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  • Hilary Putnam’s Position between Dewey and Buber: A Pragmatist’s Reconciling of Philosophy and Religious Faith
  • Peter J. Tumulty


Hilary Putnam developed a distinctive way of seeing and answering every self’s existential question: What, if anything, gives life meaning? Engaging with issues of meaning over the course of his intellectual and life journey led Putnam to a deeper appreciation of the distinctive character of the practices of philosophy and religious faith as well as the long history of their dynamic interaction. By sharing an account of his own personal journey, most explicitly in Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life (JPG),1 Putnam generously offered us an aid to reflection on a topic of universal personal concern.

The first part of this article acknowledges the plurality of pragmatist views on religious faith. The second part sketches Putnam’s account in JPG of his renewed interest in his Jewish faith and his effort to reconcile his faith with his philosophical perspective. In a conversation with a friend, Putnam reports describing his position as somewhere between Dewey and Buber; so the third part sketches what Putnam found valuable in Dewey’s and Buber’s positions. In the fourth and last part, we examine Putnam’s distinction between “theorizing” and “spiritually enriching reflection,” outlining some of the distinction’s implications for the relation between philosophy and religious faith.

Putnam’s reflections will be of particular interest to those who have found materialist responses to fundamental questions of meaning less than adequate, whether in reductionist or eliminationist form. When a philosophical way of seeing life such as Putnam’s more robust, humanistic naturalism is considered, the range of living possibilities for discovering and creating meaning becomes significantly less impoverished.

It is also worth noting that Putnam’s contribution in fostering a philosophically informed understanding of a generous, responsible religious faith [End Page 53] has implications for those concerned about the universal human rights project that is inevitably entangled with issues of religious faith. This entanglement appears when questions are raised regarding the project’s justification as well as within the human rights project itself when confronting such facts as religious pluralism, including atheism.

Part I: Pragmatist Pluralism on Religious Faith

One of the marks of the American pragmatist tradition in its dealings with religious faith is variety, starting with its classical founders up to the present day. This illustrates a point often made about the pragmatist tradition, that it is not so much identifiable by a common doctrine but rather by an attitude, orientation, or way of seeing. This attitude can be broadly characterized along such lines as appreciating the need to consider the human form of life holistically; viewing thought as in the service of life; recognizing that the full meaning and real worth of our concepts and theories logically require considering their application; and undermining dichotomies that are metaphysical exaggerations of otherwise useful conceptual distinctions.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, pragmatists’ views of faith depend on their assessment of religion’s “fruits” for life. William James (1842–1910), for example, examined the varieties of religious experience and judged the impact of saintliness on humanity as overall positive, without denying darker examples of excess.2

On the other hand, John Dewey (1859–1951), who was raised by a devout Christian mother, in time came to believe it necessary to assess religion negatively because of its “otherworldly” escapism. He, however, provocatively argued for separating the “religious” from “religion” in A Common Faith3 and redirecting the religious passion for reform and renewal toward social needs. What we experience as “transcending” us, Dewey argued, are the ideals that are prompted by our value-infused experiences. They receive their developing form and meaning through the workings of our intelligent imagination and in the assessment of the results of their application to problematic situations. A naturalistic understanding of the normative for Dewey was essential, but within a fully human naturalism that was not reductionist or emotivist.4

More recent examples of this pluralism can be found in the cases of Richard Rorty (1931–2007) and Hilary Putnam (1926–2016). On the view of Rorty’s non-reductive physicalism, the only real relations are causal in nature, understood...


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pp. 53-74
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