PutnamFor a philosopher, one well-traveled route to renown is to stake out a position and defend it tirelessly against all comers. That was not Hilary Putnam’s style. When Putnam died last year at 89, the tributes to the Harvard philosopher, mathematician, and computer scientist almost invariably noted his willingness to change his mind. Martha Nussbaum, who declared Putnam "one of the greatest philosophers this nation has ever produced," argued that his generosity and curiosity prevented him from slipping into intransigence, and that "being led to change was to him not distressing but profoundly delightful." Among those who led him to delightful change over the years, it turns out, was his wife, Ruth Anna Putnam. They are the co-authors of a new book, Pragmatism as a Way of Life: The Lasting Legacy of William James and John Dewey (Harvard University Press), which contains 27 essays — 10 by Hilary, 15 by Ruth Anna, and two by both of them — that make a case for the relevance of pragmatism and attempt to rescue it from those who, in their view, have taken its good name in vain.

The book is engaging on its own merits, but it’s also notable for being the combined effort of a high-profile intellectual couple. Other philosophical couples, like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, come to mind, though the Putnams never achieved that level of renown, nor was their personal life ever on public display. And while they co-wrote an essay or two along the way, their professional lives existed mostly in separate realms, at least until now. Pragmatism as a Way of Life is, among other things, an argument for the value of philosophy. As the Putnams see it, pragmatism means thinking about the world "in ways that are relevant to the real problems of real human beings." It’s an approach to philosophy that manages to be humble and hopeful while, for the most part, keeping its feet firmly on the ground.

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