Nussbaum on the Life and Work of Philosopher Hilary Putnam

Hilary Putnam (1926-2016)

Philosophy is pretty unpopular in America today. Marco Rubio says, with typical inelegance: "We need more welders and less philosophers." Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina also singles out philosophy as a discipline offering "worthless courses" that offer "no chances of getting people jobs." Across the nation there's unbounded adulation for the STEM disciplines, which seem so profitable. Although all the humanities suffer disdain, philosophy keeps on attracting special negative attention--perhaps because in addition to appearing worthless, it also appears vaguely subversive, a threat to sound traditional values.

Such was not always the case. Throughout its history in Europe, philosophy has repeatedly come in for abuse from the forces of tradition and authority. The American founding, however, was different: the founders were men of the Enlightenment, steeped in the ideas and works of Rousseau, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and the ancient Greeks and Romans--especially Cicero and the Roman Stoics. As men of the Enlightenment they took pride in steering their course by reason and argument rather than unexamined tradition. Their intellectual independence and theoretical thoughtfulness served them well when it came to setting up a new nation. We've traveled a long way from those roots, and not in a good direction.

On March 13, America lost one of the greatest philosophers this nation has ever produced. Hilary Putnam died of cancer at the age of 89. Those of us who had the good fortune to know Putnam as mentees, colleagues, and friends remember his life with profound gratitude and love, since Hilary was not only a great philosopher, but also a human being of extraordinary generosity, who really wanted people to be themselves, not his acolytes. But it's also good, in the midst of grief, to reflect about Hilary's career, and what it shows us about what philosophy is and what it can offer humanity. For Hilary was a person of unsurpassed brilliance, but he also believed that philosophy was not just for the rarely gifted individual. Like two of his favorites, Socrates and John Dewey (and, I'd add, like those American founders), he thought that philosophy was for all human beings, a wake-up call to the humanity in us all.

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