RIP Hilary Putnam 1926-2016

During the period of my graduate studies in philosophy,  it came to seem to me that William James‘ classic distinction between tough and tender-minded philosophers had been been reworked just a bit. The tough philosophers were still empiricists and positivists but they had begun to show some of the same inclinations that the supposedly tender-minded in James’ distinction did: they wanted grand over-arching systems, towering receptacles into which all of reality could be neatly poured; they were enamored of reductionism; they had acquired new idols, like science (and metaphysical realism) and new tools, those of mathematics and logic.

Hilary Putnam was claimed as a card-carrying member of this tough-minded group:  he was a logician, mathematician, computer scientist, and analytic philosopher of acute distinction. He wrote non-trivial papers on mathematics and computer science (the MRDP problem, the Davis-Putnam algorithm), philosophy of language (the causal theory of reference), and philosophy of mind (functionalism, the multiple realizability of the mental)–the grand trifecta of the no-bullshit, hard-headed analytic philosopher, the one capable of handing your  woolly, unclear, tender continental philosophy ass to you on a platter.

I read many of Putnam’s classic works as a graduate student; he was always a clear writer, even as he navigated the thickets of some uncompromisingly dense material. Along with Willard Van Orman Quine, he was clearly the idol of many analytic philosophers-in-training; we grew up on a diet of Quine-Putnam-Kripke. You thought of analytic philosophy, and you thought of Putnam. Whether it was this earth, or its twin, there he was.

I was already quite uncomfortable with analytical philosophy’s preoccupations, methods, and central claims as I finished my PhD; I had not become aware that the man I thought of as its standard-bearer had started to step down from that position before I even began graduate school. When I encountered him again, after I had finished my dissertation and my post-doctoral fellowship, I found a new Putnam.

This Putnam was a philosopher who had moved away from metaphysical realism and scientism, who had found something to admire in the American pragmatists, who had become enamored of the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations. He now dismissed the fact-value dichotomy and indeed, now wrote on subjects that ‘tough-minded analytic philosophers’ from his former camps would not be caught dead writing: political theory and religion in particular. He even fraternized with the enemy, drawing inspiration, for instance, from Jürgen Habermas.

My own distaste for scientism and my interest in pragmatism (of the paleo and neo– varietals) and the late Wittgenstein meant that the new Putnam was an intellectual delight for me. (His 1964 paper ‘Robots: Machines or Artificially Created Life?’ significantly influenced my thoughts as I wrote my book on a legal theory for autonomous artificial agents.)  I read his later works with great relish and marveled at his tone of writing: he was ecumenical, gentle, tolerant, and crucially, wise. He had lived and learned; he had traversed great spaces of learning, finding that many philosophical perspectives abounded, and he had, as a good thinker must, struggled to integrate them into his intellectual framework. He seemed to have realized that the most acute philosophical ideal of all was a constant taking on and trying out of ideas, seeing if they worked in consonance with your life projects and those of the ones you cared for (this latter group can be as broad as the human community.) I was reading a philosopher who seemed to be doing philosophy in the way I understood it, as a way of making sense of this world without dogma.

I never had any personal contact with him, so I cannot share stories or anecdotes, no tales of directed inspiration or encouragement. But I can try to gesture in the direction of the pleasure he provided in his writing and his always visible willingness to work through the challenges of this world, this endlessly complicated existence. Through his life and work he provided an ideal of the engaged philosopher.

RIP Hilary Putnam.

Getting Philosophy Syllabi Right

Student evaluations can be flattering; they can be unfair; they can be good reminders to get our act together. A few weeks ago, I received my student evaluations for the ‘Twentieth Century Philosophy’ class I taught this past spring semester. As I read them, I came upon one that brought me up short, because it stung:

I appreciated the professor’s enthusiasm about the early portion of the class, but I was annoyed that it resulted in the syllabus being rewritten so that the already extremely minimal number of female and minority voices was further reduced.

