Roderick Long (and others) on Hilary Putnam

Here’s a nice brief memorial to Hilary Putnam by Roderick Long, with a bonus link to Roderick’s review of Putnam’s Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays, from Reason Papers 28 (2006). Roderick has a real gift for writing these RIP notices, emphasizing the deceased’s achievements but not ignoring what might legitimately be criticized.

Here’s Martha Nussbaum in The Huffington Post.

Jane O’Grady in London’s Guardian.

The official notice from Harvard, with a link that goes to Putnam’s blog, Sardonic Comment.

Though it’s not online, I’ve always found the interview of Putnam in Giovanna Borradori’s The American Philosopher candid and interesting.

Feel free to add any particularly good ones in the combox.

7 thoughts on “Roderick Long (and others) on Hilary Putnam

  1. Following the link to Roderick’s memorial of Putnam led me to his post on Rubio and philosophy, which led me to your class blog post on Murray. After reading it, all I can say is that I want to be like you when I grow up.


    • In other words, when you grow up, you want to teach at a small sectarian college university with an undergraduate enrollment of 1,300, under AAUP sanction, with a federal sex discrimination law suit pending against it, teaching a 4:4, 4:5, or 5:5 course load (6:6 can be arranged) to students who absolutely never do the reading. Dude–rethink that. That’s what you don’t want to be like when you grow up.

      Put in musical format: This is roughly what I feel like every morning/mourning as I greet the dawn at 6 am:

      Not being the magnanimous sort, that’s exactly the kind of thing I would wish on my worst enemies. But on no lesser enemy, much less a friend.

      PS. Just to forestall any confusion, I actually regard both the AAUP sanctions and the lawsuit as almost complete bullshit, but my thinking that doesn’t make them go away.


  2. Oh, I didn’t say that I wanted to be in circumstances like yours; I said that I wanted to be like you, i.e., to have the character and abilities that you have. I suppose I might settle for my current mediocrity if becoming like you meant that I had to endure the burdens you describe, but for now I’ll march forth in the conviction that I could be like you without all that suffering (but could I become like you without it? Maybe not). Part of me wants to say, “hey, at least you’ve got a job; mine is ending in a few months and I currently have virtually no idea how I will earn enough money to feed myself and my dog.” But I’m actually not sure I’d choose your lot over some alternative that didn’t involve an academic job. Most days I think I would, but that might be because I literally cannot identify an attainable alternative career that I’d be good at, would find fulfilling, and would get paid enough to feed myself and my dog. My dog isn’t very big, but he demands that I give him tuna thrice a day. Gotta make the big bucks to keep him content.


    • I knew you’d say that, but it seems to me that my character, abilities, and circumstances are all somehow connected. I do appreciate the comment.

      I can’t say that I’ve ever had an alternative career to my academic one, but I certainly did my share of working outside of academia. The longest stint was something like five years (part time) as an editor at the Educational Testing Service, and seven or eight months as an assistant to the VP for Global Quality Assurance and Regulatory Compliance at American Cyanamid, an agricultural research firm (eventually broke up and sold off). They were both moderately interesting jobs, and in both cases I got offers to go permanent with a good salary and benefits. But I didn’t think twice about rejecting the offers. And despite my grousing about my current situation, I don’t regret what I did. My grousing is probably unseemly, I know. Somehow, I feel entitled to grouse despite the fact that I don’t regret my decision to do what I’m doing. There’s no inconsistency in that, is there? Grousing about the predictably adverse consequences of taking the best of the available options?

      I think my reasons for rejecting the non-academic job offers and the reasons for my current grousing are basically the same, or at least interconnected. Though both of my non-academic jobs raised interesting intellectual issues–animal rights, educational policy, regulatory policy–no one on the job was interested in them. It was just easier for everyone (eventually including me) to settle into a comfortable, fundamentally anti-intellectual, amoral, apolitical routine. When I walk into a classroom, I see the same dynamic in embryonic form: interesting issues to tackle, but almost no one interested in them, so that it’s easier for everyone to settle into an anti-intellectual routine. (I don’t mind saying out loud that my fundamental complaint is not with my institution per se, but with the students who attend it.) I think the syndrome involved is really just a defect in the culture as a whole, something that Putnam’s Bowling Alone has clarified for me.

