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Hilary Putnam (1926-2016)

Maria Baghramian remembers her long-standing mentor and friend.

Hilary Whitehall Putnam, Cogan University Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard, one of the most original and influential philosophers of our time, died on 13th March 2016, in his home in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Hilary Putnam was born on July 31st 1926, in Chicago, Illinois, to Samuel Putnam, best known for his landmark translation of Don Quixote (1949), and Riva Lillian Sampson. In 1927, when he was six months old, the family moved to Paris, where his father translated the works of Rabelais and edited the literary magazine The New Review. Putnam grew up in the artistic world of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, James Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford. This cosmopolitan upbringing was one of the reasons for his strong dislike of the narrowness of contemporary philosophy and an openness to philosophers from different traditions and intellectual orientations.

Putnam was educated at University of Pennsylvania, where he took courses in Philosophy, German, and the emerging field of Linguistic Analysis, taught by the famed linguist Zellig Harris. One fellow student was Noam Chomsky, who was to become a colleague at MIT in the 1960s and a life-long friend. Putnam graduated in 1948, simultaneously fulfilling the requirements for majors in Philosophy, German and Linguistics. He initially began his graduate studies in Harvard, but soon moved to UCLA to study with Hans Reichenbach, who, like many other Logical Positivists [a school of Twentieth Century philosophy] had escaped the Nazis and taken refuge in the United States. Putnam’s PhD dissertation, The Meaning of the Concept of Probability in Application to Finite Sequences, was completed in the record time of two years.

Mathematics & Science

Reichenbach’s profound influence on Putnam led to Putnam’s life-long preoccupation with philosophy of physics and mathematics, as well as an increasingly critical engagement with Logical Positivism. Putnam’s earliest publications, in the early 1960s, when he held tenured posts both in Philosophy and Mathematics in Princeton, focused on philosophies of mathematics and science. Two of his arguments for realism about science and mathematics have remained highly influential. The ‘no-miracle argument’ in philosophy of science and the ‘indispensability argument’ in philosophy of mathematics aimed to show that it would be impossible to explain the successes of science unless we assumed that scientific theories provide true accounts of how things stand in the world, and in so far as mathematical formulae play an indispensable role in science, their truth also follows. In addition to philosophy, Putnam co-published a proof of the unsolvability of Hilbert’s Tenth Problem in mathematics with Martin Davis and Julia Robinson. Later in life he came to regard his collaborative work with Davis as possibly the most important intellectual activity of his life.

Hilary Putnam
Hilary Putnam by Federico De Cicco, 2016. To see more of his art, please visit behance.net/zumar7

Mind & Language

Putnam’s most influential and original contributions to philosophy, dating back to his years in MIT and subsequently in Harvard, were to do with language and mind.

Functionalism was Putnam’s most important contribution to philosophy of mind. His version of the theory is known as ‘Machine Functionalism’ because of the parallels it draws between mental states and the functional states of universal Turing machines, a.k.a computers. Contrary to the two dominant views of mind in the 1950s and 60s – behaviorism and mind-brain identity theory – Putnam argued that mental states are not reducible to either behavioral or brain states. Mental states are the causes of our actions within the background of our beliefs and desires about the world, and they are functional states characterized by their causal relations with external stimuli (input from the senses), behavioral responses, and relations with other mental states such as beliefs and desires. Functional states are not dependent on any specific type of matter; rather, they are realizable in very diverse hardware, be it the human brain, silicon-based robots, or extraterrestrials with a different evolutionary history and biological make-up. This ‘multiple realizability’ account of mental states became the orthodoxy of cognitive science, and continues to dominate much of today’s discussions of consciousness and the qualitative features of mental experiences. Later, Putnam would reject the view that mental states could be simply identified with computational states, and advocated what he called a ‘non-reductionist’ Aristotelian kind of functionalism.

