Hilary Putnam (1926-2016): an American philosopher.

Hilary Putnam has been one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. His thought has evolved from the stricter scientism of the Vienna Circle to an open pragmatism in which there is ample room for non-scientific knowledge, the humanities, ethics, aesthetics and religion.

Jaime Nubiola-August 31, 2016-Reading time: 4 minutes
hilary putnam and jaime nubiola

On March 13, the American philosopher Hilary Putnam died at his home in Arlington, near Boston, at the age of 89. As Martha Nussbaum wrote in a touching obituary in the Huffington Post, "the United States has lost one of the greatest philosophers this nation has ever produced. Those who were fortunate enough to know him as students, colleagues, and friends remember his life with deep gratitude and love, for Hilary was not only a great philosopher, but above all a human being of extraordinary generosity.". Putnam has been a giant of American philosophy, who has taught generations of students at Harvard and through his numerous publications has invited many, many people to think. A very striking feature of his personality was his gentle cordiality and an extraordinary intellectual humility that flatly rejected any cult of personality. In my case, my debt to him is enormous, both personally and intellectually, and with these lines I would like to pay an emotional tribute to the man who has been my "American teacher" for the last 25 years.

Born in Chicago in 1926, he studied mathematics and philosophy in Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in 1951 from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a thesis on the justification of induction and the meaning of probability. These were central themes in the work of his dissertation director Hans Reichenbach, a leading member of the Vienna Circle and an emigrant to the United States in the wake of World War II. Among Reichenbach's students was Ruth Anna, also a philosopher, whom Hilary Putnam would marry in 1962. In 1965 Putnam joined the prestigious Department of Philosophy at Harvard University, where he held the Walter Beverly Pearson Chair of Modern Mathematics and Mathematical Logic until his retirement in May 2000. Before joining Harvard he had taught at Northwestern, Princeton and MIT.

Cutting-edge thinker

Undoubtedly, it can be stated emphatically that Putnam was an avant-garde thinker. As Stegmüller wrote, it can be said of him that in his intellectual evolution he has summed up most of the philosophy of the second half of the twentieth century.

His philosophical production focused for decades on the great topics of contemporary discussion in philosophy of science and philosophy of language. His articles are written with extraordinary rigor, in conversation - or rather, in discussion - with Rudolf Carnap, Willard Quine and his colleagues in Anglo-American academic philosophy. In addition to the quality of his writing, he is impressive for the delicate discrimination to which he subjects the most difficult problems in order to gain understanding. By his way of working, Putnam teaches that philosophy is difficult, that is, that philosophical reflection - just as in other areas of knowledge when it comes to the most basic questions - has considerable technical complexity. Of course Putnam knew that many philosophical problems are ultimately unsolvable, but he liked to repeat the words of his friend Stanley Cavell: "There are better and worse ways to think about them.".

Among his vast philosophical production, I would like to highlight his book Renewing Philosophyin which it brings together the Gifford Lectures taught at the University of St Andrews in 1990, perhaps because in the summer of 1992 I was at Harvard with him and he let me read the galley proofs. As the title suggests, those pages are written with the conviction that the sorry state of philosophy today calls for a revitalization, a thematic renewal. Putnam conceived that book as a diagnosis of the situation of philosophy and suggested the directions that such a renewal might take. Putnam was not writing a manifesto, but rather a style of doing philosophy, of bringing together rigor and human relevance, which are the properties that have been seen as distinguishing two radically opposed modes of doing philosophy, Anglo-American analytic philosophy and European philosophy.

Hilary Putnam has never been carried away by the winds of intellectual fashions and - which is rare among philosophers - has time and again rectified his views as he has refined his understanding of the problems he addressed. That has led some to accuse him of philosophical fickleness, but it seems to me that the ability to rectify is really the hallmark of the love of truth. "I used to think this..., whereas now I think that". Just as we all do in our ordinary lives, changing our minds when we receive new data and understand better reasons, why should it be any different when doing philosophy?

In this regard, it is worth transcribing what he wrote in the prologue to his recent Philosophy in an Age of Science (2012): "I long ago abandoned Carnap's and Reichenbach's (different) versions of logical empiricism, but I continue to draw inspiration from Reichenbach's conviction that philosophical examination of the best contemporary and past science is of great philosophical importance, and from Carnap's example in his continual re-examination and critique of his own earlier views, as well as from the political and moral commitment of both Carnap and Reichenbach.".

However, what perhaps some people have not forgiven him for was his conversion to the religion of his grandparents, Judaism. In the last decades of his life he began to dedicate twenty minutes a day to traditional Jewish prayers and little by little reflection on ethics and religion appeared more and more frequently in his texts: "As a practicing Jew." -explained in How to renew the philosophy-, "I am someone for whom the religious dimension of life is increasingly important, even though it is a dimension about which I do not know how to philosophize, except indirectly. When I began teaching philosophy in the early 1950s, I considered myself a philosopher of science (although in a generous interpretation of the expression 'philosophy of science' I included philosophy of language and philosophy of mind). Those who know my writings of that stage may wonder how I reconciled my religious streak, which even then was to some extent behind, with my general materialist-scientific worldview at that time. The answer is that I did not reconcile them: I was a conscientious atheist and I was a believer; I simply kept those two parts of myself separate.".

This "double life", these two divided parts of himself, was not satisfactory to him in his last stage: "I am both a religious person and a natural philosopher, but not a reductionist."In this regard, he wrote in his very recent autobiography, which opens the thick volume dedicated to him in the Library of Living Philosophers. I remember now that Putnam called me sometimes "the catholic pragmatist"thanks to him I had discovered the pragmatist philosophy and the thought of Charles S. Peirce to which I have devoted myself since 1992. I pray now for his eternal rest and hope one day to be able to continue the kindly conversations with this giant of philosophy who was not afraid to openly acknowledge his religiosity in a paganized academic world.

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