Hilary Putnam
© Uldis Tīrons

The only way you can avoid talking nonsense is by restricting yourself to banalities.

Hilary Putnam

in conversation

Imagine that at the age of 33 you come up with the idea that in order to understand something it doesn’t matter what this something is made of or what it is; what matters is what it does, how it works or functions. Then you apply this idea to mind or brain, and claim that it does not matter what brain is or what mind is; what matters is how the brain or mind functions, what kind of input it gets and what kind of output it gives. This leads you to another idea, that brain or mind is not much different from a computer, or that a computer is the finest model for the mind. For clarity’s sake you call this approach ‘functionalism’ and release it to the world by means of lectures and academic articles. Young students and middle-aged professors who have never thought up anything receive it as the Gospel of Truth that will lead to a final and dependable clarity about the way the brain or mind works; the people who try to digest and develop this theory multiply, it becomes the subject of a growing number of books, articles and lecture courses, and you are regarded as the authority in a field of your own creation. After some twenty years it becomes clear to you that the theory is wrong, that it’s based on erroneous assumptions, including an understanding of the human mind that is too primitive, and that it leads to wrong conclusions. Although the theory has already spread, become the source of varied derivatives and led to various exciting conclusions, you try to say, in the most polite way possible, that you made a mistake, that the theory is wrong, but it’s too late—it is already accepted, it works and functions on its own, far from the reaches of your change of mind. You move on and turn your mind to other things. Something like this has happened several times in the intellectual life of Hilary Putnam (1926–2016), one of the greatest American philosophers of the last fifty years, or, according to Martha Nussbaum, ‘one of the greatest philosophers this nation has ever produced’. More than once, Putnam originated fruitful ideas and powerful images (‘brain in a vat’ is one of them) only later to doubt, correct or discard them as mistaken, wrong-headed or too simplistic explanations of the matter at hand, becoming the main philosophical opponent of his former self. It is no accident that in Dennett’s humorous Philosophical Lexicon (philosophicallexicon.com) there is an entry for ‘hilary’, defined as ‘a very brief but significant period in the intellectual career of a distinguished philosopher’ with the following example of usage: ‘Oh, that’s what I thought three or four hilaries ago.’

For the last fifty years of his career Hilary Putnam was a professor at Harvard. Although his first significant mentor, Hans Reichenbach, maintained that only scientifically proven statements count as knowledge, Putnam, in his later years, offered a course on ‘non-scientific knowledge’. Mathematically gifted and trained, his mind made significant contributions towards understanding the relationship between logic and mathematics, developed several influential views on philosophy of mind and philosophy of language, and enriched the landscape of ‘realisms’ by offering several different versions of realism. While he was one of the leading philosophers of science, Putnam always insisted that philosophy is not a science and that by solving scientific problems philosophical problems remain unsolved. Although he regarded philosophy as a large discussion that’s been taking place for the last two thousand years or more, his philosophical work was not meant to enlighten future generations; rather, it was deeply involved in the conversation with his contemporaries, and thus his books and hundreds of articles are very much ingrained in the context of their own emergence—in the debates of American academic philosophers. But he did not regard philosophy as simply his job and duty; as he often repeated to his students, philosophy is also a joy, it is a joy to ask questions and search for answers. From the first minutes of our conversation it was clear that philosophy for Hilary Putnam is a source of joy.

Born and raised in a family of atheists and communists—his father, Samuel Putnam, was an occasional columnist for The Daily Worker—he wanted to safeguard his own children from a similar fate, and so he turned towards his roots, studied Jewish rituals and Ancient Hebrew and introduced Jewish traditions into his family life until finally in 1994, at the age of 68, Hilary Putnam celebrated his becoming bar mitzvah—a ritual usually performed with 13-year-old boys to confirm that the Law and commandments now apply to them as well.

Arnis Rītups

Are you a philosopher?


What does that mean—to be a philosopher?

I got interested in philosophy already in high school, I think it was reading a book called The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, and it fascinated me. I think it was the intellectual daring of the philosophers, the depth of the questions they worried about. Of course, that’s not a book that gave the arguments, not a book that gave the technical details, but that’s not what you want when you’re an adolescent. I think there aren’t enough books written now in the different academic fields that really address the growing mind, the adolescent mind, or show you something that I would call the appeal, the intrinsic interest of the questions, whether they be questions in physics or in mathematics… Mathematics is better because there’s a great book called Man of Mathematics by Eric Temple Bell which does it to this day and is, I think, still read by young people. So before having any answer to the question ‘what is philosophy?’—except that I could recognise it when I saw it—I became interested in philosophy, and then… Each of the questions has its own reason for existence. I think the only thing all the questions of philosophy have in common is that they require critical reflection—we have to stand back and reflect on what we ordinarily think, on our practice, on our thinking and, for that matter, on the connection between what we say and what we do.

