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Ruth Anna Putnam, Wellesley College philosophy professor, dies at 91

Dr. Putnam taught at Wellesley College for 35 years, twice chairing the department of philosophy.
Dr. Putnam taught at Wellesley College for 35 years, twice chairing the department of philosophy.

Ruth Anna Putnam began an essay by asking, “Why not a feminist theory of justice?” — the question was also the article’s title.

“One is prompted to seek a theory of justice when one’s more or less inarticulate sense of justice is outraged by some feature or features of a society,” she added in the essay, which was among those published in “Women, Culture, and Development” (1995). “If the outrageous features include a large number of systematic injustices to women, then one might well suggest seeking a feminist theory of justice.”

Dr. Putnam, a professor emerita at Wellesley College, where she taught for about 35 years and twice chaired the philosophy department, was 91 when she died May 4 in her Arlington home of complications from Parkinson’s disease.

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“I think her intellectual importance is not appreciated enough,” said Boston University philosophy professor Juliet Floyd, who organized a BU colloquium in February to celebrate the work of Dr. Putnam and her late husband, Harvard University philosopher Hilary Putnam.

“And women in philosophy tend to get erased,” added Floyd, who had been one of Dr. Putnam’s Wellesley students, “and I really hope her contributions are not erased.”

Among Dr. Putnam’s areas of focus were moral philosophy and the philosophy of William James and of John Dewey.

She was the editor of “The Cambridge Companion to William James” (1997) and was coauthor with her husband of the 2017 book “Pragmatism as a Way of Life: The Lasting Legacy of William James and John Dewey,” which collected their writings on pragmatism.

“Ruth Anna Putnam is an internationally renowned interpreter of James’s and Dewey’s visions of pragmatism,” David Macarthur, a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia, wrote in the introduction to the book, which he also edited.

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In an essay published last year in the journal Pragmatism Today, Richard J. Bernstein called Dr. Putnam “one of the most imaginative and vital pragmatic thinkers of our time. Unfortunately, the philosophical work of Ruth Anna Putnam has been overshadowed by her much more famous husband, Hilary Putnam.”

She also was “responsible for getting Hilary to take pragmatism seriously — something that he has acknowledged on many occasions,” Bernstein added. “But viewing her in this limited way does a great injustice to her own originality.”

An intellectual and political activist, Dr. Putnam began developing her passion for justice in childhood. She was the daughter of a Jewish mother and Christian father — activists who opposed the rise of Nazism in their native Germany.

Years later, as a Wellesley professor, Dr. Putnam joined her husband in becoming prominent Greater Boston opponents of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s.

While teaching and writing about philosophy, and staying involved with politics, Dr. Putnam raised her children — at times as a de facto single parent while Hilary traveled to conferences.

“It’s sort of amazing to us that she was able to be a full-time professor at Wellesley and to be actively engaged in the antiwar movement in the ’60s and ’70s when we were small children,” said her son Samuel of Arlington. “And yet she was always there taking care of us and was very present for us.”

An only child, she was born in Berlin on Sept. 20, 1927. Her mother, Marie Cohn, would in later years work in the offices of Another Mother for Peace. Her father, Martin Jacobs, wrote for Communist publications in Germany and the United States.

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When the Nazis rose to power, Dr. Putnam’s parents went into hiding and sent her to live with her paternal grandparents, who were Christians. She was 5 and wouldn’t see her parents again until 1948, when she was 21 and emigrated to the United States via Switzerland.

Her parents had already settled in Los Angeles. Because her father had been a well-known Communist in Germany, he changed his last name to Hall to avoid deportation in the United States. As a young adult, Dr. Putnam went by Ruth Anna Hall, though she told her family she never legally changed her birth surname.

In 1954, she graduated from the University of California Los Angeles with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She stayed at UCLA for graduate work in philosophy, teaching that subject there and at the University of Oregon before receiving a doctorate in philosophy in 1962.

At the International Congress on Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science in 1960, she met Hilary Putnam. They “were madly in love before the conference ended,” he wrote in a book published in 2015, the year before he died. They married in 1962.

The following year, she joined the faculty at Wellesley, where she remained until retiring in 1998, teaching courses that included introduction to moral philosophy, the age of Emerson, philosophy of law, and modern Jewish philosophy.

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Though Dr. Putnam had not been raised to observe Jewish practices, she and her husband began attending services and studying Hebrew after their eldest son decided he wanted a bar mitzvah in the mid-1970s. She approved of her son’s decision, telling the Globe in 2006: “It was like spitting in Hitler’s eye.”

In the late-1990s, she celebrated her own bat mitzvah, telling the Globe in the 2006 interview that doing so sent a message: “We are not going to finish Hitler’s work for him. We are not going to assimilate.”

In later years, Dr. Putnam was active in the Worship and Study Minyan at Harvard Hillel. “It enabled her to reconnect with a part of her life that she had really put away,” her son Samuel said.

Meanwhile, throughout her marriage her work as a philosopher and professor influenced her husband. “Ruth Anna was patient but unbending when she knew Hilary was missing a point,” Randall Auxier, coeditor of “The Philosophy of Hilary Putnam,” said in an interview for “A Marriage of Minds,” a 2017 article about the Putnams published by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

As a Wellesley professor, Dr. Putnam influenced and was a mentor to generations of women. Studying with her “made me want to go into philosophy,” Floyd said.

Dr. Putnam, Floyd added, “was a very shy person. She was not wordy and she absolutely never put herself in the foreground.” And yet, “I would say that within a very small frame of a person was a very large moral and intellectual person.”

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

In her “Companion to William James,” Dr. Putnam wrote about “the enormously important social ideal of tolerance” that inspired his writings and the need to go further when engaging with other people.

“What is at stake here is more than tolerance, it is a form of respect,” she wrote. “Once one is aware of the ideal that makes another’s life significant, one does not merely tolerate it, one respects it, and that is why one seeks to include that ideal in one’s own.”


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