The Chronicle Review

A Marriage of Minds

Hilary Putnam’s most surprising philosophical shift began at home

Monica Hellstrom for The Chronicle Review

September 10, 2017

For a philosopher, one well-traveled route to renown is to stake out a position and defend it tirelessly against all comers. That was not Hilary Putnam’s style. When Putnam died last year at 89, the tributes to the Harvard philosopher, mathematician, and computer scientist almost invariably noted his willingness to change his mind. Martha Nussbaum, who declared Putnam "one of the greatest philosophers this nation has ever produced," argued that his generosity and curiosity prevented him from slipping into intransigence, and that "being led to change was to him not distressing but profoundly delightful."

Among those who led him to delightful change over the years, it turns out, was his wife, Ruth Anna Putnam. They are the co-authors of a new book, Pragmatism as a Way of Life: The Lasting Legacy of William James and John Dewey (Harvard University Press), which contains 27 essays — 10 by Hilary, 15 by Ruth Anna, and two by both of them — that make a case for the relevance of pragmatism and attempt to rescue it from those who, in their view, have taken its good name in vain.

The book is engaging on its own merits, but it’s also notable for being the combined effort of a high-profile intellectual couple. Other philosophical couples, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, come to mind, though the Putnams never achieved that level of renown, nor was their personal life ever on public display. And while they co-wrote an essay or two along the way, their professional lives existed mostly in separate realms, at least until now.

Pragmatism as a Way of Life is, among other things, an argument for the value of philosophy. As the Putnams see it, pragmatism means thinking about the world "in ways that are relevant to the real problems of real human beings." It’s an approach to philosophy that manages to be humble and hopeful while, for the most part, keeping its feet firmly on the ground.

Ruth Anna was patient but unbending when she knew Hilary was missing a point.
If you just thought "Isn’t this what all philosophers are up to?" then perhaps you’ve let your subscription to The Philosophical Quarterly lapse. (A recent article in that publication asks: Can alethic pluralists maintain compositionality?) Philosophers often fall victim to what the British philosopher Nigel Warburton has described as "the complacent habit of speaking to each other in a kind of technical language, which is almost at times the avoidance of doing philosophy."

In contrast, the language of the Putnams tends to be blessedly lucid and conversational, even when dealing with fairly knotty quandaries. The book isn’t hammock reading, or Metaphysics for Morons, but it is a reminder of why philosophy might be useful to people who don’t park in the faculty-only lot. For instance, Ruth Anna explains that pragmatists tend not to be interested in esoteric philosophical questions, like whether the external world is merely a clever illusion, and instead take it for granted that "we sometimes think of the same building, and that we can sometimes communicate this fact to each other, and so we sometimes succeed in meeting at an appointed time in a certain place."

Ruth Anna was already a devotee of pragmatism when she and Hilary met in 1960 at the International Congress on Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science, a gathering not usually associated with romance. This was an exception. "I shall not divulge any details," Hilary wrote later, "except to say that we were madly in love before the conference ended." (Hilary was already married, a union he once termed a "disaster scene.") A week after their meeting, Hilary left for England on a Guggenheim fellowship, and the two wouldn’t see each other for more than a year.

They wrote daily letters during his absence and were married in 1962. Ruth Anna became a philosophy professor at Wellesley College, while Hilary got a gig a half-hour up the road at Harvard. Over the next five-plus decades, they would teach classes and publish papers and do the other things expected of gainfully employed academic philosophers at august institutions. Along the way, they raised four children.

Ruth Anna came to be regarded as a leading scholar on William James, and was the editor of The Cambridge Companion to his work. Hilary became one of the best-known philosophers alive. He floated the famous "Twin Earth" thought experiment, exploring the connection between words and meaning, and co-developed the Davis-Putnam algorithm, to check the validity of certain exercises in logic. He wrote a bunch of books bearing titles like Realism With a Human Face, Representation and Reality, and Reason, Truth and History. He made significant contributions not just to philosophy, but also to mathematics and computer science. The word "genius" was sometimes applied to Hilary, and it didn’t seem like hyperbole. Noam Chomsky, who went to high school with Hilary and doesn’t spread compliments around willy-nilly, called him "one of the finest minds I’ve ever encountered."

And he earned his reputation for changing that fine mind. One wag said that Hilary was often the leading voice on both sides of the same issue. The philosopher Daniel Dennett invented the term "hilary," which he defined as "a very brief but significant period in the intellectual career of a distinguished philosopher." So, according to Dennett, you could, when challenged, reply, "Oh, that’s what I thought three or four hilaries ago."

