Hilary Putnam (1926-2016)
March 13, 2016 7:50 PM   Subscribe

Hilary Putnam, one of the most important analytic philosophers of the last hundred years, died today from mesothelioma.

Putnam made numerous significant contributions to philosophy, including contributions to epistemology (pdf), metaphysics (pdf), logic (pdf), philosophy of mathematics (pdf), philosophy of computation (pdf), philosophy of science (pdf), philosophy of language (pdf), philosophy of mathematics again (pdf), and philosophy of mind (pdf). (These are really only a small sampling of his contributions: ones that happen to be available online and that I could easily track down. They are mainly included here to indicate the breadth and scope of Putnam's philosophical work, while linking to his papers themselves, as opposed to second-hand reports.)

And here are some videos that show him in action or at least have recordings of his voice:

A younger Putnam interviewed by Bryan Magee on epistemology and the philosophy of science.

An older Putnam interviewed on a range of contemporary questions, including on the state of analytic philosophy today.

Putnam at a roundtable discussion of externalism.

Putnam on naive realism and qualia.

Putnam on the fact/value dichotomy.
posted by Jonathan Livengood (54 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
 
His writing was a cornerstone of my time in college and grad school.

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posted by Gorgik at 7:54 PM on March 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


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Putnam was one of the greats. Rare in his ability to join advances in logic with a genuinely well-rounded and perceptive approach to dilemmas of the human being. One of my favorite American philosophers.
posted by dis_integration at 7:59 PM on March 13, 2016


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posted by tickingclock at 8:05 PM on March 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


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posted by no mind at 8:06 PM on March 13, 2016


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posted by JoeXIII007 at 8:08 PM on March 13, 2016


I don't think I would have discovered my deep and abiding love for the study of philosophy were it not for his work.

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posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 8:11 PM on March 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


I knew he was sick, and I knew he was getting on in years...I had hoped he'd pull through anyhow.

His blog is interesting reading. (As is, y'know, all of his other writing.)

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posted by freelanceastro at 8:28 PM on March 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


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posted by saulgoodman at 9:25 PM on March 13, 2016



posted by Harvey Kilobit at 9:46 PM on March 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


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posted by ageispolis at 9:55 PM on March 13, 2016


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posted by cosmic owl at 10:03 PM on March 13, 2016


His 'division of linguist labor' concept aided me immensely in convincing undergraduates that their individualism
was bogus.
posted by feral_goldfish at 10:10 PM on March 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


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posted by ntartifex at 10:12 PM on March 13, 2016


Someone should draw a picture of an ant on a beach or sandy surface tracing an image of Putnam. But would it be a depiction of him, or a meaningless trail?
posted by BiggerJ at 10:18 PM on March 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


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posted by mondo dentro at 11:23 PM on March 13, 2016


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posted by LobsterMitten at 11:39 PM on March 13, 2016


Here's to (almost) 90 years of thought.

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posted by sapagan at 11:40 PM on March 13, 2016


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posted by homunculus at 11:50 PM on March 13, 2016


Two Putnam quotes from A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations show his facility at refuting arguments. This is Putnam on the mind-body problem:
According to functionalism, the behaviour of, say, a computing machine is not explained by the physics and chemistry of the computer machine. It is explained by the machine's program. Of course, that program is realized in a particular physics and chemistry, and could, perhaps, be deduced from that physics and chemistry. But that does not make the program a physical or chemical property of the machine; it is an abstract property of the machine. Similarly, I believe that the psychological properties of human beings are not physical and chemical properties of human beings, although they may be realized by physical and chemical properties of human beings.
(You can read that quote in context here.)

And this is Putnam on logical positivism:
A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic spread the new message to the English-speaking philosophical world: untestable statements are cognitively meaningless. A statement must either be (a) analytical (logically true, or logically false . . .) or (b) empirically testable, or (c) nonsense, i.e. not a real statement at all, but only a pseudo-statement. . . . An obvious rejoinder was to say that the logical positivist criterion of significance was self-refuting: for the criterion itself is neither (a) analytic (unless, perhaps, it is analytically false!), nor (b) empirically testable. Strangely enough this criticism had very little impact on the logical positivists and did little to impede the growth of their movement.
(You can read that quote in context here.) In fairness, A.J. Ayer himself later repudiated much of Language, Truth, and Logic.
posted by John Cohen at 11:51 PM on March 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


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posted by quazichimp at 11:51 PM on March 13, 2016


Putnam's writings on realism and anti-realism helped draw me into philosophy.

His changing views on the matter modeled what open thought about a deep issue could look like.

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posted by airing nerdy laundry at 11:54 PM on March 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


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posted by fmoralesc at 12:24 AM on March 14, 2016


Thanks for the post, Jonathan. I was hoping someone would put this up. Putnam was the first big contemporary philosopher I became aware of when I was an undergrad philosophy major. This was when everyone was discussing his antirealism he adopted in the late 70s and early 80s.

Putnam was the most important living philosopher, and had been for some time. One thing that astonishes me about Putnam is that he turned out important, worthwhile work in seven different decades. I don't think anyone else in philosophical history had had a career like that. Just really impressive.

He was by all accounts a good human being, too. He will be missed.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:02 AM on March 14, 2016


I'm also impressed by his ability to change his mind when he thought the evidence required it. He famously reversed himself, from a neo-positivist to a sort of scientific materialist to an antirealist. Many other great philosophers of recent times didn't do that. They dug in and defended their positions. Putnam realized he may well be wrong, and decided fairly often he was.

