When Hilary Putnam died on March 13th, a few months shy of his 90th birthday, we were left again to reflect on the life and legacy of a brilliant thinker whose work shaped ours. Below, HUP Executive Editor for the Humanities Lindsay Waters looks back on decades of thinking with Putnam.
As anyone who has taken a few philosophy courses knows, Hilary Putnam is famous for changing his mind. His notion of how to be a critical thinker is to demand that one be critical even—or maybe especially—of one’s own views. His mind was so productive and sharp that it should not come as a surprise to anyone that some of his ideas seemed so attractive that other people decided to embrace them and not ever give them up, despite the fact that he’d demolished them himself in later writings. He founded schools of thought, but was no adherent of any school he might have inadvertently created. As Groucho Marx might have said, or should have—he was, after all, a philosophical gent—Hilary did not want to belong to any school of thought, even one he might have created. He changed his mind so frequently that Dan Dennett jokingly coined the name “hilary” for a very short measure of time, as in the phrase “three or four hilaries ago.”
Hilary was one of the few Harvard scholars I did a fair amount of work with back when I was at the University of Minnesota Press. I’d started in publishing there in 1978, around the time when Hilary published his landmark “The Meaning of Meaning,” and he reviewed a few complicated projects for me. He reviewed for others too, of course, and once assessed for another press a project for several volumes of the writings of Elizabeth Anscombe. At this time Hilary valued most of Anscombe’s writings, but was not so enamored of her religious writings, to which volume three of the set of papers was devoted, so he advised the other press that had been offered the project to take it on the condition they did not have to publish the volume of religious and political papers; but the originating publisher wanted to place the whole set of books, so I got them for Minnesota. That was, in Dennett’s parlance, “three or four hilaries ago,” and I later profited from the changeability of Hilary’s mind, after he followed his son to an embrace of Judaism. I attended lectures he gave on Franz Rosenzweig’s Understanding the Sick and the Healthy: A View of World, Man, and God, a book I would come to love in his teaching of it and we reprinted it at the Harvard Press in 1999 with an introduction by him.