Hilary Putnam (1926-2016)

The day before yesterday I was saddened to hear that Hilary Putnam had died. He is the one who convinced me to go to philosophy graduate school at a meeting with him in 1992, even saying, “Perhaps you will be the next Wittgenstein, another engineer who became a philosopher.” I exchanged emails with him as recently as last year. He was a brilliant man and will be missed.

Putnam was well-known for changing his mind often over his career. Huw Price, one of our most distinguished philosophers himself, shared with me the following anecdote:

My best Putnam story came from Michael Dummett. When I was in Edinburgh around 2002, Dummett came to give a named lecture. I was acting as host and chair, and he said that he'd once done the same for Putnam, giving a lecture in Oxford. Putnam's advertised topic was 'Theory Change in Science' and Dummett said that when he introduced him, he said what an appropriate topic this was, for someone famous for changing his mind. Putnam then got up and said, “It's funny you should say that, because I've decided to give you a different paper.”

And here is Martha Nussbaum in the Huffington Post:

ScreenHunter_1778 Mar. 15 14.34Philosophy is pretty unpopular in America today. Marco Rubio says, with typical inelegance: “We need more welders and less philosophers.” Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina also singles out philosophy as a discipline offering “worthless courses” that offer “no chances of getting people jobs.” Across the nation there's unbounded adulation for the STEM disciplines, which seem so profitable. Although all the humanities suffer disdain, philosophy keeps on attracting special negative attention — perhaps because in addition to appearing worthless, it also appears vaguely subversive, a threat to sound traditional values.

Such was not always the case. Throughout its history in Europe, philosophy has repeatedly come in for abuse from the forces of tradition and authority. The American founding, however, was different: the founders were men of the Enlightenment, steeped in the ideas and works of Rousseau, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and the ancient Greeks and Romans — especially Cicero and the Roman Stoics. As men of the Enlightenment they took pride in steering their course by reason and argument rather than unexamined tradition. Their intellectual independence and theoretical thoughtfulness served them well when it came to setting up a new nation. We've traveled a long way from those roots, and not in a good direction.

On March 13, America lost one of the greatest philosophers this nation has ever produced. Hilary Putnam died of cancer at the age of 89.

More here.