      I do sometimes wonder what might have happened had I taken one of the job offers and gone the route of the proverbial “independent scholar.” They do exist. Setting aside the independently wealthy, it’s not clear that they’re better off than someone at a small independent college, laboring under a big teaching load. But they might be. My friend Greg Sadler (who sometimes comments here) is a genius at philosophical entrepreneurship. I don’t know that I’d have the entrepreneurial instincts or skill to do what he does, but his example proves that a career of that nature is possible.


  3. I haven’t reread Murray’s article, but I remember it from when it was new. I remember not finding it particularly convincing. Murray can be oddly unpersuasive sometimes, and I recall the feeling of there being a jumble of issues in his piece that were not adequately sorted out.

    Still, I probably have more sympathy for some of what he’s saying than you display. Especially the point that not everybody is suited to college, and these people should not be stigmatized. I know people who are perfectly bright enough to go to college but who don’t for some reason, often because they hated high school. Some of these people are quite close to me, actually. I don’t regard their not going to college as particularly problematic, inasmuch as it’s their decision and they are capable people. I have noticed that they are often rough around the edges intellectually, by the way, in ways consistent with your remarks about the general life value (as opposed to job training value) of college in your answers to Complaints 1 and 2.

    On the other hand, there are people who aren’t very bright but still want to go to college. Merely by having a good work ethic, these people can make up for a great deal that they may lack in IQ. On this point, see in particular this fabulous paper by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman, in which a measure of self-discipline which they concocted outpredicted IQ on the final grades of eighth graders, their improvement between the fall and spring semesters, and selection to an elite high school. To outpredict IQ on stuff like this is very hard! So this is an impressive study. It launched Duckworth’s career (which has gone on to explore the role of self-discipline in generating success in various endeavors). Obviously these people can do well in college and should go if they want.

    However, there are the people who have neither the talent nor the desire to go to college. I don’t see why they should have to. I have plenty of these in my classes at City College. They waste my time and theirs.

    But maybe this isn’t a very strong argument. It only amounts to saying that people who don’t want to be in school are probably better off not there. It doesn’t answer the arguments you give that imply that they ought to want to be there, that school would be good for them in more ways than just job training if they would go and take it seriously. I agree, and I would say that the value of college should be promoted, even though I also think we should not be trying to corral everyone into college. Obama’s idea of making community college free strikes me as ridiculous. First, it’s already essentially free. Anyway, my school is. And that’s part of the problem. Students don’t have to pay anything (much) to go, so they have no buy in, no real commitment. It’s amazing all the students I have who don’t give a shit about school. Now Obama wants to create a nation of these people! This is crazy. If our politicians really want to promote higher education, they should work to make good schools less expensive (as they used to be), to make it easier for people who really want to be there to go to college, not encourage even more people who don’t really want to go to college to go anyway, just because it’s free.

    So I guess the position I’ve worked myself around to here is that (a) people who want to go to college should go, it’s valuable, and by no means only for job training, (b) people who don’t want to go to college shouldn’t go, they’re just wasting everyone’s time, and (c) people should want to go to college, should see the value, it would be better for them if they did. It follows that the value of college should still be promoted; people should not be encouraged to view college as a waste of time and money (as Murray thinks).

    You want feedback on Complaint 3 specifically, Murray’s IQ argument that many people just don’t have the cognitive ability to do college work. I think your point about self-discipline is good, as indicated above. I would also say that there are different levels of college; not all colleges require the same level of cognitive strength as elite universities. It’s true, no doubt, that some people are too dumb for college. But I hardly think that all the people who could benefit from college are already there.

    On the other hand, you won’t be surprised to learn that I think it’s quixotic to attack IQ. IQ research is probably the greatest success story psychology has to offer. IQ predicts not just academic performance but job category, job level, income, divorce rate, incarceration rate, likelihood of being in poverty, and many other practical life outcomes. Claims that IQ tests are culturally biased, ethnically biased, and that they don’t measure life skills but only academic skills, are bunk.

