Hilary Putnam

Hilary Whitehall Putnam ( born July 31, 1926 in Chicago, Illinois ) is an American philosopher. He is regarded as one of the key figures in the philosophy of language and philosophy of mind in the 20th century.


Putnam is the son of the translator and Romanists Samuel Putnam, who wrote as a journalist for the Daily Worker, a journal of the American Communist Party. The Education of Putnam was secular, although his mother was Jewish Riva. The first years of life grew Putnam on in France until 1934, the family returned to the United States to Pittsburgh. At Central High School, he met Noam Chomsky, with whom he was permanent friends, even if their views partly differed greatly. He studied philosophy and mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon completion of the Bachelor of Arts, he continued his studies at Harvard and later at the University of California, Los Angeles with Rudolf Carnap and Hans Reichenbach. There he acquired in 1951 with Hans Reichenbach Ph.D. ( Doctor of Philosophy ) with a thesis on "The Meaning of the Concept of Probability in Application to Finite Sequences".

He then held teaching positions at Northwestern University in Evanston / Illinois and 1953 at Princeton University in New Jersey. Here he first had a fixed-term contract for one year as an assistant professor who has twice been extended by three years. In 1960, he received a permanent job ( tenure ), and was also a member of the mathematics department, where he gave courses for some time in mathematical logic and Turing machines made ​​it the object. In 1960, Putnam spent a year as a Guggenheim Fellow in Oxford. In 1961 he moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There he met his wife, Ruth Anna Jacobs know who also taught philosophy at MIT. They married in 1962. Too, Ruth Anna Jacobs, born 1927 in Berlin, Germany, had a Jewish mother, Mary Kohn, daughter of Prof. Dr. Hans Nathan Kohn. She escaped the destruction hidden by the Nazis in the Gotha Villa their non- Jewish grandparents Jacobs. You came from an old Gotha family of scholars; the grandfather of her great-grandfather was the eminent archaeologist and writer Christian Friedrich Wilhelm Jacobs, the history painter Paul Emil Jacobs is their Ururgroßonkel. The couple decided to Putnam as a sign of anti-Semitism to raise their children in a household are maintained in the Jewish ways of life. Therefore they learned Hebrew and also the application of Jewish ceremonies. 1994 celebrated Hilary and Ruth Anna 1998 Bar Mitzvah a belated. 1965 changed the Putnam to Harvard, where Hilary Putnam taught until his retirement in 2000. Since then he's there, " John Cogan University Professor Emeritus ".

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Putnam played a very one against the Vietnam War and for the American civil rights movement. He tried in 1968 these goals in the Progressive Labor Party (PLP ) to realize a Marxist- Leninist party students. The management of the Harvard University tried to censor Putnam for his political activities; this experiment, it was a large number of friends and supporters are warded off with the help of Putnam. It is not known exactly when Putnam disbanded his connection to the PLP until 1975, he had broken off all contact with the organization. In 1997, he admitted at a meeting of former conscientious objection activists in Boston, it committed to entering the PLP an error. He says he was initially impressed by the commitment of the PLP in alliances with other groups and on their willingness to subvert the army from within.

However, Putnam's publications on political issues are less numerous than his philosophical contributions. Mentioned here are the essays " How Not to Solve Ethical Problems" (1983 ) and "Education for Democracy" (1993 )

Putnam was elected president of the American Philosophical Association in 1976 and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Corresponding Member of the British Academy since 1965. In the academic year 1994/1995 Putnam Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study Berlin. Him the Rolf Schock Prize in 2011 and the Lauener price were awarded in 2012.


Already in his dissertation, "The Meaning of the Concept of Probability in Application to Finite Sequences" Putnam has dealt with two fundamental issues that were on the one hand in Logical Empiricism and the other in the analytic philosophy in the foreground of the then current discussion: mathematical logic and the question of the confirmation of scientific theories. As a result, Putnam has published a number of articles on a wide range of topics ranging from the philosophy of mathematics and logic on the philosophy of science, epistemology, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind as well - increasingly in his later work - the political philosophy, rich on ethics and philosophy of religion. Putnam has contributed in each case to current debates fundamental considerations. A problem to gain an overview of his work is that the essays each focus on a particular aspect and Putnam individual positions have changed over time in some cases so severe that they are incompatible with earlier theories. The work of Putnam is summarized in a number of anthologies, in which the most important essays are still barely connected by an inner structure. Even in these books rather reflects the historical development of thinking Putnam.