Many philosophers nowadays, it seems, speak about philosophy as if it were a sort of science. Do you differentiate philosophy from science?

Yes. I think it’s ridiculous to think of philosophy as a science. I know that many of my teachers and many of my contemporaries in analytic philosophy think it. I think that idea, that school of philosophy, is a walking dead man. It doesn’t know it’s dead, but I think it is dead. Everyone knows that philosophy is not a science, and maybe in ten years people will suddenly wake up and say, ‘Hey, this emperor has no clothes! We can see that what you’re doing isn’t science.’

Well, but then they would say the only alternative is to become literature.

Yes, well, it certainly follows from the premises of logical positivism. On the other hand, if people tell you this, I’d say they’re logical positivists. So I wonder, if they’re not logical positivists, why do they continue repeating something that is pure logical positivism?

But then why is this claim being made so often, that if philosophy isn’t science, it turns into either pseudo-religion or literature?

Well, look, most of what we say isn’t science, but if you told an ordinary person, ‘Hey, what you just said is either pseudo-religion or literature’, he’d think you’re crazy. There’s so much in our discourse that is not science, not pseudo-religion and is not literature, that this premise that there are only these three possibilities seems to me crazy. Is a court of law engaged in literature, for example, or is it engaged in pseudo-religion or science? This is such an unscientific claim on behalf of a movement that claimed everything sensible is science. They’re self-refuting the way… You know, the positivists are a great embarrassment for positivism. Its own philosophy violated this criterion for meaningfulness. I would say analytic philosophy is still, at least the part of it that’s called analytic metaphysics, dominated by the spirit of positivism.

A few moments ago, you described philosophy as a critical reflection on our ordinary way of thinking. Does this mean that philosophy doesn’t have its own subject matter, that it can make anything its subject matter?

That is what I believe. John Dewey once defined philosophy as criticism of criticism, the idea being that in philosophy we don’t only criticise individual doctrines, thoughts, approaches, we also criticise methods of criticism themselves. We stand back and ask, ‘Yes, but what are we assuming when we criticise philosophy?’

So, just to be clear—philosophy doesn’t have its own subject matter?

If it’s philosophy, it’s about everything.


Well, philosopher Wilfrid Sellars once said that philosophy is about how things in the widest sense of ‘things’ hang together in the widest sense of ‘hang together’. That’s his definition of philosophy—how the things hang together.

Historically, a philosopher was also understood as a man living a certain way, and philosophy was understood as a certain way of living. How does your understanding of philosophy correlate with this view?

It connects with that. I’m a great admirer of the French scholar, philosopher Pierre Hadot, who is not only the greatest living Platonism expert, an expert of ancient philosophy, but also the first French philosopher to write a critical review on Wittgenstein. And I think that with Hadot, although we can’t revive ancient philosophy in the sense of making philosophy literally a way of life, still it’s connected with a certain way of life, in the value of integrity itself. Philosophy is for me connected with the search for integrity in one’s thinking, with a motive for asking whether one’s deepest convictions are right or whether they’re just prejudices one has been brought up with, or perhaps prejudices picked up from some political movement one is attracted to. 

The need to believe in the importance of thinking independently and deeply is certainly connected with ways of life, and also, I think that if philosophy thinks of itself as a science, then the lack of cumulative results is going to be fatal. People will hold it up to the same standards that they’re holding science: so where are these cumulative results? 

Philosophy is always concerned with theoretical questions but it’s not just concerned with theoretical questions, it’s concerned with… For me it’s not an accident that Plato engaged both theoretical questions and the question of how to live and tried to bring them into connection. The value of the old philosophies, of Plato’s philosophy, Kant’s philosophy or Hume’s, is not that we see final answers but that we see a kind of questioning which is also morally motivated; whether in Plato, David Hume or Immanuel Kant, we see a deep concern with the relation between the theoretical and the practical. ‘Practical’ in the Kantian sense of practical—having to do with practice. And I think it’s a delusion when philosophy loses… If it’s concerned only with the intellect, it becomes just preaching; if it loses its concern with practice, it falls into the illusion of becoming a science. In both cases, the end result is ludicrous.

