Getting The ‘Rorty’ In The ‘Putnam-Rorty Debate’ Wrong

In his essay on Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett writes of the ‘famous’ Putnam-Rorty debate as follows:

The crux of their dispute centered on how far to take pragmatism. [Richard] Rorty thought that the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality: There is the stuff we say, and then there is the actual world, and never the twain shall meet. We agree on certain conventions in order to function, but we’ll never arrive at anything like truth. Putnam meanwhile held to the idea, as he wrote, that “there is a way to do justice to our sense that knowledge claims are responsible to reality.” In other words, it was possible, as he saw it, to be a pragmatist without jettisoning truth altogether.

In ‘Getting Rid of the Appearance-Reality Distinction,’ Richard Rorty wrote:

Only philosophers take seriously Plato’s distinction between Reality with a capital R and Appearance with a capital A. That distinction has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had. We should do our best to get rid of it.

If we did so, we should no longer wonder whether the human mind, or human language, is capable of representing reality accurately. We would stop thinking that some parts of our culture are more in touch with reality than other parts. We would express our sense of finitude not by comparing our humanity with something nonhuman but by comparing our way of being human with other, better ways that may someday be adopted by our descendants. When we condescended to our ancestors, we would not say that they were less in touch with reality than we are, but that their imaginations were more limited than ours. We would boast of being able to talk about more things than they could. [New Literary History, 2016, 47: 67–82.]

What this excerpt, and indeed, the title of the paper it is excerpted from, show is that Rorty did not think the “the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality”–rather, he thought that the notion of ‘actually connected’ and the ‘actual world’ was incoherent, that ‘reality’ was only of concern to those who believed in the separation between what we thought and the way the ‘actual world’ ‘really, really is.’ Rorty considered one of the primary planks of his ‘neo-pragmatism‘ to be the dismissal of any such separation and with it, a whole host of issues that were of interest to the ‘traditional philosopher’: the epistemological worry about whether our theories of the world were a ‘good representation’ of it, the gap and relationship between ‘world and word’, the realism-anti-realism debate, the nature of the ‘justification’ of our beliefs by the ‘actual world.’ The correspondence theory of truth and metaphysical realism are not false or mistaken theories for Rorty; they are just besides the point, the result of a philosophical mistake of sorts, set right by the dismissal of the appearance-reality distinction. The extremely reductive description above Rorty describes him, at best, as a kind of crude anti-realist, and Rorty was anything but.

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.