In a retrospective Putnam calls of twelve philosophers who have ever affected him particularly sustainable in their own way, each one important to him basic idea. From Morton White, his teacher in Pittsburgh - the student and later colleague of Quine, who advised him to go to Harvard - he learned the rejection of since Kant discussed dichotomy between analytic and synthetic, and in consequence of the rejection of the dichotomy between facts and values. White has developed this view by Putnam at the same time and in collaboration with Quine, in which White rejected the Quine'sche reduction of theories in the sciences. Quine, in turn, had many influence on Putnam, first as a teacher and later as a colleague. From him Putnam has assumed, among other things, the realization that mathematics should be thought of as an integral part of the entire science and assumes no isolated position. His doctor father Hans Reichenbach mediated Putnam especially the importance of clarifying the conceptual foundations of theories, whereas it in front of Reichenbach's Verificationism refused. Rudolf Carnap, who spent upon arrival in Princeton Putnam's his second year of a two year study stay at the Institute for Advanced Study, Putnam encouraged to employment with the recursive inductive logic. From this theoretical field out Putnam has developed his theory of functionalism ( computer as a model of mental activities ), he has however given up with the latest work on his book " Representation and Reality ". During a one-year teaching career at Princeton, Paul Section held a seminar on semantic analysis. During the seminar, which was attended by among others Paul Benacerraf, Jerry Fodor, Jerrold Katz, Noam Chomsky, who worked at the same time for a year at the Institute for Advanced Study, and as guests of Oxford Christopher Kirwan and David Wiggins, has onto Putnam particularly the knitted thesis that there is from the perspective of empirical linguistics no arguments for a Nonkognitivismus in regard to ethical values ​​. This view has accompanied Putnam over the years and he has retained in his recent work "The Collapse of the Fact / Value Dichotomy " and " Ethics Without Ontology ". During a short stay of John Austin in 1959 in Princeton Putnam was so impressed that he spent his first sabbatical 1960/61 in Oxford, where he was invited by Austin to attend "Saturday Morning Group" at the. Here Putnam learned the importance of the philosophy of ordinary language ( ordinary language philosophy ) estimate, even if Austin still died during his stay, and Paul Grice took over the management of the group.

Had already met as students at MIT with Richard Boyd, Putnam, he worked at Harvard closely on issues of scientific realism and took from him the thesis that terms in a mature science typically have a reference and theories in a mature science typically of truth are approximate. This leads to the catchword thesis that scientific realism is the only philosophy of science position, after the success of the sciences must not be regarded as a miracle. Also close friends at Harvard Putnam was with James Conant, from whom he learned that a confrontation with Wittgenstein is very helpful in the clarification of concepts and theoretical concepts, without having to fall into a total critique of metaphysics. The William James Lectures by Michael Dummett in 1976 in Putnam Harvard helped to revise its concept of realism again. This has led over the years to the task of internal realism and the reformulation of one's position from about 1990 as a direct realism. Even with Richard Rorty joined Putnam a good friendship, even if the two in the interpretation of James and Dewey in a number of points could not agree. From these many issues especially the question of representation stands out which Rorty similar to Derrida rejected strict. The mutual criticism referred Putnam as stimulating and serious at the same time. In developed by Putnam with a few detours position of naive realism he feels particularly encouraged by John McDowell. As the last of his major ideas Putnam refers to Stanley Cavell and his theory of moral perfectionism. Cavell has Putnam shows that even writers such as Emerson, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Marx and Thoreau are to be regarded as part of the philosophical debate and can significantly extend the philosophical horizon. The result of this thinking is Putnam's recent book about the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas and Franz Rosenzweig.

Rejection of verificationism

While Putnam 's position is constantly evolving to a number of issues and this also made fundamental breakthroughs in his philosophy into account, the rejection of verificationism is a persistent and all its considerations underlying attitude that can be found in his early essays.

The Verificationism is a fundamental building block of logical empiricism, which is the philosophical position for which Putnam's early teachers Reichenbach and Carnap regarded as outstanding representatives. Characteristic is the thesis that the truth of statements is either analytically, if they relate to questions of mathematics or formal logic, or synthetic, when they checked on the basis of empirical experience and confirmed - may be - verified. Background assumption of verificationism is that it gives an accurate depiction of reality that science approximates more and more as part of their research.

