Sunday, March 13, 2016

Hilary Putnam (1926 - 2016)

Harvard Professor Hilary Putnam died today at age 89. That website says:

Putnam was a tremendously influential philosopher, working across a broad range of fields, including philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, philosophy of math, and moral philosophy.
Wikipedia says:
He was known for his willingness to apply an equal degree of scrutiny to his own philosophical positions as to those of others, subjecting each position to rigorous analysis until he exposed its flaws. As a result, he acquired a reputation for frequently changing his own position.
Wikipedia also notes that he was a computer scientist.

Here's Martha Nussbaum on what Putnam can offer an America that seems much less interesting in philosophy than it used to be.

Two Putnam quotes from A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations show his facility at refuting arguments. This is Putnam on the mind-body problem:
According to functionalism, the behaviour of, say, a computing machine is not explained by the physics and chemistry of the computer machine. It is explained by the machine's program. Of course, that program is realized in a particular physics and chemistry, and could, perhaps, be deduced from that physics and chemistry. But that does not make the program a physical or chemical property of the machine; it is an abstract property of the machine. Similarly, I believe that the psychological properties of human beings are not physical and chemical properties of human beings, although they may be realized by physical and chemical properties of human beings.
(You can read that quote in context here.)

And this is Putnam on logical positivism:
A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic spread the new message to the English-speaking philosophical world: untestable statements are cognitively meaningless. A statement must either be (a) analytical (logically true, or logically false . . .) or (b) empirically testable, or (c) nonsense, i.e. not a real statement at all, but only a pseudo-statement. . . . An obvious rejoinder was to say that the logical positivist criterion of significance was self-refuting: for the criterion itself is neither (a) analytic (unless, perhaps, it is analytically false!), nor (b) empirically testable. Strangely enough this criticism had very little impact on the logical positivists and did little to impede the growth of their movement.
(You can read that quote in context here.) In fairness, A.J. Ayer himself later repudiated much of Language, Truth, and Logic.

When an obituary is posted to Metafilter, the community blog, you'll typically see many commenters posting a single period to represent a moment of silence. So you'll see a long string of comments that are just:
That's been happening on the obituary post for Hilary Putnam, but one commenter did a variation on that, writing this as a moment of silence:


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