I’ve been a bit slow in posting this one — I was distracted just a bit last week for some reason…but tomorrow evening I’ll be moderating a really fascinating panel (if this sort of thing fascinates you). The event is titled Hilary Putnam’s Jewish Journey, with a cut line that adds “an exploration of the Jewish strands in the thinking of Hilary Putnam, Harvard Professor emeritus and Rolf Schock Prize laureate.”
A little less formally: Hilary is on anyone’s shortlist for most significant contemporary philosophers, with an intellectual career that has spanned just about the entire range of questions the last (n) millenia of thinkers have confronted.
I’ve got a spurious connection to him: he taught at MIT in the early 1960s, before moving to Harvard in 1965, where he has remained through a career that continues at almost ridiculous spate despite his emeritus status (since 2000).
My real connection is that of one of those very lucky folks who can count Hilary as a friend. He is simply the most generous and warm great thinker I’ve ever had the good fortune to know. Every conversation (with just about everyone he encounters) is one in which he speaks to a colleague, a companion, someone with whom he can think. Just be warned: bring your A game. His a formidable intellect. Trained as a mathematician and mathematically competent philosopher, he was a member of the group that resolved Hilbert’s tenth problem (showing that the problem has no solution). He’s written more than 20 books on a huge range of philosophical topics, and his “brain in a vat” thought experiment is credited as one of the major sources for The Matrix (who says contemporary philosophy has no practical application?!)
He is also someone who has developed a profound commitment and intellectual insight into Jewish thought, life and practice over many decades. In 2008, he captured some part of that thinking in a book, Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein — which I can affirm is both well and deeply written. In celebration of all that and more, several groups have got together to put on a panel to respond to Hilary’s writing, and then hear from Hilary himself as he responds to the responses (a kind of Talmudic approach to such things, actually). The speakers will be Harvard’s Diana Eck, Boston University’s Abigail Gillman, and Michael Morgan, from Indiana University. Hilary will listen to what they have to say and then reply. I’ll be the traffic cop.
Let me say again: Hilary is at once a brilliant scholar and thinker and one of the genuinely good guys. You won’t regret time spent in the company of both his ideas and his person. To drive that point home, I’ll quote from one of my all-time favorite students who just wrote to me, gnashing her teeth that she can’t be there, and that, “I once bailed out on a Violent Femmes concert to hear Hilary Putnam talk at Smith.” That’s an accolade if ever there was one….;)
The time: 7 p.m.
The place: Beren Hall, Harvard Hillel (the Moshe Safdie building at 52 Mt. Auburn St. at the corner of Plympton St. in Cambridge.)
We’ll go until about 8:30. Should be a good time.
Image: Raphael, School of Athens, 1505. Cliche, I know, but hey…given the subject it’s hard to avoid.
I knew Putnam’s son in grad school a bit. Nice dude.
It was always strange to be drinking with someone whose father’s name might come up in philosophical discussion.
I think Hilary Putnam’s old man was a major communist too. You know, back when that meant something.
The ‘Schlock’ prize? Really?
@quannlace: No, not really. “S.c.h.o.c.k. No “l”
I know, I know…’tis tempting.
So this is tomorrow night? Tuesday? I’ll try to be there. Putnam is an old professor of my Uncle’s and I believe that to have had him as a professor is to count yourself a lifelong friend.
Only one opportunity to do the right thing. After this week, it’s Gone, Daddy Gone.
Tom, Any chance at a pod cast or some sort of recording/you tube for those not able to attend?
His innate confidence is certainly evident in the fact he never legally changed his girly first name (unlike, say, Marion Morrison). I wonder if his “major communist” father intentionally tagged him with it to toughen him up (google the lyrics to ‘A Boy Named Sue’).
@JWL: Is this a joke? Hilary was originally a boy’s name.
Gin & Tonic
Tom, I know circumstances and all, but more than a day’s notice would really have been nice. I seem to recall you give these really short-notice announcements most of the time.
There’s always one in the crowd.
Moment of silence, I will observe here.
Do you seriously think I should consider seriously someone who misspells gotten?
@Gin & Tonic: Yeah, I suck at that. You know the drill: John Cole pretends to pay me and I pretend to work.
No, actually, I just suck at promptitude. Will try to give more warning in the future.
@Fullname Username: Some days I would care about making such an error.
The prophet Nostradumbass
@Tom Levenson: it isn’t even really an error, unless you think that the British don’t speak English.
@The prophet Nostradumbass: And this from/in a nation that elected W. twice. Fullname Username must be kept up all night by the agonizing horrors of a single lentil — cooked.
I was never especially impressed by the “wisdom” of philosophers. I lost interest in the subject when I read that one of them suggested that what was consumed by fire was this miracle stuff called phlogiston. The question that popped into my head was, “How seriously can I take someone’s thoughts who is confused about how fire works?”
Over the years, I have discovered this is no small question. For example, if you don’t know how fire works, anything you may say about climate change is probably uninformed. And since it is pretty clear that climate change threatens human extinction, it is probably a philosophical question of the first order.
So ask your mega-genius a question for me, “What is your understanding of fire and explain how it relates to the simple question of human existence. How do you convince a global population that they must soon get by on 10% (or less) of their fires if we are even going to have a chance at survival?”
@nanute: Or Adobe Connect recording (used in webinars and the like).
how technical will the discussion be? will it be comprehensible to nonphilosophers / lay people? thx
@Hillary Rettig: Not technical at all. Intended to be a public forum in the full sense of the term.
Another Halocene Human
Yeah, is this philosophy we can use? I have a problem with super technical philosophy. Seems to be divorced from human experience which is supposed to be the point in the first place.
Also, too, seems like the most popular philosophers on the internets right now are Ayn Rand types who make libertarians feel good about themselves because even self-absorbed dickweeds need to sleep at night. Whatever the fuck happened to humanism?
@Tom Levenson: thx!
Another Halocene Human
Could you let us know when the talk is posted to Youtube? Getting to Boston tonight could be a little impractical for me, unless MIT will rent out their matter transporter.
As a bit of trivia, Putnam, great as he is, isn’t even the most influential thinker amongst his high school friends, Among his circle was a certain Avram Noam Chomsky. He too has made a bit of a splash.
Short Bus Bully
Dude… What in the fucking fuck are you even talking about?
Please tell me that you are referencing some of the pre-Socratics with that silliness or I’ll just write you off as a troll.
Putnam’s Reason, Truth, and History was the primary text for my senior capstone class as a philosophy undergrad at UNC…glad to hear he’s a good dude because the slim volume remains one of the most obtuse reads I’ve come across before or since in the field. ..the Anglo-American fascination with with philosophy of language drove me away from the department as I was completing the major requirements. ..logical positivism warmed over (seems Putnam was a philosophical realist so long as the two Cambridges were the context) is still just that…and and its removal from anything in lived human experience seems to underpin the allied Anglo-American imperialism which so peacefully co-exists alongside of it.
It’s been 27 goddamned years and I still can’t get over my loathing of that book.