Hilary Putnam is not well known outside philosophy. He should beby Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson / March 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson delivered the following assessment of contemporary philosophers: “they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant.”
The Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam might seem a dwarf at first glance, and his latest collection of essays, Philosophy in the Age of Science, another scholarly text for academics. It is a weighty book from a university press with foreboding chapter titles like “Axioms of Set Existence.” It will likely be ignored by non-philosophers. This is a shame because Putnam, in lucid and readable prose, confronts some of the most philosophically rich debates out there. Can science produce an exhaustive description of the universe? Are moral values subject to rational scrutiny? Can we give an account of mind that is compatible with what we know about cognitive psychology?
Putnam, unlike most philosophers, does not take a slow and plodding approach. His style is more detached, more panoramic. He takes long strides, condensing arguments into a few sentences, rather than the whole chapters one would usually expect. What Putnam’s approach lacks in microscopic nuance, it makes up for with its ability to capture the big picture—to see how small philosophical problems relate to grand, overarching topics.
This kind of approach can come off as naïve or arrogant, unless deftly handled. Bertrand Russell got away with it in his Problems of Philosophy because he was a famously brilliant logician, who also spent decades thinking about the arguments he reduces to short paragraphs. For similar reasons William James’s Pragmatism, a poignant American counterpoint to Russell, gets away with its grandiose and sweeping style. Putnam pulls off the trick too—he is one of the few living philosophers in the same mould as Russell and James.
Like Russell, Putnam began his philosophical career working on topics concerning logic and mathematics. In the 1960s his work with three other mathematicians led to the solution of Hilbert’s Tenth Problem, and his work with Martin Davis led to the creation of an algorithm about satisfiability for first-order predicate logic. Like William James, Putnam has a keen eye for where lofty philosophical notions such as truth, knowledge, value, and justification can be related to pragmatic concerns about use and practicality. And like James and Russell, Putnam sees both science and philosophy as participating in a similar project of refining our conception of reality. Sadly Putnam has never enjoyed a similar level of fame or public influence, though his famous essay “Brain in a Vat” may have been one of the inspirations behind The Matrix, a film which introduced philosophical scepticism to a whole new audience.