Philosophy buries its undertakers

Ken writes: There has been a lot going on philosophically in Dublin this past week. First a conference in honour of Hilary Putnam’s 80th birthday, and then a conference on normativity in German Idealism.

I meant to attend both, but the Putnam conference was so intensive that I didn’t have the energy to go to the normativity conference as well. I was so impressed with Putnam. I was finding the schedule pretty tough going (9am starts going until 8pm! with 1.5 -2 hour sessions), but it must have been all the more so for Putnam himself who spoke in response to every paper! His range and facility were truly phenomenal. He was able to speak to so many issues and knew his own work backwards and forwards (if that doesn’t sound like such a big deal, remember that he’s been doing professional philosophy since the 1950s. I have trouble remembering what I wrote in a paper five years ago).

One of the themes of the conference was to place Putnam’s contribution in association with the philosophical movements of the twentieth century (the logical empiricism of the Vienna circle, American pragmatism stemming from James and Dewey, the influence of Wittgenstein). Putnam traced out the development of his attitude to philosophical realism and in particular wanted to emphasise the points of continuity.

The title line of this post comes from a quote Putnam gave us. He said he couldn’t agree with the Wittgensteinian attitude to philosophy that regards philosophical “puzzles” as symptomatic of a deep confusion and misunderstanding of the grammar of natural language. This demotes the significance of philosophical problems. It treats them mistaken and pointless. I heartily concur with Putnam on this point. Let the detractors of philosophy beware. Philosophy always buries its undertakers.

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