Hilary Putnam

American philosopher

Hilary Whitehall Putnam (July 31, 1926 - March 13, 2016) was an American philosopher who has been a central figure in analytic philosophy since the 1960s, especially in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science. He is known for his willingness to apply an equal degree of scrutiny to his own philosophical positions as to those of others, subjecting each position to rigorous analysis until he exposes its flaws. As a result, he has acquired a reputation for frequently changing his own position.

Hilary Putnam in 2006


  • [Oddly enough, Putnam believes part of the attraction of some of these formalisms is their obscurity]. "I think part of the appeal of mathematical logic is that the formulas look mysterious - you write backward Es!"
  • It was Rudolf Carnap’s dream for the last three decades of his life to show that science proceeds by a formal syntactic method; today no one to my knowledge holds out any hope for that project.
    • Hilary Putnam, in: James Conant, Urszula M. Zeglen (2012) Hilary Putnam: Pragmatism and Realism. p. 14

Philosophical Papers Volume 1: Mathematics, Matter, and Method (1975, 1979)

  • These papers are all written from what is called a realist perspective. The statements of science are in my view either true or false (although it is often the case that we don't know which) and their truth or falsity does not consist in their being highly derived ways of describing regularities in human experience. Reality is not a part of the human mind; rather the human mind is a part - and a small part at that - of reality.
    • "Introduction: Science as approximation to truth"
  • If the importance of science does not lie in its constituting the whole of human knowledge, even less does it lie, in my view, in its technological applications. Science at the best is a way of coming to know, and hopefully a way of acquiring some reverence for, the wonders of nature. The philosophical study of science, at the best, has always been a way of coming to understand both some of the nature and some of the limitations of human reason. These seem to me to be sufficient grounds for taking science and philosophy of science seriously; they do not justify science worship.
    • "Introduction: Science as approximation to truth"
  • In closing, I can only apologize for not having given any positive account of either mathematical truth or mathematical necessity. I can only say that I have not given such an account because I think that the search for such an account is a fundamental mistake. It is not that there is nothing special about mathematics; it is that, in my opinion, the investigation of mathematics must presuppose and not seek to account for the truth of mathematics. But this is the beginning of another paper and not the end of this one.
    • "Truth and necessity in mathematics" (1964)
  • The real significance of the Russell paradox, from the standpoint of the modal-logic picture, is this: it shows that no concrete structure can be a standard model for the naive conception of the totality of all sets; for any concrete structure has a possible extension that contains more 'sets'. (If we identify sets with the points that represent them in the various possible concrete structures, we might say: it is not possible for all possible sets to exist in any one world!) Yet set theory does not become impossible. Rather, set theory becomes the study of what must hold in, e.g. any standard model for Zermelo set theory.
    • "Mathematics without foundations" (1967)
  • The physicist who states a law of nature with the aid of a mathematical formula is abstracting a real feature of a real material world, even if he has to speak of numbers, vectors, tensors, state-functions, or whatever to make the abstraction.
    • "What is Mathematical Truth?"
  • The philosophy of physics is continuous with physics itself. Just as certain issues in the Foundations of Mathematics have been discussed by both mathematicians and by philosophers of mathematics, so certain issues in the philosophy of physics have been discussed by both physicists and by philosophers of physics. And just as there are issues of a more epistemological kind that tend to concern philosophers of mathematics more than they do working mathematicians, so there are issues that concern philosophers of physics more than they do working physicists.
    • "Philosophy of physics" (1965)
  • In conclusion, then, no satisfactory interpretation of quantum mechanics exists today. The questions posed by the confrontation between the Copenhagen interpretation and the hidden variable theorists go to the very foundations of microphysics, but the answers given by hidden variable theorists and Copenhagenists are alike unsatisfactory. Human curiosity will not rest until those questions are answered, but whether they will be answered by conceptual innovations within the framework of the present theory or only within the framework of an as yet unforeseen theory is unknown. The first step toward answering them has been attempted here. It is the modest but essential step of becoming clear on the nature and magnitude of the difficulties.
