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Hilary Putnam: Compassion and Questioning as a Guide to Life

By Alan Gilbert.


Hilary was my dear friend (one of my dearest), a human being of great depth, a philosopher, learning from Maimonides and Dewey, how to write subtle guides for life, compassionate, a communist or social democrat in the sense of wanting everyone to flourish and not accepting the denial of most humans to advance the few, an anti-racist his life long, a buster-up of the silly antiseptic and self-refuting conventions of centuries-old empiricism and “value-free economics,” a questioner, as philosophers from Socrates are, initially a positivist a la Reichenbach and Carnap (who were way sophisticated about physics and politically decent, but often wooden…), a founder of scientific realism and a realist theory of reference, a pragmatist about good moral judgments as opposed to a self-refuting skeptic, a thinker about what good judgment is in ethics, the arts and religion, a practitioner of a responsive to the suffering and neediness of others, tolerant Judaism, a devotee of his wife, children, grandchildren and friends, a lover of poetry, an anti-fascist. Philosophical questioning is important, but life is the point.

That philosophy is irrelevant to ordinary life is a common prejudice in commercial America; Hilary’s being and vision incarnated the opposite. Yes, Hilary changed many of the overall positions/visions he espoused because learning from Socrates, he kept on thinking and asked new questions. He moved on the basis of argument. And since Hilary was very, very smart, he always changed the terms of, saw anew the arguments he engaged with. No, he did not provide a dogma or an opinion (except perhaps read carefully, question, seek freedom and decency for all…). Yes, his life was lived within and amplified, what I consider, speaking as a moral realist and democratic theorist (Dewey was also), starting with Plato and Socrates, a great philosophical tradition…

This essay is about my conversational relationship over many years with Hilary, one in which I learned from and took up many of his philosophical views (perhaps he learned some things from my political and social theoretical views as well), and wonderfully, at least for me, he also learned some things from me philosophically as well. It means to depict Hilary’s fearlessness and insight in politics (much maligned these days) and the merits, largely Socratic, in Hilary’s again courageous willingness to change his views under further questioning, and to explore religion and Judaism in depth – while maintaining his views on science, and with an eye to oppression. Hilary was no friend of racist currents within Israel or the oppression of the Palestinians – he was less fierce on the latter issue than I am, but far outside the mainstream American/Israeli “consensus” in terms of decency. How these views and changes relate, with great consistency and wonderful creativity, to Hilary’s philosophy of science, ethics and realism/pragmatism in terms of life deserves to be shown pointedly (what I try to do in this account).

Hilary sent me part of the intellectual biography which he has now published as part of a book mostly by philosophers on religion, commenting on his passionate learning from the great and diverse Jewish tradition. In his case, this meant affirming compassion and equality, admiring Rabbi Aerik Ascherman, seeking to ally with and free Palestinians harmed by Israel, and thus, free Israelis as well. One of the charming stories (it may not be still there) is of Rudolf Carnap teaching in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Carnap was a central figure in logical positivism/designing a metaphysics filter for the senses that would exclude the God of the Catholic Church in Vienna (then often reactionary, too easily allied with fascism or in the United States, stale reaction, but, of course, Pope Francis is a great spirit and there are many, many holy people). Ironically, the positivist filter excluded medium size physical objects and, more importantly, other minds…Carnap rightly felt that the only decent response to McCarthyism was to join the Communist Party. He tried to look it up in the Los Angeles phone book, but the Party, under attack, had gone underground and was no longer was listed. So he couldn’t join.

The political freedom of philosophers, not given a lot of money by the government or corporations (though, perhaps out of jealousy, a few enlist viciously or corruptly…) and despite the normal tamping down of academic hierarchy, is here revealed strikingly. Hilary, Micheal Dummett, Rudolf Carnap and Bertrand Russell were, inter alia, anti-racists. And the tale also has the supposedly cloudy (Aristophanes), amusing sense that (male) philosophers sometimes can’t find their way around in this world…

For Hilary, however, politics went much deeper. His father of whom he was very proud, Samuel Putnam, was a writer (wrote a powerful book on Rabelais) and for a time, a Communist (as was his mother). Sam said: “it was world famous artists starving in the streets” during the depression that made him angry. Hilary had this, and a much wider compassion: that every child deserves a chance at decent food and an education, Palestinian or Indian or indigenous or Tibetan as well as Israeli or American or Chinese…. It is that sense which has always drawn people to communism (as opposed to Social Democracy or FDR’s New Deal, a view I am now closer to, also, in certain ways, but whose practitioners rarely exhibit the same courage – did not, for example, overcame the brunt of the Nazis’ onslaught from below).

Still, it is hard not to admire Allende (I am here in Chile) or Bernie. In 2013, Hillary sent a note to Ruth Anna and me – “Bernie Bless Him”; Bernie’s statement against Obama’s plan to attack Syria – uniting everyone against it, as Bernie rightly says and calling for pretty much his current program – see here). Prescient….

Hilary as a young man resisted World War II and became a Trotskyist. He later helped lead a movement in Cambridge against the Vietnam war, and, learning from his colleague Roderick Firth, wrote brilliantly on how to think about war. Even given that in close families rebellion by children is normal and has an edge, Sam’s initial response was harsh; his father threw Hilary out of the house (in addition to patriarchal abuse, there is no fine moral judgment here since Stalin had murdered Trotsky in Mexico not so long before and many others). When Hilary had a fever, however, his mom went and brought him home…

Hilary was a brilliant mathematician and mathematical philosopher (could have received tenure in a math department), revolutionized semantics, along with Kripke. and was a great philosopher of science (progenitor of American scientific realism, along with his many students, like Dick Boyd). But Hilary also had an incredibly sensitive, heartfelt and questioning relationship to the world, one which did not alter for a day in his life, and took him on a vast journey across fields. The range and daring of his writings, the willingness to change positions and seek fresh starts, was breathtaking. This was not an eccentric journey, except in the sense that all our lives are filled with chance and eccentricity, but one with a bright, silvery thread of being willing to stand up to injustice, go to the end of the universe (what some describe as going to the end of arguments, i.e. what Socrates did) to figure out, knowing something but not all (“I know that I know not so much,” to put it in a non-self-refuting way), to achieve good judgment about poetry or religion as well as science and philosophy and ethics, to be in life what he needed to be (what he could be) to make a difference.

I was a graduate student at Harvard who was working in the Boston draft resistance movement (the BDRG – Boston Draft Resistance Group) when I first met Hilary. The BDRG advised other young people often from working class backgrounds about what alternatives they faced in resisting the draft, given American genocide in Vietnam. There was another movement, the Resistance, in which people heroically gave up 2-s, the student deferment (I did, too, though more quietly), burned their draft cards, sometimes left for Canada, but also sometimes and foolishly looked down on workers. A Resistance poster was of a circle of gung-ho soldiers basely crouching with guns pointing out; no commonality with them felt by Resistors; go there and get killed by them, it seemed to suggest.

At a draft resistance meeting of some 500 in Sanders Theater, a committee of 3 of us volunteered or were nominated to write the draft of a statement. Political theory student that I was, I did not know really who Hilary Putnam and Noam Chomsky were. Noam drafted a three sentence position. “The war is unjust and wrong. We oppose it. We demand equal punishment.”

