The Grice Club


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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Putnam, of all people


Grice's first language was English; his second language was Greek, and his third language was Latin. His fourth language was German ("just to teach Kant, you know").

Putnam's first language was French! (But he disliked Derrida).

Hilary Whitehall Putnam and Herbert Paul Grice were philosophers who revolutionised the philosophy of mind.

Hilary Whitehall Putnam and Herbert Paul Grice were constantly critical of his own theories.

Hilary Whitehall Putnam wrote the blurb for Herbert Paul Grice's "Studies in the Way of Words" (Harvard).

The philosopher Hilary Whitehall Putnam transformed the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology.

By focusing on the role, rather than substance, of mental states or as Grice would prefer, 'psychological attitudes', his theory of functionalism offered a plausible solution to the mind-body problem.

It was taken up by Grice in his "From the bizarre to the banal".

With his theory of externalism – “meanings just ain’t in the head” – Hilary Whitehall Putnam, like Herbert Paul Grice had done in "Meaning", dislodged the subjective starting point that had ruled philosophical theories of meaning since Descartes.

Unlike Hillary Whitehall Putnam, Herbert Paul Grice remained a Cartesian -- or 'telementationalist', as he preferred.

Putnam made huge contributions to the philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, and to maths itself.

But Putnam was famous, too, for forever changing his mind.

Constantly critical of his own theories, Putnam repudiated Functionalism in the 1980s -- in this he compares with Herbert Paul Grice who lists Functionalism as a monster on his way to the city of eternal truth -- and went through a gamut of views on metaphysics, as he did in his personal life on politics, although always remaining on the left of the political spectrum.

The one constant in his fertile fluctuations was his agility in thinking outside the set boundaries of any topic he tackled, and in resetting those boundaries.

As a professor at Harvard, he was determined to accommodate both a scientific and a human, common-sensical view-point, and his numerous essays were full of vivid thought-experiments -- In this he followed the steps of Grice who first introduced thought experiments with his Martian scenarios in "Some remarks about the senses".

Hilary Whitehall Putnam was born in Chicago.

His father, Samuel – a scholar of Romance languages, who translated Rabelais and Don Quixote – was a Communist and wrote a column for The Daily Worker.

 Hilary’s mother, Riva Sampson, was Jewish, but the family were secular.

Having moved to France – Putnam’s first language was French, and he stressed 'Hillary' in the last syllable  – they returned to live in Philadelphia.

One of Putnam’s classmates at school was Avram Noam Chomsky, who remained a friend and sparring-partner throughout his life.

After graduating in philosophy at Pennsylvania, Putnam began a PhD at Harvard, under Willard Van Orman Quine (for whom Grice wrote "Vacuous Names").

However, Putnam finished his dissertation on the other coast, at UCLA supervised by Hans Reichenbach AND Rudolf Carnap (of the Carnap corner fame) whose Logical Positivism had dominated Anglo-American analytical philosophy for the previous 15 years.

Putnam attacked their both Reichenbach's and Carnap's scientism (he would not attack Quine's scienticism, would he?) – giving primacy to empirical science, to the exclusion of other view-points – while forever acknowledging his debt to Reichenbach and remaining very close friends with Rudolf Carnap (of "Carnap's Corner" fame).

Putnam also combated Quine’s views in his essay, "The Analytic and Synthetic," (as Grice and Strawson had done in "In defense of a dogma") but collaborated with Quine to produce the Quine-Putnam indispensability thesis in mathematics.

He later reflected, "I wonder if that was indispensable!"

Putnam’s first teaching posts were in philosophy, at Northwestern University and Princeton and then as "Professor of the Philosophy of Science" (they can be pretentious there) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (not a uni, but an institute) until his move to Harvard as professor of philosophy -- a few blocks north.

In a series of brilliant essays, beginning with Minds and Machines, Putnam disputed both Behaviourism and J. J. C. Smart's Type-Identity theory, each of which seeks, in line with scientific respectability, to reduce mental states (or psychological attitudes, as Grice prefers – pain, beliefs, thoughts – to something physical.

Behaviourism claims that mental states are simply what we do, or are inclined to do, in certain circumstances (being in pain, for instance, is the way we typically react to physical injury by flinching from its cause, crying out, and seeking respite), and Putnam had great fun at this theory’s expense with a "thought-experiment" of poker-faced super-Spartans -- which the Spartans did NOT find funny.

Putnam's real fire, however, was reserved for J. J. C. Smart's then-paramount Type-Identity theory, which holds that, in the course of scientific discovery, mental states will “turn out to be” particular types of brain states, just as heat has transpired to be molecular motion and water to be H2O.

Water H20
Twater XYZ

What this entails, says Putnam, is that only creatures with our type of brain have conscious experience.

Yet surely mental states like pain and believing are “multiply realisable” – in rats, octopuses, snakes and (in principle) Martians.

--- Putnam is quoting from Grice's first introduction of Martian thought experiments in "Some remarks about the senses" (vide Coady, "The sense of the Martians").

“The all too old question of matter or soul-stuff” is the wrong question, Putnam maintains.

The essential thing to look at is not whatever constitutes mental states, but how they function as part of an overall system.

In fact what they are is what they do – they are simply our organisation-to-think, feel, desire, and need.

So forget the hardware, look at the software, which can be realised in a bewildering variety of different ways – silicon, neurons or tentacles.

We could be made of Swiss cheese and it wouldn’t matter.

This reference to Swiss cheese may be due to his French upbringing. They LOVE Swiss cheese there!

