits a library to gauge his
influence, Sidney Morgenbesser, who taught philosophy at Columbia
University from 1955 to 1999, is practically a nonentity: the author
of a small stack of seldom-cited papers, the editor of a few
anthologies. 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?''

  There are people who have a passion for discourse, who are addicted
to debate, who live in a world of constant conversation, and
Morgenbesser was among the purest examples of the type. A product of
the bustling street culture of New York's Lower East Side, he was
dazzling on his feet -- skeptical, funny, a sort of sidewalk sage. At
Columbia, he transported that atmosphere to the stretch of Broadway
from 110th to 116th, where he would corner colleagues, buttonhole
friends and engage in all manner of kibitzing and argument. For his
peers, running into Morgenbesser meant subjecting their latest
theories to his penetrating and often ruthlessly clever analysis.
(''Let me see if I understand your thesis,'' he once said to the
psychologist B. F. Skinner. ''You think we shouldn't anthropomorphize

  In the academic world, custom dictates that you may be considered a
legend if there is more than one well-known anecdote about you.
Morgenbesser, with his Borscht Belt humor and preternaturally agile
mind, was the subject of dozens. In the absence of a written record
of his wisdom, this was how people related to him: by knowing the
stories and wanting to know more. The most widely circulated tale --
in many renditions it is even presented as a joke, not the true story
that it is -- was his encounter with the Oxford philosopher J. L.
Austin. During a talk on the philosophy of language at Columbia in
the 50's, 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,

  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.
Now this "episode" has been making the rounds for some years, but
while Morganbesser often figures as the heckler hero, it has been
attributed to other riposters as well, including Saul Kripke, or
sometimes to a shadowy figure described as "a voice from the back of
the room".  The comeback itself has appeared not only in the form of
"yeah, yeah", but also "yeah, right", "sure, sure", and no doubt
other variants.   This anecdote was brought up (as fact) in the
question session after I gave my job talk at Yale (on double
negation, as it happens) in 1980.  It's been quoted at least three
earlier times in the Times itself (twice in the On Language column,
once by Safire and once by a guest columnist, and once in an article
on Kripke) and it's circulated on ads-l several times, the first I've
preserved being in 1994, as well as on Linguist List.   I've often
responded, generally citing Morgenbesser as the likely heckler (just
because I've had that version most often) and so attribute it in my
1989 book _A Natural History of Negation_  [p. 554], but I've never
heard it with J. L. Austin, one of my favorite philosophers, as the
hecklee.  Based on his own levity and quickness, I find it hard to
picture Austin as the stooge, but as I remarked 9 years ago during
one of our back-and-forths on this, "But vas I dere, Charley?  No."
(I think we'd just been talking about the legendary Charley at the
time (Nov. 16, 1995).)

The variation in the participants of the story, the fact that it
tends to be conveyed by the proverbial colleague-of-a-colleague, the
fact that even the supporters of a particular  version typically
refer to some vague event like the "talk on the philosophy of
language... in the 50s" above, and the insistence that it is indeed a
"true story" as above I find somewhat suspicious if not downright
urban legendary.  I suspect Mr. Ryerson vasn't dere himself, and I do
wonder if there's any way to either pin the story down or explode it,
as a way to honor the memory of Morgenbesser either with the due
credit for the mot(s) he deserves or with the determination of the
truth of the matter even if it's the truth of apocrypha.  Any


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