This was an attempt, I later realized, to get at civil disobedience about the Resistance (something now near my heart). But I was a young graduate student. I pointed out to Noam that the third sentence did not follow from the first two. Even “accepting” would have been better, from a civil disobedience point of view, but why I said, given that justice was on our side, should we ”demand punishment,” equal or not?

Noam reared up at me and gave me a tyrannical stare as Plato says of Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, to Plato at one point in the Seventh Letter (Noam is, of course, one of the great human beings and fighters of our time, and comes as I do from an anarchist background, and I am also friends, though less close, with him; curiously, Hilary and he had become friends at Central High in Philadelphia, a place where my father had gone some years before them).

Hilary tugged lightly at his sleeve – a very Hilary-esque gesture, I came to know – and said: “you know, Noam, he has a point.”

A few days later, Hilary came up to me at an anti-Vietnam event at Harvard and suggested we have lunch at the Harvard Restaurant. I had been in Paris, studying with Louis Althusser, who had a brilliant commentary on the history of science arguments about phlogiston and oxygen chemistry in Engels’ introduction to the third volume of Marx’s Capital (as well as in Marx’s own thinking), talked about the founding of history as a science in Montesquieu and Marx, and offered a subtle historical argument about how revolutionaries, like Stalin, in “Foundations of Leninism” – Althusser derives his argument on an “overdetermination” in revolutionary situations from this account – and Mao think about society.

Hilary’s other companion was John Rawls, whom – silly me – I did not know either, but on the advice of Norm Daniels, then a philosophy graduate student, spent the next several years studying; I later adopted a version of contractarianism in Democratic Individuality. Later about longstanding or profound moral judgments such as that slavery is wrong, Jack told me that moral realism was also a good way to describe them. I also became close friends with him.

At this lunch, Hilary talked over with me Althusser’s strengths and weaknesses, political, not just epistemological about scientific revolutions (for instance, Althusser not being able to take the side of the workers and students in the great strike of May 1968, except delphically). Hilary became part of the worker-student alliance movement in SDS and later, the International Committee Against Racism; he worked with the Progressive Labor Party (like even very critical Marxian parties, something with a lot of problems…). Hilary fought ROTC in training officers for Vietnam as well as the revival of pure eugenic racism of Herrnstein – “Unemployment may run in the genes of a family like bad teeth” (Atlantic, 1971; IQ in the Meritocracy) – Arthur Jensen and the American elite. See Ned Block, Hilary’s and Herrnstein’s student, and Gerald Dworkin’s marvelous critique of operationalism – the circular definition that “intelligence is what IQ test test” – in “IQ, Heritability and Inequality” and Noam Chomsky’s devastation of Herrnstein in an exchange, a dazzling thinker against a wooden adherent of the peculiar methodology of IQ testing in Block and Dworkin, eds., The IQ Argument. Hilary (and I), allied with black painters’ “helpers” at Harvard, paid S3,000 per year less for doing the same work as white painters who were paid $2,000 a year less by Harvard than union scale in the Boston area. John Carroll, a white painter of some 20 years from South Boston, could explain the development and role of these differences dazzlingly and humorously, as he did once to a very large meeting in Sanders Theater. Hilary did many other courageous things.

One night in 1970, some 1500 of us disrupted a Young Americans for “Freedom” forum where Brandeis professor I. Milton Sachs, a government “advisor”/agent in Vietnam, burbled about his role in cordoning off South Vietnamese peasants on plots of burned out land with enough stalks to feed pigs for three days a week, so the people would, starving, have no food to give the National Liberation Front (like Israel’s policies of “diet” and “mowing the grass” today in the Occupied Territories…). The Government called this the ”leopard spot program.” What Sachs foolishly described was a massive war crime against civilians (what the whole American aggression there was).

Afterwards, as a friend of mine told me, Archibald Cox, who famously stood up to Nixon, convened a meeting of reporters and deans. His main question: “Did anyone see Putnam?” I wish I could say that Cox forgot himself…

Harvard did not quite attempt officially to fire Hilary. But even today, the Economist and others speak of the Harvard administration’s supposed tolerance. See here. I was one of 500 who sat in against Dow Chemical Corporation, manufacturer of napalm. The extremely tolerant and respectful President Nathan Pusey said we all “wanted to tear Harvard down stone by stone and dance up and down in the rubble.” We were put on suspension. When I was one of 300 students who sat quietly upstairs in Paine Hall to hear the faculty debate the role of ROTC on a college campus (offering propaganda courses, for example), we were all put on further suspension. When I was eventually thrown out for two years for another sit-in, I received no notice of the hearing and learned of the suspension by reading the Crimson. If the Harvard administration was tolerant of discussion or dissent about its role in the Vietnam war, there is no intolerance…(See here however, for a discussion of Stanley Hoffmann’s personal effort to foster a more deliberative and intelligent university).

In addition, in the American Philosophical Association, some people started a whispering campaign against Hilary. It was the price Hilary paid for his great moral courage. By 1968, several hundred Harvard faculty members signed a statement criticising the war; acting against it was for many not on the table, and standing up to Harvard’s cooperation with the war, spelling it out – fewer still….

When Hilary left the movement, he was, the very next year, elected President of the APA. Such are the perks of a just celebrity (Hilary always had a clarity of argument that is pretty unique among philosophers), though briefly disowned by Hilary and undermined by some others, in a non-vital arena. Nonetheless, stereotypes mocking Hilary’s radicalism come down, from defenders of Herrnstein, racist pseudo-science and even the War, where mentioned, to this moment – see here).


Hilary’s insights had a deep influence on the philosophical aspects of my writing. In Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens, for example, I used Hilary’s arguments on the complex relation of general theories and particular scientific explanations (the role of auxiliary statements) in elucidating the structure and brilliance of Marx’s historical explanations, for example on class struggles in France (quite widely accepted among French historians today) as well as their dialectic with his often surprising political strategies.

Willard Quine and Hilary had undermined both the logical positivist analytic-synthetic and fact-value distinctions. If we know, through a linguistic division of labor (one of Hilary’s important concepts), that quantum mechanics is right, do we not know, much more plainly and without such a division of labor, that the enslavement of human beings, say, of Africans or other indigenous people, and their mass murder is wrong?

In Democratic Individuality (Cambridge’s lead book in philosophy in 1990) as an ironic contrast to fashionable meta-ethical relativisms, I argued that what shifts in seemingly epochal, complex judgments about just war is not what I call core or underlying moral standards about which there is, in fact, little disagreement, but rather, what are mainly factual/social theory or biological theory arguments. For instance, Aristotle thought defense of a free people against aggression – as murder is bad, so mass murder is bad – and capturing those who were natural slaves – a doubtful matter even on Aristotle’s account – were both forms of just war. Note that the judgment that murder is bad for human beings, as Hilary might underline, requires factual knowledge; the biological theory insight that there is no distinction among human beings such that some are minds and others are bodies has in it a moral component (i.e. the purported distinction between human and less human is also a depraved, seemingly “moral” one) and that no part of my argument against meta-ethical relativism invokes a fact-value distinction. Instead, Democratic Individuality gains from, adds to the force of Hilary’s subsequent arguments on the matter (h/t Steve Wagner).