Do you detect any progress in philosophy? Is progress at all possible? 

I think that in philosophy we deepen our understanding of the issues; the riddles are never wholly solved, but we understand… Each generation has more insight…maybe not each generation; each century has more insight into the problems that bothered the preceding centuries, and we also put a wider menu of alternatives on the table. Now, the contribution of that to society is very slow but very real, I think. I’m a man of the Enlightenment, I think that Enlightenment was a form of progress, a form of progress with which many philosophers had something to do. And I think we are still now… In a way, all so-called modern philosophy is again a critical engagement with the Enlightenment. Not an attempt to overthrow it—I don’t agree with Derrida that in some way the Enlightenment was fundamentally a repressive gesture, and I’m not sure he himself wholly believed that or would have wanted to live in a pre-Enlightenment time. It’s one thing to say that there were errors in the Enlightenment, for example, there were racist strains in the Enlightenment…

But how is the Enlightenment a good thing? You said that you’re a product of the Enlightenment, so what’s the best thing about it?

Well, I like to say that there were three Enlightenments. Plato’s was the first; I think the idea of philosophical Enlightenment can be seen very plainly in Plato’s writings, in Euthyphro and Republic and so on, but let’s take this very short dialogue, Euthyphro. Now, Plato is saying very clearly both that Euthyphro has no good arguments and that just the appeal to revelation is not an argument. There, you see the claim of philosophy. I mean Euthyphro is appealing to stories about the gods.

Sure, but the irony of the dialogue is that Euthyphro goes away unconvinced. Nothing changes in his way of thinking.

In the short run, no. The ideas of a philosopher can’t produce changes in his lifetime. I mean, I admire John Dewey, he was a public intellectual, and, you know, he fought for…well, maybe in education he did make changes, but generally it’s very…philosophical enlightenment spreads very slowly. On the other hand, in the 17th–18th century Enlightenment…

So that would be the second Enlightenment?

Yes, the second one. It was the idea that social position shouldn’t be inherited, that we should not inherit our jobs, careers. You don’t have to be a shoemaker because your parents were shoemakers. It’s a very simple example of that. Of course, once upon a time it was taken for granted that, if your parents were shoemakers and you were a boy, you would belong to the shoemaker’s guild, unless you were stupid, and you would hopefully become a master shoemaker.

And you consider this change to be somehow influenced by philosophy? 

Yes. The divine right of kings was questioned. Even Hegel held back from wanting to say, ‘But that means the aristocracy has to go too.’ Hegel and Kant could see it clearly, but they would go only as far as constitutional monarchy and the role for civil society. But you might say, in historic time, not in ordinary political time but in historic time, the three centuries that it took to go from the beginning criticisms of monarchy to things like equal rights for women and outlawing slavery were fairly short in historic time. The third Enlightenment is the American pragmatism, John Dewey, who acknowledged that there was only one problem with the 17th–18th century Enlightenment: there was still confusion about the idea of necessary truth. There was a general agreement among the Enlightenment philosophers that you couldn’t know a priori as much as the Medieval Aristotelians thought you could know a priori. Even the so-called rationalists—Leibniz, Descartes—admired Francis Bacon, and they thought, ‘Well, of course, you need more experiments.’ But in ethics, of which Kant is a great example, it was believed that you could do ethics a priori. And on the empiricists’ side, although they said, ‘No, you can’t do these things a priori’, in fact, the empiricists did a lot a priori. For example, the empiricists believed that sense-data are objects, and fundamentally all the data for science are sense-data. It’s itself an a priori dogma of empiricism. Quine, the great empiricist, the American philosopher, used the expression ‘the two dogmas of empiricism’. I would say the first dogma, maybe for him, too, was the dogma of sense-data. For Mill, well, Mill and Dewey agree that the social sciences need to use a scientific method. But for Mill it means that you should wait for perfected individual psychology. And Dewey argued that this was methodological reductionism, while for Mill it was a fundamental dogma. And Dewey, of course, teaches that, no, if you want perfected sociology, then you study society; you don’t wait for a perfect individual psychology and for some way of reducing statements about society to statements about the psychology of individuals. I think Mill was maybe the greatest genius of classical empiricism. But he couldn’t not go beyond the limits of…

beyond the dogmatic limits of empiricism itself?