    IQ is largely heritable. That’s no surprise, since it turns out that every behavioral trait is 30%–50% heritable. But IQ is at the high end. It is conventional to say it is 50% heritable, but looking at the numbers, I think it is more. Moreover, the 50% (or whatever) that is not heritable is also not determined by any environmental variables we know how to measure. That is, variables such as socioeconomic status, quality of parenting, schooling, neighborhood, nutrition, preschool, etc. have no measurable effect on adult IQ. I make the qualification “adult” because there are environmental effects in early childhood (e.g., programs like Head Start). However, they wear off by about the end of puberty. This means that although IQ is in part environmentally determined, the environmental determination is individualized. (This goes not only for IQ but for most behavioral traits.) This seems positive to me, in a way. It means that how you develop is in substantial part a matter of how you as an individual respond to the environment around you. On the other hand, from the point of view of parents, say, who are straining every nerve to enhance their child’s intelligence, it’s disappointing news, because the news is that these parents are wasting their time. No environmental factor has been found to make one jot of difference to the outcome for the grown child.

    Two excellent articles that are relatively short that cover all this are Linda Gottfredson’s review of general intelligence for Scientific American and Steven Pinker’s review of behavioral genetics research in The New York Times Magazine.

    The Bell Curve is supposed to a pretty good book, actually, if you just want to understand the statistics of IQ testing and predictive power (as well as that of other variables). Ian Deary praises it as such in his nice little book on IQ. TBC has been sitting on my shelf for a long time, but I’ve never bothered to read it. The main reason is that it’s long and I don’t think it has anything much to say that I don’t already know. My impression is it has only platitudinous things to say about IQ, which are known to everybody who has examined the IQ literature, only it said them very publicly and in a way that got people considerably stirred up. The black–white difference in IQ in America is substantial—one full standard deviation. It has been that way since the beginning of IQ testing 100 years ago and has never varied. It is not due to bias in the tests, and it is not going away any time soon. It has definite and practical social consequences (see above). It isn’t just Herrnstein and Murray who say all this; they’re just repeating what all researchers in the field know (even if not all are very willing to acknowledge it).

    Stanovich, of course, does not challenge the notion of IQ. In fact the opposite, he champions it (specifically a component of general intelligence known as fluid intelligence) as validly measuring a real cognitive process he calls “cognitive decoupling” (related to working memory). But, as you say, he thinks IQ is overrated. That is, he thinks we worry about it and covet it too much—especially since there’s very little we can do about it—and we treat it as the be-all-end-all when it is only one factor related to performance (and among the other factors are those we can do something about).

    Howard Gardner, on the other hand, is an enemy of general intelligence, but a noble one. He is not willing to call just any talent “intelligence,” and he expressly rejects such warm-and-fuzzy “intelligences” as creative intelligence, emotional intelligence, moral intelligence, and so forth. Certain people love these ideas, because they enable people to say that a certain individual, say, may not have much “IQ intelligence,” but he has great “emotional intelligence.” Multiple intelligences are embraced, especially by the education community, as a way of handing out consolation prizes to people with low IQ (and perhaps particularly to the parents of students with low IQ). This isn’t an accident. I’m sure the researchers who develop theories of alternative and multiple “intelligences” are motivated at least in part by resentment of the human ranking system that IQ testing creates, and by compassion for the losers. This is understandable. There is something ugly about it. “All comparisons are odious.” Gardner is probably part of this crew, but he is disciplined. Like Stanovich, he doesn’t really challenge general intelligence. He includes it (divided into two) among his system of eight intelligences. His intelligences are individuated by content. So there’s musical intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, spatial intelligence, bodily–kinesthetic intelligence, etc., along with the logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligences that IQ tests measure. He draws on evolutionary and functional considerations to support his claims about these content domains.