Aristotle himself questioned his own assertion about natural slavery (compare book 2 of the Politics where Carthage, a barbarian city, is one of the 3 best actual regimes, and the assertion that it is meet that barbarians be made slaves in book 1). Montesquieu and Hegel founded modern liberal (as well as coherent conservative and radical) political thought by rejecting the misguided argument for so-called natural slavery, but maintained Aristotle’s uncontroversial views on aggression. Which argument is right is thus driven, broadly speaking, by facts/social or biological theory; reasonable complex moral/political judgments are heavily fact-dependent (and the claim about slavery has now no longer any intellectual merit if it ever did).

As a further example, Lenin thought the capitalist powers, colonialist and imperialist, and World War I fought for the redistribution of non-white colonized “slaves” (for the US, consider, the many racist interventions by Woodrow Wilson overthrowing republican Haiti in 1916, installing a clerk in an American mining company in Nicaragua until the elevation of Somoza and the like, as well as his affection for the KKK and purging of black people from the civil service). Abstract as Rawls says in the original position from the name Lenin, spell out Clemenceau’s, Lloyd George’s, the Kaiser’s, the Tsar’s, and Wilson’s views fairly, and we all agree with L’s judgment today.

I had also studied scientific realism with Dick Boyd, Hilary’s former colleague at Harvard and friend, during a year visiting in the Philosophy Department at Cornell (1979-80). Realism is the thought that scientific terms refer to a world independent of us, even though the observations we make are inevitably theory-laden. Similarly, moral terms – Marx’s rate of exploitation, for example – refer plainly to an exploitation so detailed in chapter 10 of Capital on the working day that Scott Fitzgerald recommended it to his daughter as the most searing piece of indignation/satire in English (it was of course, originally written in German…). Hilary engaged on a path of changing his views, and I was at the time critical of some of these changes (see chapters 1 and 2 versus chapter 4). But he wrote to me: what makes you think I disagree with moral realism (for instance, that the “Man [and Woman]-trade” is wrong), and of course, I saw his point.

To speak of this agreement as something for which the arguments are powerful and that should be widely accepted – one that is not affected by Hilary’s later broader arguments for pragmatism or by whether it is also part of a realist conception – I also call it a limited moral objectivity (about certain fundamental questions of life and well-being). Hilary has gone on to write brilliantly on the entanglement of fact and convention/theory and value in economics – and how true economic judgments about development are often also true moral judgements – with Vivian Walsh, Amartya Sen, and Martha Nussbaum.

In Reason, Truth and History, Hilary makes the brilliant and decisive argument that all forms of meta-ethical relativism are self-refuting – relativists cannot say coherently what ethics is. In Democratic Individuality, I refer to this point as the integrity of ethics (Rawls liked this idea) and spell out a brief version: that the comparative study of what is a decent life for human beings, for instance, a life furthering human cooperation, freedom and individuality, has been advanced, with twists and turns, since the Greeks, and can show easily, for example, that the practices of indigenous tribes like the Iroquois or Mapuche are superior, in major respects, to those of “civilization.”


Relativism is the ordinary and unexamined view, most widespread in social “science” (enthusiasts for “value-freedom” do not differ with postmodernists here). Now many good inferences go into the intellectual leap to relativism – moralism is often a horrible and disgraceful thing among the upper classes, ethno-centrists, fascists, and dogmatists – but it is disgraceful because if the Catholic Church enslaves and murders indigenous people (or sanctifies the abuse of little boys), it has done evil. Human lives (or the protection of children from violent assault) and not “authority” are the standard.

Democratic Individuality thus underlines that factual/social theoretical judgments are mainly responsible for complex, ethical shifts about justice in war. Moral judgments are inextricably factual judgments. This theme has also subsequently been Hilary’s, for instance in The Collapse of the Fact-Value Distinction – see especially the commentary on Sen on capabilities in chapter 3 – as well as “For ethics and economics without the dichotomies,” chapter 4 of his The End of Value-Free Economics, co-edited with Vivian Walsh. The standard, misguided claim that there is a merely descriptive or analytic economics and a separate “welfare” economics has been shown to be false by their and Amartya Sen’s arguments.


But it is also characteristic of Hilary’s larger moves to make religion and aesthetics comprehensible as both having their own integrity and also being, sometimes, rational activities. As he says in his Dehak interview with Yehuda Vizan, a poet who writes Hebrew, you have to know something, what good and bad (or evil) performances are to begin to think about a field and make good judgments about it (think of Socrates and what he does know…).

“Yehuda Vizan: In 2003 you gave a Hebrew lecture at the Tel Aviv University. The topic was “ethics without metaphysics”. You said that:

‘Today many people who never heard of Logical Positivism speak as if it is completely clear that ethical statements are fundamentally subjective…my purpose in this lecture has been to demolish the metaphysical dichotomy between facts and values, which, in my opinion, harms both our behavior and the way we think.’

I cherish those words. Can you elaborate, according to your method, how can one judge without being subjective? And how, if you think it’s possible, one can make objective judgments in the field of literary & art criticism?

Hilary Putnam: Yehuda, you yourself said in an interview, “A young woman poet approached me and asked me to give her a few tips. I took a book out of the bookcase and said to her, ‘Go on home, read this. What do you want from me?'” I liked that, and I infer from those words that you would agree that the way to make better judgments is immerse to yourself in what has been achieved in the fields you mention. And then to discuss with others who know what they are talking about. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with their judgments; the discussion is valuable. I don’t know if complete objectivity is either possible or desirable here, but, there are better and worse judgments.’

I might add, some moral judgments for instance that ‘groaning in chains’ in Egypt or the Americas is bad are deeper (what I refer to as limited moral objectivity, Rawls as especially deep judgments in reflective equilibrium).

One pillar of my argument in Democratic Individuality is, again, Hilary’s insight from Reason, Truth and History (p. 4): all forms of meta-ethical relativism are self-refuting. If every form of moral argument is relative to the holder (a nation, a class, a person, a gender…) and untrue, then is that meta-ethical claim itself, merely relative to the holder, true? Is there any coherent notion of morality or ethics involved in a conception which suggests that Hitler’s views of indians, jews and communists is true (from his point of view), and that those of the slavs he slaughtered as part of colonizing the “Wild East” is also true (from their point of view). Or is this an empty reductionism about morals?

One needs to study the truth of some inferences from evidence which mistakenly seem to advocates to underpin a further inference to meta-ethical relativism. For instance, post-Boas anthropologists thought rightly that ethno-centrism – and often murderous colonialism – were harmful and wanted to learn about in the field the actual practices of colonized or indigenous peoples. They leaped to the inference that each moral view – a view of a tribe or civilization – is as valid as every other; those of indigenous people – they tried to listen to, honor them – as valid as “ours” (meta-ethical relativism). But this is a misunderstanding.