    • "A philosopher looks at quantum mechanics" (1965)
  • Analytic philosophers - both in the 'constructivist' camp and in the camp that studies 'the ordinary use of words' - are disturbingly unanimous in regarding 2-valued logic as having a privileged position: privileged, not just in the sense of corresponding to the way we do speak, but in the sense of having no serious rival for logical reasons. If the foregoing analysis is correct, this is a prejudice of the same kind as the famous prejudice in favor of a privileged status for Euclidean geometry (a prejudice that survives in the tendency to cite 'space has three dimensions' as some kind of 'necessary' truth). One can go over from a 2-valued to a 3-valued logic without totally changing the meaning of 'true' and 'false'; and not just in silly ways, like the ones usually cited (e.g. equating truth with high probability, falsity with low probability, and middlehood with 'in between' probability).
    • "Three-valued logic" (1957)
  • I might try to save the view that 'future contingents' have no truth value by saying that even present-tense statements have no truth value if they refer to the outcome of events that are so far away that a causal signal informing me of the outcome could not have reached me-now without traveling faster than light. In other words, I might attempt saying that statements about events that are in neither the upper half nor the lower half of my light-cone have no truth value. In addition, statements about events in the upper half of my light-cone have no truth value, since they are in my future according to every coordinate system. So only statements about events in the lower half of my light-cone have a truth value; only events that are in 'my past* according to all observers are determined.
    • "Time and physical geometry" (1967)
  • To sum up: we have seen that of the three notions of 'partial interpretation' discussed, each is either unsuitable for Carnap's purposes (starting with observation terms), or incompatible with a rather minimal scientific realism; and, in addition, the second notion depends upon gross and misleading changes in our use of language. Thus in none of these senses is 'a partially interpreted calculus in which only the observation terms are directly interpreted' an acceptable model for a scientific theory.
    • "What theories are not" (1962)
  • In sum, a theory is only accepted if the theory has substantial, non-ad hoc, explanatory successes. This is in accordance with Popper; unfortunately, it is in even better accordance with the 'inductivist' accounts that Popper rejects, since these stress support rather than falsification.
    • "The 'corroboration' of theories" (1974)
  • Carnap was driven from Germany by Hitler, and his position has been condemned in the Soviet Union as 'subjective idealism*. Even in the United States, there have been a great many who could not understand this attempt to turn philosophy into a scientific discipline with substantive scientific results, and who have been led to extreme and absurd misinterpretations of the work I have been reporting to you here. Few, perhaps, would have expected traditional empiricism to lead to the development of a speculative theory of ' universal learning machines'; and yet, in retrospect, a concern with systematizing inductive logic has been the oldest concern of empiricist philosophers from Bacon on. No one can yet predict the outcome of this speculative scientific venture. But it is amply clear, whether this particular venture succeeds or fails, that the toleration of philosophical and scientific speculation brings rich rewards and that its suppression leads to sterility.
    • "Probability and confirmation" (1963)
  • In summary, then, the set theoretic 'needs' of physics are surprisingly similar to the set theoretic needs of pure logic. Both disciplines need some set theory to function at all. Both disciplines can 'live' - but live badly - on the meager diet of only predicative sets. Both can live extremely happily on the rich diet of impredicative sets. Insofar, then, as the indispensability of quantification over sets is any argument for their existence - and we will discuss why it is in the next section - we may say that it is a strong argument for the existence of at least predicative sets, and a pretty strong, but not as strong, argument for the existence of impredicative sets.
    • "Philosophy of Logic" (1972)

Philosophical Papers Volume 2: Mind, Language and Reality (1975)

