Just finished reading Ethics without Ontology (2004) by Harvard professor Hilary Putnam where he argues for a pragmatic pluralism, conceptual relativity, and the obligations to recognize and resist human suffering, with also the aim to promote human flourishing. Ontologies of the inflationary (e.g. realism, idealism) or deflationary (e.g. eliminationism, nominalism) strategies fail to take ethical (practical) disagreements seriously because they presuppose a theoretical reductionism that assumes to solve ethical controversies trans-contextually.

Putnam writes: “when a practical problem is successfully solved, there is still often controversy as to whether the successful solution can be generalized to the next problem that seems similar; for the degree and significance of the similarity are typically controversial as well!” (30-31, emphasis original). On this view, ontologies act as conventions that prejudice and precondition our interpretive structures. Echoing what he calls the “pragmatic enlightenment,” Putnam claims that Dewey’s methodological “democratic education” and “fallibilism,” when we investigate ethics as “problematic situations” and invite “proposals,” can avoid the absolutizing and “arrogant” tendencies of ontology's "disastrous consequences."

“Dewey stressed that problematical situations are contingent and their resolutions are likewise contingent; but there is still a difference, an all-important difference, between thinking that a claim concerning the resolution of a situation is a warranted claim and its actually being warranted” (129, emphasis original).

In the spirit of Levinas and others, is it possible or even valuable to have ethics without ontology and does this trump the quandries of objectivity and justification in ethical judgments?

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    Hasn't Putnam himself offered an argument in that text that it is possible and valuable to do so? Is there a particular part of his argument you're concerned with? – ChristopherE Jan 21 '14 at 17:35
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    Yes, that is correct Christopher. I am more concerned with the normative question about whether this is advisable. Has Putnam adopted a kind of "eliminationism" by writing "Ontology: an obituary"? I'm anxious to understand how hypothetical, metaphysical description becomes irrelevant e even for "problematical situations"? So the concerns are more general than this one application that Putnam nicely sets up. – Paradox Lost Jan 25 '14 at 16:54
  • I don't think Levinas is the authority to invoke here. Levinas, like Putnam, would be very happy with an ethics without ontology---for Levinas, any given ontology must already follow from a pre-given ethics. It is ethics that must be regarded as first philosophy. – ig0774 Jul 26 '14 at 20:54
  • It would impossible to ground an ethical theory in axioms without an ontology to allow us to do this. Putnam's post-modern and post-truth approach is only necessary in the absence of one. Putnam says, in effect, I do not have an workable ontology so let's just use guesswork when we make ethical decisions. Metaphysics includes both ontology and ethics because they are inseparable. We cannot know how to behave if we do not know who we are and the situation we are in. ,. . – user20253 Apr 30 '18 at 12:25


It is in one sense plainly impossible to do ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, the philosophy of mind or any of the major areas of philosophy without making assumptions about the most fundamental features of reality - time, change, existence, and the like. Putnam knows this as well as anybody else. His alignment with pragmatism makes no difference to his. Pragmatics of all persuasions recognise time and change, for instance.


Putnam is, then, presumably using 'ontology' in a special and specific way. What he appears to be opposed to are particular ontologies :

inflationary ontology, which holds there are "things unknown to ordinary sense perception ... and to modern physical science" (17); and two forms of deflationary ontology-reductionist (according to which, for example, goodness is nothing more than some property like pleasure) and "eliminationist" (according to which, for example, nothing is good).(Sarah McGrath, 'Ethics without Ontology by Hilary Putnam', The Philosophical Review, Vol. 115, No. 4 (Oct., 2006), pp. 533.)


What Putnam centrally argues for is 'pragmatic pluralism' :

the recognition that it is no accident that in everyday language we employ many different kinds of discourses, discourses subject to different standards and possessing different sorts of applications, with different logical and grammatical features-different "language games"in Wittgenstein's sense-no accident because it is an illusion that there could be just one sort of language game which could be sufficient for the description of all reality! (22). (McGrath, ibid.)

There appears to be a disconnect between this view and Putnam's critique of ontology. None of the ontologies that Putnam rejects or disregards entails or presupposes that what there is can be described in terms of just one language game (McGrath, ibid.) Even the unreconstructed ontologist, Aristotle, recognises this with complete clarity :

Our account ,,, will be adequate if it achieves such clarity as the subject-matter allows; for the same degree of precision is not to be expected in all discussions, any more than in all the products of handicraft. ... The same procedure, then, should be observed in receiving our several types of statement; for it is a mark of the trained mind never to expect more precision in the treatment of any subject than the nature of that subject permits; for demanding logical demonstrations from a teacher of rhetoric is clearly about as reasonable as accepting mere plausibility from a mathematician. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.3 : tr. Thomson & Tredennick, London : Penguin, 2004, 5.)

And the point bears reiteration that if Putnam can practise 'pragmatic pluralism' without any of the particular ontologies he identifies, he cannot practise it without making any ontological assumptions at all.


Hilary Putnam, Ethics without Ontology, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Sarah McGrath, 'Ethics without Ontology by Hilary Putnam', The Philosophical Review, Vol. 115, No. 4 (Oct., 2006), pp. 533-535.

Anthony Giampietro, 'Ethics without Ontology by Hilary Putnam', he Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Dec., 2005), pp. 444-446.

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, tr. J.A.K. Thomson & H. Tredennick, London : Penguin, 2004.

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