Pain, for instance, is the same functionally, though different physically, in a human, a dog and an octopus – whatever induces each of them to register, avoid and ameliorate any damage that that particular organism incurs.

Putnam’s machine-state functionalism seemed to combine the most cogent features of Watson's and Morris's and Stevenson's Behaviourist and Smart's Identity theories, while apparently avoiding their pitfalls.

It was hugely acclaimed (and of course attacked), and was seminal in so-called modern cognitive "science".

While revolutionising philosophy of mind, Putnam was involved with revolutionary politics.

At MIT Putnam organised one of the first faculty and student committees against the Vietnam war, and at Harvard he organised campus protests, publicly burned draft cards, and acted as official faculty adviser to Students for a Democratic Society (the main anti-Vietnam war organisation).

Putnam became a member of the Progressive Laboir party (promoting, in his own words, an idiosyncratic version of Marxism-Leninism), and would stand outside factory gates at 7am to sell the magazine "Challenge" and discuss politics with the workers.

On campus he disrupted the classes of Richard Herrnstein (co-author of the allegedly racist "Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life"), and he lived in a commune with students before moving to a Boston suburb.

Putnam was a brilliant, captivating teacher, but for a time his students had to spend his lectures twisted round to look at him because he refused to sit at the front.

Although, in his more dogmatic Marxist phase, he spoke on a podium and advised students to read Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book.

The Harvard establishment was in despair.

To their relief, Putnam left Progressive Labour.

Simultaneously Putnam was beginning to reject scientific realism, which claims that reality is independent of mind and language, and to develop his theory of semantic externalism, which argues that meaning is not a matter of subjective mind-set, nor of an objective match between word and object, but a social phenomenon.

A now-famous thought-experiment in his paper The Meaning of “Meaning” imagined a planet that precisely duplicates ours except that the clear liquid which its inhabitants drink and swim in (and also, in their doppelgänger English, call “water”) is not H2O but has a different chemical constitution, XYZ -- and it's called twater.

Both Oscar on Earth and Oscar on Twin Earth are “molecule for molecule identical”, therefore in exactly the same mental state (whatever that involves psychologically and neurally) when they think, or talk, of "water" or "twater".

Yet, Putnam argued, Oscar would not mean water if he is thinking and talking about the stuff that Twin-Earthers call "water" (or "twater").

Meaning, then, depends on external states of affairs.

But the nature of these, in turn, is relative to language.

Thus the world is both ‘objective’ and not ‘objective’.

We cannot ask what is the case without choosing some system of concepts (and no one system is uniquely fitted to describe ‘the world’).

But once we have a system of concepts in place, what is true or false is not simply a matter of what we think.

It is as if "water" (and "twater"), like “tiger”, “elm”, “gold” and other “natural kind terms” in a language, are, for speakers of that language such as French (Putnam's first language, if not his mother tongue), fixating baptisms, the fixity of which is irrelevant to the original baptisers – and subsequent namers – actually knowing the nature or inner constitution of whatever has been named.

Such right-the-way-down knowledge will develop (as with the 18th-century discovery that water and not twater is H2O -- twater is XYZ) and can be left to experts, thanks to what Putnam calls “the division of linguistic labour”.

This is what also enables Putnam himself, despite his total ignorance of what an elm tree looks like, successfully to talk and think about elms.

Externalism both out-relativises the relativists yet also out-objectivises the objectivists.

A huge industry has grown up around it, ringing the changes on Putnam’s first exposition.

Putnam’s new position on meaning entailed a new position on metaphysics and outlawed the possibility of total scepticism.

In Brains in a Vat Putnam discusses the modernised version of Descartes’ evil demon thought-experiment, in which the sceptic asks if, although having sense experiences like those of a normally embodied human, she might not just be a brain in a vat.

The sceptic’s question, says Putnam, does not even make sense – given that she belongs to no linguistic community, thanks to her envattedness, she would not be referring to a brain when saying “brain”, or to a vat when saying “vat”.

Putnam was elected president of the American Philosophical Association, and soon afterwards was made professor of mathematical logic. -- Philosophy, like virtue, is entire.

Putnam later became increasingly dissatisfied with functionalism – it conflicted with his theory of externalism, and was, he had come to think, too scientistic.

He began to write about ethics and Jewish philosophy, and to pursue his Jewish roots (he learned the Hebrew language, and had a slightly belated barmitzvah).

Some philosophers were saddened by his turning to pragmatism and also to mainland European philosophy (perhaps in keeping with that, commented a student, he began to chain-smoke a pipe -- Grice prefers cigarettes).

Others thought he was doing his best work.

Having taught at Harvard for some years, Putnam retired as emeritus professor.

He continued to teach and write, but also devoted himself to tending his vegetable garden with Ruth Anna Jacobs, also a philosopher, and creating ratatouille and soups from its products.

He held several honorary degrees, and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society.

Putnam was awarded the Rolf Schock prize in logic and philosophy by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and he continued to publish.

Putnam always said that the best minds are those that think through a position, get to the other side of it, and then reject it.

He certainly did that himself, but the same preoccupations persisted throughout his work, as did his intense pleasure in thought.

After reading aloud from some philosopher’s work in  a lecture, he would let out a wonderful raucous laugh of delight.

Putnam first married Erna Diesendruck, and they had a daughter, Erika.

That marriage ended in divorce.

Later the year of his divorce, Putnam married Ruth Anna Jacobs, with whom he had a daughter, Polly (called “Max”), and two sons, Samuel Putnam and Joshua Putnam.

Putnam  has four granddaughters.

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