For they criticize the moral claims of those of their own “nationality” or, rather, of the powerful in their nationality (a common practice, by the way). They oppose murderous colonialism. One cannot, however, attack murderous colonialism unless killing and exploiting people is wrong…The reasonable inference from their argument is not relativism, but a defense of moral objectivity, given facts, about judgments about aggression and exploitation…

In a major lecture in Spain in 2012 which he sent me, Hilary also pointed out that the logical positivist statement that terms without empirical content and which are not true by convention (analytically) are literally meaningless (nonsense) makes this positivist slogan itself – neither true empirically nor analytically – “literally meaningless.” Once again, the supposed epistemological criterion is self-refuting. Note: this point about positivism is quite widely known, as Hilary suggests, but people do not often refer to it – I think because looking clearly at this epistemological slogan would show that the self-understanding of the project, despite what was good it was, was, as an overall picture, doomed from the start. Hilary here, once again, provided an unusual, devastating kind of argument.

Nonetheless, the positivist fact-value distinction was adopted, without much insight (as a kind of methodological prejudice) by Lord Robbins in economics in the 1930s and became a shibboleth in the field. To dispel it, Hilary worked with Vivian Walsh and Amartya Sen to underline the entanglement of facts, conventions and values in all the sciences particularly in economics (all such judgments have black, white and red threads…). Sen’s path-breaking Development as Freedom makes claims not about an alienated Gross Domestic Product or average, “per capita” income, but about furthering the capabilities of each person the heart of economics. The book is enormously powerful in terms of highlighting, contra widespread prejudice, Buddhist and Arab toleration long before the Enlightenment, producing the clearest argument so far that individual participation in democracies is an important human good – for instance, that the existence of an opposition newspaper will prevent famines (what I call democratic individuality), revealing a million missing women in Asia and, by contrast that in Kerala, educating women and fostering cooperatives of women leads to lower population growth than that of coercive China as well as a dramatic decrease in under-five infant mortality (recognize and empower the capabilities of women as at least equals…), contrasting modern Western medical practice which health systems in countries which, though less developed, have longer life expectancy (Kerala or Costa Rica, for example), and many other matters. Those who are serious in the field of development now follow the lead, of Amartya Sen.


To spell out an important continuity between this work in economics and some things I argue in democratic/social theory, Democratic Individuality proposes a broadly similar kind of thinking about justice in war and conflicts in social theory over the explanation of democracy and status, whether great powers represent the interests of their citizens or these citizens have common interests, across national borders, from below, and the relationship of state policies to a common good as opposed to a supposedly value-free legitimacy. Like Sen, Nussbaum, Putnam and Walsh, it advances an Aristotelian or eudaemonist conception of human capacities (the name democratic individuality means to capture what Sen calls the capability to participate in a democracy). To follow Hilary’s later title, the book also seeks to break down the misguided distinctions between ethics and political science/social science across the board, or to spell out the moral significance of glaring issues distorted or ignored in today’s empiricist jargon. That the prevailing arguments are not good is clear; that there are tremendous stakes, particularly for policy advisors and the powerful, in maintaining these errors is, unfortunately, also clear.

In addition, Hilary and Amartya have also defended the argument that one can tell what certain just reforms are without having an overall idea of justice (this is a little like Marx’s notion of the real movement unfolding, seeking community and to end certain exploitative practices and wars, but without a full conception of justice or a “utopia”). It is also I suspect what underpins Socrates saying in the Apology: I am wiser than others only in this; they think they know and do not, whereas I neither know much – otherwise, the statement is self-refuting – nor think I do.

In fact, Socrates knew many true things for instance, that contra Greek convention, any slave was capable, under questioning, of learning – “not forgetting” is Heidegger’s intelligent translation of aletheia – a leading theorem of Greek geometry (see the conversation of Socrates and the slave in the Meno). Socrates knows many examples of just acts, for instance, his willingness to go to his death to preserve philosophy and questioning in a democracy (what we call dissent; what makes democracy common good-sustaining, when it is…). But he does not propose an overall idea of justice (the beautiful regime – kallipolis – in the Republic is a satire…).

As King and Gandhi and later John Rawls have said, Socrates founds civil disobedience (I have written about how Rawls’ brilliant conception of civil disobedience as resistance to an unjust law within an overall context of fidelity to the laws, a conception with integrates civil disobedience with democratic theory, is drawn from the Apology and the Crito, something that Hilary agreed with). But this is to say, with Socrates, Putnam and Sen, that humans may strive for an idea of justice, fashion arguments about it every day, but still cannot acquire a full conception of it. Knowing some things – that all human beings have equal capacities for moral personality and achieving a decent life, as she sees it – and pursuing critical questioning and specific, sometimes very dramatic (revolutionary) improvements, as Hilary underlines, is all.

About judgments concerning war (war is the main industry in America of our age…), Hilary sent me a fine speech he had given on the “Epistemology of Unjust War,” which was based on a conception of Roderick Firth, his Quaker colleague at Harvard. He thought rightly that it extended some of the arguments on just war that I had offered (my original argument was also partly a response to Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars). Hilary’s essay had not stirred much controversy in philosophy – as opposed to students and often teachers during anti-War movements, professional or academic philosophy is pretty dry – or among Hilary’s papers, though it startlingly deserves to.

For given the immense suffering of war, all the killing particularly of innocents and children, Hilary points out that there must be a bright line, adopted because of or forced on leaders by their people, between war and peace. The decision to go to war ought to have a firewall before it. Now Hilary was under no illusions about how difficult this is; he celebrated, for example, the diverse mass movement from below that stopped Obama’s intervention in Syria. And if we look back at recent American history, many otherwise mainly honorable people if more deeply bewildered by power than others have become war criminals because there is no such firebreak (McGeorge Bundy, Robert MacNamara, Lyndon Johnson, and of course. the names are easy to recite today, including my onetime student Condi Rice).

That firewall is set up by the insight that one must have a very, very good argument – “knowledge,” which is why Hilary calls this standard epistemic rather than one of empirical, political savvy – that you will do less harm, in launching a new war of “defense” than the “aggressor” has done (the Bad Thing, as Firth puts it, that the government’s action is supposed to prevent). For what you do may be far worse and the predictions of policy-makers, glossed as social “science” – pseudoscience in this case – exceeded by the actual Bad Thing done by your own acts. The American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – both acts of naked aggression resulting in an unending quagmire and continuing “instability” – 15 years and going strong – serve as a case in point.

So does Obama’s use of drones, murderous of civilians including children, and remarkably counterproductive, as well as Hillary Clinton’s intervention in Libya/gloating over Qaddafi’s sodomization and killing, and all the overthrowing of democracies in small countries. There are some 15 such coups, during and after the Cold War, the latest Hillary’s/Obama’s support of a military coup in Honduras whose rulers wantonly kill indigenous activists like Berta Caceres last month to advance the Zarca Dam. All such imperial acts against nonwhite democracies – and other governments – would be ruled out by this criterion (and by any decent criterion…). Bernie Sanders’ stand against regime-change in small countries would thus be the most remarkable American foreign policy change of our lifetimes (and, it is laughable that right after he says it, debating Clinton, this idea is not mentioned in the frivolous CNN/MSNBC commentary or in the New York Times). Sanders’ proposal exactly illustrates Hilary and Firth’s theme.