Philosophical statements about issues that can not be verified empirically, eg on ethical values ​​or on issues of religion and art, the Verifikationisten regarded as a category mistake. Such statements deal with pseudo-problems that (ie classified as true or false) can not be solved by science or philosophy are, but a matter of ( social ) definition, ie conventions. Putnam has always included in its rejection of verificationism the rejection of conventionalism. He has all the items that run out at the end of an epistemological separation of facts and values ​​, rejected in its various aspects.

One of the consequences of logical empiricism is that one subjective attitudes, feelings or emotions (in general: qualia ) can only investigate the methods of behaviorism, because statements from the first -person perspective to a third party empirically can not be made comprehensible. Putnam argues here from the beginning quite the pragmatic sense that it is not relevant for the truth of a psychological statement that they are based on a definition by a particular set of symptoms (someone is annoying when it is red, roaring and waving his hands can verify ) Rather, it is a term such as anger against the background of existing beliefs content of a linguistic practice, which can be respectively recorded only incompletely by a conceptual definition. The criteria that you can specify for the empirical determination of a term such as anger, are always inductive and fallible. The attempt at a definition of a term so kind as anger leads also in a circle, because you can set up a catalog without not already have a preconception of trouble. Even more problematic is the attempt to find verifikationistischem way explanations for the causes of such phenomena. One can, for example, statements about phenomena of multiple sclerosis ( Putnam's example ) translate into statements about the disease multiple sclerosis, because effects do not allow direct inference of its causes. It requires a competent speaker to make these relationships, which relies on experience, which goes beyond a single linguistically specific knowledge.

The normal speaker refers to situations under normal circumstances, to have no clear criteria for identification. Him it is sufficient if its terms provide a sufficient distinction in practice, and he is capable of learning by adjusting its terms newfound beliefs.

The distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments, as it is made in logical empiricism, Putnam rejects as Quine. At the same time Putnam points out that you can not go so far with this is that it makes the distinction between questions of meaning and factual issues in mind. There are purely tautological sentences like, a bachelor is an unmarried man ', on the other hand definitional sentences like, water is H2O ', which can be tested empirically. One can work out four guiding principles that are valid as background assumptions to all work Putnam.

  • Metatheoretical: a pragmatic approach from the participant's perspective
  • Content: possibility of error and improvement ( fallibilism )
  • Methodically: underdetermination of theories in terms of their potential applications
  • Epistemically: Realistic point in determining possible reference objects.

In the course of his philosophical development Putnam has, however, these central ideas associated with widely differing theories.

What are theories

In a seminal essay from 1960 (What Theories Are Not ) Putnam has applied his pragmatic conception of language to the field of philosophy of science. Here, he studied with his time common practice to distinguish between observation statements and theoretical statements. Target of criticism is once again of Logical Empiricism, about the late Carnap conception of theories as axiomatic systems Thereafter, the theoretical language is formulated as calculus and is initially uninterpreted. The observation terms are used to describe the situation of the empirical Forschens (about experiments ). They only give the theoretical model its importance

If one conceives as theory terms as opposed to observation terms that they refer to the class of objects that are not observable, is given by Putnam the problem is that there are many things that are not observable, but no theoretical concepts. These include for example the concepts from the field of sensations. On the other hand, observational concepts theoretical implications, such as the concept of electric charge can take positive or negative values ​​, while mass is described with positive values ​​only. There is not only in the measuring practice, many observational concepts that have both the function of theoretical concepts. For Putnam there are no sharp dividing lines here. On the other hand, is indisputably Putnam, the need for theoretical concepts in order to develop scientific theories ( belief systems ) in general,

Here is the background assumption of realism is evident. The process of learning can only be explained if one assumes the independence of signifier and signified.

Has the separation of observation terms and theoretical concepts in logical empiricism matched by the traditional distinction of things and ideas about at Berkeley and Mach. Because Assume no reference to real things, but only on performances in positivism according to Putnam, scientific theories be regarded only as an interpreted calculi.

