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Hilary Whitehall Putnam (July 31, 1926 – March 13, 2016) was an American philosopher, mathematician, and computer scientist, and a major figure in analytic philosophy in the second half of the 20th century.
He made significant contributions to philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophy of science.
Outside philosophy, Putnam contributed to mathematics and computer science.
Together with Martin Davis he developed the Davis–Putnam algorithm for the Boolean satisfiability problem and he helped demonstrate the unsolvability of Hilbert's tenth problem.He was known for his willingness to apply an equal degree of scrutiny to his own philosophical positions as to those of others, subjecting each position to rigorous analysis until he exposed its flaws.
As a result, he acquired a reputation for frequently changing his own position.
In philosophy of mind, Putnam is known for his argument against the type-identity of mental and physical states based on his hypothesis of the multiple realizability of the mental, and for the concept of functionalism, an influential theory regarding the mind–body problem.
Hilary Whitehall Putnam was born on July 31, 1926, in Chicago, Illinois. His father, Samuel Putnam, was a scholar of Romance languages, columnist, and translator who wrote for the Daily Worker, a publication of the American Communist Party, from 1936 to 1946. Because of his father's commitment to communism, Putnam had a secular upbringing, although his mother, Riva, was Jewish. In early 1927, six months after Hilary's birth, the family moved to France, where Samuel was under contract to translate the surviving works of François Rabelais. In a 2015 autobiographical essay, Putnam said that his first childhood memories were from his life in France, and his first language was French.
Putnam completed the first two years of his primary education in France before he and his parents returned to the U.S. in 1933, settling in Philadelphia. There, he attended Central High School, where he met Noam Chomsky, who was a year behind him.: 8 The two remained friends—and often intellectual opponents—for the rest of Putnam's life. Putnam studied philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving his B.A. degree and becoming a member of the Philomathean Society, the country's oldest continually existing collegiate literary society. He did graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University and later at UCLA's philosophy department, where he received his Ph.D. in 1951 for his dissertation, The Meaning of the Concept of Probability in Application to Finite Sequences. Putnam's dissertation supervisor Hans Reichenbach was a leading figure in logical positivism, the dominant school of philosophy of the day; one of Putnam's most consistent positions was his rejection of logical positivism as self-defeating. Over the course of his life, Putnam was his own philosophical adversary, changing his positions on philosophical questions and critiquing his previous views.
After obtaining his PhD, Putnam taught at Northwestern University (1951–52), Princeton University (1953–61), and MIT (1961–65). In 1962, he married fellow philosopher Ruth Anna Putnam (born Ruth Anna Jacobs), who took a teaching position in philosophy at Wellesley College. Rebelling against the antisemitism they experienced during their youth, the Putnams decided to establish a traditional Jewish home for their children. Since they had no experience with the rituals of Judaism, they sought out invitations to other Jewish homes for Seder. They began to study Jewish rituals and Hebrew, became more interested in Judaism, self-identified as Jews, and actively practiced Judaism. In 1994, Hilary celebrated a belated bar mitzvah service; Ruth Anna's bat mitzvah was celebrated four years later.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Putnam was an active supporter of the American Civil Rights Movement and he was also an active opponent of the Vietnam War. In 1963, he organized one of MIT's first faculty and student anti-war committees. After moving to Harvard in 1965, he organized campus protests and began teaching courses on Marxism. Putnam became an official faculty advisor to the Students for a Democratic Society and in 1968 a member of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1965. After 1968, his political activities centered on the PLP. The Harvard administration considered these activities disruptive and attempted to censure Putnam. Putnam permanently severed his relationship with the PLP in 1972. In 1997, at a meeting of former draft resistance activists at Boston's Arlington Street Church, he called his involvement with the PLP a mistake. He said he had been impressed at first with the PLP's commitment to alliance-building and its willingness to attempt to organize from within the armed forces.
In 1976, Putnam was elected president of the American Philosophical Association. The next year, he was selected as Walter Beverly Pearson Professor of Mathematical Logic in recognition of his contributions to the philosophy of logic and mathematics. While breaking with his radical past, Putnam never abandoned his belief that academics have a particular social and ethical responsibility toward society. He continued to be forthright and progressive in his political views, as expressed in the articles "How Not to Solve Ethical Problems" (1983) and "Education for Democracy" (1993).
Putnam was a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1999. He retired from teaching in June 2000, becoming Cogan University Professor Emeritus, but as of 2009 continued to give a seminar almost yearly at Tel Aviv University. He also held the Spinoza Chair of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam in 2001. His corpus includes five volumes of collected works, seven books, and more than 200 articles. Putnam's renewed interest in Judaism inspired him to publish several books and essays on the topic. With his wife, he co-authored several essays and a book on the late-19th-century American pragmatist movement.
For his contributions in philosophy and logic, Putnam was awarded the Rolf Schock Prize in 2011 and the Nicholas Rescher Prize for Systematic Philosophy in 2015. Putnam died at his home in Arlington, Massachusetts, on March 13, 2016. At the time of his death, Putnam was Cogan University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University.