…of empiricism itself. So I would say, this purely theoretical question, this theme in philosophy to which Quine greatly contributed—is there such a thing as necessary truth and how much?—has in fact also had short-term and long-term practical consequences for the approach people take in social sciences. Not in physics; we know basically how to do physics, but in social sciences there is a continuing controversy about how to do it.

I prefer to be more of an ordinary language philosopher. In ordinary language we have a more restricted use of the word ‘science’. Right, we’re not saying I’m making a statement of science if I say that Scriabin’s piano sonatas have very complex and interesting themes, but the harmony is sometimes monotonous. But I think that’s a true statement, say, about the 6th Sonata. It’s a little bothersome; the unchanging harmony in the 6th Sonata is a little bothersome, a little unimaginative, whereas the themes are enormously imaginative.

You mentioned ordinary language. How is it possible to take ordinary language as a judge?

No, that was an attack on ordinary language philosophy which is utterly false. None of the great so-called ordinary language philosophers did that. Gilbert Ryle never did that. I’m not even saying Wittgenstein was an ordinary language philosopher; Austin never did that. I think the sad thing about the disappearance of ordinary language philosophy is that ordinary language philosophy, what it really represented apart from excesses and a few minor figures, was a recognition that analytic philosophy was going slightly crazy. The ordinary language philosophers were reacting to there being something crazy about the idea that the only… You know, according to Quine, all we can really say when we’re talking cognitively meaningfully, as Carnap would have said, is statements of physics. The ontology and what Quine called the ideology—not meaning ideology like Marxism; he meant what predicates were used—the ontology, and the only predicates we can take seriously are the predicates of physics. Taken seriously, that’s more extreme than Carnap. Carnap was willing to say psychoanalysis is an immature science, Marxism is an immature science. For Quine almost everything anyone ever says is nonsense, unless it’s physics and formulated in symbolic logic. I see the Oxford ordinary language philosophy as really saying not so much something positive but saying: Well, this is crazy. It can’t be that all we’re allowed to take seriously is mathematical physics plus symbolic logic. Let’s talk about other things that people talk about. There were a few extreme and indefensible claims at the beginning of Ryle’s book on philosophy of mind, what was it…The Concept of Mind. Yeah, at the beginning and end, he makes stronger claims than the arguments in the book defends, although they’re genuine philosophical claims. But the body of the book is wonderful phenomenology. It’s not about using ordinary language as a judge. In fact, he started as a phenomenologist, so this is no accident that the phenomenology of the Concept of Mind is excellent.

Descartes says in his Meditations that it would be shameful for a philosopher to become doubtful because of words invented by vulgus, by unintelligent masses.

I wrote something about that many years ago, but I think… Maybe it’s in my Language and…you know, the 2nd volume, in the review of The Concept of a Person—that’s a book by Ayer—I defend ordinary language philosophy against these charges.

Sorry, I haven’t read it.

There I quote Austin on the charge that what the ordinary language says is always true; Austin refers to this alleged assumption with the phrase ‘the last word’. Austin writes, ‘Certainly ordinary language does not claim to be the last word, if there is such a thing. It embodies indeed something better than the metaphysics of the Stone Age, namely the inherited experience and acumen of many generations of men. But then, that acumen has been concentrated primarily upon the practical business of life. If a distinction works well for practical purposes in ordinary life (no mean feat…), then there is sure to be something in it, it will not mark nothing: yet this is likely enough to be not the best way of arranging things if our interests are more extensive or intellectual than the ordinary. Certainly, then, ordinary language is not the last word: in principle every word can be supplemented, improved upon and superseded. Only remember, it is the first word.’

What have you made of the critique of metaphysics in Austin?

The critique was not based on ordinary language philosophy, it was based on what I would call the scientism. Yes, there is a kind of scientism there, a hope for perfected science of grammar, for perfected science of linguistics which would dissolve philosophical perplexities. That was in fact a scientistic delusion.

But you too have defended ordinary language philosophy against the charge that…

Yes, but I didn’t think it had the last word. I didn’t think it was a judge. Austin did think, and I think he’s right, that philosophers do often talk nonsense. But that’s not a new view. Kant thought that philosophers very often talked nonsense. Hume thought philosophers talked nonsense.

Have you ever talked or written nonsense?

I’m sure I have. The only way you can avoid talking nonsense is by restricting yourself to banalities. 

