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Hilary Putnam, 89, Harvard philosopher of uncommon breadth

‘’Cut the pie any way you like, ‘meanings’ just ain’t in the head,’’ Dr. Putnam wrote.Harvard News Office/file 1995

Hilary Putnam had an academic breadth few philosophers achieved and he resisted attempts to simplify the complexity of what he contemplated. “Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one,” he once wrote.

“There is no philosopher since Aristotle who has made creative and foundational contributions in all the following areas: logic, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, ethics, political thought, philosophy of economics, philosophy of literature,” Martha C. Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, wrote about Dr. Putnam in an online tribute published by the Huffington Post.


And Dr. Putnam, she said, “added at least two areas to the list that Aristotle didn’t work in, namely, philosophy of language and philosophy of religion.”

Dr. Putnam, the Cogan university professor emeritus at Harvard, where he was a leading opponent of US involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s, died of metastasized mesothelioma March 13 in his Arlington home. He was 89 and had posted entries on his blog until last September.

While he had little taste for simplifying, Dr. Putnam could craft plainspoken phrases that opened a door into his longer, deeper musings. “Cut the pie any way you like, ‘meanings’ just ain’t in the head,” he wrote in “The Meaning of ‘Meaning,’ ” one of his most famous works.

During the 48 years he taught at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Princeton and Northwestern universities, Dr. Putnam also was known for questioning his previous stances and changing his mind altogether.

“Most philosophers talk a lot of talk about following the argument, but eventually lapse into dogmatism, defending a well-known position at all costs, no matter what new argument comes along,” Nussbaum wrote in The Huffington Post. “The glory of Putnam’s way of philosophizing was its total vulnerability. Because he really did follow the argument wherever it led, he often changed his views, and being led to change was to him not distressing but profoundly delightful, evidence that he was humble enough to be worthy of his own rationality.”


Though Dr. Putnam once wrote that critics and admirers alike shouldn’t exaggerate “the extent to which I ‘change my mind,’ ” he stressed the importance of occasionally doing so.

“I find two things that help me develop new ideas: self-criticism, that is criticism of whatever I have previously published, and reading great philosophers,” he said in an interview published in the spring 1991 issue of the Harvard Review of Philosophy.

“I am always dissatisfied with something or other about what I have previously written, and locating that something, and trying to think why I am dissatisfied and what to do about it, often sets the agenda for my next piece of work,” he added. Continuing to read other philosophers, meanwhile, “always opens new possibilities. As I get smarter, Kant, Aristotle, etc., all get smarter as well.”

In a tribute posted online, Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, wrote that Dr. Putnam’s “mind was so productive and sharp that it should not come as a surprise to anyone that some of his ideas seemed so attractive that other people decided to embrace them and not ever give them up, despite the fact that he’d demolished them himself in later writings. He founded schools of thought, but was no adherent of any school he might have inadvertently created.”


When Dr. Putnam delivered his farewell lecture at Harvard in May 2000 to conclude his well-known course “Philosophy 154: Non-Scientific Knowledge,” he noted that philosophy “isn’t a good thing. It’s a great thing. It can lead to wonderful things, and it can lead to terrible things.” But studying philosophy, he added, means “that you take the responsibility of trying to think deeply and with integrity seriously.”

Born in Chicago, Hilary Whitehall Putnam spent his early years living just outside Paris, where his parents moved when he was a few months old.

His father, Samuel Putnam, who was descended from British colonists in Virginia, was a translator whose works included the Modern Library edition of “Don Quixote.” The parents of his mother, the former Riva Sampson, had emigrated from the part of the Russian empire that became Lithuania.

Dr. Putnam didn’t speak English when he was about 7 and his parents returned to the United States. The family settled in Philadelphia, where Dr. Putnam graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1948. He started a philosophy club in high school, but didn’t consider pursuing the subject academically until his last year at college. Initially, he thought of becoming a writer, and was fond of poets such as W.H. Auden and Rainer Maria Rilke. At the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Putnam’s fellow students included Noam Chomsky, who would become a friend in the years ahead.


In the fall of 1948, Dr. Putnam began his graduate studies at Harvard and also married Erna Diesendruck, with whom he had a daughter. Their marriage ended in divorce.

He finished his doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and taught at Northwestern and Princeton before returning to Cambridge in 1961 to build a graduate philosophy department at MIT.

Dr. Putnam had met the former Ruth Anna Jacobs at an international Congress on Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science and they “were madly in love before the conference ended,” he wrote in “Intellectual Autobiography,” the first chapter of “The Philosophy of Hilary Putnam,” a collection of essays by colleagues that was published last year. They married in 1962.

After tiring “of the responsibilities that leading the ‘Graduate Program in Philosophy’ at MIT had turned out to entail,” Dr. Putnam joined the Harvard faculty in 1965, he wrote in the autobiographical essay.

Politically active during the tumult of the 1960s, he started a committee of faculty and students to oppose US involvement in Vietnam, joined and later left the Progressive Labor Party, and served as a faculty adviser to Students for a Democratic Society at a time when protesters often were arrested.

“He really risked his career to support SDS because he believed in the opposition to the war,” said his son Samuel of Arlington. “People talk about him carrying around a money belt with bail money.”


Though his intellectual life defined him publicly, Dr. Putnam “had this endless interest in the world and appetite for the world,” Samuel added. “He really enjoyed life. He loved to eat food and travel, experience art, listen to new music. My mother said recently that he really loved living.”

A service has been held for Dr. Putnam, who in addition to his wife and son Samuel, leaves two daughters, Erika Chin of Acton and Maxima Kahn of Grass Valley, Calif.; another son, Joshua, of Medford; and four grandchildren.

“What was really remarkable about my dad is he was just an incredibly generous person with his interest in people. He just paid so much attention to everybody. He was willing to talk with people for hours,” Samuel said.

In her Huffington Post tribute, Nussbaum wrote that “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.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.