Terrestrial Thoughts, Extraterrestrial Science

Bernard Williams

  • Realism with a Human Face by Hilary Putnam
    Harvard, 347 pp, £23.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 674 74950 2

There is a wonderful passage in Nietzsche’s Daybreak, about the ageing philosopher. ‘Subject to the illusion of a great moral renewal and rebirth, he passes judgment on the work and course of his life, as though it were only now that he had been endowed with clear sight.’ He ‘considers himself permitted to take things easier and to promulgate decrees rather than demonstrate’; and the inspiration of ‘ this feeling of well-being anti these confident judgments is not wisdom but weariness’.

The American philosopher Hilary Putnam, now in his sixties and with a lot of important and influential philosophy to his credit, shows in this collection of essays and occasional pieces that he is for the most part creditably resistant to the seductions of maturity. He does tell us occasionally about his place in the history of recent philosophy, but it is in a chatty and unpretentious style, which is present in most of the book. Many of the papers were clearly talks, and the cheery scattering of exclamation marks and amiable references to his colleagues give it the air of some personal and informal communication – letters home from a very bright pupil at a very philosophical school, perhaps – and not the self-congratulatory musings of late career.

Certainly it does not torment him, as it did Nietzsche’s ripe sage, that ‘he cannot be the last thinker.’ The sense is present all the time that philosophy and other creative activities continue, that nothing will look the same in a while, that none of us has the final word about anything. Decrees are, admirably, not promulgated from certainty. However, it must be said that they are sometimes promulgated from briskness, and some things go by a good deal too fast, particularly when Putnam calls on his authority in the philosophy of physics and mathematics. At one point an argument zooms through which is supposed to show that it makes a difference to the question of free will that physics is now indeterministic, the difference being that (after all) we are free. It is a version of a very old argument, and on the face of it no less awful than the other versions, but Putnam does not stay around to make it any more convincing; he seems, as he does on a number of large subjects, to be just visiting.

The collection covers a wide range, including the history of recent philosophy, the interpretation of literary texts, and a few political thoughts. There is a lot of overlap, and some areas are visited so briefly that even Putnam’s snaps have not come out too well. But most of the book is concerned with one very basic and important set of questions concerning the world, knowledge and values. The choice of the title, with its echo, perhaps shows less than total sensitivity to a painful history which, granted Putnam’s own political past, has some claims on his consideration: but it does well express the central subject of the book.

We have the idea that we live in a world that exists independently of us and our thoughts. This idea may be called realism. Almost everyone shares it, and even those whose philosophies seemingly deny it really accept it in some form – some literary theorists, for instance, who say that we can never compare our texts to ‘the world’ but only to other texts. (As a colleague in Berkeley said to me: tell that to the Veterans of Foreign Texts.) The question is, how much can be made of realism? How much theoretical weight can it be given?

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