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.
Jumping back again to Minnesota, back before I arrived at Harvard, I had another important exchange with Hilary. I knew he’d known Paul de Man and admired his work, so when I began work with Wlad Godzich on a festschrift for de Man, I asked Hilary to contribute. Sadly I no longer have the précis, but what I can tell you should contribute to your understanding of Hilary as a person committed to changing his mind as a matter of principle. Let me say that when I have heard some philosophers complain about Hilary’s tendency to change direction, they sometimes sound annoyed or amused in a condescending way. How interesting could his views have been to him or to anyone if he was so willing to discard them? The complainers make it sound as if it ought to be a cardinal virtue of philosophers to stick rigidly with an idea that he or she has come up with. I am sympathetic: after all, it is hard to come up with a good idea. How many of us have more than one? Few of us have even that. Damn Hilary! To some, it just seemed a bit like a moral failing in Hilary to be so profligate.
The exceedingly surprising yet characteristic thing about the plan for the essay Hilary offered me for the de Man fest was that in it he planned to switch style from analytic philosopher to a deconstructionist unraveling of some writing by his colleague Willard Van Orman Quine. He was a switch hitter! He was going to use de Man to turn away from Quine. He was going to out-Hilary himself by writing this tribute to de Man, but unfortunately we do not have that essay, only the promise of it.
When I came to Harvard, I had occasion to meet with Hilary many times, working with him, Jim Conant, Mario De Caro, and David Macarthur on book after book. But one thing sticks with me as most important, and it is something that occurred a year or two after I arrived. I was considering a philosophy book, and it had two favorable reports, but one of the reviewers suggested that even though the book was good and would be acceptable to most high-quality philosophy publishers, this person doubted it was really good enough for Harvard. Why? The person was a bit evasive about that. It was because Harvard was “special.” I was thrown into a tizzy by this advice. I’d met the author and I knew the field, but that final bit of advice threw me for a loop. “Excellent, but not really good enough for Harvard.”
I was in a quandary, so I called Hilary for help. I thought he’d be able to decide for me and tell me what to do, but what he did felt worse initially. He told me he had the sense that I had fallen into “the Harvard trap.” He’d seen it happen a hundred times before, when an appointment committee had been stopped by the advice that the candidate was excellent, but not good enough for Harvard. He said that as long as I became worried about what other people thought was good enough for Harvard, my life as an editor for the Harvard University Press would be hell. Each and every person I asked would have their own notions of what was “right for Harvard.” Hilary counseled me that a large percentage of the people I would put such a question to would say that whoever was under examination was not good enough, whoever they were. I needed to decide on the basis of what I believed the decision should be and make my best recommendation to the Press. I should not be frozen or blocked by the weightiness of the decision. Implied was the idea that there may be a chance I would want to make a different decision one or two hilaries later, but in this timeframe, in this hilary, this one was the right one.
A decision of mine I wondered about for a second was the one where I turned down a book by a writer whose fiction I loved, David Foster Wallace. David was the nephew of one of my chief philosophy advisors when I was at Minnesota. When David submitted to me a manuscript of his own, a term paper he’d written as an undergrad at Amherst, I decided it was just not right for the Press, so I turned it down. He was very nice about that, and we exchanged a few letters and he read a paper or two of mine and was kind about them, and he was particularly fulsome in his praise for Hilary Putnam, whose writing I had cited. “You are not the only Putnam person,” he wrote to me. “Reason, Truth, and History was a big book for me and my friends in school—there was even one guy in the Dept. we all called The Brain in the Vat. Putnam was also the only prof. who was even remotely kind to me during my brief time at Harvard.”
And that was one thing that never changed about Hilary: he was always kind. He had a voice that was soothing and soft that seemed to caress the listener. He was a giant, a forceful and sweet one. We will miss him very much.