Hilary Putnam dies today. He was 89. He was my thesis advisor (I urge all linguists to take a few philosophy courses as it really teaches you how to navigate the logic of an argument). He was also one of the most important philosophers of the later half of the 20th century. He wrote many papers on linguistic themes, and despite being off the mark, IMO, more often than not, he did take the cognitive revolution in linguistics seriously.
He and Chomsky go way back. I believe that he TAed a course that Chomsky took at U Penn. They knew each other well and debated important issues though out their lives. I think that Noam got the better of the debates, but Hilary did express views that were common among philosophers and doing so was a public service. Here's is an obit by Martha Nussbaum, a prof at U Chicago that knew him well.
Hilary had an an astounding breadth. He was part of a team of three that solved one of the famous Hilbert Problems, he wrote extensively on issues in the philosophy of mathematics, logic, language, science, physics and more. He went from being a staunch realist to being a rather (for me) hard to understand pragmatist. He changed his mind a lot, as do many serious thinkers. He wrote what is likely to remain one of the greatest collection of essays in analytic philosophy. He left a mark. Not bad.
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Chomsky and Putnam go further back, to high school. They may even have grown up in the same neighborhood in Philly. They were friends throughout and Hilary was the chief guest at Noam's 60th birthday party. Noam described to me then about his transition from hippie to PLP (when he would distribute party literature in a suit and tie) to Orthodox Jew.ReplyDelete
Though they did both grow up in Philly, Hilary told me they didn't really become good friends till much later when Putnam was at Princeton and Chomsky spent a year at the Institute. Also, I don't think Hilary TA'ed for Noam at Penn -- Hilary was only an undergrad there (though for all I know they let undergrads sometimes TA?). They were fellow students there, though. I think I remember him telling me they both were in a course, or maybe courses, with Zelig Harris.ReplyDelete
By the way, it was a team of 4 that tackled Hilbert's 10th: Davis, Putnam, Robinson, and Matiyasevich.
Yeah, I was wondering about the TA'ing part too. Norbert might be thinking of Nathan Glazer, who did something with Zelig Harris.ReplyDelete
I might be misremembering, but I have a vivid recollection of being told this factoid by someone who would know. But, like all such vivid memories, it could easily be incorrect.
Thx for the names of Hilary's companions in scaling 10.
Not that it matters, but it comes back to me that what Hilary said was that he took a graduate course with Harris where he and Noam were the only two undergrads -- suggesting that Hilary wouldn't have been a TA. But I have little trust in my memories, vivid or not!Delete
Wise policy re memories. At an rate, long time acquaintance here.Delete
John Collins sent this for posting:ReplyDelete
I agree that, generally, HP was on the wrong side, as it were, when it came to issues pertaining to GG. He did change his mind on some of these topics, though. His 'Model theory and the 'factuality' of semantics' (in A. George (1989) Reflections on Chomsky) saw him backtrack to support Chomsky's long-held claim that Quine's indeterminancy thesis was really just underdetermination+prejudice.
In his (very favourable) preface to Harris’ The Form of Information in Science, Putnam wrote that the class for Harris’ Linguistic Analysis consisted of himself and Chomsky. He amended this last year at a conference in Dublin where he recalled there had been a third student. He also noted Harris’ influence on his ideas in ‘The Meaning of Meaning’.ReplyDelete
I believe (although I don't remember the source of this) that Noam and him were high-school friends even. He (Putnam) gave a talk at Harvard some years ago where he compared his externalism about word meanings to Noam's internalism, and he came very close to conceding that his externalism was restricted to what Noam would call technical terms, the words that aren't really part of the naturally-grown language (and where Noam would agree that their meanings ain't in the head). I got the impression then that the two weren't really that far away from each other.ReplyDelete
Here's the NY Times obit:ReplyDelete