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The Collapse of the Fact-Value Distinction and Other Essays (review)
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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 151

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Hilary Putnam, The Collapse of the Fact-Value Distinction and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 224 pp.

Putnam is at his best when puncturing the balloons of philosophers who think of natural science as the area of culture that uncovers "hard facts," as a paradigm of rationality, and as a source of metaphysical truth. In this book he targets economists who (unlike Amartya Sen, one of Putnam's heroes) try to make their discipline value-free by keeping it at arm's length from ethics. But he also gets in some good licks at materialist reductionists—people who think that if you can't say it in the language of physics, you probably shouldn't be saying it at all—and at rational choice theorists.

Putnam's dislike of science-worship is just one example of his distrust of all philosophies that stray too far from common sense, from what he sometimes (like his friend Stanley Cavell) calls "the ordinary." He thinks of moral philosophers like Habermas and Christine Korsgaard as too infatuated with Kant to be willing to combine, as common sense does, Kantian insights with Aristotelian ones. He sees people like me as jumping from the frying pan of foundationalism into the fire of cultural relativism. Using a strategy pioneered by Dewey, Putnam shows how his opponents have turned commonsensical distinctions into philosophical dichotomies (fact vs. value, objective vs. subjective, mind vs. matter) and then, typically, tried to eliminate one side of the dichotomy in favor of the other.

From Aristotle to Dewey, philosophers who have been dubious about the posturing and paradox-mongering of their flashier colleagues have been dismissed as tedious trimmers, too shortsighted to glimpse the new intellectual world that gleams on the horizon. But the gleam has often faded, and middle-of-the-roaders like Putnam have often enjoyed the last laugh.

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty's books include Against Bosses, against Oligarchies; Achieving Our Country; Philosophy and Social Hope; Truth and Progress; Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity; Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; Consequences of Pragmatism; and two volumes of Philosophical Papers. He is professor of comparative literature at Stanford University and, formerly, a MacArthur Fellow.