One of the basic problems of positivism sees Putnam is that this could offer no concept of truth that corresponds to the scientific practice. The practicing scientists do not look for the simplest ( expressible in a calculus ) theory, but the one that corresponds with the highest probability of truth. Similarly, the attempt to formulate a formal logic of confirmation does not work, because in positivism, the meaning of a term is given only within a single theory. For according to the positivists, similar to the skeptics Feyerabend considers the meaning of a term varies with the change in the theory. But that can change the meaning of a term can not be unified trans theory in a theory of confirmation. He has no stable reference. Particularly striking is the problem of formalization in the social sciences, which play only a small degree of scientific rigor in the sense of positivism. But even in the physics theories are based on assumptions and auxiliary hypotheses that over time may prove to be incorrect, without that the importance of the core concepts must change. For example, the concept of gravity, which is trans- theoretically valid for Putnam, even if over time of Newton until today had to be adjusted again and again the "history of celestial mechanics ". A classic example Putnam is the description of an electron by Niels Bohr, who argued in 1911 that one can assign both an electron a place as well as a pulse. In the context of quantum mechanics, developed around 1930, you came to the conclusion that one can only determine either the pulse or only the location of an electron. Bohr has spoken by Putnam in both theories on the concept of an electron in the same way. " Has been too much neglected, that scientific problems also often have the form to find additional hypotheses, how to make the predictions in the philosophy of science. "

Putnam reinforces this argument with the miracle argument:

Philosophy of mind

Putnam is one of the key theorists in the philosophy of mind. In the sixties he developed a position that has become known as functionalism. It was originally based on an analogy to the human consciousness on the functioning of computers. The automata theory and the concept of the Turing machine provided the basis of the model. Machine can be described functionally, that is in terms of cause-effect relationships of certain states to other states, inputs and outputs. That's what should be possible in humans. Mental states should be individuated by functional roles.

With the rise of functionalism, a rapid loss of popularity of the identity theory was connected. The identity theory had claimed that mental states and neural states are identical. Putnam argued, however, that this was not possible due to the multiple realizability of mental states. This means that beings can have the same mental state, even though they have very different neural states. Again, an analogy with the computer was possible: On computers with different hardware, the same software can run. The programs are thus multiply realizable. Mental states should be in accordance with the "Software of the Brain".

Putnam has turned into the eighties functionalism. He was of the opinion that mental states are identical neither with nor with neuronal functional states. Nevertheless, Putnam has not become a dualist. The dualist thinks that there are two types of objects: mental and physical. Putnam, however, said that the mind-body problem in its current form is based on a false view of the ontology. If one turns away from a metaphysical realism, so the question of which because the mind is now identically zero. The mind is not reducible. This view is in conjunction with the Putnam founded by anti-realist theory of internal realism.

In the course of developing its position Putnam argues in his work "The Threefold Cord" (1999) a ajar to John Langshaw Austin version of naive realism. This correlated with a change in the philosophy of mind: Putnam So now represents the view that the mind-body problem based on linguistic problems and category errors. He sees there is a close relationship of modern ideas, ranging from Descartes to the present, with religious thinking, which posits a soul. The dualism as position separates alone because it violates the principle of unity of physical systems. But modern monisms such as epiphenomenalism at Davidson or differentiated physicalism in Jaegwon Kim is based on Putnam on the wrong notion of mediation of reality through sense-data or similar. Putnam calls such positions " Cartesianism cum materialism ". They include the separation of primary and secondary qualities in perception ( Locke ), which arises because the objects of perception are construed as representations that form the basis of mental states. Only if you give up the image of an "inner theater", you can avoid the " endless recycling " of different positions in the philosophy of mind. The mind is not an intangible part of ourselves, but a way to describe the application of certain skills that we have. This overlap ( supervene ) the Gehirnakivitäten and can not be explained by reduction.

Philosophy of Language

An important contribution of Putnam to the philosophy of language is the thesis that " meaning Just Is not in the Head " ( " meanings are now not in the head" ). Putnam illustrates this with the " thought experiment a Twin Earth ". It assumes that a earthlings a liquid sees and calls this "water", and a twin who resembles him to the last detail, on another planet also provides a liquid and they also called "water". Now, if the fluid is on the other planets not H2O, but about XYZ, then the two with my "water" something different, although water for both has the same function. This view includes the kripkesche thesis rigid designators that applies Putnam on natural concepts such as water, tiger or gold. If the earthling knew that the liquid on Twin Earth is not H2O but XYZ is, he would not call them water. XYZ is a water of the earth a different extension and would thus produce a different meaning. The position of Putnam's also referred to as " semantic externalism " because the meaning is not a priori arises, but is dependent on an external influence.

Putnam further supports the thesis of the "universal linguistic division of labor". The term Gold know very many members of a language community. However, only some of which are able to distinguish from gold Katzengold basis of chemical knowledge.

An accurate determination of the extension of an expression is so often just a circle on specialized speaker possible.