It was well into Hilary’s career, and many years into his marriage to Ruth Anna, that he finally came around to pragmatism (though he stopped short of labeling himself a pragmatist). This was no small shift in thinking. Hilary was regarded as one of the major figures in analytic philosophy, a method that came to dominate American departments in the 20th century, and its commitment to what’s called scientific realism. Many philosophers in those departments would previously have seen Hilary as a champion of their cause, and so his move toward pragmatism, and away from scientific realism, was viewed as giving up the holy search for truth in favor of a whatever-works strategy.

One quiet catalyst in this turnabout was Ruth Anna. In the new book, Hilary acknowledges as much in a reply to one of her essays. After calling her thoughts on the value of pragmatism "a beautiful statement," Hilary writes that "If I agree completely with the ideas in question today, this was not always the case, and Ruth Anna herself had a great deal to do with my ‘conversion.’"

He writes that, when they met, Ruth Anna was already a devotee of Dewey, and that "over the years her gentle advocacy gradually persuaded me to take a second look."

Another factor in his conversion was the work of Richard Rorty, perhaps the best-known pragmatist in recent decades and one of the rare philosophers whose impact was felt outside the discipline. That didn’t mean Putnam saw eye-to-eye with Rorty. In fact, as Rorty wrote in an essay shortly before his death, in 2007, "Hilary Putnam and I have been disagreeing for the last twenty years about what lessons to draw from the writings of William James and John Dewey." To say they "disagreed" might be putting it mildly. In an interview, Putnam called Rorty a "terribly careless" reader and scolded him for "text-free interpretations."

He also called Rorty a "dear friend’; their vigorous debates in print didn’t bleed over into personal animosity.

The crux of their dispute centered on how far to take pragmatism. Rorty thought that the things we believe to be true aren’t actually connected to reality: There is the stuff we say, and then there is the actual world, and never the twain shall meet. We agree on certain conventions in order to function, but we’ll never arrive at anything like truth. Putnam meanwhile held to the idea, as he wrote, that "there is a way to do justice to our sense that knowledge claims are responsible to reality." In other words, it was possible, as he saw it, to be a pragmatist without jettisoning truth altogether.

Ruth Anna was very much on her husband’s side in this fight. In Rorty, they found a common foe. Hilary thought he distorted James and Dewey and led philosophy down a dead-end street. Ruth Anna believes that Rorty’s vision undercut arguments for achieving a more just society. For example, Rorty contended that "human rights are not based on a transcendent something in us, they have nothing to back them up" — a position that Ruth Anna rejects. She makes a case for what she thinks Rorty should have believed: "Sometimes we need to change our ways, sometimes we even need to change our dreams, but sometimes we are entitled to say that we are making moral progress."

The two essays they wrote together in the new book are models of sharp simplicity. One of those essays, a short piece titled "What the Spilled Beans Can Spell," begins with this question: "What is it about philosophy that makes long dead philosophers interesting in a way that long dead physicists are not?" Fans of Einstein might object, but it’s an intriguing question and typical of their inviting style.

Randall Auxier, who co-edited The Philosophy of Hilary Putnam, credits Ruth Anna for leading her husband to a position that was close to, if not identical with, her own, writing in an email that Hilary’s "intellectual evolution was a long arc in the direction of her views." Auxier, a professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University, witnessed the couple’s back-and-forth while researching the nearly 1,000-page book that attempts to do justice to Hilary’s wide-ranging views. "Ruth Anna was patient but unbending when she knew Hilary was missing a point."

Ruth Anna, who is 89, lives with her son Samuel. She wasn’t feeling up for a phone interview, but she did send along a couple of thoughts via email. When asked whether she thought she was responsible for Hilary’s pragmatism, she was modest. "I certainly had views compatible with pragmatism earlier than he did, but I don’t know that he wouldn’t have gotten there by himself because he had a habit of following a train of thought and seeing where it would lead," she wrote. "That’s what people called Putnam changing his mind. It was the same mind that led."

Samuel said his mother seemed pleased to share the spotlight with her late husband: "He had his name on the cover of a million books, but this was the first time for her." The book’s editor, David Macarthur, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Sydney, called the essay collection evidence of a "marriage within a marriage." There wasn’t much division between their personal and philosophical lives, he said. "I think it was like ‘Pass me the cornflakes, Hilary, now let’s get back to talking about Dewey.’"

Tom Bartlett is a senior writer at The Chronicle.

Correction (9/11/2017, 3:30 p.m.): This article originally said that the Putnams raised three children. That number should have been four, and the text has been updated.