Hilary Putnam: Secular Philosopher and Religious Jew (July 31, 1926-March 13 2016)

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“On March 13, America lost one of the greatest philosophers this nation has ever produced……there is no philosopher since Aristotle who has made creative and foundational contributions in all the following areas: logic, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, ethics, political thought, philosophy of economics. philosophy of literature.”

Martha C. Nussbaum (Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, The University of Chicago Huffpost March 14)

Hilary Putnam was born in Chicago and raised in a secular family with a left-leaning gentile father and a Jewish mother. One of Putnam’s fellow pupils at school was another left leaning Jew, Noam Chomsky, who remained a friend throughout his life. In fact Putnam’s last post at his blog Sardonic Comment was about a debate he was having with Chomsky. Putnam’s first teaching posts were in math and philosophy at Northwestern(1952-53) and Princeton (1953-61) and then as professor of the philosophy of science at MIT (1961-65) until his move to Harvard as professor of philosophy.

Putnam focused on philosophy of science, epistemology, and the mind. He was a critic of both Behaviourism and Type-Identity theory, each of which seek to reduce mental states to physical ones. Behaviourism claims that mental states are simply what we do, or are inclined to do, in certain circumstances (being in pain, for instance, is just the way we typically react to physical injury by flinching from its cause, crying out, etc.) and Putnam proposed a thought experiment: would stoic Spartans trained not to react to pain thus not be in pain?

He vigorously critiqued Type-Identity theory, which holds that  mental states will “turn out to be” particular types of brain states just as we have found heat is “just molecular motion” and water “just H2O”. Putnam argued that mental states are “multiply realisable”, i.e. the same mental state, for instance an experience of pain or desire, could be generated by different physical bodies- humans, cats, or whales. Therefore one can not be reduced to the other.

Putnam also famously argued that meaning was neither subjective nor objective. Meaning depends on external states of affairs; but the nature of these as we experience them are relative to language. “Thus the world is both ‘objective’ and not ‘objective’; we cannot ask what is the case without choosing some system of concepts (and no one system is uniquely fitted to describe ‘the world’); but once we have a system of concepts in place, what is true or false is not simply a matter of what we think.” Our linguistic system is thus like a fundamental axiom: once it is set, which statements within it are true or false are not subjectively so but objectively are so dependent on the rules of how our language and the external reality interact.

While revolutionising philosophy, Putnam was also involved with radical politics. At MIT in 1963 he organised against the Vietnam war, and at Harvard he organised campus protests and publicly burned draft cards. In 1965 he became a member of the Progressive Labor party (promoting, in his own words, an “idiosyncratic version of Marxism-Leninism”), and would stand outside factory gates to discuss politics with the workers. On campus he disrupted the classes of Richard Herrnstein (co-author of the allegedly racist Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life), and he lived in a commune with students. As Jane O’ Grady wrote in a recent obituary, “for a time his students had to spend his lectures twisted round to look at him because he refused to sit at the front; although, in his more dogmatic Marxist phase, he spoke on a podium and advised students to read Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. The Harvard establishment was in despair”.

Putnam took intense pleasure in thought. After reading aloud from a philosopher’s work in a lecture, he would laugh with delight. Putnam valued the willingness to think in complexity and nuance, famously saying, “Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one.” As Martha Nussbaum recently wrote, “The glory of Putnam’s way of philosophizing was its total vulnerability. Because he really did follow the argument wherever it led, he often changed his views, and being led to change was to him not distressing but profoundly delightful, evidence that he was humble enough to be worthy of his own rationality”. In fact Putnam became so well known for changing his mind that the Philosophical Lexicon named a moment of intellectual time a “hilary”, as in, “That’s what I thought a few hilarys ago.” 

In 2008 Putnam published the surprising Jewish Philosophy As A Guide To Life, which analyzes the thought of Wittginstein, Buber, Rozensweig, and Levinas (a group he called 3 ¼ Jews). In the introduction to that book Putnam describes how he came to write it. In 1975 the older of his two sons surprised him by wanting a bar mitzvah. Putnam got in touch with a Rabbi he had met and been impressed with years previously, Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold. Gold had been Rabbi of Harvard Hillel when Putnam gave an erev shabbat talk there on his reasons for opposing the Vietnam war. Putnam and his wife agreed to attend services with their son for a year while the boy prepared for his bar mitzvah, and by the end of the year the service and prayers, in Putnam’s words, “had become an essential part of our lives”. Putnam davenned every day for the rest of his life. How did a self-described “naturalistic philosopher” reconcile with his newfound religiousness?

