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The Library of Living Philosophers

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Hilary Putnam

One of the most distinguished living philosophers, Hilary Putnam has exerted a powerful impact on 20th century Anglo-American philosophy. Born in Chicago in 1926, Putnam’s early training was in mathematics and philosophy. He did postgraduate work in philosophy at UCLA under the supervision of Hans Reichenbach, gaining a doctorate in 1951. Putnam then taught at Northwestern, Princeton, MIT and Boston Universities, before being appointed at Harvard in 1976, where he remained until his retirement in June 2000.

Putnam has influenced virtually every major field of contemporary philosophy, especially philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, metaphysics and philosophy of mind, in addition to pursuing a career in mathematics, where he specialised in recursive function theory. In the philosophy of science, Putnam was a major critic of logical positivism, the reigning philosophical orthodoxy in the early days of his career, exemplified by figures such as Reichenbach, Carnap and Hempel. In opposition to the verificationist and operationalist tendencies of that movement, Putnam advocated a robust scientific realism. Scientific realism views scientific theories as literal attempts to describe the structure of the world, and treats the predictive success of a theory as evidence that the theory has succeeded in doing so. This sort of position is now quite widely accepted. In addition, Putnam made contributions to the philosophy of space and time, particularly to the issue of conventionalism in the foundations of relativity theory.

In a series of articles beginning in the late 1960s, Putnam put forward a view about the relation between mind and brain which came to be known as FUNCTIONALISM. Functionalism is a materialist position, but unlike other forms of materialism, denies that an organism’s mental states can be simply identified with its underlying brain states. Rather, mental states are states that play a particular CAUSAL ROLE in the organism’s life – and can be realised by many different sorts of underlying physical states. So according to functionalism, an organism can be in pain (for example) even if its neurophysiological make-up is totally different to our own – even if it is made of silicon. Pain is simply the state-of-the-organism that is caused by certain environmental inputs, e.g. coming into contact with fire, and causes the organism to have certain other mental states, e.g. fear, and to behave in certain ways, e.g. wincing. Functionalism is now a very widely held conception of the mind. Its influence is apparent not only in philosophy, but also in fields such as cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, and neuroscience.

In the last twenty-five years or so, Putnam’s philosophical outlook has changed considerably. Most notably, he has rejected the metaphysical realism of his earlier work in favour of a position he calls ‘internal realism’, which is probably more accurately regarded as a form of anti-realism. Putnam has explained the difference between metaphysical and internal realism in various ways. The most salient point of contrast concerns the notion of truth. Metaphysical realism involves the correspondence theory of truth – the idea that our beliefs and utterances are true just if they correspond to the way the world is ‘in and of itself’ – while internal realism rejects this idea as incoherent. Putnam’s dissatisfaction with metaphysical realism reflects his increasing sympathy with the pragmatist tradition in American philosophy. His recent work also shows a greater concern with humanistic and ethical issues than before.

© Dr Samir Okasha 2001

‘The Philosophy of Hilary Putnam’, in the Library of Living Philosophers Series, edited by Lewis Hahn, is published by Open Court Press.

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