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.”