  • Truth and falsity are the most fundamental terms of rational criticism, and any adequate philosophy must give some account of these, or failing that, show that they can be dispensed with.
    • "Introduction: Philosophy of language and the rest of philosophy"
  • I have not attempted in these papers to put forward any grand view of the nature of philosophy; nor do I have any such grand view to put forward if I would. It will be obvious that I do not agree with those who see philosophy as the history of 'howlers', and progress in philosophy as the debunking of howlers. It will also be obvious that I do not agree with those who see philosophy as the enterprise of putting forward a priori truths about the real world (since, for one thing, there are no a priori truths, in my view). I see philosophy as a field which has certain central questions, for example, the relation between thought and reality, and, to mention some questions about which I have not written, the relation between freedom and responsibility, and the nature of the good life. It seems obvious that in dealing with these questions philosophers have formulated rival research programs, that they have put forward general hypotheses, and that philosophers within each major research program have modified their hypotheses by trial and error, even if they sometimes refuse to admit that that is what they are doing. To that extent philosophy is a 'science'. To argue about whether philosophy is a science in any more serious sense seems to me to be hardly a useful occupation. The important thing is that in spite of the stereotypes of science and philosophy that have become blinkers inhibiting the view of laymen, scientists, and philosophers, science and philosophy are interdependent activities; philosophers have always found it essential to draw upon the scientific knowledge of the time, and scientists have always found it essential to do a certain amount of philosophy in their very scientific work, even if they denied that that was what they were doing. It does not seem to me important to decide whether science is philosophy or philosophy is science as long as one has a conception of both that makes both essential to a responsible view of the real world and of man's place in it.
    • "Introduction: Philosophy of language and the rest of philosophy"
  • The techniques employed by philosophers of physics are usually the very ones being employed by philosophers of a less specialized kind (especially empiricist philosophers) at the time. Thus Mill's philosophy of science largely reflects Hume's associationism; Reichenbach's philosophy of science reflects Viennese positivism with its conventionalism, its tendency to identify (or confuse) meaning and evidence, and its sharp dichotomy between 'the empirical facts' and 'the rules of the language'; and (coming up to the present time) Toulmin's philosophy of science is an attempt to give an account of what scientists do which is consonant with the linguistic philosophy of Wittgenstein. For this reason, errors in general philosophy can have a far-reaching effect on the philosophy of science. The confusion of meaning with evidence is one such error whose effects are well known: it is the contention of the present paper that overworking of the analytic-synthetic distinction is another root of what is most distorted in the writings of conventional philosophers of science.
    • "The analytic and the synthetic" (1962)
  • I do not agree with Quine, that there is no analytic-synthetic distinction to be drawn at all. But I do believe that his emphasis on the monolithic character of our conceptual system and his negative emphasis on the silliness of regarding mathematics as consisting in some sense of 'rules of language', represent exceedingly important theoretical insights in philosophy. I think that what we have to do now is to settle the relatively trivial question concerning analytic statements properly so called ('All bachelors are unmarried'). We have to take a fresh look at the framework principles so much discussed by philosophers, disabusing ourselves of the idea that they are 'rules of language' in any literal or lexicographic sense; and above all, we have to take a fresh look at the nature of logical and mathematical truths. With Quine's contribution, we have to face two choices: We can ignore it and go on talking about the 'logic' of individual words. In that direction lies sterility and more, much more, of what we have already read. The other alternative is to face and explore the insight achieved by Quine, trying to reconcile the fact that Quine is overwhelmingly right in his critique of what other philosophers have done with the analytic-synthetic distinction with the fact that Quine is wrong in his literal thesis, namely, that the distinction itself does not exist at all. In the latter direction lies philosophic progress. For philosophic progress is nothing if it is not the discovery of new areas for dialectical exploration.
    • "The analytic and the synthetic" (1962)
  • In short, analytic statements are statements which we all accept and for which we do not give reasons. This is what we mean when we say that they are true by 'implicit convention'. The problem is then to distinguish them from other statements that we accept, and do not give reasons for, in particular from the statements that we unreasonably accept. To resolve this difficulty, we have to point out some of the crucial distinguishing features of analytic statements (e.g. the fact that the subject concept is not a law-cluster concept), and we have to connect these features with what, in the preceding section, was called the 'rationale' of the analytic-synthetic distinction. Having done this, we can see that the acceptance of analytic statements is rational, even though there are no reasons (in the sense of' evidence') in connection with them.
    • "The analytic and the synthetic" (1962)
  • It is evident that Feyerabend is misusing the term 'meaning.' He is not alone in such misuse: in the last thirty years, misusing the term 'meaning' has been one of the most common, if least successful, ways of 'establishing' philosophical propositions. But how did this distressing state of affairs come to be? The blame must be placed squarely upon the Logical Positivists. The 'Verifiability Theory of Meaning' ('the meaning of a sentence is its method of verification') was, from the first, nothing but a persuasive redefinition. If to call metaphysical propositions 'meaningless' were only to assert that these propositions are empirically untestable, it would be harmless (the metaphysicians always said that their assertions were neither empirically testable nor tautologies); but, of course, it is not harmless, because the Positivist hopes that we will accept his redefinition of the term 'meaning,' while retaining the pejorative connotations of being 'meaningless' in the customary {linguistic) sense, i.e. being literally without sense.
    • "How not to talk about meaning" (1965)
  • Why, then, is semantics so hard? In terms of the foregoing, I want to suggest that semantics is a typical social science. The sloppiness, the lack of precise theories and laws, the lack of mathematical rigor, are all characteristic of the social sciences today. A general and precise theory which answers the questions (i) why do words have the different sorts of functions they do? and (2) exactly how does conveying core facts enable one to learn the use of a word? is not to be expected until one has a general and precise model of a language-user; and that is still a long way off. But the fact that Utopia is a long way off does not mean that daily life should come to a screeching halt. There is plenty for us to investigate, in our sloppy and impressionistic fashion, and there are plenty of real results to be obtained. The first step is to free ourselves from the oversimplifications foisted upon us by the tradition, and to see where the real problems lie. I hope this paper has been a contribution to that first step.
    • "Is Semantics Possible?" (1970)
  • On another possible world or another planet a word might be associated with much the same stereotype and much the same criteria as our term 'water', but it might designate XYZ and not H₂O. At least this could happen in a prescientific era. And it would not follow that XYZ was water; it would only follow that XYZ could look like water, taste like water, etc. What 'water' refers to depends on the actual nature of the paradigms, not just on what is in our heads.
    • "Language and Reality" (1974)