According to Putnam, for many years he simply did not reconcile them. The philosopher and the religious person lived side by side but did not enter into direct confrontation. This could not be the final resolution for a questing mind like Putnam’s, of course. In an attempt to explain his perspective, over which he said that he still struggled and expected to struggle, Putnam wrote:

“Physics indeed describes the properties of matter in motion, but reductive naturalists forget that the world has many levels of form, including the level of morally significant human action, and the idea that all of these can be reduced to the level of physics I believe to be a fantasy. And, like the classic pragmatists, I do not see reality as morally indifferent: reality, as Dewey saw, makes demands on us. Values may be created by human beings and human cultures, but I see them as made in response to demands that we do not create. It is reality that determines whether our responses are adequate or inadequate. Similarly, my friend Gordon Kauffman may be right in saying that “the available God” is a human construct, but I am sure he would agree that we construct our images of God in response to demands that do not create, and that it is not up to us whether our responses are adequate or inadequate.”

Ruth Anna Putnam has said, “If you would like to make a gift in Hilary’s memory, please donate to Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama 36104.”

A Season of Cooperation: The Good Interfaith News

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For the religious world, the last year has been a battle scarred one. The rise of ISIS has spelt the near-extinction of several Middle Eastern Christian communities as well as a severe threat to lesser known religious groups such as the Yazidis and the Shabak. Ahmaddiyas and the Bah’ai continue to suffer persecution in the Middle East, and Buddhist Myanmar continues it’s genocidal policies against Rohingya Muslims, even under new government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Meanwhile in the US and elsewhere there have been violent attacks against Muslims in response to terrorism in the US and Europe. Some Christian leaders in the West have responded with a recourse to militarism, such as Jerry Falwell Jr., who urged his seminary students at Liberty University to arm themselves. The 2016 Republican candidates have combined public avowals of Christianity with an embrace of militarism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Yet the picture as a whole is not bleak. Taking the above example of pistol packing theologians for one, Falwell’s statements sparked massive criticism throughout the US Christian community, including from the leading  Evangelical pastor John Piper in the Washington Post.  Despite the fearful shutting of doors against Syrian refugees in many US states, the inspiring stories of nations and communities welcoming them far outshadow that show of inhumanity. In the US, leading centrist and right of centre Christian pastors and Academics (aside from the expected denunciations from the Christian left) like David Gushee, Max Lucado, Russel Moore and others have come out against Drumpf and the behaviour of the GOP.

In Canada there were several examples of inspiring interfaith cooperation in the last months. In BC synagogues raised tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor refugee families. Across Canada many congregations stepped up to sponsor refugee families as well. Jewish communities are also  working with the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program which matches private sponsors with people fleeing war that the UN Refugee Agency has “identified for resettlement.” This program matches support from donors (who agree to sponsor the refugee for six months) with a government pledge of an additional six months of support.

In Montreal, Jews and Muslims joined hands to help Syrian refugees together, and Pope Francis called for every Catholic diocese to house one refugee family. One of the season’s most inspiring stories came from Peterborough, where a Synagogue donated the use of its space to members of a Mosque destroyed by arson. In addition many cold Facebook feeds were warmed recently by the Israeli restaurant that gave a 50% discount on any meal shared by Arabs and Jews during the recent surge of Palestinian terror attacks.

There were also heartening stories from within the Muslim community. In Kenya, Muslims on a bus refused to separate from the Christian passengers, preventing their execution by Jihadis, recalling the protective ring formed around a Jewish synagogue by 1,000 Muslims in Norway earlier in the year. In New Jersey, Muslims for Peace organized a Christmas Party for youth at risk, and in Montreal Muslims, Jews and Sikhs joined hands on Christmas to serve food to the homeless at the Old Brewery Mission.In Vancouver students from RJDS joined with students from Al-Zahraa Islamic Academy to feed the homeless, continuing a tradition the two communities have developed.

Meanwhile in Jewish-Christian relations the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document which radically changed the Jewish-Catholic relationship arrived. Two important documents were released to coincide with it, one by a colloquiam of Orthodox Jews and one by the Vatican. The Jewish statement used the boldest language yet in a document of this kind, asserting that Christianity is “not an error” and is an intentional part of God’s plan to redeem the world. The Vatican document discouraged institutional evangelization of Jews and affirmed that Jews are saved by their own covenant with God outside of accepting the historical Jesus as saviour.

