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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


PUTNAM

(b. 1926)

 

ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY/ 'INTERNAL' REALISM

Hilary Putnam was born in Chicago. He gained his Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1951. He has taught at Northwestern University, Princeton, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1976 he was appointed Professor of modern mathematics and mathematical logic at Harvard.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE/ METAPHYSICS

[1] There are a number of key features of Putnam's thought which are interdependent and inform his views on language, mind, and reality. [See especially Reason, Truth and History.]

(1) Referential semantics [chs 1 and 2]. He rejects (i) the view that meanings are theoretical entities or states, scientific objects existing 'in the head', which can have an explanatory role to play in scientific theory [a]; and (ii) the theory that sense determines reference, that is, the truth conditions for something to be part of a term's extension [b]. This is because such views cannot explain how mental states, intentions, or meanings can refer to extramental entities. Changes in meaning will also bring about changes in the content of theories. Putnam therefore argues that the reference of a term is determined by what occurs in the linguistic community and by causal connections that exist in the world [c]. Thus we can see that, say, 'gold' refers to a particular substance not because of any meanings, concepts or rules in the head but by virtue of 'paradigmatic examples' implicit in language use. Likewise he says there can be no criterion for synonymy and hence analyticity except for what is actually given to us in interpretive practice. The concept of truth is non-eliminable [see 'The Analytic and the Synthetic'] [d].

(2) Essentialism. [See 'Meaning and Reference'.] According to Putnam, when we use, say, the word 'gold' to refer to an object, while we may recognise something as being gold through observation of its properties (yellow, malleable, etc.), the term itself refers to a particular stuff or natural kind, the 'essence' of which can be determined by scientific analysis [e] to reveal structure, atomic number, and so on. To be gold the object must possess these properties necessarily, even though our knowledge of them may be gained a posteriori. Putnam offers a 'thought-experiment'. He supposes that water (H2O) has a counterpart in another world — 'Twin Earth'. Both there and on our Earth the substance is identified extensionally by reference to its properties (colourless, transparent, for example). But even if these properties are the same, conform to the same operational definitions, and the same word 'water' is used to refer to the substance in both worlds, it is not the same liquid if its internal or micro-structure is different. To be water in any world the substance must be H2O (or whatever chemists determine its structure to be). The designating term is thus said to be 'rigid' in that it refers to the same individual in any possible world. An important consequence of this is that the reference of a word cannot depend on its being linked with other words as descriptions but only on the relevant causal chain. The sense of the term is then identified with the type of chain involved [f] [f]. Putnam supposed further that the causal reference theory could be extended to terms other than natural kind ones. [See 'The Meaning of "meaning" '].

(3) Internal realism [chs 3, 5, 7, and 8]. Putnam had earlier accepted 'metaphysical realism' — the view that the world consists of a totality of mind-independent objects, for which there is only one true and complete description. However, he came to recognise that his causal reference theory of meaning made this view untenable. This is because to understand causal links between things or events we must have thoughts about these links; and we can never, as it were, break out of our thoughts to achieve a 'God's eye point of view' of the way language relates to the world. We cannot achieve an absolute comparison of our system of concepts with reality. But this does not mean that Putnam is committed to relativism — which denies there are any absolute standards of truth or rationality. On the contrary, he rejects relativism because it fails to distinguish between the correctness of a belief and its seeming to be correct. He proposes instead that while remaining within a conceptual system we can consider the ways in which our beliefs, judgements, principles relate to and reinforce one another with a view to achieving a partial comprehension of reality. The correspondence (or 'similitude') theory of truth is thus no longer acceptable [g] — for the reason that there can be a multitude of correspondences between objects and (what we take to be) incompatible theories [RTH, ch. 3]. Rationality, although grounded and operating within language and culture, nevertheless has a normative, 'transcendent' regulative aspect which enables us to criticize our traditions and provides the basis for the employment of such epistemological concepts as justification, truth, and warranted assertibility. Truth, he says, is "idealized rational acceptability under epistemically ideal conditions" [ibid.]. A true statement may be said to be warrantedly assertible within the context of a given culture, but it is not to be defined in terms of warranted assertibility. In general he rejects attempts to 'naturalize' epistemological concepts [h] by reference to scientific beliefs grounded in, for example, sensory stimuli ['Why Reason Can't Be Naturalized']. Similarly he accepts that value terms such as 'good' and 'right' (as well as such notions as 'true' and 'justification' — see above) cannot be reduced to physicalist properties and relations. Putnam argues further that while the fact-value dichotomy might not be overcome, as (respectively) rational acceptability and relevance facts (or 'truths') and values are interdependent. Our criteria of relevance rest on and reveal our whole system of values, and it is our rationality which enables us to determine what questions are relevant ones to ask and what answers it is warranted to accept. The concept of rationality itself presupposes values (the 'good') which relate to and depend on assumptions about human nature ('human flourishing' as constituting in part our rationality, for example), society, and the universe as a whole. Moreover, he says that we have had to revise our theory of the good (such as it is) again and again as our knowledge has increased and our world-view has changed [see chs 6 and 9]. Different ideas of human flourishing may be appropriate for individuals with different constitutions — even in some 'ideal' world; diversity is part of the ideal [ch. 6] [i].