On Hilary’s account, it would be right to go to war against Nazism (or to overthrow the Nazis through mass noncooperation if possible), and for the Poles or Vietnamese to rise up to defend themselves, whatever the odds, but in many other cases, particularly for a great power, it would be decent as well as wise to seek another alternative.

I republished Hilary’s essay with my comments on my blog, as well as an essay by Steve Wagner, and we and others had an important discussion of these matters. On Hilary’s point that this argument is an epistemic one, not a reflection of political savvy, I was one of several who debated McGeorge Bundy about the War in Vietnam as a senior at Harvard. I had read several French histories of the conflict, which pointed out that the US had backed French colonialism and was still trying to restore the landlords on behalf of a regime representing Catholics (10% of the population) and knew some relevant things about it. Before the debate, Bundy said to us privately, “I have esoteric information that you do not.” He didn’t. Nonetheless, this broad category – a kind of insider “wisdom” – which convinces Important people in a national security state, replete with spies and talking with other very Important people, is, as Hilary underlines, a bad bet:

“Quite a few months ago, a Republican friend of mine (yes, I do have some Republican friends) said to me in a tone of awe, ‘You were the only person I knew who opposed the war because you thought it wouldn’t work.’ While I am not one to turn down compliments, even undeserved ones, this particular compliment involved a misunderstanding which I must ward off if the whole philosophical point of this lecture is not to be missed. My friend heard me as making a empirical estimate—one, which to his surprise, had turned out to be correct—as to the future course of events in Iraq. In effect, he was complimenting me for political savvy that I don’t pretend to possess. My point, like Firth’s, and like [Steve] Wagner’s hermeneutic of suspicion, was an epistemic one. I did not deny (at the time the war started, anyway) that the rosy estimates of the Bush and Blair administrations might turn out to be right; my estimate was that they were not epistemically justified. And killing and maiming people on grounds that are not epistemically sound is morally wrong [killing and maiming people, i.e civilians, even when the cause is just, is still often morally wrong…], not just practically unwise. To me this seems self-evident, as it did to Firth, but I have discussed Firth’s argument with enough people to know that it is far from being generally accepted.”

To follow Hilary’s thought: on the now 15 year Afghanistan and Iraq wars, has the continuing war economy – the vast militarism, some $1.7 trillion spent each year on the military-industrial-media-political-intelligence-foreign military aid/weapons dependent militaries, etc. – helped most Americans? No, it has enabled the soaring inequality produced by banks forcing students and their families into enormous debt for college degrees, making the notion of a democratic education – what Bernie Sanders urges the restoration of – a long way up from here; it has produced wild health care costs, an increasing population of people, particularly young women with children, who are homeless, mass incarceration, and a host of other evils.

Hilary also underlines an affiliation of the epistemic argument against initiating war with Ronald Dworkin’s: that the rights of each person trump so-called utilitarian considerations (i.e. that overall benefits or benefits to some override great harms to others):

“At this point, some of you may be reminded of a famous notion of Ronald Dworkin’s, the notion of ‘rights as trumps.’ By this he meant that considerations of utility (in particular, considerations of wealth maximization) must not be allowed to ‘trump’, i.e., override, the moral rights of individuals. For example, the benefits that a majority might gain from discriminatory behavior against a minority cannot justify the violation of the inherent moral right of the members of the minority to be treated as free and equal citizens. Moral rights may have to be overridden in real emergencies, Dworkin recognizes, but such overriding requires strong moral justification, not just cost-benefits analysis.

There is good reason for you to be so reminded. For the right not to be maimed, killed, not to have one’s children and other relatives maimed or killed, not to have one’s house destroyed over one’s head and the like are prima facie moral rights in Dworkin’s sense—indeed, if they are not recognized as such, I repeat, talk of “human rights” is meaningless hypocrisy. Thus Firth’s argument can be regarded as an epistemological refinement of the idea of ‘rights as trumps’. No general skepticism about the possibility of political “knowledge” should be allowed to efface or conceal the fact that what is being appealed to by both Dworkin and Firth are fundamental ideas of what our ideals of human equality and dignity require of us.”

As he thought, Hilary’s essay opens up new practical as well as theoretical dimensions in the discussion of unjust war. It brings assertions about wars closer to life, prevents errors common right now in war-making America, highlights the ideological nature, including in Obama’s Nobel Prize speech, but blatantly in the bipartisan pressure against the Iran treaty and for bombing, of American injustice…

After Hilary’s experiences during World War II (his relationship with his father) and his dislike of Soviet politics, he did not take up action against War publicly again until Vietnam. In this essay, Hilary says what drove him to it:

“The most horrific was the dropping of napalm bombs – a weapon our nations have also used in Iraq —but the action which originally turned me into a protester against the war, when I learned about it from the writings of the journalist David Halberstam, was the destruction of the rice crop of the South Vietnamese peasants to keep it out of the hands of the Viet Cong. These harsh measures, which – everyone admitted – caused immense suffering to millions of Vietnamese people, were supposed to be necessary to prevent a Bad Thing. The Bad Thing was described using the metaphor of a ‘row of dominos’. It was claimed that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, so would Laos and Cambodia (which did fall) and then the Philippines and Indonesia would fall (which didn’t happen) and finally Japan would fall to the communists.”

So I. Milton Sachs’s and the government’s “leopard spot program,” cordoning off peasants on burned out land, was a further echo. Cox was looking for Hilary after that event, but perhaps, he, as Robert MacNamara – see MacNamara’s worries about bombing civilians in Japan in the film Fog of War – or McGeorge Bundy, were haunted by the crimes they had done. With the staggering onward of American leaders into ever new wars, with the threat of destroying life on the planet through climate change and war, an increasingly visceral and visible thing all around us, it is no small matter, spiritually, to do such things.

Hillary also kept up the brilliant arguments about the racism of Herrnstein and James Q Wilson, Crime and Human Nature (Herrnstein’s foray on behalf of injustice before The Bell Curve).They assert toward the end of their 500 page book that there is insufficient evidence to evaluate any of the theories of genetic/racial differences – i.e. “body type differences,” racial profiling – in crime (these have long been remarkably awful and corrupt theories, but never mind…). Nonetheless, they say, the claim “cannot be plausibly rejected” because of the number of arguments for it that have been made. And in Herrnstein’s 4 page report to police chiefs delivered for the “Justice” Department/funded by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, he says, the claim is “probably true.” This is no trivial matter since the harassment of black and brown folks is a huge police and judicial practice – 2.3 million prisoners, 25% of the world’s prisoners, a majority black and brown, in American prisons (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow) – and most recently, from the murder of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown on, Black Lives Matter has become both a just slogan and a mass organization against assassinations by police. Herrnstein’s and Wilson’s is a bigoted and evil argument (to advance this directly to police chiefs may be the worst single thing that Herrnstein did – though, sadly, there are competitors…).

Hilary underlines the faulty logical structure here: there is insufficient evidence, these two social “scientists” say, to evaluate the claim. Nonetheless, the claim is probably true because there are 4 arguments which purport to support it. This “influential” 500 page tome – a lengthy flimflam or the Emperor’s New Clothes – was intellectually destroyed by brief attention to argument.

