Monday, March 13, 2017

Why Hilary Putnam Matters

A year ago today Hilary Putnam, one of the greatest minds of the 20th-21st century and one of my intellectual heroes, passed away. For those not familiar with him, Putnam was a philosopher, computer scientist, and mathematician who was very influential in the philosophy of mind, ethics, metaphysics, and philosophy of mathematics; he also coauthored what is known as the Quine -Putnam indispensability thesis, which argues for the ontological existence of numbers.
Hilary Putnam

This post is not so much about Putnam's contributions to philosophy and other areas; his work speaks for itself. This post is more about Putnam's attitude, and why philosopher and non-philosopher should adopt it.

Besides his many contributions to the field, Putnam was widely known for his criticism of his own views; one philosopher went so far as to say "Putnam's greatest critic is Putnam." For example, Putnam at one point was a staunch proponent of metaphysical realism, but he later rejected it and became one of its staunchest critics. This happened often throughout his life, he would accept a view, but he was always analyzing it for weakness, and did this just as much with his own views as he did with those of others.

Whether you are a philosopher or not, perhaps we as people should also adopt this practice of being as critical of our own views as we are of others. Doing so will create a sense of humility that we lack, and help us to realize that our way is not the perfect way, and that there is more than one way of seeing and doing things.

This does not mean, however, that we should not take our own beliefs seriously and defend them. I am not endorsing the sort of nihilism that is endorsed in How to Win Friends & Influence People; not defending your views will never help us arrive at truth. However, an admittance that you might be wrong or only seeing a part of the puzzle is helpful, and can help us build a better world.