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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: February 2013

9 - Hilary Putnam: Reason, Truth and History

Summary

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Hilary Putnam produced a major sequence of philosophical works all directed at criticism of a certain view of the relation between language and reality. Two of the most salient of those works were Reason, Truth and History (1981; hereafter RTH) and Meaning and the Moral Sciences (1978). Both works were independently philosophical tours de force and both were enormously influential, producing a huge secondary literature. This essay concerns principally the former work, although we shall often have to refer to the latter also. Putnam is unselfconsciously one of those philosophers who is not afraid to change his mind and although he now no longer accepts one of the positive claims of Reason, Truth and History, namely internal realism (of which much later), the lasting significance of this work is the nexus of philosophical considerations, particularly concerning the notion of reference, which were raised in the book. These considerations are breathtaking in scope, ranging from a refutation of Cartesian scepticism, through numerous insights in the history of philosophy, to issues concerning the theory of truth and the proper interpretation of well-known limitative theorems in mathematical logic. However, the work should not be thought of as a narrow work in analytic philosophy for not only is it replete in allusions to what is called the “continental tradition” in philosophy but Putnam constantly returns to the notion of the “life-enhancing”, to the notion of human flourishing and this book systematically exhibits the enormous humanitarian and social concern that motivates so much of his thought.