Hilary Putnam, 1926–2016

Such was Hilary Putnam’s very long winding path, his changes of direction, his jumpings across to traverse new fields, that different readers will surely be gripped by different stages of the journey.

For me, the really golden period was from about 1960 to 1975. It is difficult now to overestimate the impact of Mathematics, Matter and Method, and Mind, Language and Reality, the first two volumes of his Collected Papers, which CUP brought out in 1975. Of course, we knew some of those 41 papers, originally published in very widely scattered places, if published at all. But bringing them together revealed Putnam to be an extraordinarily fertile, imaginative philosopher, unpicking the legacies of verificationism and behaviourism in defence of sane realisms about science and the mind. It helped too that he wrote with such stylish clarity, carrying an enviable amount of background technical knowledge lightly. I thought at the time that those papers exemplify analytical philosophy at its best. And I’d still warmly recommend any student beginning the serious study of philosophy to read the Putnam of those years. Such a very fine philosopher.

2 thoughts on “Hilary Putnam, 1926–2016”

  1. I hadn’t realised at first that your post meant Putnam had died. The “somewhat later Putnam” is how I first encountered him, when a friend recommended RTH and my fellow maths students and I, fresh from a course in mathematical logic, read “Models and reality” when it appeared in The Journal of Symbolic Logic. My interest in philosophy largely grew from there.

  2. What do you think of somewhat later Putnam, such as “Models and reality” (which I think is in Papers vol 3) or Reason, Truth and History? (Or the even later Putnam.)

    I was intrigued by the RTH “cats and cherries” argument, and the one that said we couldn’t be brains in vats, but it was never entirely clear to me what we were meant to take way from them. For instance, does he think some of us might have our words shifted around (as in the “cats and cherries” argument), compared to each other; and if not, how does he think we get them aligned?

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