1/12/2012—The philosopher Hilary Putnam tells an important story in his essay “After Empiricism”, in his book, Realism with a Human Face (Harvard 1990). The essay is a review of sorts of A.J. Ayer’s book, Philosophy of the Twentieth Century.
Putnam begins with the general philosophical context: “If any problem has emerged as the problem for analytic philosophy in the twentieth century, it is the problem of how words ‘hook onto’ the world.” The problem with Ayer’s book is that he has not acknowledged the difficulty—Putnam thinks maybe the impossibility—of solving this problem.
Putnam calls this problem the search for the “true world”—how we can know the furniture of the world apart from our perceptions and projections. This was the project that David Hume began and although the effort has yielded many important insights, Putnam thinks it has failed and needs a rest if not abandonment altogether.
For my purposes, Putnam’s critique is telling. “Much of our discussion—the discussion of whether values are ‘objective’ or ‘subjective,’ for example—is still trapped in the categories fixed by Hume.” Putnam is suggesting that I am not going to get anywhere with that kind of question.
Today, there is more confidence than ever with our ability to get to the world as it is, stemming from science. That is why Sam Harris writes of a science of human flourishing in The Moral Landscape. Indeed it is why some secularists claim to be in touch with the real vis-à-vis religion. They are ready to believe that they believe nothing without evidence, which is no more possible for them than for the empirical philosophers Putnam is describing.
So, since I commit to objective values in Church, State, and the Crisis in American Secularism, what can be said against the relativism of secularism? I think Putnam would suggest I say that values are as objective as anything else we consider objective. And leave it at that.