    Stanovich, by the way, argues against Gardner among other multiple intelligence advocates. Stanovich thinks that if you want to deemphasize intelligence, labeling every valuable mental trait under the sun “intelligence” is hardly the way to do it. All that accomplishes, he thinks, is to reinforce the importance of “intelligence.” Better to let intelligence be intelligence and argue that it is not the only factor in good performance. I’m on his side in this.

    Anyway, back to your critique of Murray. I don’t know if the sports analogy makes a strong argument. If my lack of cognitive ability is a reason I shouldn’t go to college, then my lack of athletic ability may equally well mean that shouldn’t be in an NCAA Div. 1 or 2 athletic program. There’s nothing wrong with this step of the argument. But the thing is, no one is suggesting I should be in an NCAA Div. 1 or 2 program. Indeed, people with poor athletic ability, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn, aren’t allowed in such programs, the size of which is appropriately restricted. This all just seems to support Murray’s case.

    Your critique of Complaint 4 also contains some strange arguments.

    Complaint 4 is that lack of a college degree is stigmatized. The simplest response to this is to say that even if it’s true (I’m not sure how true it is) what it indicates is the wrongness of the stigma, not the disvalue of the degree. Lack of money is stigmatized, too. Does that mean money is bad?

    But surely Murray doesn’t take the stigma of lacking a degree as evidence that having one is bad. That would be crazy. Although, as I said, I have not reread his paper, my guess would be that he’s not talking about the actual value of a BA, good or bad, but merely about the social perception of people who lack one. He is complaining about the stigma itself, which he regards as wrong (just as you do).

    I know from other writings of Murray’s that he fears that America is acquiring a new, elite class of rulers of a sort that didn’t used to exist, which he regards as undemocratic and bad. In Coming Apart, for instance, he notes that a dinner party on New York’s Upper East Side in 1965 would have included a good number of guests without college degrees. And this would have entailed no awkwardness, because the people with degrees usually came from similar backgrounds as those without and retained the values of their upbringing. He thinks similar remarks apply to rich and poor in America in 1965. They usually had similar roots, and the rich usually did not abandon the values of their upbringing. This is the sense in which America was a classless society (not that there weren’t rich and poor). He thinks this has changed, that substantial numbers of people are now socialized into a set of elite values (concerning food, entertainment, health and exercise, etc.) at America’s top universities—and often they grew up with them in the first place—that have little in common with the values of the working class. It’s the whole grain bread eaters versus white bread eaters, and the former hold the latter in contempt. Perhaps this is some of what’s behind his attack on the BA.

    Note that it’s Murray who’s saying that “the acceptable excuses for not going to college have dried up.” At this point, we seem to have reached total incoherence.

    Surely it’s the socially acceptable excuses, he means, not genuinely acceptable excuses.

    Hope this has helped, and sorry if I went on too long about IQ.


    • Thank you for that. It’s just what I was looking for (and more). I don’t think we’re disagreeing that much. The Murray article I criticized is a precis for his book Real Education. When the book came out, I was asked to review for a now-defunct journal. I read the book, had mixed feelings, but decided that I would write a basically positive review that focused on the one basic agreement I had with Murray–too many people are going to college, and too many are going for the wrong reasons. When the journal folded, I put the book aside, and forgot about it.

      In the meantime, I saw Murray speak on education at a couple of Cato events. I started teaching at Felician. Bryan Caplan became famous for his anti-college-education crusade. Inspired by a dose of Dewey (yes, you read that right) I revamped my ethics course to make it more relevant and practical. Eventually, years after the book and article came out, I started to assign the Murray reading in my applied ethics classes, essentially to provoke my students into asking themselves, “So what the hell am I doing here at Felician, anyway?” But when I re-read the piece in 2014/2015/2016, the earlier sympathy I had for it had evaporated. It just seemed to me that I had read Murray far too charitably as saying the one reasonable thing I had wanted someone to say. On second thought, it seemed to me that he was not saying what I had originally read him as saying. He was saying something cynical, irresponsible, and in some cases downright silly. Maybe I went to the other extreme, but I’m not convinced that I did.