My initial syllabus included readings by: Russell, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Austin, Quine, Davidson, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida, Sartre, Beauvoir, Irigaray, Du Bois, Rawls, Macintyre, Dewey, Rorty, Taylor. In the first class meeting, I discovered half of my students had no prior background in philosophy. As a result, in the course of assigning and discussing Russell, Wittgenstein, and Ayer, I provided my students a crash course in introductory philosophy just so I could establish some elementary metaphysical and epistemological definitions and distinctions. This slowed us down considerably; I spent two weeks on Russell, two on Wittgenstein, and one on Ayer. Needless to say, I had to drop some portions of the syllabus. I could have shitcanned Ayer, but I ended up getting rid of Austin, Davidson, Heidegger, Irigaray, Rawls, Macintyre, Rorty, and Taylor. Drastic surgery indeed but by then, I had realized my original syllabus had been too ambitious–the length of some of the assigned excerpts was non-trivial for undergraduates–and that it was better to slow down, and get straight about the most important issues at play. (In my defense, I will make the claim–one confirmed by some students–that I was able to show my students how twentieth century analytical philosophy of language was relevant to our reading and understanding of Foucault, Gadamer, and Derrida.)

Some reduction of the syllabus, and the compressed nature of the later discussions in the semester was forced upon me by the need to provide an extended introduction in the beginning of the semester. This same lack of student preparation also slowed down my discussion of Quine; my discussion of Gadamer also went on longer than I expected. Later in the semester, I added Nietzsche’s ‘Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’–even though not strictly ‘twentieth century’– to supplement Foucault on truth. 

My initial selection was not ideal. Too many men; not enough women; Du Bois all by himself. I have some excuses to offer. Mostly: I made the syllabus in a hurry, and I lacked preparation in some issues and authors I could have included.  Most problematically, I simply excluded non-Western philosophical traditions. I then chose the path of least resistance; I picked an anthology of readings that seemed to strike a good balance between analytical and continental thought, and which, besides the usual metaphysical and epistemological readings, included social and political philosophy, existentialism, pragmatism, and feminism. (I was struck by the fact that most twentieth century philosophy syllabi I saw online were less varied than mine, which suggests the lack of variety complained about by my student might be a problem for others too.)

I can, and I think I will, do much better by simply planning my syllabus preparation better the next time around.

Philosophical Silencing: A Follow-Up

In response to my post on an act of philosophical silencing, Wesley Buckwalter wrote the following comment (over at the NewAPPS blog, where I cross-posted):

As you know, I was the gentleman that made that remark in a private facebook thread with a close friend. If I recall correctly, people in that thread were asking about whether certain kinds of thought experiments were typically referred to as “Gettier Cases”. I said that they were, despite how inaccurate or uninformative it might be to do so, in part because of the alternative traditions you cite. I’m sorry you interpreted my remark as silencing my friends on facebook. Personally I believe that philosophers should abandon the notion of “Gettier cases” and that the practice of labeling thought experiments in this way should be discouraged. If you are interested, I have recently argued for this in two articles here ( and here (

Many thanks to Wesley for his clarification. His initial comment, which I cited, did not acknowledge the content of the other comment I had quoted, and neither did it mention the presence of “alternative traditions” as a reason for the stance that he takes in the first of the two papers he refers me to. Those papers, if I remember correctly, were not cited in the thread. So, in the comment he had initially made, it had seemed to me that the amendment offered by the first commenter had not been taken on board.(In the Gettier case paper, Wesley refers to the following article–Turri, John. 2012. In Gettier’s Wake. In S. Hetherington (Ed.) Epistemology: The Key Thinkers. Continuum Press–as citing the Indian philosopher Sriharsa as someone who has offered similar examples. I am obviously very glad to see such an acknowledgment made in a published work.)

Let me go on to say that the attitude I was interested in highlighting, even if not instantiated in this particular token, is an existent type. (As you can tell, I was trained as an Anglo-American analytical philosopher.) Which is why I was not interested in naming individuals but in pointing to the existence of an intellectual stance. To the commenter Chris, who thinks he was ‘misled’, let me direct the following question:  What were you misled about? That an unnamed individual indulged in silencing or that the silencing of academic conversations about alternative philosophical traditions exists in academic philosophy? Perhaps my excessive familiarity with such acts of silencing, thanks to twenty-three years of utter failure in provoking a conversation about Indian philosophy, led me to the kind of conclusions I drew. I don’t think the conclusion to be drawn in response to my original post is that all is good, there is nothing to see here, and that we should just move on.