Reason for hope exists on all fronts. The real religious war is not between the religious and the irreligious, or between one religion and another. The real “holy war” is between those who live their religion as a way to love God and human beings, walking in humility, love and the a quest for ever growing understanding and those who pervert their traditions to serve the causes of nationalism, war, fear and hatred. Religion becomes a weapon when the human passions are idolized above the wisdom of God, of whom “all Her paths are pleasant and all Her ways peace (Proverbs 3:17)”. May we have the wisdom and courage to listen to the “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) urging nonviolence, justice and humility.

 

New Piece in The Forward: Inside The Twisted Anti-Semitic Mind of Oberlin Professor Joy Karega

Read it here.

What The World Needs Now……is Pictures of Yoga, Sweet Pictures of Yoga

The following post was originally published in Elephant Journal

Man sitting on bed doing yoga
Man sitting on bed doing yoga

I am a former teacher of the various commercial brands of western hathayoga, colloquially known here in BC where I live as “Yoga”. I also used to work as a holistic therapist out of a health studio/day spa which called itself a Yoga centre. For both of these reasons I am connected to a lot of teachers and practitioners of Yoga, especially on Facebook and other social media outlets. Scrolling down my feed as I am wont to do, I’ve come to a sad conclusion:There are just not enough pictures of beautiful, highly fit and photogenic young men and women doing advanced Yoga poses out there.

Ask yourself: how are we ever going to change the world, make a healthier society, and lead people to strength and enlightenment without more half-naked, beautiful pictures of people doing tricky and impressive asanas? Particularly caucasian women, who are under-represented in this field. My feed is inundated with pictures of people of colour, plus size models, octogenarians, and men with limited flexibility. More white women! Where are you? And young too, please: where are the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings? The constant barrage of photos of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s gaining enlightenment through meditating in yogic postures is getting tiresome. You would think that Yoga was for just anybody, when from my experience the  really succesfull yogis are fit, beautiful young women. This is not well represented in what you actually see out there. Also- let’s be honest: very few of these pictures are sexy. Who wants to see you do yoga in sweatpants, or loose flowy clothing, or anything else which covers up that svelte yogi/yogini body? How about trying bikini underwear, skin tight fabrics, or even lace underwear or outright nudity. Nothing communicates “close to enlightenment” like being able to see your ripply muscles and gorgeous contours. Even if you’re just trying to promote Yoga for health, bear in mind that we all know that health=thin, fit and young, so let’s not send a mixed message by covering up how fit, thin or young you are.

On top of the lack of sexy yoga pictures, not just of women but also of men (all the male yoga pictures I say these days are of older, out of shape men- and there’s also a real lack of tattoos and dreadlocks)-most of the pictures I see seem to be of people doing boring un-yoga like things like feeding the poor, praying, meditating while fully clothed, engaging in street protests or planting trees. NONE OF THESE THINGS ARE YOGA! Here’s my rule of thumb: if the activity helps you to try out for Cirque de Soleil, it’s Yoga. If it has a merely spiritual or moral purpose, it’s something else.

A friend of mine the other day said the most insane thing to me. She said, “Real yoga can’t be photographed. The word “yoga” comes from the ancient root “yuj”, which referred to a yoke in the sense of a “discipline”. That’s the way the oldest texts, Yogic and Buddhist, use the word. It just means “committed spiritual discipline” and there are a million ways to do it. It’s entirely a matter of the heart.”

BORING! These kinds of sentiments devalue what Yoga is really about: feeling beautiful. Yoga allows me to feel a sense of mastery and a radiant sense of beauty which I communicate to others through well orchestrated photos of my accomplishments in flesh and bone. I’m sure you feel the same, and we need to fight against these disembodied, spiritualist put-downs of our bodies and our selves.

Another friend of mine, who is a Yoga teacher, suggested to me that a true “yoga picture” would be a picture of the practitioner’s face, one that showed the lines on their face, the soul in their eyes- the hard-won wisdom and transcendence that their years of practice had brought them. What nonsense! Anyone can have a nice face and still be overweight, stiff, and not know a bharadvajasana from a vishvamitanasana.

So: a plea to the beautiful people-to the truly successfull yogis and yoginis out there: strip down, go somewhere beautiful, and have someone take truly beautiful pictures of you showing what Yoga is really all about. Let’s stop navel gazing and start celebrating each other. I’ll celebrate you and you celebrate me, ok?

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