Hilary Putnam, a Giant of Modern Philosophy, Dies at 89

By Weber, Bruce | International New York Times, March 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

Hilary Putnam, a Giant of Modern Philosophy, Dies at 89


Weber, Bruce, International New York Times


He was known for the breadth of his thinking, the vividness of his arguments and his penchant for self-questioning and willingness to change his mind.

Hilary Putnam, a Harvard philosopher whose influence ranged widely across many fields of thought, including mathematical logic, philosophy of mind and language, epistemology and metaphysics, died on March 13 at his home in Arlington, Mass. He was 89.

The cause was metastasized mesothelioma, his daughter-in-law Rebecca Steinitz said.

In the world of contemporary philosophers, Professor Putnam was known for the breadth of his thinking, the vividness of his provocative arguments, and his penchant for self-questioning and willingness to change his mind.

In a field of inquiry characterized by elusive concepts, dizzying "isms" and subtle taxonomies, philosophers are in continual battle to resist simplification. Infinite, or at least enormous, complexity is the nature of things, Professor Putnam held, writing that "any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one."

He spent his career expanding on ideas, his own and those of others, as if exploring an intellectual universe as boundless as the physical one.

He made an early mark in mathematical logic. With Julia Robinson, Martin Davis and later Yuri Matiyasevich, Professor Putnam provided a crucial proof involving the possibility of an algorithm that would solve certain polynomial equations. Whether such an algorithm exists -- it does not, it turned out -- was a question known as "Hilbert's 10th problem," one of a list of challenges to 20th-century mathematicians presented by the German David Hilbert at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris in 1900.

Early on, Professor Putnam studied with Hans Reichenbach, a leading proponent of logical positivism, the school of thought, now in disrepute, that maintains that the only basis of knowledge is that which can be scientifically verified.

But Professor Putnam argued against it, offering a course at Harvard in "nonscientific knowledge," encompassing the wisdom that comes from aesthetics, ethics and religion.

In the theory of language, Professor Putnam is known for the assertion that meaning is not "in the head"; rather, he said, what we call the meaning of a word is informed by external factors -- the context in which a concept is encountered.

He described what came to be called a linguistic division of labor, according to which experts in a given field define certain concepts while others may refer to the concepts and understand them but not, on their own, define them. …

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