      I am not disagreeing with Murray (or with you) that too many Americans go to college, that too many employers reflexively assume that a college degree signals job-worthiness, that many smart people do fine without a college degree, that many college graduates are idiots, and that many non-college-goers are brilliant. But I don’t think any of those claims is the crux of Murray’s position. What Murray is engaged in is a debunking exercise. He wants, for essentially weak and philistine reasons, to devalue college education while simultaneously valorizing a rather fuzzy, romanticized picture of what, properly conceived, it ought to be (something that’s much clearer in the book than in the article). My concern is not so much what Murray is saying about those who don’t go to college as what he is saying about higher education. And it seems to me that when it comes to his comments on the nature of college education, I’m content to say that he simply doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.

      So you and I agree on the claim you make in your sixth paragraph (the one with the three enumerated points, a-c), but I would say this: it is frankly amazing how fuzzy Murray is on whether he agrees or disagrees with those three utterly reasonable claims. Sometimes he seems to be saying, “Oh well, of course I believe that.” But if you then stop to consider the lengths to which he’s willing to go to devalue the college BA, the natural question becomes, “How do your various commitments cohere? How can you believe those three points and think that college is a waste of time, and that we should be working to subvert higher education?” But subversion is what he’s after.

      I didn’t happen to mention this in the essay, but I find his way of setting things up disingenuous. He describes the current state of affairs in higher education by way of a thought-experiment in which someone designs it so that it is the way that it is.

      First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that often has nothing to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn’t meet the goal. We will call the goal a “BA.”

      Who exactly is the corresponding “we” in the real world? Who “set up a single goal…”? Who insisted it will “take four years no matter what is being taught…”? Who “attaches an economic reward…”? Etc. No single agent did all of that did. So here we have a libertarian disciple of Hayek setting things up as though when you see a problematic outcome in social life, you must explain via design. So a process involving several non-coordinated agents operating in a rather strange market are to be conceived instead as though a series of discrete social outcomes was really the work of a sinister cabal designing a system intended to disenfranchise and marginalize the people who neither want nor need a college degree. (Cue up standard-issue rhetoric about “rent seeking” at this point.) The problem is, there is no “we” here. There are just various different forces coming together in various functional or dysfunctional ways. Nor is there one systemic solution to this one systemic problem. There are a series of reforms or adjustments that need enactment.

      But the truth is that Murray’s initial description of the problem is not just wrong but ridiculous. He doesn’t say, “Too many people are going to college; fewer should go.” If he had said that, I’d have applauded and left it at that. Instead, he says that the problem with the college degree is that anyone who gets a BA is marching in lockstep with everyone else getting one: they’re all engaged in achieving the “same goal.” That’s not only not the problem, it strikes me as frankly idiotic. Is “the” BA really a “single” goal? Is the BSN really the same goal as a BA in philosophy? Is getting a BS in cybersecurity the same goal as getting a BA in English? For that matter, is a BS in biology the same goal as a pre-professional BS in biology?

      Obviously not, but Murray has no qualms ignoring obvious facts of that nature, and fast-forwarding into his polemic against higher education. What seems to have escaped Murray is that if his worry was that the conventional BA is irrelevant to preparing people for employment, one obvious remedy is to modify it so that it makes them more so. But this is a trend that has been decades in the making. The standard criticism has been that it leads to too much diversity within the curriculum, and too many ad hoc ways of getting the degree without having taken this course or that course (“we’ll waive that requirement in this case”). This is true even of a tiny school like mine, but it’s much more obviously true of a large university. By what alchemy did this problem get transmogrified into “the BA involves a single goal for everyone”? That’s the sort of tendentiousness I’m reacting against.

      In that case, you and I may well be agreeing on my response to Complaints 1 and 2. I think we’re essentially agreeing on Complaint 3 as well. I’m not disputing the validity of IQ research; I’m disputing its explanatory relevance to the context at hand. I know Stanovich’s work much better than I do Gardener’s. I only mentioned Gardener to cover my bases (in case it turns out to be relevant once I do read it). My point is simply: either Stanovich’s or Gardener’s work or some coherent combination of both (if that’s possible) plus real world classroom experience suggests that IQ cannot do the explanatory work Murray wants it to do. Murray’s claim is simply: we can’t expect the average person to excel in college because the average person lacks the IQ to do college-level work. But he treats findings like those in the Duckworth-Seligman study as though they either didn’t matter or didn’t exist. (Conjecture: the Duckworth-Seligman study reports success at achieving high GPAs, not success on standardized exams, and for Murray, that fact would probably be sufficient for dismissing the study’s findings.)