But then, nonsense is, well, very wide?

Things that on reflection I can’t… I think were so conceptually confused… Certainly, that is why I change my mind in philosophy—when I see that something is fundamentally confused. And indeed, this is something that almost every philosopher who has ever engaged in self-criticism has done. 

But nowadays such confessions of being wrong have become very rare in academic philosophy. You’re almost the only widely-known example.

Alas. Carnap did it too. I remember often in conversation Carnap would say, ‘I used to think… I now think…’ He had a deep voice and spoke very slowly, ‘I…used…to think… I…now…think…’

Don’t you think that the narrow specialisation in academic philosophy has somehow diminished the creative power of philosophy?

I don’t think it’s specialisation… I would call that Thatcherisation. After Thatcher. Which spread to this country in the time of Ronald Reagan. More and more deans are counting the number of pages during the professors’ assessment period…you know, non-tenure professors in referee journals and so on.

How many pages have you published?

There is a tremendous pressure on the younger academics who haven’t yet received tenure. And of course that’s incompatible with, you know…they’re afraid to strike out in independent directions. It’s much easier to get an article published in a journal if it’s a reply to a fine point, you know, a reply to X’s reply to Y or a reply to Z’s argument against Y’s argument. I think humanities are being…the interlap between this so-called liberal economics in the European sense, which is now being imposed on the universities, this rationalisation of the universities that is going on. I don’t think it’s really compatible with humanistic scholarship.

Well, it seems that you can’t think as fast as you’re forced to publish.


How can any original philosophy appear under these circumstances?

I don’t know, but somehow it always does. You know, there was poetry written, real poetry, in the Soviet Union, in Leningrad or when poets were sent to the gulags. So there will be some philosophers who, however hard you make it for them, will continue to do philosophy. But it’s a hard time.

Have you detected any potential original…

Yes. My most original student of the last few years took eight years to find a good teaching job, precisely because he was so original. I won’t name names but… Then there’s another thing if your stuff is too original. Very often it’s refereed by graduate students. You send a paper to a journal, you don’t know who the referee is, but I suspect from the quality of some of the comments I’ve seen that they must be graduate students or maybe new assistant professors. I’ve seen some really stupid…not on my own papers but on my students’ papers. They come up to me and say, ‘This is the referee’s report I got.’ I read it and it’s stupid. I guess the creative people are saying, ‘No, I don’t have time to referee.’

How can philosophy be taught?

I’ve always said that it depends. I’ve had the advantage of spending my life, except for one year, my first year was at Northwestern University…after that I spent my life teaching at three absolutely first rate institutions, Princeton, MIT and Harvard, so I’ve had wonderful students. If I were teaching philosophy at a state university or a minor university where most students just go to party, it would be much harder, I’d say. But if you’re lucky enough, what you do is try to turn some students on. I’ve always told them, ‘Look, I’m not just teaching you material; what I’m trying to do is philosophize in front of you.’ Philosophy is an activity. And you teach that activity best by practicing it in front of students and getting them inspired by example. Yes, I think philosophy can only be taught by example.

I’m really glad to hear you say that. There’s one thing I wanted to cover: the claim by certain analytic philosophers that thought can only be approached via language. Do you think there’s some other way?

Yeah, I tend to agree in the sense that… I think it doesn’t mean there’s some kind of science of language study which tells you about thought, but I think language really transforms our ability to think. Here I agree with Habermas who compares it somewhere with a Pandora’s box. We’ve opened the Pandora’s box of language, and most of the thoughts we think couldn’t be thought without language. Sure, you might think, ‘I’m hungry, I wonder when I’ll get some food’ without language, but most of the thoughts we philosophers are interested in are thoughts which a pre-linguistic animal couldn’t think. Even the thoughts of a mystic. Charles Morris back in 1950 or so published a little paper in which he said there’s such a thing as post-linguistic thoughts, thoughts which aren’t in linguistic symbols but which you couldn’t have if you hadn’t had a preparation within language. And I think that’s true. You know, the musician is not necessarily thinking in words; if he’s Beethoven, he may just be writing the music in his head or in a stream of sound, and he couldn’t do that if he didn’t have notions like harmony, counterpoint, fugue, whether he uses the words or not. The whole activity comes out of and feeds back into the stream of language. The notion of language is taken in a very wide sense. Again, it was a friend of Wittgenstein’s, Rush Rhees; he had a little book which has long been out of print, called Without Answers, and there’s a chapter in which he attacks the dichotomy between figurative language and literal language. He says that language always involves figures of speech; in fact folk language is one of the richest in figures of speech. And I would add to that that it’s like learning music in another way. You might teach someone music by teaching scales, but if he doesn’t go beyond what he’s taught, then he’s not a musician. And it’s similar with language. At some point…language isn’t something we just learn; it’s also something that involves individual creativity. The simplest child… Children often are most amazingly creative in the way they put things. 

