This series of lectures, originally delivered at the University of St Andrews by the veteran analytic philosopher Hilary Putnam forms an excellent introduction to Putnam’s overall thought, especially for those not well versed in the analytic tradition. The title here is suggestive, as Putnam frames the lectures as a series of interventions against a number of trends within analytic philosophy that he wishes to contest. Firstly, a reductionist materialism that seeks to frame all philosophical questions within scientific terminology (presupposing that these questions are best solved scientifically too) and secondly, the trend within continental philosophy (and deconstruction more specifically) toward a perceived cultural relativism that, for Putnam at least, borders on the nihilistic. The first concern would be shared by later Gifford Lecturers like Sean Carroll, suggesting that the renewal in the title still has some way to go, but Putnam devotes the first three chapter specifically to the various contemporary manifestations of the reductionist scientism that hinders, rather than helping philosophical projects. The chapters cover artificial intelligence, evolutionary accounts of representation and Fodor’s casual-counterfactual theory of reference. Here Putnam is on sure ground as he skilfully unfolds the relative debates in a way that is both rigorous and accessible.
Towards the second half of the book Putnam intervenes in another debate, this one between analytic and continental philosophy. Here, the claim of relativism is brought against many, but most high-profile is Richard Rorty (the translator of much continental European philosophy to the US). Rorty is dismissed as practicing relativism as rhetoric and Derrida (that bogeyman de jour of analytic philosophy) is also seen as saying nothing very much, albeit in an interesting way. Putnam is, though, by no means as dismissive of the deconstructionist turn as some analytic philosophers and the section invoking Wittgenstein’s private language games represents a promising attempt to bridge the divide and find a common starting point for work on philosophy of language that can move beyond the somewhat arbitrary analytic/continental divide. His point that whilst Derrida’s political project and aims are admirable ‘deconstruction without reconstruction is irresponsible’ is absolutely correct and well founded and, happily, later work from Derrida moves onto more ethical and moral problems that suggests again that Putnam’s desire to put philosophy into a broader conversation was both vital and somewhat successful. The collection of lectures, whilst dense in places, also introduces the significance of figures like Dewey, James and Wittgenstein as thinkers who ‘illustrate how philosophical reflection which is completely honest can unsettle our prejudices… without flashy claims to deconstruct.’ (200) It is this profound ability that can found within Putnam’s own lectures here too.