Reason, Truth and History (1981)

  • Before I give the argument, let us consider why it seems so strange that such an argument can be given (at least to philosophers who subscribe to a 'copy' conception of truth). We conceded that it is compatible with physical law that there should be a world in which all sentient beings are brains in a vat. As philosophers say, there is a 'possible world' in which all sentient beings are brains in a vat. (This 'possible world' talk makes it sound as if there is a place where any absurd supposition is true, which is why it can be very misleading in philosophy.) The humans in that possible world have exactly the same experiences that we do. They think the same thoughts we do (at least, the same words, images, thought-forms, etc., go through their minds). Yet, I am claiming that there is an argument we can give that shows we are not brains in a vat. How can there be? And why couldn't the people in the possible world who really are brains in a vat give it too?
    The answer is going to be (basically) this: although the people in that possible world can think and 'say' any words we can think and say, they cannot (I claim) refer to what we can refer to. In particular, they cannot think or say that they are brains in a vat {even by thinking 'we are brains in a vat').
    • Chap. 1 : Brains in a vat
  • Even if we consider not words by themselves but rules deciding what words may appropriately be produced in certain contexts — even if we consider, in computer jargon, programs for using words — unless those programs themselves refer to something extra-linguistic there is still no determinate reference that those words possess. This will be a crucial step in the process of reaching the conclusion that the Brain-in-a-Vat Worlders cannot refer to anything external at all (and hence cannot say that they are Brain-in-a-Vat Worlders).
    • Chap. 1 : Brains in a vat
  • What we have is a device for producing sentences in response to sentences. But none of these sentences is at all connected to the real world. If one coupled two of these machines and let them play the Imitation Game with each other, then they would go on 'fooling' each other forever, even if the rest of the world disappeared! There is no more reason to regard the machine's talk of apples as referring to real world apples than there is to regard the ant's 'drawing' as referring to Winston Churchill.
    • Chap. 1 : Brains in a vat
  • To me, believing that some correspondence intrinsically just is reference (not as a result of our operational and theoretical constraints, or our intentions, but as an ultimate metaphysical fact) amounts to a magical theory of reference. Reference itself becomes what Locke called a 'substantial form' (an entity which intrinsically belongs with a certain name) on such a view. Even if one is willing to contemplate such unexplainable metaphysical facts, the epistemological problems that accompany such a metaphysical view seem insuperable. For, assuming a world of mind- independent, discourse-independent entities (this is the presupposition of the view we are discussing), there are, as we have seen, many different 'correspondences' which represent possible or candidate reference relations (infinitely many, in fact, if there are infinitely many things in the universe).
    • Chap. 2 : A problem about reference

