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.

Making the Abstract Concrete

A few weeks ago, I posted the following quip as my Facebook status:

You don’t really get _Civilization and its Discontents_ till you bring up a child.

And then, a week or so later:

Apropos of my recent comment that you don’t really get _Civilization and its Discontents_ till you raise a child: I don’t think you really get Quine’s inscrutability of reference thesis till you start to shepherd a child through the early language acquisition phase.

There is a more general point to be made here, of course: that seemingly abstract academic theories spring sharply into focus when they are viewed through the lens of personal, emotionally tinged experiences. And child-rearing is perfectly designed provide visceral contact with their truths.

Consider then, my first example above. The child’s first contacts with the civilization that is its host come via it parents, those responsible for not just feeding, bathing, clothing, and otherwise protecting it, but also, all too soon, for inculcating it into the ways of the world. It has to be warned–in an appropriately modified tone of voice–not to bite and scratch,  or harm itself; it has to be restrained–again, sometimes for its own safety, sometimes for that of others; it has to be corrected in countless ways from proceeding along its own path, and guided into trajectories more amenable to those deemed more appropriate for its development. And so as I noted:

Sometimes I’m saddened terribly; something wild and primeval is being constantly tamed, molded, channeled, impressed on. Too essentialist, I know, and not existential enough, but still….

This channeling, this impressing, continues as the child comes into contact  with others besides parents, of course, but it is the parent who has most proximal contact with the changes wrought in the child, and is thus most likely to be affected in turn by them.  The changes in one’s child can produce some melancholy as we realize the coming to be be, and passing away, of different identities; while we happily welcome the growing child into the community of language speakers and concept-wielders, we might regret too, just for a bit, the absence of the babyish bundle, all coo and gurgle, that was once ours to hold tight and close.

And then again, as a friend of mine noted in response to the last quote above:

Yeah, but I’m glad they stop smearing their feces on the wall.


The Question Asked, Inquiry Begins

Classes for the 2012 spring semester ended last week. And with that, I completed ten years of teaching at Brooklyn College. (I’m well aware that I have yet to complete grading for this semester but for now, I’m trying to put that thought out of my mind.) When I first started, in the 2002 fall semester, I taught in both the computer science and philosophy departments. Since January 2010, it has been all philosophy, all the time. In these ten years, I think I’ve learned a great deal from my students. (I’ll let them tell me if they think I have contributed in any way to their learning.)

I’ve learned, most importantly,  that almost any question asked by a student is gold: a chance to elaborate, embroider, embellish, and expand a philosophical theme. The question is not an interruption, one to be dispensed with efficiently and quickly, before I get back to the business of teaching; answering it is the main act. The question is a clear and visible sign that thought has been provoked; it deserves attention, care, and thoughtful nurturing. In answering a question, further avenues for exploration open up; new thoughts are prompted, which might in turn provoke more questions, more interaction. (In a teaching observation conducted this past semester, I advised one of our adjunct instructors, who had shown some signs of haste in his answers to student questions, that he needn’t worry that the class was being ‘held up.’ Rather, he’d do better to exploit the opportunity to slow down, and examine the issue at hand in greater detail. The student had not thrown a spanner in the works; the student had, instead, kickstarted the engine.)

So nothing quite improves my classroom experience like the answering of a question: I find my knowledge of the material tested; I discover that I can be creative in the construction of examples that will aid my explanation. This latter aspect is especially valuable. Teaching can often be physically, emotionally and intellectually draining work; the spur to creativity that a question provides is a bracing tonic. I find nothing quite as exhilarating in teaching as finding out that in answering a student’s question, I myself have acquired a deeper understanding of the material. (A stellar example of this came during a Logical Foundations of Artificial Intelligence class some eight years ago; as I answered a student’s question about how a proposition was to be expressed in predicate logic, I suddenly realized that I understood WVO Quine‘s classic paper ‘On What There Is‘ just a little better. My sense of pleasure in this enhanced comprehension was so pronounced that I almost broke off mid-sentence to try to digest it.)  In particular, questions that are directed at passages in the assigned reading invariably enrich my encounter with a text previously considered familiar; I was stunned by the depths I discovered in David Hume‘s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion every time I was asked for clarification by the students in my Spring 2010 Philosophy of Religion class.

None of the observations above should be surprising; after all, all inquiry is the attempt to answer questions.