Hilary Putnam’s paradigm-changing clarifications of our methods of inquiry in science and everyday life are central to his philosophy. He takes for granted that the judgments of scientists are for the most part reasonable and not in need of philosophical support, and that no part of our supposed knowledge is unrevisable or guaranteed to be true. He infers from key episodes in the history of science that our language contains terms whose references may remain unchanged despite radical changes in our theories, and that some statements are so basic for us at a given time that it would be unreasonable to give them up at that time, even if our failure to be able to conceive of alternatives to them is no guarantee that they are true. These central methodological commitments lead him to theorize that meanings are not in the head, that there are empirically discoverable property identities, and that reference is the key to understanding truth and realism.
Hilary Putnam died on March 13, 2016, at the age of 89. At the heart of his vast philosophical legacy lie his fresh, brilliant, and paradigm-changing clarifications of our methods of inquiry in science and everyday life. Putnam’s career began in the 1950s, an exciting time for philosophy in the United States. A series of revolutionary breakthroughs in logic, mathematics, and physics had recently prompted a new generation of thinkers to reconceive the relationship between philosophy and the sciences. These new thinkers, among them Hans Reichenbach, W.V. Quine, and Rudolf Carnap, Putnam’s main mentors in graduate school and the early part of his career, announced that, contrary to what many philosophers, among them Descartes, have claimed, the judgments of scientists are for the most part reasonable and not in need of philosophical support.
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