Philosophical Papers Volume 3: Realism and Reason (1983)

  • Even though the model referred to satisfies the theory, etc., it is 'unintended'; and we recognize that it is unintended from the description through which it is given (as in the intuitionist case). Models are not lost noumenal waifs looking for someone to name them; they are constructions within our theory itself. and they have names from birth.
    • "Models and Reality" (1977)
  • Let me close with a picture. My picture of our situation is not the famous Neurath picture of science as the enterprise of reconstructing a boat while the boat floats on the open ocean, but it is a modification of it. I would change Neurath's picture in two ways. First, I would put ethics, philosophy, in fact the whole culture, in the boat, and not just 'science', for I believe all the parts of the culture are inter- dependent. And, second, my image is not of a single boat but of a fleet of boats. The people in each boat are trying to reconstruct their own boat without modifying it so much at anyone time that the boat sinks, as in the Neurath image. In addition, people are passing supplies and tools from one boat to another and shouting advice and encouragement (or discouragement) to each other. Finally, people sometimes decide they don't like the boat they're in and move to a different boat altogether. (And sometimes a boat sinks or is abandoned.) It's all a bit chaotic; but since it is a fleet, no one is ever totally out of signalling distance from all the other boats. There is, in short, both collectivity and individual responsibility. If we hanker for more, is that not our old and unsatisfiable yearning for Absolutes?
    • "Philosophers and Human Understanding"
  • If reason is both transcendent and immanent, then philosophy, as culture-bound reflection and argument about eternal questions, is both in time and eternity. We don't have an Archimedean point; we always speak the language of a time and place; but the rightness and wrongness of what we say is not just for a time and a place.
    • "Why reason can't be naturalized"

The Many Faces of Realism (1987)

  • To require that all of these must be reducible to a single version is to make the mistake of supposing that 'Which are the real objects?' is a question that makes sense independently of our choice of concepts.
    • Lecture I: Is There Still Anything to Say about Reality and Truth?
  • The problem with all this--the problem I discussed in the first lecture--is that if the causes/background conditions distinction is fundamentally subjective, not descriptive of the world in itself, then current philosophical explanations of the metaphysical nature of reference are bankrupt.
    • Lecture II: Realism and Reasonableness
  • Now, moral philosophers generally prefer to talk about virtues, or about (specific) duties, rights, and so on, rather than about moral images of the world. There are obvious reasons for this; nevertheless, I think that it is a mistake, and that Kant is profoundly right. What we require in moral philosophy is, first and foremost, a moral image of the world, or rather--since, here again, I am more of a pluralist than Kant--a number of complementary moral images of the world.
    • Lecture III: Equality and Our Moral Image of the World
  • No sane person should believe that something is 'subjective' merely because it cannot be settled beyond controversy.
    • Lecture IV: Reasonableness as a Fact and as a Value

Realism with a Human Face (1992)

