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Hilary Putnam on mind and meanings – Philosopher of the Month

Hilary Putnam was one of the most influential philosophers of science of the twentieth century and had an impact on philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics. Along with Richard Rorty, he was also a key figure in the revival of Pragmatism and was influenced by the philosophies of John Dewey, William James, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. As a philosopher, he tended to hold a middle and liberal position and was famous for changing his views.

Putnam was born in Chicago in 1926. His father, Samuel, was a scholar of Romance languages and translator, and a Communist who wrote a column for the Daily Worker. His mother, Riva, was Jewish but Putnam had a secular upbringing. Putnam grew up in France and Philadelphia and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, in philosophy and mathematics, in 1948. He began his PhD at Harvard under Willard Van Orman Quin and completed it at University of California, Los Angeles, taught by the leading figures in logical empiricism, Hans Reichenbach and Rudolf Carnap.  Although Putnam distanced himself from logical empiricism and became a critic of the movement, his close contacts with his mentors remained visible in his work. He taught at North-western, Princeton, and M.I.T before joining Harvard in 1965.

In the 1960s and 70s, Putnam was well-known for his theory of semantic externalism and the functionalist theory of the mind. According to Putnam, words get their meaning not from images or descriptions that individual speakers associate with those words in their minds, but from the causal links and contacts we have with the external world. He wrote about his views on meaning in two articles, “Meaning and Reference” (1973) and “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’” (1975). He used a famous Twin Earth Thought Experiment to demonstrate that meanings are not subjective or “in the head” as he put in, and depend partly on the social and natural world.

In the 1960s and early 1970s Putnam helped to refine a theory of mind known as functionalism, according to which mental or psychological states are defined by the roles that they play and are “functional states” of an entity. He proposed a theory of machine state functionalism and argued that human mental states are computational states. He later rejected this as he believed it was too scientistic and instead embraced a conception of the mind much more in line with Aristotle’s notion of hylomorphism which represents the view that all physical beings are composed form and matter.  We are physical beings whose perceptive and cognitive capacities are embodied in the physical form and structure that compose us.

Putnam was also a critic of metaphysical realism, which views the world as mind and language-independent. He argued that the structure and descriptions of the world are functions of the human mind and grounded in human purposes. In Reason, Truth, and History (1981), his critique of metaphysical realism, he drew upon the ideas of Immanuel Kant, William James, John Dewey, and Wittgenstien again to develop his conception of realism and truth. His view can be interpreted as Kantian in that it rejects the attempt to find foundations for human knowledge outside human practices and human effort to know about it.

He was elected as president of the American Philosophical Association in 1976. He retired from active teaching in 2000 but continued to lecture at Tel Aviv University. He also served as the Spinoza Chair of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam in 2001. He died on 13 March 2016 at 89.

Featured Image Credit: “Blue and teal smoke” by Paweł Czerwiński. CC0 via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Italo Giardina

    Putnam had a visual artist sense for philosophy, or visa versa, which gave forth vivid exemplar’s. Visual artists who read Putnam could well put these thought experiments into a visual narrative, which is difficult to do with say a philosopher like Rudolf Carnap.

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