      In his speeches on the subject, Murray makes a big deal about asking people in the audience if they “know what it’s like” to teach college-level material to someone with an IQ of 100. He gets very dramatic about this, as though he knew. People shift uneasily in their seats, as though unable or unwilling to accept the shattering truth he’s revealed: “I had always suspected there were dumb people in the world, but had never thought much about it until Charles Murray forced them upon my attention.”

      Well, I perform this supposedly impossible task–the task of teaching college level material to students of average intelligence–everyday (I have some limited but significant access to some of my students’ IQ scores). The relevant issue is not the raw IQ score but the student’s attitude toward learning. Do you have to slow it down for someone with an IQ of 100? Well, yeah. Is it impossible to teach them? No. But take the student with an IQ of 120: if he’s an asshole, he’ll be impossible to teach, and adding 5 or 6 points to his IQ won’t help. This obvious fact plays no significant role in anything of Murray’s that I’ve read, or anything I’ve heard him say, on the subject. He seems to have about as much grasp of what goes on in a classroom as the guy in Searle’s Chinese Room experiment has of Chinese.

      By the way, for a guy who hasn’t read it, your “reading” of The Bell Curve is spot on.

      I was unclear on the point I was trying to make about the NCAA, so thank you for pointing that out. I should probably delete the NCAA claim or else rethink it from scratch and make it in an entirely new way. The point I’m making is really specific to NCAA Division 2. The point I’m making is that NCAA Division 2 athletes are not that great from an athletic perspective (or need not be). And yet NCAA Division 2 is actually the point of entry into college for many students: they are drawn into college specifically to play on NCAA Division 2 teams. But I have a feeling that my hatred for the NCAA is inducing me to focus on a relatively narrow sample of cases where that’s happened (i.e., athletically mediocre students are recruited to college in order to play NCAA Division 2 sports). The examples I have in mind may be idiosyncratic, and I may be over-generalizing. Such are the cognitive wages of hate.

      On Complaint 4, I think the issue turns on how much slack one is willing to cut Murray. My first line argument is: if Murray’s aim is to delegitimize the BA, he should focus on the deficiencies of the BA. In that case, claims about how non-BA holders are stigmatized are irrelevant to his case, and seem to be there simply to cast aspersions on the “we” he’s confabulated at the outset of the essay, where the “we” just ends up being “everyone in favor of college education.” So the subliminal message here is: “Those in favor of the BA are stigmatizing those who lack it.” He doesn’t come out and say that, but I have heard Murray speak to libertarian audiences often enough to know that he is not above the use of innuendo in polemical writing intended for wider consumption. I don’t mind his complaining about the stigma itself, but then he shouldn’t make that complaint part of the same integrated complaint he wants to make against higher education, which is what he does.

      I quoted Murray as saying “the acceptable excuses for not going to college have dried up.” You reasonably suggest that he must mean the socially acceptable excuses, not the genuinely acceptable ones. Your reading is a natural one, and if I were discussing almost anyone but Murray, I would accept it. But Murray goes out of his way in other contexts to insist that social acceptability just is genuine acceptability: social acceptability tracks the real thing. So I’ve gone back and applied the same stricture to this context. Doing so perhaps unfairly saddles Murray with an incoherence that he would disavow, but it also raises questions about the ad hoc way in which he slides from social to genuine acceptability elsewhere.

      You did help, and you didn’t go on too long about IQ! Thanks again.

      PS. I’ve generally followed Murray in referring throughout to the “BA” degree, but bear in mind that he uses “BA” as a generic term that includes the “BS.” The article is a critique of the bachelor’s degree as such, regardless of major.


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