Socrates @ Academy of Athens #2 © Raffaele | Flickr
Socrates @ Academy of Athens #2 © Raffaele | Flickr

The Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam passed away on Sunday, March 13 2016, at the age of 89. It’s safe to say that while he was alive, Putnam was remembered not so much for a persistent theme or doctrine (such as: Quine’s rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction, or Gadamer’s notion of “the fusion of horizons”), but for his reflexive willingness to reject doctrines he once held with vehemence, on the grounds that he discovered their own serious weaknesses. This tendency to be his own most persistent critic made him the butt of much good natured humor. The Philosophical Lexicon, Daniel Dennett’s joke-dictionary of philosophers’ names turned into philosophical terms, has the following entry: Hilary: A very brief but significant period in the intellectual career of a distinguished philosopher. ‘Oh, that’s what I thought three or four hilaries ago.’ And Sidney Morgenbesser, properly renowned as the funniest of all American philosophers, himself a cross between Socrates and Groucho Marx, said of Putnam “He’s a quantum philosopher. I can’t understand him and his position at the same time.”

But it is not entirely the case that there was no discernable overall trajectory in Putnam’s philosophical work. I can think of at least four themes that persist in his oeuvre which will, I think, endure.

Respect for Science, rejection of Scientism. Putnam knew physics and mathematics as broadly and deeply as he knew philosophy, but he was never of the opinion that all genuine knowledge was reducible to that of the natural sciences. Call this latter position “Scientism.” The problem of scientism is that, to be a coherent position, one needs to embrace some version of the fact/value dichotomy: science’s cognitive validity depends on its reliance on facts and in being “value free”; to the extent that other disciplines, like social or political theory, necessarily refer to values, they either can be translated into value-free scientific discourse, or lose their cognitive validity to some degree. Putnam’s reproach to this kind of scientism was not to deny either fact or value, but to insist on their entanglement, even, indeed especially, within scientific practice. When scientists choose between different theories or paradigms, they do so not on the basis of the bare facts (since, in part, what is at issue is how to describe and understand these bare facts), but on values like simplicity or theoretical elegance. Choosing thus is not to turn science into a radically subjective enterprise, as some of Thomas Kuhn’s critics claim, since these values are themselves validated as thoroughly rational and indeed objective. Likewise, disciplines like ethics and politics do not and cannot trade only in “value judgments”, since value judgments themselves embody factual claims. The claim “That candidate is a racist!” expresses a value, but stands or falls on certain facts of the matter concerning what he says and does. If the fact/value dichotomy cannot be sustained, there is no reason to deny a measure of rationality and objectivity to value-discourse and equally no reason to think that good natural science is “value free.” Reductionism is ultimately an incoherent position.

Realism with a Human Face. Putnam was always keen on defending some form of realism – that our true beliefs tell us about features of the world itself, and are not just subjective appearances or arbitrary whims – while being careful to parse this realism as realism “humanly speaking”, employing concepts that are relative to human perspectives and needs. In Reason, Truth, and History, perhaps his most important book, he dubbed this form of realism “internal realism”: that true theories refer to features of the world, but features under a description or perspective. The idea of a “God’s Eye View”, a perspective-less perspective, access to the Ding en Sich or reality-in-itself, is ultimately incoherent, but this does not entail idealism or antirealism. We know and understand and perceive a mind-independent world, but we do not know, understand, or perceive it mind-independently. Objectivity is a human achievement, but is not any the less objective for all that.

Drawing attention to the importance of American Pragmatism. Putnam had serious disagreements with his friends and contemporaries Richard Rorty and Donald Davidson. He thought that Davidson’s wholesale rejection of “conceptual schemes” was extreme and his conception of Truth misguided, and he often castigated Rorty as a relativist and skeptic (wrongly, in my opinion). But he shared with them an affection for the work of Peirce, James, and Dewey, and the conviction that the work of the classic American Pragmatists was unjustly given short shrift by contemporary philosophers, especially those in the analytic camp. His view that the chief achievement of American Pragmatism was the notion that one could both fallibilistic and antiskeptical at the same time – probably the best one-sentence synopsis of pragmatism one could possibly come up with. With Rorty and Davidson, he helped renew interest in American Pragmatism, whose resurgence has, arguably, imbued some life into both analytic and continental traditions, not to mention renewed attention to philosophy as addressing pressing human concerns, rather than abstract theories.

What makes us human is what we do, rather than what we are made of. Putnam, like almost all of his contemporaries, rejected Descartes’s doctrine that “mind” was something separate from “body”: there are no disembodied minds, and mind at some level is not something other than a physical process. Yet Putnam was very much opposed to “reductive materialism” – the idea that mental states simply are brain-states and nothing more – and “eliminative materialism” – the idea that mental states are mere fictions of “folk psychology” and do not really exist. His original solution to this problem was dubbed “functionalism” it is the functional states of the central nervous system that constitute the mind, much as the Turing-machine states of computers constitute its “program”, and not anything about what the central nervous system is made of (gray and white matter). While Putnam later came to reject “functionalism” as insufficiently attentive to the way entire human mind/bodies interact with a world already invested with meaning (a position with interesting parallels to Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, thinkers who otherwise have little in common with Putnam), he always held that functionalism was on the right track in seeing the “how” of humanness as far more important than the “what.” His was a sophisticated physicalism that shunned the trendy idea that humans are mere “meat-machines”, a physicalism that was also a kind of chastened humanism.

But ultimately, I think what will be best remembered about Hilary Putnam was what made him vulnerable to all that humor – his willingness to change his mind. He was committed to philosophy as rational inquiry rather than a set of timeless truths of which human beings could come into possession if they only adopted the right method – or ideology. He was perhaps the most Socratic of contemporary pragmatists. No mean achievement.

Requiescat in pace.