I didn't know him personally. But, like David Bowie, the world was a better place with him in it. And like David Bowie, I will miss him.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:09 AM on March 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


*pours glass of XYZ*
posted by thelonius at 2:40 AM on March 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


The beginning of Putnam's essay "The Place of Facts in a World of Values," from Realism with a Human Face, 1990:
Science tells us—or at least we are told that "science tells us"—that we live in a world of swarming particles, spiraling DNA molecules, machines that compute, and such esoteric objects as black holes and neutron stars. In such a world, where can we hope for meaning or for a foundation for our values? Jacques Ellul tells us—and I think he is right—that the themes of the present day are science and sexuality. He also tells us that in modern society most people—the people who think of themselves as "enlightened," in fact—are caught in a peculiar contradiction. On the one hand, nothing is regarded as more irrational than Christianity (or Judaism). On the other hand, Europeans and Americans are going in droves for every kind of pseudoreligion one can think of. And the verboten desire for religion (verboten as "irrational," "unscientific"—the two words are treated as synonyms) does not only break out in the form of a million and one new and revived cults; it breaks out even more alarmingly in the form of a certain religionizing of the political—even "middle of the roaders" rarely discuss political questions anymore without a special kind of commitment, more appropriate to the defense of a faith than to the discussion of public policy. At the same time, Leszek Kolakowski writes despairingly (only he would not agree that this is despairing) that "the gulf between normative and empirical knowledge" cannot be bridged, and "the former can be justified only by the force of tradition and myth." But if Kolakowski is right, and at the same time "tradition and myth" are in vast disrepute, what then? Dostoyevsky's "if God is dead then everything is permitted" may have been invalid logic, but accurate sociology. Indeed, looking at the world in which we live—this Babylon!—who can doubt it?
posted by Fritz Langwedge at 2:47 AM on March 14, 2016 [6 favorites]


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posted by drezdn at 6:12 AM on March 14, 2016


What a great mind and thinker. Thank you for putting this thoughtful tribute together.
posted by carter at 6:35 AM on March 14, 2016


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posted by allthinky at 6:45 AM on March 14, 2016


Asbestos-mesothelioma? It makes you wonder how many geniuses were done in prematurely by the historical abundance of lead, arsenic, asbestos and mercury in manufactured products.
posted by constantinescharity at 8:11 AM on March 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


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posted by Lutoslawski at 8:57 AM on March 14, 2016


Martha Nussbaum on Putnam: Hilary Putnam (1926-2016)
Putnam was a philosopher of amazing breadth. As he himself wrote, "Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one." And in his prolific career Putnam, accordingly, elaborated detailed and creative accounts of central issues in an extremely wide range of areas in philosophy. Indeed 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.

And Putnam added at least two areas to the list that Aristotle didn't work in, namely, philosophy of language and philosophy of religion. (Philosophy of religion because he was a religious Jew, and he understood Judaism to require a life of perpetual critique.) In all of these areas, too, he shared with Aristotle a deep concern: that the messy matter of human life should not be distorted to fit the demands of an excessively simple theory, that what Putnam called "the whole hurly-burly of human actions" should be the context within which philosophical theory does its work.
posted by homunculus at 10:26 AM on March 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


Thanks very much for this post. I knew him only as a name, but watching that first video (Putnam interviewed by Bryan Magee on epistemology and the philosophy of science) makes me want to read him.
posted by languagehat at 10:42 AM on March 14, 2016


I've been meaning to read Putnam's work for a while. So I'll pay this honor:

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posted by ocschwar at 11:17 AM on March 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


Computer scientists/engineers know of him by the 50+ year old Davis-Putnam algorithm, still the basis for modern, efficient SAT solvers and related research.
posted by polymodus at 1:03 PM on March 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


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posted by klausness at 2:57 PM on March 14, 2016


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posted by joedan at 5:22 PM on March 14, 2016


Is there a good starting place with Putnam's work (for an enthusiastic amateur)?
posted by dehowell at 5:45 PM on March 14, 2016


Is there a good starting place with Putnam's work (for an enthusiastic amateur)?

I think that depends a lot on what your interests are.

You could maybe start with his book Reason, Truth and History, which covers a lot of ground in a reasonably short space.

Another way to try to get started is to pick and choose from essays that look interesting in the three volumes of his philosophical papers:

1. Mathematics, Matter and Method
2. Mind, Language and Reality
3. Realism and Reason

But that might be more than you really want to tackle.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 6:30 PM on March 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


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posted by cotton dress sock at 12:16 AM on March 15, 2016


From Daily Nous:

His wife, Ruth Anna Putnam, writes in an email, “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.”
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:59 AM on March 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


Putnam's voice and demeanor in the video of the Magee interview was reminding me of something, and I have located what: Peter Sellars as the President in "Dr. Strangelove". Imagine him saying "Now, Dmitiri..."
posted by thelonius at 11:34 PM on March 15, 2016


> Putnam's voice and demeanor in the video of the Magee interview was reminding me of something, and I have located what: Peter Sellars as the President in "Dr. Strangelove". Imagine him saying "Now, Dmitiri..."

Brilliant! And Magee reminded me irresistibly of John Cleese in Monty Python.
posted by languagehat at 10:16 AM on March 16, 2016




That's a fine obit; I was struck by this:
“He would say that our understanding of something depends on a community,” Warren Goldfarb, a friend of Professor Putnam’s and a former chairman of the Harvard philosophy department, said in an interview on Monday. “There are times it can be said you use and understand a term even when it has no distinction for you. I understand the word ‘larch’ or ‘elm’; I couldn’t tell the trees apart, but you couldn’t say I didn’t understand them.”
I gotta read that guy!
posted by languagehat at 12:31 PM on March 18, 2016 [2 favorites]


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posted by Fezboy! at 12:39 PM on March 18, 2016


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