One of the most prominent philosophers operating in the English-speaking world from the second half of the twentieth century, Hilary Putnam has written and continues to write extensively on a large array of subjects and is arguably most well-known for his contributions to the philosophy of mind, language and mathematics.
Born on 31 July 1926 Hilary was the son of Samuel Putnam, an author and translator of some fame. He spent his childhood in France, before moving with his family to Philadelphia, where he studied at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating with a B.A. in mathematics and philosophy in 1946, he moved on to the University of California at Los Angeles, where he completed a doctorate (1951) under the supervision of the German philosopher and logician Hans Reichenbach, a major proponent of logical positivism.
Putnam then started a distinguished academic career, teaching at Northwestern University (1952–1953), Princeton University (1953–1961), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1961–1965). In 1965 he moved to Harvard, where he held several senior positions (Professor of Philosophy, Walter Beverly Pearson Professor of Modern Mathematics and Mathematical Logic, Cogan University Professor). He retired from Harvard in June 2000 and is was Cogan University Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Emeritus until his death in March of 2016. Putnam is a past president of the American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division), a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. He also cultivates an ongoing and active interest in politics, and contributed to a number of debates on public policy and international affairs.
Putnam is a very prolific writer. His most important papers have been collected in a three-volume anthology (Philosophical Papers, 1975-83), and in the further volumes Realism with a Human Face (1990) and Words and Life (1994). Other works include Renewing Philosophy (1992) and Pragmatism: An Open Question (1995). The former is the text of the Gifford Lectures he delivered at the University of St. Andrews in the academic year 1990–1991.
Putnam has a reputation for frequently changing his position; as a result, it is hardly possible to provide a systematic account of his views. What follows, then, is just a very brief overview of some of the main themes and developments of his thought. Putnam’s best-known contribution to the philosophy of mind and language consists perhaps in the so-called Twin-Earth thought experiment (‘The Meaning of Meaning’, 1975), a very influential idea which he used to defend the view that meaning (of at least some words) is not dependent on our mental states. Putnam also made lasting contributions to the philosophy of science and of mathematics. In the latter field, for example, he defended the view that not all proofs used by mathematicians are strictly logical proofs: quasi-empirical methods are also widely employed, albeit not explicitly. In recent years Putnam engaged in the project of characterising and defending ‘pragmatic realism’, a view on the nature of truth and justification intended as an alternative to both traditional metaphysical realism and postmodern scepticism.