 

PHILOSOPHY OF MIND

[2] Putnam initially espoused functionalism [ibid. ch. 4]. The mind is thought of as akin to a computer 'software' program which is processed by the 'hardware' of the brain, though it is possible that mental life might be instantiated in other hardware structures, such as computers themselves or silicon-based organisms, for example. What makes a mental state into a particular kind, such as pain, or a belief that something is the case, is to be located in the network of functional connections that link the behaviour of the organism to the environment. It is our descriptions of these interconnections that are articulated in the language of the mental. More recently Putnam has come to reject this position [see Reason and Representation]. While the existence of mental states might be compatible with a range of physical systems or structures, he now argues that they cannot be identified with functional, physical-chemical, or computationally characterized states, though they may be emergent from and 'supervenient' on them. Underlying his critique is the view that mental life — rationality, intentionality — cannot be (like epistemology) be 'naturalized' [a] and his recognition that a given mental state can be realized in different computational machines and thus cannot be identified with any particular one.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Putnam's philosophy is of considerable interest for its combination of the analytic qualities characteristic of some of the best Anglo-American philosophers with the breadth to be found in much contemporary continental social philosophy and philosophical anthropology. Moreover, his thought is not static and has undergone considerable revision in his pursuit of truth. These are the key features:

(1) He rejects Frege's view that sense determines reference in favour of an extensionalist account of meaning and truth determined by causal connections in the world and the constraints imposed by the language of a given community in 'interpretive practice'. Associated with this approach is his use of the concept of the rigid designator.

(2) Rejecting both metaphysical 'objective' realism and relativism he espouses what he calls internal realism.

(3) He holds a concept of truth as regulative and as "idealized rational acceptability".

(4) He is committed to essentialism.

(5) In his later work he rejects functionalism and all theories which seek to 'naturalize' mental life.

Inevitably, given the wide range of issues examined by Putnam, his writings have attracted criticisms from philosophers of various traditions.

(1) Many would dispute the view that mental life can be emergent from or supervenient on physical structures and yet cannot be naturalized. How this occurs is arguably not adequately accounted for. (As against this, it has to be said that no contemporary theory of mind — and there are many — has received universal acceptance.)

(2) More controversial perhaps is his (and Kripke's) theory of the rigid designator and his referential semantics. While the programme may be feasible as applied to 'natural kinds' such as chemical elements, which have well-defined structures and properties, when it comes to designating more complex entities, for example, animals, human beings, the theory becomes more questionable and difficult to sustain without almost casuistic ad hoc modifications. His anti-Fregean (or at least modified Fregean) view of sense and reference is also controversial and continues to be debated vigorously.

(3) Truth for Putnam is an unrealized ideal. But this raises the question as to how far we can pass beyond conceptual restraints while remaining within the system. Can coherence, reinforcement 'point' beyond? Is there a middle way between 'metaphysical realism' and 'relativism' as Putnam supposes (we might call this 'weak realism' — as opposed to 'strong' realism and antirealism)? Further, can criteria be set out for "epistemologically ideal conditions" which are either not already grounded in our conceptual scheme or are based on arbitrary and pragmatic considerations?

 

READING

Putnam: [of many writings] Matter and Method: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1 (1975); Mind, Language and Reality: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2 (1975) (includes 'The Meaning of "meaning" ' and 'The Analytic and Synthetic'); 'Meaning and Reference' (1973) in A. W. Moore (ed.), Meaning and Reference; Meaning and the Moral Sciences (1978); Reason, Truth and History (1981); 'Why Reason Can't Be Naturalized' (1981), in After Philosophy, eds K. Baynes et al.; Realism and Reason: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 3 (1983); Representation and Reality (1988).

Studies

J. Conant and U. Zeglin, Hilary Putnam: Pragmatism and Realism.

C.S. Hill The Philosophy of Hilary Putnam.

Collection of essays

P. Clark and B. Hale (eds.), Reading Putnam.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Putnam

 

[1a; cf. 1f] Meanings and references not mental entities with explanatory role in science

   Frege

   Wittgenstein

   Quine

Dummett

Searle

   Kripke

[2i]

[2a]

[1a]

[1d]

[1c]

[1a]

 

[1b; cf. 1f] Sense does not determine reference

   Frege

   Wittgenstein

Dummett

Searle

   Kripke

[2e]

[1c]

[1d]

[1d]

[1a]

 

[1c 1f] Causal theory of reference

Dummett

   Kripke

[1e]

[1d]

 

[1d] No criterion for synonymy hence for analyticity

   Quine

   Strawson

[1b]

[1f]

 

[1e] Essentialism and theory of 'natural kinds'    Kripke [1d]

 

[1f; cf. 1b] Rejection of description theories of reference; 'sense' and 'reference' in terms of causal chains; 'rigidity' of terms in any possible world

   Quine

   Strawson

Dummett

   Searle

   Kripke

[1e]

[1d]

[1d e]

[1d]

[1a c d]

 

[1g] Rejection of (his earlier) metaphysical realism and of relativism; critique of correspondence (or 'similitude') theory; internal realism: partial comprehension of reality

   Aristotle

   Kant

   Wittgenstein

   Popper

   Quine

   Davidson

   Dummett

   Searle

[2a]

[2d]

[1a 3b 3c]

[2d]

[2b]

[1e]

[1b]

[2d]

 

[1h] 'Transcendent' regulative aspect of rationality while grounded in language and culture, basis for justification and warranted assertibility (but not definition of 'truth'); rejection of 'naturalizing' of epistemological concepts

   Kant

   Dewey

   Quine

   Dummett

   Habermas

[1c]

[2b]

[3b]

[1f]

[3b]

 

[1i] Value terms not reducible to physicalist notions; facts and values interdependent in context of assumptions about human nature, society, and the universe; theory of good constantly open to revision; diversity even in 'ideal' world

   Aristotle

   Russell

   Moore

   Rawls

   Searle

[18c]

[4d]

[3a]

[1c]

[5b]

 

[2a] [Later] rejection of [earlier view] functionalism as theory of mind; mental states compatible not identifiable with physical systems but may be 'emergent'; mental life (rationality, intentionality) not naturalizable

   Aristotle

   Ayer

   Davidson

Searle

   Kripke

[15a-d]

[3e]

[2b]

[2g h]

[2a]