This is in reference to Gottlob Frege of logical empiricism (especially Rudolf Carnap ) established thesis that the intension of an expression determines its extension, according to Putnam not applicable. At the same time Putnam rejects the sooner he represents himself as a functionalist thesis that meaning corresponds to a mental state. Significance must be assessed externalist for Putnam ( according to its recent thesis of internal realism ), that is also determined by physical and social environmental factors. The statements and also the thoughts of a subject arise not only due to internal processes, but also a function of external objects, facts or events. The speech community determines the extension, but which is also dependent on the environment.

Another component of Putnam 's philosophy of language is that of the stereotype. Thereafter, the normal speaker is aware of the conventional use of a speech expression, only to a limited extent, but it is sufficient for a successful communication. Thus, the concept of a tiger usually connects a large cat with a yellow fur and black stripes that lives in the jungle. That it is the largest cat species and that there are nine subspecies, most humans is unknown. This applies to a variety of terms, it is " acid rain ", " economy " or " Himalayan ". The individual language competence plays a minor role in a linguistic community.

Philosophy of Mathematics

Putnam contributed to the proof of the undecidability of Hilbert's tenth math problem ( solution of a Diophantine equation).

The along with Paul Benacerraf published by him in 1964 collection of essays Philosophy of Mathematics: Selected Readings provides an introduction to the philosophy of mathematics.

Putnam believes that in mathematics as in physics and other empirical sciences not strictly logical evidence, but " quasi- empirical " methods are used, if they are not explicitly identified as such. As an example, he cites a guided through many calculations attempt to prove the great Fermat's theorem. Even if empirically derived knowledge is treated as a presumption rather than a rigorous proof in such a way, it is still used as the basis for the development of mathematical ideas.

Philosophy of Philosophy

Putnam's contributions to what is often called metaphilosophy are less known than Richard Rorty, try however - unlike Rorty and other Neopragmatikern - to avoid relativism.


  • Meaning of the Concept of Probability in Application to Finite Sequences, Ph.D. thesis from 1951, first edition: Garland Publishing, 1990, Routledge, London 2011, ISBN 978-0-41568794-2
  • Philosophy of Mathematics: Selected Readings. Edited with Paul Benacerraf. Prentice- Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N. J. In 1964.; 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1983. ISBN 0 - 521-29648 -X
  • Philosophy of Logic. Harper and Row, New York 1971; George Allen and Unwin, London 1972. ISBN 0-04-160009-6
  • Philosophical Papers: Volume 1, Mathematics, Matter and Method. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1975, ISBN 0-521-29550-5
  • Philosophical Papers: Volume 2, Mind, Language and Reality. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1979, ISBN 0-521-29551-3
  • Meaning and the Moral Sciences. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1978.
  • Reason, Truth, and History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1981. ( Paperback 2004), ISBN 0-521-29776-1
  • Philosophical Papers: Volume 3, Realism and Reason. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1983. ISBN 0-521-31394-5
  • The Many Faces of Realism. Open Court, La Salle, Ill. 1987. ISBN 0-8126-9043-5
  • Pragmatism: An Open Question. Blackwell, Oxford 1995. ISBN 0-631-19343- X
  • Pragmatism: An Open Question. Blackwell, Oxford 1995. ISBN 0-631-19343- X
  • The Threefold Cord Mind, Body and World. Columbia University Press, New York 1999. ISBN 0-231-10287-9
  • Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein. ( Helen and Martin Schwartz Lectures in Jewish Studies ) Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2008. ISBN 978-0-25335133-3
  • Reason, Truth and History ( Reason, Truth, and History ). Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1982 ISBN 3-518-06034-1 ( Review by Andrew Kemmer Ling )
  • Representation and Reality ( Representation and Reality). Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1991 ISBN 3-518-58090-6
  • The meaning of " meaning" ( The Meaning of " Meaning" ) with an introduction by Wolfgang Spohn. 2nd edition. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 1990 ISBN 3-465-02224-6 (English as an essay in: Mind, Language and Reality, 1975, 215-271 )
  • For a renewal of Philosophy ( Renewing Philosophy). Reclam, Stuttgart 1997 ISBN 3- 15-009660 -X ( review in the period from 26 February 1998)
  • From a realistic point of view. Writings on language and reality. Translated and introduced by Vincent C. Müller, Rowohlt, Reinbek 1993, ISBN 3-499-55539-5 ( collection of essays with texts from 1973 to 1988 )
  • Pragmatism - an open question ( Pragmatism: An Open Question). Campus, Frankfurt, inter alia, 1995 ISBN 3-593-35260-5