Well, my question was more related to the possibility of thinking about thinking. The so-called philosophy of mind doesn’t speak about thinking at all; they speak about everything except thinking.

They may have become enthusiasts for cognitive science… You know, the mentalese language. That’s one thing, this term ‘mentalese’—makes my hair stand up.

Jerry Fodor is responsible for that.

Yeah, I know. Of course, I would say that the whole…no, not the whole, but the hardest sections of Kant’s first critique are about your question.

That would be your best guess?

Well, the beginning at any rate. Yeah, I mean, he is really…it’s exactly that question: How can the activities of the mind become the subject for the mind? I think it’s one of the deep questions…

But hasn’t it been a question of yours?

Not in that form, but it certainly has been… Some of the analytic philosophers who took over this Kantian insight, I think especially the so-called Wittgensteinians, I think especially Elizabeth Anscombe in intention; not only her, but German philosophy in general, they’ve been much more aware that to say we know something by observation or by self-observation doesn’t mean there’s a sense-datum corresponding to it. I think much of philosophical psychology in the Anglo-Saxon tradition was corrupted by, and he was a genius, but by Hume—that if we know something by observation there must be some sense-datum there. Their phrase, I think, was, ‘knowledge without observation’, meaning that there’s some kind of awareness without observation. I think that’s also in Kant but in different terminology. For Kant, my knowledge, my thoughts, are mine. And that doesn’t mean that there is a single enduring object which is the ego; Kant makes it very clear that the transcendental unity of apperception is not the unity of object. And I think that’s exactly right. The unity of thought is a good example of something I know when the thought is mine. That this is something I am thinking. It’s even a presupposition of my being rational. If I really experienced my own thoughts as just a stream of sentences, as Carnap once suggested that one should… That Descartes shouldn’t have said, ‘I think’; he should have said, ‘It is thought’ or something like that. But then there couldn’t be such a thing as syllogism. Because if something thinks, ‘All men are mortal’, something—not necessarily identical with it—thinks, ‘Socrates is a man.’ Why should I now think, ‘Socrates is mortal’? The conclusion only follows from the premises that I take responsibility for.

But who is this ‘I’?

The ‘I’ is precisely… The ‘I’ is empty in a sense and yet anything but empty. The ‘I’ is what’s brought about by taking responsibility for my own thoughts. That’s my summary of about 100 pages of Kant’s transcendental analytics.

If the ‘I’ appears with the taking of the responsibility, then there is no…

There is no object which is the ‘I’.

There’s no ‘I’ before the responsibility is taken.

Well, the ‘I’ is what we become aware of or what we apperceive because we don’t perceive it as a sense-datum. We can only describe the ‘I’ by describing what it’s responsible for. When we give our biography, we say, ‘I thought this, I thought that, I wanted this, therefore I did that.’ Once you eliminate the ‘I’s’ in your biography, it could be the conversations of ten thousand people that you overhear. One sentence uttered by one, one by another and so on. I would say this is the heart of Kant’s reply to Hume, anticipated, I think, oddly enough, by Locke who also connects the ‘I’ not with an object but with responsibility.

Does he?

Locke says it might be considered as an object, not one substance but maybe a series of substances, series of billiard balls each passing the impact to the next, but as long as each of my, so to speak, persons accepts responsibility for the previous ones, for the thoughts and actions of the previous ones…it’s connected for him also with resurrection as a question, right? It doesn’t matter whether the self that’s resurrected is the same substance in some sense as the self that died, as long as there’s this continual responsibility. It doesn’t go further than that in Locke, but I see Kant taking this thought and deepening and making it the heart of the whole discussion of the transcendental unity of the self.

You’ve said that you’re a naturalist, but that this doesn’t prevent you from believing in God.