  • What I am saying, then, is that elements of what we call "language" or "mind" penetrate so deeply into what we call "reality" that the very project of representing ourselves as being "mappers" of something "language-independent" is fatally compromised from the very start. Like Relativism, but in a different way, Realism is an impossible attempt to view the world from Nowhere. In this situation it is a temptation to say, "So we make the world," or "our language makes up the world," or "our culture makes up the world"; but this is just another form of the same mistake. If we succumb, once again we view the world-the only world we know-as a product. One kind of philosopher views it as a product from a raw material: Unconceptualized Reality. The other views it as a creation ex nihilo. But the world isn't a product. It's just the world.
    • "Realism with a Human Face" (1987)
  • Philosophers today are as fond as ever of apriori arguments with ethical conclusions. One reason such arguments are always unsatisfying is that they always prove too much; when a philosopher 'solves' an ethical problem for one, one feels as if one had asked for a subway token and been given a passenger ticket valid for the first interplanetary passenger-carrying space ship instead.
    • "How Not to Solve Ethical Problems" (1983)
  • Part of what makes moral philosophy an anachronistic field is that its practitioners continue to argue in this very traditional and aprioristic way even though they themselves do not claim that one can provide a systematic and indubitable 'foundation' for the subject. Most of them rely on what are supposed to be 'intuitions' without claiming that those intuitions deliver uncontroversial ethical premises, on the one hand, or that they have an ontological or epistemological explanation of the reliability of those intuitions, on the other.
    • "How Not to Solve Ethical Problems" (1983)
  • To successfully adjudicate ethical problems, as opposed to 'solving' them, it is necessary that the members of the society have a sense of community. A compromise that cannot pretend to be the last word on an ethical question, that cannot pretend to derive from binding principles in an unmistakeably constraining way, can only derive its force from a shared sense of what is and is not reasonable, from loyalties to one another, and a commitment to 'muddling through' together.
    • "How Not to Solve Ethical Problems" (1983)
  • A few years ago I had occasion to visit Peru, and I got to know a fine philosopher and a truly wonderful human being-Francisco Miro Casada. Miro Casada has been an idealist all his life, while being, at the same time, a man of great experience (a former member of several governments and a former Ambassador to France). I found him a man who represents the social democratic vision in its purest form. Talking to him, and to my other friends in Peru (who represented quite a spectrum of political opinion), I heard something that was summed up in a remark he, Miro Casada, made to me, "Whenever you have a Republican president, we get a wave of military dictatorships in Latin America".
    • "How Not to Solve Ethical Problems" (1983)
  • The similarity between Marxism and neoconservativism might be expressed in the following way: both perspectives say that certain injustices can't be cured under our present system of political democracy and mixed economy. The Marxist concludes that we have to overthrow the present system and the neoconservative concludes that we have to live with the injustices. But they are both wrong.
    • "How Not to Solve Ethical Problems" (1983)

Philosophy in an Age of Science: Physics, Mathematics, and Skepticism (2012)

  • My own view is that philosophy at its best has always, in every period, included some philosophers who brilliantly represent the moral face of the subject and some philosophers who brilliantly represent the theoretical face, as well as some geniuses whose insights span and unite both sides of the subject. To renounce either the moral ambitions of philosophy or its theoretical ambitions is not just to kill the subject of philosophy; it is to commit intellectual and spiritual suicide.
    • "Science and Philosophy"
  • To me it seems clear that the descriptions of human life we find in the novels of Tolstoy or George Eliot are not mere entertainment; they teach us to perceive what goes on in social and individual life. And such descriptions require the many subtle distinctions that ordinary language has made available to us. The question of the relevance or irrelevance of “how we speak” is not just a question for philosophers, although it is that too. It is a question for philosophers because once ordinary language is laughed out of the room, philosophical theories are no longer held responsible at all to the ways we actually speak and actually live; but it is a question for more than just philosophers because, at bottom, contempt for ordinary language is contempt for all the humanities.
    • "Science and Philosophy"
  • Philosophy was never just ontotheology, and even when philosophers were concerned with ontotheology, they were concerned with much more than that. That is the first reason that the idea of a fundamental “crisis” in philosophy and of the “end of philosophy” is deeply mistaken. And if the questions of philosophy are indeed “unsettleable,” in the sense that they will always be with us, that is a wonderful thing, not something to be regretted.
    • "Science and Philosophy"
  • What we are left with, if what I have said so far is right, is a conclusion that I initially found very distressing: either GRW or some successor, or else Bohm or some successor, is the correct interpretation—or, to include a third possibility to please Itamar Pitowski, we will just fail to find a scientific realist interpretation which is acceptable. (And the ghost of Bohr will laugh, and say, ‘I told you all along that the human mind cannot produce a realist interpretation of quantum mechanics’!)
    • "A philosopher looks at quantum mechanics (again)", Brit. J. Phil. Sci. 56 (2005), 615–634

Quotes about Putnam

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