Hilary Putnam

A few weeks back (I have been preoccupied with many things), the announcement of the death of the great philosopher Hilary Putnam, who was one of my teachers at Princeton and later became an academic friend. From the NYT on 3/18/16, “Hilary Putnam, Giant of Modern Philosophy, Dies at 89” by Bruce Weber, which begins:

Hilary Putnam, a Harvard philosopher whose influence ranged widely across many fields of thought, including mathematical logic, philosophy of mind and language, epistemology and metaphysics, died on March 13 at his home in Arlington, Mass. He was 89.

In the world of contemporary philosophers, Professor Putnam was known for the breadth of his thinking, the vividness of his provocative arguments, and his penchant for self-questioning and willingness to change his mind.

In a field of inquiry characterized by elusive concepts, dizzying “isms” and subtle taxonomies, philosophers are in continual battle to resist simplification. Infinite, or at least enormous, complexity is the nature of things, Professor Putnam argued, writing that “any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one.”

Weber goes on with an extended discussion of Putnam’s work, incorporating comments by Harvard philosopher Warren Goldfarb (another academic friend).

Hilary  taught at Princeton 1953-61 (I was there 1958-62) and at M.I.T. 1961-65 (I was there 1962-65), at which point he moved to Harvard for the rest of his career (and I moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the beginniing of my teaching career).

My 5/30/11 posting “A Princeton education” is an appreciative reflection on the professors I had there (including Hilary) and the courses I took.

Years later Hilary and I got to renew our academic friendship while he was visiting at Stanford’s CSLI (Center for the Study of Language and Information).

Hilary took his student Paul Benacerraf under his wing at Princeton, and they became close academic friends for life; when Hilary officially retired from Harvard, Paul wrote an elegant affectionate memoir of life in the Princeton Philosophy Departent back in the day.

(Paul was my senior-year adviser at Princeton, and he took my classmate and good friend Tim [Thomas Michael] Scanlan under his wing in much the way Hilary had done for Paul. Now of course Tim is a distinguished philosopher too.)

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