The great philosopher, who died yesterday aged 89, might have saved materialismby Daniel Elstein / March 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: A philosopher in the age of science
The recent death of Hilary Putnam at the age of 89 brings to a close one of the most distinguished, varied and prolific careers in analytic philosophy. He was one of the great American philosophers, and at the time of his death had a serious claim to being the greatest living philosopher. Born in Chicago in 1926 to atheist, left-wing parents, Putnam received his PhD from UCLA in 1951, studying under Hans Reichenbach, one of the original logical positivists (whose views Putnam rejected). From 1965 he was based at Harvard, where he continued being highly philosophically productive well after becoming emeritus, teaching classes up to the last years of his life.
Early in his time at Harvard he was heavily involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, gravitating towards communism, which he later renounced on account of human rights abuses. He had a religious change of heart as well as a political one, responding to the anti-Semitism he encountered by moving away from atheism and embracing the Judaism of his mother’s heritage. Putnam was, famously, even more prone to change his mind about issues within philosophy. This can be a source of amusement, as when it turns out that the two sides in an important debate are both Putnam, at different moments, often in fairly quick succession. But his mutability is widely admired as exemplifying the quest for truth: better to follow the argument where it leads and get things right now than to stubbornly insist that one was right before.
Putnam did not approve of narrow specialisation, and he made important contributions in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, logic, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science, metaphysics, ethics, and more. Since his varied insights across so many areas of philosophy defy summary, one way to get a sense of his work is to get to grips with just a few of his ideas.
Perhaps his most disruptive and counterintuitive claim was that, as he put it, “meanings just ain’t in the head!” You might well suppose that when you are thinking about something—water, for example—what you are thinking about is determined only by what is going on in your head, so that your exact doppelganger would be thinking about the same thing. But…