I started studying philosophy twenty-three years ago. In that time, I’ve only managed to provoke conversations about alternative philosophical traditions with the following demographics: one graduate school friend of mine who asked me a few questions about Indian philosophy while we were drinking beers, one senior professor who teaches Buddhism (among other things), my dissertation adviser (an Indian) who is a practicing Buddhist, and the attendees at a conference on Eastern philosophy a few years ago. In that same period, I’ve initiated several conversations about Indian philosophy, and have had them all shot down with varying degrees of skepticism and disdain. My worst mistake was to try to talk about Buddhist theories of relational consciousness with the members of a class on consciousness who were going down the usual Nagel-Block-Rosenthal-Ramachandran-Churchland et al route.

I realized over the years that most people I talked to in philosophical academia conflated ‘Eastern philosophy’ with ‘mysticism’. In response, I would sometimes point to the ‘harder’ schools: Samkhya and Lokyata (or Carvaka). The latter, in particular, was materialist in its orientation; perhaps that would appeal to the hard-edged analytical types I hung out with, the ones so enamored of science? Sometimes I would try to talk about Nyaya;  you know, logic and inference, and all that good stuff that analytical types like and love? No dice. It never worked. I was perceived as either indulging in a kind of facile ‘We’ve done it all before!’–perhaps like someone invoking the glories of the Nubian empire in a modern conversation about technological and cultural achievements–or dragging in wishy-washy pale imitations of the real thing.  (Logic only started with Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, dontcha know?)

But, of course, those traditions were not the only ones so dismissed. Within ‘Western philosophy’ I have heard graduate students who had never read Foucault dismiss him as ‘useless’, describe feminist theory as fundamentally misguided, and the less said about critical race theory, the better.

A few weeks ago, I posted a photograph of an old family friend, a former professor of philosophy, with the following caption:

A photo of my brother and myself with Dr. Dhirendra Sharma, a man I deeply admire and respect. He is the author of _The Negative Dialectics: A Study of the Negative Dialecticism in Indian Philosophy_, _The Differentiation Theory of Meaning in Indian Logic_, a critic of India’s nuclear program back in the 1970s, (when he was writing about “appropriate technology”), an environmental activist working to preserve the Garhwal Himalayas, and going back further, an anti-Vietnam war activist when he had tenure at Michigan State. He is now in his 80s, fit as a fiddle, bright as ever. I aspire to his health and wisdom.

Posting that photograph reminded me of an incident that occurred during my thirtieth birthday. On that day, many of my graduate school friends showed up to help me celebrate. Some of us moved to my room to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. I then owned one of Professor Sharma’s books and I took it down from the shelves and thrust it toward one of my friends. Because it featured ‘meaning’ in its title, and because all of us, as analytical types, seemed suitably obeisant toward philosophy of language, I thought it might get someone interested in opening it and taking a look. Instead, it was contemptuously waved off, even when I desperately said that it invoked distinctions that were reminiscent of the Fregean distinction between sense and reference. No one accepted the book held out, and it remained unopened.

Silencing exists.

Reflections on Translations-VI: The Advantages to Philosophy

Over at The New York Times‘ The Stone, Hamid Dabashi writes:

Though it is common to lament the shortcomings of reading an important work in any language other than the original and of the “impossibility” of translation, I am convinced that works of philosophy…in fact gain far more than they lose in translation.

Consider Heidegger. Had it not been for his French translators and commentators, German philosophy of his time would have remained an obscure metaphysical thicket.  And it was not until Derrida’s own take on Heidegger found an English readership in the United States and Britain that the whole Heidegger-Derridian undermining of metaphysics began to shake the foundations of the Greek philosophical heritage. One can in fact argue that much of contemporary Continental philosophy originates in German with significant French and Italian glosses before it is globalized in the dominant American English and assumes a whole new global readership and reality. This has nothing to do with the philosophical wherewithal of German, French or English. It is entirely a function of the imperial power and reach of one language as opposed to others.

Dabashi does not really address what might be termed the ‘linguistic problem’ of translation–the difficulties of rendering sensible specialized technical terms for instance–which often leads to the ‘impossibility’ that he notes. Rather, his concern is with translation as a means for improving access to a philosophical work. And in this dimension, he is certainly on to something. (There has been, for some time now, a possibly apocryphal story making the rounds in philosophy departments, that when the first English translations of Kant appeared, an entire generation of German scholars took up English classes so that they could read Kant in translation–the original German was too obtuse for even native speakers.)

