RIP: Hilary Putnam

A giant of late 20th century analytic philosophy has passed away:

The American philosopher Hilary Putnam, who has died aged 89, transformed the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology. By focusing on the role, rather than substance, of mental states, his theory of functionalism offered a plausible solution to the mind-body problem. With his theory of externalism – “meanings just ain’t in the head” – he dislodged the subjective starting point that had ruled philosophical theories of meaning since Descartes. And he made huge contributions to the philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, and to maths itself.

But he was famous, too, for forever changing his mind. Constantly critical of his own theories, he repudiated functionalism in the 1980s, and went through a gamut of views on metaphysics, as he did in his personal life on politics, although always remaining on the left. The one constant in his fertile fluctuations was his agility in thinking outside the set boundaries of any topic he tackled, and in resetting those boundaries. As a professor at Harvard from 1965 onwards, he was determined to accommodate both a scientific and a human, commonsensical viewpoint, and his numerous papers and books were full of vivid thought-experiments…

After graduating in philosophy and mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1948, Putnam began a PhD at Harvard, under Willard Van Orman Quine. He finished it at UCLA in 1951, taught by Hans Reichenbach and Rudolf Carnap, whose Logical Positivism had dominated American philosophy for the previous 15 years. Putnam attacked their scientism – giving primacy to empirical science, to the exclusion of other viewpoints – while forever acknowledging his debt to Reichenbach and remaining close friends with Carnap. He also combated Quine’s views in his 1957 paper The Analytic and Synthetic, but collaborated with him to produce the Quine-Putnam indispensability thesis in mathematics. Putnam’s first teaching posts were in maths and philosophy, at Northwestern University (1952-53) and Princeton (1953-61) and then as professor of the philosophy of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, 1961-65) until his move to Harvard as professor of philosophy.

In my college years, I became preoccupied with the Rorty-Putnam debates, particularly insofar as they both sprouted from Quine’s hugely influential paper “The Analytic and Synthetic” (1957).

Many moons ago at a philosophy conference, I had the opportunity to chat with Putnam about his philosophical differences with Rorty among other subjects. Needless to say, it was a thrilling moment for me.

As is increasingly the norm in academia, Putnam was a radical Marxist for much of his life, and was raised a quintessential, Jewish Red Diaper Doper Baby:

Hilary was born in Chicago. His father, Samuel – a scholar of Romance languages, who translated Rabelais and Don Quixote – was a Communist until 1956, and wrote a column for the Daily Worker. Hilary’s mother, Riva (nee Sampson), was Jewish, but the family were secular. Having moved to France – Putnam’s first language was French – they returned to live in Philadelphia in 1934.

Also, as has been amply documented by Kevin MacDonald in The Culture of Critique, in his later years, Putnam, although secular, “began to write about ethics and Jewish philosophy, and to pursue his Jewish roots”.

As one’s thoughts turn increasingly to an imminent sense of mortality, one turns to thoughts of ancestors and traditions, and the glory and meaning found in them.

Unless you’re a goyim, of course, in which case that is equated with ‘Neo-Nazism’.

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