When Hilary began reading my writing on Plato, he liked it generally, but cautioned me that the “beautiful city” in the Republic is more like an ashram than a modern fascist regime (I agree with that, but convinced him that this weak-minded militarist sort of ashram was also a satire), and warned me to be careful about whether Plato wrote The Seventh Letter (Kant as well as one of Hilary’s colleagues, Gisela Striker, thought the author wasn’t Plato). See here. I showed, I think, why the style of argument, particular the metaphors, was probably Plato’s For instance, Dion convinced Plato that he would, as a philosopher, be but a shadow if he did not journey far to Syracuse, speaking to him in the voice of philosophy, as “the laws” speak in the Crito. But I worried a lot about my interpretation.

I had recently learned from Leo Strauss in discovering that Plato seemed to hint at a philosophical tyranny in the Republic (the regimes go down from philosopher ruler to tyrant, but do not explicitly circle back, I had long noticed). The Seventh Letter too, describes an attempt to counsel the young tyrant of Syracuse, except that the whole text rejects, point blank, the experiment, Plato being imprisoned and enslaved by Dionysius, Plato’s best student Dion winning out and becoming – though it is not said – an actual philosopher-king, but then murdered almost immediately by a seeming “friend” from Athens.

Nonetheless, I thought Strauss always distorted or ignored the significance of Socrates’s questioning (and, of course, is a brilliant cryptographer, but could not argue his way out of a paper bag). For there is no evidence in the Apology that Socrates seeks the rule of a philosopher-tyrant – one who makes decisions without laws – and Socrates seemed to me, in practice, by going to his death, however critical of the views of “the many,” to defend a democracy which tolerated questioning, which allowed deliberation, dissent and the possibility of a common good. But I initially thought Plato, scorning a democracy which had put his teacher to death, was, understandably if unattractively, an authoritarian reactionary.

In this, I was moved by the question: what did Plato mean his students (or future, close readers) to get out of his some 35-40 dialogues? Why does he seemingly remove philosophy, in this way (the initial Academe…), from Athens where Socrates had practiced it in the market-place? What did students do, some, as Aristotle, in the Academy for 20 years, if not debate the dialogues line by line…

In addition, some of these students ended up on opposite sides in deadly political conflict – Demosthenes, a defender of Athens and opponent of Phillip of Macedon, wrote Phillipics; he was murdered in a Temple by Alexander, who was counseled by Aristotle. After 20 years as a brilliant student, Aristotle was not made head of the Academy when Plato died, and founded his own. There is thus a pretty sharp which side are you on question here, which requires deep insight into what a dialogue is (Plato is like a playwright and not the character “Socrates”) as well as what motivates Plato’s complex thinking in creating the dialogues.

But then, I considered more deeply Plato’s affection for Socrates. It was extremely unlikely that “writing Socrates,” as it were, Plato really meant, even if the dialogues suggest incomplete arguments often and sometimes deliberately weak ones, that Plato was really for philosophical tyranny against his teacher (see “Socrates worst argument ever: philosophers and barking dogs” here).

I did a lot of thinking about this and, again, changed my view some five years ago (see here, here and here). Hilary asked me why (see here). I said: I couldn’t see Plato being a fundamental opponent of Socrates. I gave a lot of evidence that the city in speech is Glaucon’s city, not Socrates. See here. Such a city comes out of an argument shifted by Glaucon’s interjections; he wants relishes, not a city of pigs (the Pythagorean city which Socrates was beginning to sketch – see here), and thus, a city of luxury (though this vanishes for guardians) and war…

If one asks simply: could a Socrates come to exist in the city in speech, a city where all guardians have the same emotions, the same customs (up to the age of 50), it is not likely. In a free Athens, one could question – that and that alone is a great superiority to this seemingly “philosophical,” martial alternative. Socrates describes Athens in the Republic as a circle of circles. Philosophical rule perhaps means leadership in a circle of philosophers (who may well be dissenters in the larger city).

Hilary loved this change, I suspect, because it was very Hilary-esque (or Socratic). It comes from living with questions and thinking about them more deeply until a new perspective opens up. Hilary sent some of my arguments on the Republic to other philosophers interested in Plato.

Steve Wagner had the following thought which he had wanted to say to Hilary:

“Regarding Plato’s Republic I will tell you something I had meant to share with Hilary. At a point some years back, not having opened the Republic in many years, thinking I was remembering what ‘the city in speech’ meant I instead totally made something up — yet oddly, it strikes me as being in the spirit of Alan Gilbert’s Plato. What I attributed to Plato was this thought:

We will describe a just city, a domain of freedom and love of truth. This city is ideal not just in its perfection but, unfortunately, in the sense of existing nowhere. It may not exist for a very long time. Indeed it may never come to be. Yet it can exist through speech: whenever two or more people come together as free inquirers in the spirit of Socrates, talking philosophy with care both for the argument and for each others’ souls, then and there, as long they converse, is our city. The just life for human beings is something all of us can bring into being through speech, even in the shadows if needed. It can exist everywhere and cannot be destroyed.

I think of Hilary as someone who epitomized the Platonic citizen in my interpretive fantasia. In his presence we lived in the city.”

Hilary also followed the arguments I was making about Heidegger, who, with two of his students, hoped to advise Hitler, and in his 1943, On the Essence of Truth: Plato’s Cave-Metaphor and the Theaetatus, wrote that philosophers set all the rules for the tyrant (h/t Tracy Strong). Hilary wrote to me here about one paragraph of Heidegger’s, endorsing Hitler and a decisive role for philosopher/sycophants in setting Nazi laws and practices, invoking the Republic, which was reprinted on Leiter Reports – here.

A distinguished Oxford translator of Plato then objected that two statements about a philosopher-ruler in the Republic must be what Plato meant – Heidegger, whom he had not read, was right according to a consensus of English philosophers – because no esoteric interpretation of Plato can be true. See here. Note that he gave no argument, except his translation of the sentences, for any of this. In addition, he ignores the entire context of the Republic leading up to this statement about how philosophers must rule which is satirical; understanding that context – reading with the lights on – is not, by itself, esoteric…

Also, he affirmed Heidegger’s judgment of Plato, against Putnam and Gilbert, while ignoring Heidegger’s Nazism. To say that this appeal to Oxonian authority, flamboyant demonstration of moral and philosophical ignorance, and lordly decree against a whole type of interpretation, one that Socrates spells out, for careful readers in Phaedrus (lines 275d-277a) , has no substance is, I am afraid, obvious. The exchange – Hilary called it “fascinating” – included many comments, and, in response, I wrote “Plato and the Consensus-police” here.


In Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life, Hilary also lectured on and then wrote about 3 and a quarter Jewish authors: Levinas, Rosenzweig, Buber and Wittgenstein (raised as a Christian and not religious, Wittgenstein, Hilary thought, has a deep resonance with Rosenzweig), who work toward the existential experience of the other In his interview with Hilary for Dehak, Yehuda Divan misunderstands Levinas who is responding, as an equal or even asymetically, as less important, to the neediness and suffering of others. For to begin ethically from the face of the other is to begin from a point where empathy is to the fore and killing far away (think of Trump and other racists on immigration or the Israeli government on Palestinians and you will see searingly one aspect of this point). Levinas’s core insight is not un-Jewish or influenced by conversation with Europeans, Hilary rightly says, any more than it is un-Christian, un-Marxian and so forth. Compassion for others as well as wanting everyone to have a decent life, is at the heart of all these forms of thinking (consider what Bernie Sanders says about the main point of his spirituality – Hilary liked Bernie a lot – and you will also hear some commonality):

“YD: At the opening of the fourth chapter, You point out that ‘Levinas’s audience is typically a gentile audience’, and that one can understand from Levinas’s words that ‘in essence, all human beings are Jews.’ This is not a generalization we would expect a Jew to make. And it’s hard not to notice that the acceptance and forgiveness which stand at the foundation of Levinas’s approach are more suitable to Jesus’s approach rather then to the severity of Judaism. Does Universalism necessarily mean lowering, or removing, the criteria’s?

HP: What Levinas preaches is not ‘acceptance and forgiveness’, but something related to but different from these, namely responsiveness to the neediness and suffering of the other. To “forgive” someone or “accept” someone is already to assume a position of superiority, and Levinas tries to teach us something that people, including certainly Christians, tend to miss: to respond to the needs of others because they are needs, and not for the sake of a principle, or because one thinks that ‘Jesus died for our sins’, or even because one thinks ‘God commanded me to’. In the Levinasian attitude, one puts oneself at the service of the other, not above him. If this is “unJewish”, it is equally “unChristian”, “unKantian”, “unUtilitarian”, “unMarxist”, etc. etc. But we should not want to have only Jewish thinkers who have a teudah [a certificate] that certifies that their thought is “genuinely Jewish”. I hope you agree!

Re ‘universalism’, it was Hillel who said “ohev et habriot”, perhaps the most universalistic declaration in the whole of Talmud. But let me focus on your closing question, with its reference to the ‘kriterionim’:

I don’t know if you are religious or secular, but I know that for most Israelis non-orthodox forms of Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and the Chavrutah movement, for example), are all considered “non-genuine”. (For the typical Israeli atheist, a Reform synagogue isn’t merely a place he doesn’t worship; it doesn’t count as a synagogue at all.) And for such a person, there is, then, such a thing as the ‘kriterionim’ for being ‘genuine Judaism. All this I regard as harmful prejudice. Instead, I agree with Rosenzweig, when he wrote, ’’It would be necessary [for the person who has succeeded in saying ‘nothing Jewish is alien to me’”] to free himself from those stupid claims that would impose ‘Judaism’ on him as a canon of definite, circumscribed ‘Jewish duties’ (vulgar orthodoxy), or ‘Jewish tasks’ (vulgar Zionism), or God forbid ‘Jewish ideas’ (vulgar liberalism).” I don’t believe in kriterionim, and I am not afraid of agreeing with whoever advocates responsiveness to the suffering of others, even if he be a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist, or a Marxist. Maimonides, after all, wrote in the introduction to the Eighth Chapter, ‘Sometimes I have taken a complete passage from the text of a famous book. Now there is nothing wrong with that’­­–and a ‘famous book’ he certainly had in mind was by a Muslim, Al Farabi’s Chapters of the Statesman. Our intellectual life and our spiritual life should not be based on fixed ‘criteria’ and certainly not on any sort of ethnic exclusiveness.”

Hilary condemns attempts as in Israel to mandate dogmatic, exclusive forms of (intra)Judaism, welcoming a conversation among all as well as with others. He notes sharply that Yehuda, unintentionally I suspect, flirts with a romantic nationalism – but that is, as Hilary rightly points out, the view of the Nazis, and some Zionists, like Leo Strauss, who were fascists (he cites Strauss’s advocacy of a Zionism led by a Mussolini-style leaders, modeled on the Blau Weiss movement in Germany in the 1920s) and eschews Heidegger, praised, also unawaredly, in one of Yehuda’s questions. Hilary sent me this interview, saying that I had influenced him (for analysis of how Heidegger was never in the “clouds” and was for the Nazis as of Being and Time and sadly, Strauss, too, see here, here, here, here and here). I was deeply moved by this. I am not Jewish particularly (sympathetic to King’s Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism). But I agree with every word in this interview and Hilary’s sense of what is great among these Jewish writers is, spiritually, of great power.

Listening to Heidegger at Freiburg in 1927, Levinas blown away. 60 years later, he speaks, in a conference on Heidegger, of how he, too, was unaware then (still is in a certain way) that the beauty of Being and Time and Heidegger’s repulsive Nazism were of a piece.

“Despite all the horror that eventually came to be associated with Heidegger’s name – and which will never be dissipated, nothing has been able to destroy my conviction that the Sein und Zeit of 1927 cannot be annulled…” (“Dying for…” pp. 208. 207, in Levinas, Entre Nous).

Except for his wife and daughter, Levinas lost his entire family – father, mother, uncles, aunts, father-in-law, mother-in-law – in the death camps. And so, over and over, Levinas speaks rightly of the Da in Dasein (of “being there” not as that of individuals but what Heidegger was actually for: Lebensraum-hungry German being in the world) as, in fact, occupying the place of another.

“From the Da of the Dasein, a risk of occupying the place of another, and thus, concretely, of exiling him, of consigning him to the miserable condition in some ‘third’ or ‘fourth’ world, of killing him. (‘From the One to the other,” pp. 149, 145, 148, and “Dying For…”, 216, 217 in Levinas, Entre Nous).


Hilary would have agreed with this idea – that he was deeply concerned with the dispossession/despoliation of indigenous peoples I know from correspondence – though he does not discuss it in these lectures.

Many have misunderstood Heidegger who is feinting at “individuality,” but actually thought that German “Dasein” was captured in all obeying the will of the Fuehrer. Levinas’s words unravel, in Heidegger’s metaphorical starting point, the elite German and American practice of colonial genocides (reacting to the Pan-German League’s vision of the East, the Karl May novels and the American genocide in the Wild West, Hitler spoke of “the Wild East,” of Russian “redskins,” of killing thirty to forty million slavs and settling German farmers in their stead. Long hidden by ideological Cold War discussions, this idea is the clearest expression of the Nazis’ genocidal “Social Darwinism” – see, for example, Carroll Kakel, The Holocaust as Colonial Genocide: Hitler’s Indian Wars in the Wild East, 2012).

Levinas also rightly contrasts his own ethical understanding with Heidegger’s ontology (the latter is also almost a feint; the aim of Being and Time is, given that a professor might be fired for avowing Nazism in the Weimar period, to unearth Dasein’s being toward death and being in the world along with historicity, a supposed obligation to sacrifice oneself for one’s generation, to restore, but with a new reactionary emphasis, the old order. Heidegger’s actual discussion of Being is remarkably limited, h/t Hazem Salem).

