While others were gearing up for homecoming fireworks, about 100 students spent their Friday afternoon learning new ways to think at a Pitt philosophy department lecture.
Philosopher Hilary Putnam delivered a public lecture titled “Realism” in Posvar Hall on Friday before receiving a medal and a no-strings-attached $30,000 check as part of 2015 Nicholas Rescher Prize for Systematic Philosophy from Pitt’s philosophy department. Putnam spoke about how science, ordinary ideas and philosophical knowledge can work together toward a deeper understanding of each — and how these different modes of thinking can combine to form a more nuanced picture of the world.
Putnam, a Cogan University professor emeritus at Harvard University, has been a central figure in analytic philosophy since the ’60s, and became the fourth recipient of the Rescher Prize after Ernest Sosa (2010), Alvin Plantinga and Jurgen Mittelstrass (2012-3) — all contemporary philosophers.
Anil Gupta, the current chair of the philosophy department and the chair of the Rescher Prize committee, said the Rescher Prize looks to honor exceptional philosophical works that are both broad and systematic, such as Putnam’s work in the philosophy of mathematics and American pragmatism.
“Putnam’s work is like that. It is not just confined to just one field. A lecture was set up in such a way that even a non-philosopher can get a sense of the issue … how to think about science and how to think about common sense,” Gupta said.
For Rescher, Pitt’s distinguished University professor of philosophy, the award’s namesake, the former chairman of the philosophy department and the current chairman of the Center for Philosophy of Science, the event serves an important purpose in the philosophical community.
“It is a nice event because our department is one of the really major departments in the field of philosophy, and it gives us a basis for being in touch with some of the leading figures of the time,” Rescher said. “It is a good bridge between ourselves and what’s going on in the wider community.”
According to Gupta, the Rescher Prize, funded by the Rescher Endowment, is a Pitt-sponsored prize that has been awarding prominent contemporary philosophers biennially since 2010. This is the first time a six-person committee, partially elected and partially appointed, nominated potential recipients. Before, Pitt’s philosophy department selected the winner.
Internationally renowned philosophers including Robert Brandom, Stephen Engstrom, Anil Gupta, Sandra Mitchell, John Norton and Ernest Sosa served on the committee.
“We had very little difficulty selecting Hilary Putnam. He is a great philosopher,” said Gupta. “And he has set a high standard for future recipients of the Rescher Prize.”
After the philosophy department approved the committee’s recommendation in February 2014, Putnam had a year to prepare for his public lecture.
According to Gupta, the committee will announce the next recipient in October 2016.
Putnam started his lecture with a line he used in a now famous lecture in 1985: “The man on the street, [English philosopher Sir Arthur] Eddington reminded us, visualizes a table as ‘solid’ — that is, as mostly solid matter. But physics has discovered that the table is mostly empty space, that the distance between the particles is immense in relation to the radius of the electron or the nucleus of one of the atoms of which the table consists.”
Putnam went on to discuss certain features of the philosophical debate about realism in response to such puzzles.
The lecture was not exclusive to Pitt students and faculty members and attracted philosophy students from other universities as well. Kimberly Zwez, Vincent Kramer and Anthony Celi from Duquesne said the lecture was impressive for both its breadth and depth.
“It draws on so many different philosophical discussions to shed light on one single theme that he was getting at the entire time,” Kramer said, “It is very pluralistic.”
During a toast in the reception after Putnam’s talk, Gupta said the Rescher Prize gave Pitt’s philosophy department and the wider philosophy community a chance to acknowledge great works from prominent philosophers of our age.
“We hope, over time, this prize could become the major prize in philosophy like the Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the Fields Medal in mathematics,” Gupta said.