One aspect of this improved access that Dabashi does not touch on is that a greater readership achieved via a successful translation can prompt greater study of the text in the original language. A classic example of this is Nietzsche scholarship. Many students who read him find his prose stylings visible even in translation; they are then told by those fluent in German that his style is even more prominent and pronounced in German; they often decide to learn German to find out for themselves just what the fuss is about. (I have recently come into possession of German-language edition of Nietzsche’s collected works, and my resolve to resume my education in German, interrupted many years ago, has now been considerably strengthened.)

And many serious students of a philosopher will learn a foreign language just so that they can deepen their understanding of the material and try to settle disputes in interpretation for themselves. Their access to their philosopher of interest began, of course, with a translation.

Dabashi’s point about translation giving more than it takes works best, I think, in these kinds of cases–when it sends readers back to the original. His point is compatible with an entirely plausible alternative development: that the translations take on a life of their own, and lend themselves to interpretations and applications not possible with the original, thus becoming an entirely new philosophical work.

Such a development is not to be bemoaned; the student of philosophy now has more to play with.

Pistol-Packin’ Professor: A Day in the Life

In honor of those–like libertarian law professors, the last defenders of the faith–who have attempted to point out the silliness of keeping faculty unarmed in our school’s classrooms, I offer these recollections of a day in the life:

The alarm went off at 6. I sat up, swung my legs off the bed, and reached for the Glock 30 SF. There it lay, cold, implacable, loaded, right next to the stack of unread New York and London Reviews of Books. I tucked the cold steel into my pajama pocket and rose. It was time to get cracking. Brooklyn lay outside. And a full day of walking on its mean streets, lecturing in its even meaner lecture halls, and worst of all, meetings with fractious faculty, awaited.

After I had showered and shaved, the Glock visible and within reach at all times (getting jumped while I was all soaped up and vulnerable in the shower had never appealed to me), I changed into my work clothes. As always, my holster went on quickly, and I packed two spare clips of ammunition into my jacket’s roomy pockets. (I had these enlarged for easy access to the clips in case of an extended gun battle.)

Emerging from my building, I quickly checked the streets, scanning left and right, looking for concealed shooters, ready to roll to the curb and squeeze off a quick covering volley of fire if needed. All was quiet. A few schoolkids walked past and I kept them visible in case any of them reached into their backpacks. Crossing Coney Island Avenue required similar caution; the Pakistani bodega owners could never be trusted not to reach for the AK-47s that are  so common back in their land.

I arrived at the campus in time for my class. The students filed in, shuffling past me with that usual mix of insolence and boredom manifest, as I kept a wary eye on them. As always, I had the clear angles of fire for the lecture hall worked out. Contingency plans at the back of my mind, I began the class. As I paced up and down, I kept one hand on the Glock, feeling its heft even as I evaluated argument after argument. It was oddly reassuring, letting me know that not even a fallacy or two could diminish its ability to bust a cap in some philosophy major’s ass. (Only in self-defense.)

The afternoon faculty meeting went off without incident. I kept the Glock on the table in front of me in case any of the usual objections over curricular changes needed speedy resolution. I kept my chair pushed back just a little, so that I could spring to my feet, squeeze off a round or two before executing the classic ‘roll-and-rock-upright’ move into a more favorable shooting position. Thankfully, the votes went off without incident, though I had my eyes on the beady-eyed Continental type in the back. I got your Nietzsche right here, pal. This one will kill ya; it won’t make you stronger.

As evening fell, the winds sharpened, and darkness closed in, I packed up, locked the office, and headed out for the walk back home. Every day called for the same challenge: negotiating dozens of traffic crossings on the walk back home, as cars loaded with potential shooters pulled up next to me, and hooded teenagers strolled past, their baggy pants bulging suspiciously.

And then, I was home. I sprinted up the stairs, avoiding the confinement of the elevator (those kinds of enclosed spaces aren’t conducive to the quick draw), and moved into the apartment. After checking all the rooms, it was time for dinner. I ate, as I always did: the Glock next to the salad, my chair well away and out of line with the windows.

And then, time for bed, and the necessary letting down of the guard for some shut-eye. I checked to make sure the Glock was in its place, and went through my usual bedtime ritual: the quick roll-out of bed, the taking of cover next to the dehumidifier, the clip reload with the lights off.

Finally, lights out. I drifted off, as the glowing green light of the clock-radio threw into sharp relief the metallic outlines of the SF, my companion and keeper, my torch, my flame, my lodestar.