In philosophy of language Putnam set out to refute what he saw as a grotesquely mistaken view of language, a mistake arising from a tendency to ignore the role of the natural and the social environment. Traditional theories of meaning are unsatisfactory because they are individualistic rather than social and neglect the contribution of external reality to linguistic meaningfulness. Putnam’s imaginative use of thought experiments, most famously the Twin Earth thought experiment where he asks us to imagine a planet exactly like Earth with the difference that what tastes, smells, behaves like water has a completely different chemical composition, aims to elicit the intuition that the meaning of words such as ‘water’ largely depends on how things are in the natural and social world and not on our thoughts and beliefs about it. Meanings, he tells us, simply are not ‘in the head’.

The Realist Turn

Almost all of Putnam’s writing directly or indirectly addresses what he called the “great question of realism” – the question of how language connects with the world. The early Putnam was a realist, committed to the view that truth is a matter of simply discovering and stating what is the case in a world that exists independently of the human mind. One of the most striking features of Putnam’s work is the radical way in which he came to question this early core assumption. So like Ludwig Wittgenstein – a philosopher he admired greatly – Putnam repudiated some key aspects of his earlier thinking, most significantly the view he came to call ‘metaphysical realism’, and embraced, for a while, the view that truth, at least in principle, is linked with knowability. This radical change of position created shock waves in analytic philosophy and earned him the epithet ‘the renegade Putnam’ from Michael Devitt, one of his many prominent former students. Unabashed, Putnam continued changing and modifying his position, moving from the ‘internal realism’ of the 1980s to what he called ‘common sense realism’, then ‘direct realism’, ‘pragmatic realism’, and ‘natural realism’. What is common to these many faces of realism is the attempt to accommodate realism about science while avoiding the type of scientism that reduces all truths to what can be known through science alone, leaving no room for the normative in general, and the ethical in particular.

The Question of Values

Ethical questions were always central to Putnam’s life and thought. They are, indeed, what motivated his political and anti-war activism of the late 1960s, as well as his turn to Judaism, the ancestral religion on his mother’s side, in the 1970s.

Putnam’s main contribution to ethical thinking was his rejection of the traditional division between matters of fact and questions of value. Since David Hume in the Eighteenth Century, the so-called ‘fact/value dichotomy’ has dominated the comparison of science and ethics. Putnam believed this to be a wrong starting point for understanding either science or ethics. All thinking presupposes value judgments, he argued, and in turn, moral judgements are not free of facts. Facts and values interpenetrate. Throughout his many changes of positions, this aversion to dichotomised thinking remained a constant feature of Putnam’s work, allowing him in his most recent writings to combine a profound appreciation of the natural sciences with an acknowledgement of the plurality of human interests and perspectives.

Concluding Thoughts

Putnam continued writing and contributing to international philosophy conferences via Skype until the onset of ill health in late 2015. He also continued to write on his blog Sardonic Comment, which he started in 2013. His last word on realism was published in an article appropriately called ‘Realism’ in the journal Philosophy and Social Criticism (Vol.42, 2, February 2016). It drew on a lecture he had delivered on 9th October 2015 at the University of Pittsburgh upon receiving the Nicholas Rescher Prize for Systematic Philosophy. In the last few years of his life Putnam had come to the view that a correct theory of perception is the key to a correct account of the relationship between thought and the world. His last thoughts on the issue appeared in the International Journal of Philosophical Studies in 2016.

Those who know Hilary Putnam’s work will concur with Noam Chomsky that his was one of the most remarkable minds of our time. And those who knew him, in person or by correspondence, will add that he was also undoubtedly one of the most generous, open-minded and benevolent thinkers of this and possibly any other time.

Putnam is survived by his wife Ruth Anna Putnam, a well-known philosopher in her own right and a frequent collaborator, particularly on the topic of pragmatism. He also left behind four children, Erica, Polly, Sam and Josh, and four granddaughters.

© Professor Maria Baghramian 2016

Maria Baghramian is professor of philosophy at University College Dublin.

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