Hilary Putnam, Prolific Jewish-American Thinker Who Revolutionized Contemporary Philosophy, Dies

Famous for changing his mind, Putnam was a champion of philosophical 'realism,' but stoutly defended the notion that truth was anything but objective.

Hilary Whitehall Putnam.
Hilary Whitehall Putnam. Hilary Whitehall Putnam

The prolific Jewish American philosopher Hilary Whitehall Putnam, one of the major analytical thinkers of our time, died this week of cancer in Boston, aged 89.

Putnam's contribution to numerous philosophical fields was revolutionary and transformed the philosophy of mind, language, mathematics, metaphysics, epistemology and ethics.

He is best known for his theory of semantic externalism, according to which linguistic meanings are not purely mental entities but "reach out" to external reality; his antireductionist philosophy of mind; and his persistent defense of different forms realism, the view that truth and knowledge are objective.

He is also credited with being the torch bearer for contemporary American pragmatism, consistently bringing a holistic view to his philosophy. 

Putnam was as famous for his works as he was for changing his mind. Over the years he shifted his position, at first defending a rigid view of realism, but eventually settling for the lighter scientific realism, which stipulates that evolved theories can give approximated descriptions of physical reality.

In his later years he grew closer to Judaism, and, according to philosopher Yemima Ben Menahem, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, also became increasingly sensitive to the moral aspects of epistemology, metaphysics and, more generally, to philosophy’s moral calling.

In contrast to the post modernistic stream, Putnam formulated an original theory of meaning, introducing the notion of semantic externalism, which ties external reality to the spoken word, or as Putnam famously put it: "meanings just ain't in the head!"

He asserted that there is an objective truth and that we cannot base our entire mental life on subjective truths. In recent years he grew closer to religion and started attending synagogue.

"He was one of the greatest intellectuals of our generation, a contemporary Renaissance man, whose work spans all fields of philosophy and reaches practical life," mourned Uri Bek, his student. "At a time when it seems philosophy in particular and thought in general is withdrawing from public space and digging into itself, Putnam taught us how the human spirit can and must guide the secular world with clear ideas and a critical view," he said.

Putnam was born in 1926 in Chicago, a single son to his mother Riva and father Samuel, who was a well-known author and translator, a scholar in Romance languages, an atheist and columnist in a Communist newspaper. He spent his early childhood years with his parents in France and in 1934 returned to the United States, where he studied with Noam Chomsky.

Putnam wrote his Ph.D under the guidance of Hans Reichenbach and was a student and associate of leading philosophers and logicians such as Willard Van Orman Quine, Rudolf Carnap and Georg Kreisel. Later he taught at important universities until settling at Harvard in 1956. In the 60s and 70s he was active in the human rights movement and in the struggle against the Vietnam War. After retiring from Harvard, he began giving a yearly seminar at Tel Aviv University.

Philosopher Yemima Ben Menahem, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, spoke to Haaretz about Putnam's main contribution to philosophy. "He was a very consistent defender of the positon that there is a truth and there is objectivity. He came out against the relativistic approach to the concept of truth. In our postmodern era this is very significant," she said.

This approach, called "realism" in philosophy, argues that truth and knowledge exist independently of subjective thought or perception. It was anchored in Putnam's theory of externalism, which linked objective reality to the spoken word, contrary to other theories that maintain there's no objective truth, only "my narrative" versus "your narrative."

Putnam, who constantly examined his position and changed his mind several times, adhered to this approach, with changes, throughout his work, Ben Menahem said.

  Putnam also contributed greatly to the philosophy of mind, introducing the doctrine known as functionalism, which attempts to define mental states in terms of their functional roles relative to other mental states and behaviors. He later abandoned the theory, but it remained influential nonetheless.

One of his famous arguments was that the mind is characterized not by the substance it is made of, but by its functions and functional organization. In his words, "We could be made of Swiss cheese and it wouldn't matter."