In Democratic Individuality, I put Levinas’s point another way. Fascism – the murderous bowing and scraping to a great leader/aggressor is not political but fundamentally anti-political (and anti-ethical, except towards some other “fascists” sometimes…). It falls athwart of broad, modern ideas of democratic individuality – of democracy as a framework for the pursuit by each person of her own ideas of a good life, changing them as she sees fit, so long as she does not harm others. At a certain level of abstraction, such ideas are characteristic of decent liberal, conservative and radical – communist, anarchist – ideas. The basic point of Democratic Individuality as a theory is thus strikingly articulated by Levinas – it is seeing the face of the other, that basic relationship (her face initially) which brings forth the humanity in each of us.

Brutal “collectivisms” – i.e. in the United States, “the Manifest Destiny” of “the Anglo-Saxon Race,” has been the hallmark of “the West” and some others (Genghis Khan, etc.), but here, too, another world is possible. It is that possibility which Levinas and Hilary attractively find in the faces of others…(Hilary speaks of this idea as “powerful and compelling” in Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life, p. 96, though he also, rightly I think, suggests that Levinas lacks Aristotle’s important notion of love of self – independence – as being central to friendship and to responding, with compassion, to neediness, pp. 98-99).

In addition, in the Dehak interview, Hilary regards Maimonides’ Guide for the Perpelexed(Yehuda misses the name of the book; such guides are also an old jewish fashion) as a kind of writing, in conversation with a great work, to show where it might, for a fresh reader, be misunderstood. This is a highly responsive, humble and intelligent kind of dialogue in Maimonides about the Torah, and in Hilary’s discussion of the 3 1/4 thinkers, not presuming to tell everyone what something exactly says (i.e. to substitute one’s own understanding for the beautiful, complex and many-sided works of others), but to warn about difficult passages, to engage someone who is studying it in a conversation. It is another, perhaps better formulation of what I aim at in doing internal (Socratic) critique – see, for example. Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 1-2 – and one I am using explicitly about Plato, Socrates and Gandhi in Alone among the Dead, a new book I am working on about the origins of modern civil disobedience/satyagraha/nonviolence (Hilary’s thought does not exclude Strauss’s claim that some of the Guide is a send-up, perhaps even “a thousand times more biting than Voltaire,” of certain features of the Torah, though it probably conflicts with Leo’s “discovery” that Maimonides, Ibn-Rusd/”Averroes,” Al-Farabi, and Plato are all atheists….)


Hilary also loved poetry. He wrote to me (and talked to me much of this) – and over many years, when I began putting up poems on my blog, would often write to me a short note about each one – something that meant a lot. He spoke to me of poems of Louis MacNeice and many others that he especially liked, sent me the news when Houghton Library put up the original manuscripts of Emily Dickinson poems (see Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson). When I was in Dharamsala this winter, I heard Tenzin Tsundue speak about the meaning to him of poetry. It saved his life against exile and torture and re-arrest even in India, and many friends and relatives being worried about or angry with him. I wrote a poem about it, which Hilary sent me a note about:

“Dear Alan,

I love this poem.

Age and health related problems (mine and Ruth Anna’s) absorb all my time lately, but a poem like this transcends them.


Hilary himself was a bit like the Brahmaputra, coming swiftly down from Tibet, being, creating life, watering our wider Asia.

This poem is now, also, for him.

Steve Wagner, a wonderful friend of Hilary’s and mine, sent me news of Hilary’s death while I was in Chile (see below). That same evening, he came across and then sent me a facebook page of Robert Reich’s about how an older boy, Michael Schwerner, had saved him from bullies in school. Andy Goodman, my friend from Walden School, went with SNCC and Freedom Summer to Mississippi. Mickey Schwerner was down there, James Cheney from there (he left his brother Ben with a promise to come back and play with him and went off that day…); it was Andy’s first day in Mississippi. They went to visit a burned out church where the minister had urged people to register to vote. Their car had a flat tire. They were abducted by the Sheriff and given, at midnight, to the Klan…

Hilary once wrote me of the pride that he and Ruth Anna felt, and that I should to, at the lives of fighting racism we had led. It was how I met Hilary. It was how I stood with Hilary against the wordy racism of Herrnstein and Murray (even bigger bullies, more blood on their hands…). It was how he (and we) stood against certain powerful prejudices about the Vietnam War at Harvard and in the Philosophical Association and in the elite. Somehow, the coincidence was very striking to Steve and he sent me a poem by Wallace Stevens. In “On Mere Being” from The Palm Tree at the End of the Universe,” Stevens imagines a mechanical bird whose song, imitating the song of birds, has no reason to it, and yet we hear the beautiful music. For there is a connection of my friendship with Andy now long ago, and my long and dear friendship with Hilary, a moral and political (as he wrote so eloquently) and philosophical thing, of many fibers, but one also about poetry. Stevens often had marvelously sounding last lines:

its fire-fangled feathers
dangle down

The sorrow that Hillary is gone, a dark hole in the universe for so many of us or the vanishing of a beautiful water-drop (Issa, a monk and fellow-poet of Basho, also summoned by Steve), is intense. The warmth and kindness of his friendship and his being human and somehow fire-fangled – Hilary’s amazing singing and brilliance and compassion for all – will be with me, and I hope with all of us, its soul-echoes spreading out to infinity, in the great move into the future.


What are poems for?

For Tenzin Tsundue and Hilary Putnam

A serious man


red bandana

lost along a roadway

raised away from parents


lost yourself in demonstrations

far from home

walked over the mountains


5 days into China

tortured and beaten three months

to lead resistance


amidst fists:

Why have you come
Who do you know
Who sent you


all the way to Lhasa in a cell

red flag

I studied English at Mumbai


Keats Shelley
in another tongue

interrogators do not believe


words have power


clear as the sweeping headwaters of the Brahmaputra

roiling Tibet

turn swiftly down

at the Great Bend

rush down down down

to water Asia


fine mountain snow


down down down

on the yak herder

20,000 feet of night

cordoned in cities

with a protective scroll

tiny houses

of beautiful images

no grass

and words

investigators took pity

not your need

sent you out of China

where Indian authorities

held you for a month

perhaps brainwashed

a spy for Beijing

anyone but

a maker of the words

that saved you

imagining the lost fathers

who fought

betrayed perhaps

by nonviolence

or a homeland you have barely seen

perhaps the prison cells

or a warrior Tibet

cutting throats

but now

fighter of anger and greed


a free Kom Amdo

the fiery invisible


and you and others

sword of nonviolence

blindly exiled

day by day

within it


Steve Wagner sent me the following message when I was in Chile:

“Hilary Whitehall Putnam (born July 31, 1926 – died 13 March 2016)

The Buddhist monk Issa on the death of one of his children:

the dewdrop world is a dewdrop world
and yet
and yet


When I sleep, I dream about hurrying down a road under morning clouds or evening mist. When I awaken I am captivated by the mountain streams, interesting sounds, or the calls of wild birds. Buddha called such attachment wrong, and of this I am guilty.

“Basho on his deathbed”



Alan Gilbert is John Evans professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and author of Marx’s Politics:Communists and Citizens (Rutgers, 1980), Democratic Individuality (Cambridge, 1990), Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy (1999) and Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago March, 2012). His blog Democratic Individuality is a rich mine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 7th, 2016.