Hilary Putnam, 1926–2016

Hilary Putnam / Screenshot from YouTube
March 19, 2016

He somehow joined the inclinations of an architect to the impulses of an arsonist. He wanted to build grand systems of thought and great palaces of intellect. But they nearly all managed to displease him after their completion, and within a few years of the controversies he caused, he would join his detractors in savaging his own work. Over the course of his long career, the philosopher Hilary Putnam worked happily to erect the ideal mansions of philosophy—only to dance, just as happily, in the bright flames of their destruction as he burned them to the ground.

Putnam’s death last Sunday, March 13, at the age of 89, called forth a few obituaries, in publications from the Weekly Standard to the New York Times—a good few obituaries, perhaps. But however many, they were not enough. Putnam was a wild man, intellectually, and hard to pin down. ("Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one," he once quipped.) He had silly politics and a distrust of the old traditions of Western philosophy so profound that he could see little but naiveté in everyone from Plato to Hegel. But he was an American original, a powerful American mind—and in our present political season, with seemingly all thought now reduced to little more than its political valences, it’s worth remembering that the loss of Hilary Putnam subtracts something important from our culture: a man who pursued pure philosophy and a genius who sought precision out among the distant stars of thought.

America has never had a great tradition of high philosophy, especially when compared to what the Germans, the French, and the English have known in modern times. The best-known set of American philosophers remains the triumvirate of Pragmatists who emerged from the nineteenth century: Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and John Dewey. So celebrated were they, in fact, that even well-educated Americans today would have trouble naming any other of our national thinkers.

The truth, however, is that the twentieth century gave us another philosophical triumvirate who were probably even better. Less consequential, yes, for a number of reasons, both cultural and intellectual, and thus less well known. But it would not be inaccurate to begin a list of great American minds with the names of Willard Van Orman Quine (born in 1908), Hilary Putnam (born in 1926), and Saul Kripke (born in 1940). They all had interests in the traditional aim of philosophy to understand the reality of the world and the ethics of the good life—enough, at least, that the anti-metaphysical writers in Anglo-American analytic philosophy would occasionally accuse them of practicing the ridiculed discipline of metaphysics. But, good modern Americans, they attempted to build their systems from the ice blocks of colder, harder, more technical philosophy: logic, language analysis, the theory of mathematics, and epistemology.

Of them all, Putnam was the most versatile, wandering from philosophical field to philosophical field to erect his positions and set his fires. The intellectual world hadn’t known anyone like him since John Henry Newman—a man so preternaturally sensitive to the nuances of his thought, so determined to set his ideas down with absolute precision, that his honesty became an excuse for his opponents to call him dishonest. In the case of Hilary Putnam, we had a philosopher so insistently critical, so relentlessly inquisitorial, that the destructive evolution of his philosophical positions led his opponents to call him a weathervane and a butterfly, unserious about the propositions he put forward.

Seriousness, however, is what defined his philosophical thought. Born in Chicago, he was taken by his parents to France while he was a toddler, where his father Samuel worked as a translator. A decade later, Samuel brought them back to the United States so he could take a job with the Daily Worker, the Communist party newspaper. Settling in Philadelphia, the family sent their brilliant young son to Central High School (where he met Noam Chomsky, a junior classmate who become his longtime friend and intellectual antagonist). He stayed in Philadelphia for his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, before enrolling in graduate school at Harvard.

Putnam soon transferred to UCLA to finish his doctorate with the United States’ leading proponent of the then-influential logical positivism, Hans Reichenbach—although Putnam would go on to be one of the important opponents of that philosophical school, turning against his old professors as he gradually came to see the emptiness of their doctrine. He taught at Northwestern, Princeton, and MIT before settling at Harvard in 1965.

His politics . . . bah. Always a leftist—unsurprisingly, as the son of a Daily Worker columnist and friend of Chomsky—Putnam would be led from his 1960s opposition to the Vietnam War to the 1970s fever swamps of the Progressive Labor party, a radical American group formed by people who thought the Communist party too conservative. He would later resign from Progressive Labor and admit his membership had been a mistake, but he never renounced radicalism itself.

He also never connected his politics to the technical philosophy in which he worked—almost as though he were something like an electrical engineer with a side interest in radicalism. Because he would often put his insights in the form of thought experiments, Putnam’s detractors would sometimes accuse him of writing too glibly and too provocatively, but the effect was always to start raging discussions (which he would often eventually join, on the side of those attacking his work). Perhaps the most famous is his Brain in a Vat thought experiment, with which he argued that some form of realism is necessary—our thoughts and words connected, in some way, to the external world.

He added his Twin Earth thought experiment in 1975, which again forced a claim of realism on the Anglo-American philosophical world that was in a death spiral of skepticism. Imagine, he asked, that there is a planet, out in the galaxy, identical in every way to our Earth except for the chemical makeup of what its inhabitants call water. However otherwise identical, visitors from Earth and their parallels on Twin Earth would be referring to different things when they used the word water—and thus meaning cannot simply be reduced to brain functions and linguistic formulations.

In "Minds and Machines," his famous philosophical paper from 1960, Putnam was the first serious philosopher to look at emerging information technology, founding the school known as Functionalism by arguing that computers offered the best analogy for the mental states of human beings. Perhaps not unpredictably, he would begin his 1988 book Representation and Reality by writing, "I shall be arguing that the computer analogy . . . does not after all answer the question. . . . I am, thus, as I have done before on more than one occasion, criticizing a view I myself earlier advanced." And once again, the architect became the arsonist.

In rejecting the logical positivism of teachers—the thin philosophy that rejected every form of knowledge except the scientific—Putnam wanted to turn to richer sources. One of his famous courses at Harvard examined "nonscientific knowledge," exploring the philosophical fields of aesthetics and ethics. He and his wife Ruth were determined to recover the Judaism that their parents’ generation had rejected, and they created a Jewish household for their children (even though, they admitted, they knew nothing to start with and were building a religious tradition from scratch). Putnam had his own Bar Mitzvah in 1994, at age 68.

Those religious impulses would lead to his 2008 book, Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life, in which he studied the writings of Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The result is more interesting than compelling, as Putnam followed Levinas down the rabbit hole of attempting to construct a Jewish ethics, a Jewish anthropology of the well-lived life, without any strong mystical commitment to the external reality of the divine creator. Years before, in his profoundly influential "Indispensability Argument" for the independent reality of numbers, he had argued that we must have ontological acceptance of all entities that are indispensable for science—and only those entities, which resolutely did not include God. And in 2002, he had published the anti-metaphysical book Ethics Without Ontology, which attempted to free even ethics from the being of anything not affirmed by science.

I must confess that all of this is alien to me: a tradition I can only view from the outside. American philosophy in the twentieth century tried to build using nothing but logic, epistemology, linguistics, and theories about the mind—blocks of ice it had frozen in the machine of its technical analysis. Where in any of it is the warming sun of poetry, the hot blood of life and death, the fire of God? Philosophy without aesthetics, ethics, and theology is a cold place, and even geniuses as wonderful as Quine, Putnam, and Kripke worked in what seem to me to be arctic realms, building the igloo of the mind.

Still, the passing of Hilary Putnam needs to be marked. Needs to be noticed. He was a great American intellect, a great American original. Philosophy is weakened by his death, as are we all.

Published under: Book reviews