That what’s real, I think…spirituality is real; it is a real aspect of human life. For Dewey, God is…or his recommendation is that we should take God to be something like a concrete image of our highest ideals. And I would say that thinking of how one wants to live or how one ought to live if one were addressing an ideal person—that I find an enormously valuable and, for me, necessary, indispensable spiritual exercise. But I’m not a supernaturalist. First of all, I couldn’t believe at any time that God is literally a person, as Russell once said, ‘Changing states of consciousness in time.’ On the other hand, the traditional way philosophers have of being religious is to turn God into an abstraction that literally has no properties.

You said that you couldn’t conceive of God as literally a person…

No. That God is a person, a spirit with changing states of consciousness is not something I can literally believe in. And like Kant I’m afraid of superstition, especially the idea of a person who works magic for you if you ask God to perform this miracle… I remember I was in Seoul once and I saw a woman doing three thousand bows to the Buddha. It’s beautiful, it’s like a wave…no break between the bows. She goes all the way down to the floor and then up again…like a wheel. And I said to the Korean philosopher who took me to this temple how beautiful and impressive this was, and he said cynically, ‘She’s probably praying for her son to pass the entrance exams at Seoul University.’ I know that people have this need; I can’t despise anyone. If one of my kids was dangerously ill, I would certainly pray even if I were an atheist. Even Russell admitted that, as you know. But literal belief that there’s this spirit that would perform miracles for you…

But what is the content of your belief in God then?

The God I believe in… Let me put it this way: maybe what I call God is the personality I envisage, the person I imagine. I think it’s important even if one can’t literally believe in a person, that God is a person; it’s important to visualise God as a person for me. Although I know if I were a Zen Buddhist my religious experience would be totally different. But it’s important for me to visualise God as a person. Maybe that person is part of my subconscious; this is one of James’ hypotheses, but it’s not a Freudian subconscious. Not everything in subconscious is Freudian.

Do you have a subconscious?

Of course; we all do. Look, I’m a mathematician. Do I know where all my proofs come from? It’s so obvious, you know. Or you go to bed not knowing what you’re going to write next in your philosophy paper. And you wake up, and the words are there.

So there is something they’re coming from.

Yes. There are obviously complex coordinative emotional, etc., processes going on of which we are not conscious. But what I would say is that although our God ideal may be a cultural product, it’s not just a recent cultural product. It’s thousands of years old, and that is intersubjective in the sense that many people share this. And I find this, what I would call, spiritual exercise of saying the daily Jewish prayers enormously valuable. I decided to do that when a lot of my friends were talking about transcendental meditation. Twenty minutes of transcendental meditation… I said to myself, ‘But look, the traditional Jewish prayers only take about twenty minutes. Why do I have to imitate some guru in India when in my own tradition there’s something that you can do for twenty minutes which certainly I find gives peace…?’

Do you still do it?

Oh yeah, and I find it really makes an enormous and cumulative difference. I know that my position will look like atheism to many believers and like sentimentality to the atheists. But there it is. I would recommend reading Dewey’s The Common Faith to someone who wants to know how you can be both a naturalist and a…

Are you afraid of death?

Less, much less. When I was nine or ten years old, the fact that I would die first hit me. It was terrifying. At the age of ten it was just unbearable.

And now you are…?

Maybe because I’ve…not that I’ve accomplished everything I’d like to accomplish, but I will be eighty in two years. I think I’ve lived a good life, I’ve done many, not all, but many of the things I’ve wanted to do; I’m grateful for the life I’ve had. I would not say I want to die; if I lived to be as old as Quine, 92, that would be great, but I’m not afraid of dying.

And that will be it?

Yes. The belief of an afterlife has never been part of my religiosity.

Doesn’t it form a part of the whole picture?

It does. I think that as you reach my age… I’ve been thinking recently—it’s not just senility, you know—that when you reach a certain age you begin to think more about the past. We say this, sort of critically, of old people, ‘He’s living in the past.’ But maybe it’s just as appropriate for an old person—after all, the past is his whole life—to try to see what it added up to as it is for a very young person to speculate about his future, what it may become. A life is a finite thing, and what better time is there to try to grasp its shape than when most of the data is in?

Still, if after your death you were to meet face to face with that imaginary visualised being of yours, would there be anything you’d like to ask him or say?

What I’d like to ask is, ‘What do you want of me?’ For me, God is not a subject of metaphysics. Maybe I should paraphrase the saying ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’. Maybe I should say, ‘Ask not what God can do for you, ask what you can do for God.’

Questions by Arnis Rītups

From Summer 2017 issue

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