Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Hilary Putnam is "Keeping it Real."



This blog has been mentioned at: http://www.radioopensource.org/

New Jersey's hackers and Cuban-Americans from Miami are expected to block the image of Hilary Putnam on the assumption that Professor Putnam is a Communist and possible guerrilla fighter. Professor Putnam is highly flattered to be thought of in this way and is rumored to be sporting military fatigues in the faculty lounge at Harvard University.


Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism (Chicago: Open Court, 1995), $26.95.

"... one ought to do the rational thing even in unrepeatable situations. In the ethical case, I do think, and I think it warranted to think, that a person who has a sense of human brotherhood is better than a person who lacks a sense of human brotherhood. A person who is capable of thinking for himself about how to live is better than a person who has lost or never developed the capacity to think for himself about how to live; but, whether the question be about single-case probability or about ethics, I don't know how I know these things. These are cases in which I find that I have to say: 'I have reached bedrock and this is where my spade is turned.' ..."

I. Who is Hilary Putnam?

Philosophers are usually reluctant to change their minds once they have published their views. This is because philosophers are accustomed to playing the role of sages in Western culture, anouncing truths to the multitudes or at least to undergraduates. It would hardly do for the great thinker to descend from the mountain -- better yet, to "ascend" from Plato's Cave -- then to declare, solemnly, a long list of truths, only to pause and say: "Wait, I changed my mind about genetic engineering and eating pork."

After all, for most of their history, philosophers have been competing with priests and prophets. Moses could not say: "Hey, I've got a new idea, make that eleven commandments."

There have been exceptions to this general tendency towards setting philosophers' views in concrete. For instance, Jean Paul Sartre's later Marxist-influenced views in the Critique of Dialectical Reason were in tension with his earlier ideas in Being and Nothingness; Ludwig Wittgenstein's "logical positivism" and "picture theory" of language in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was entirely opposed by his more flexible and anti-positivistic "game theory" of language in the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

No recent philosopher has been as willing to change his mind -- usually publicly -- as the American Hilary Putnam. I regard this as a commendable display of honesty and commitment to the integrity of thought.

It is possible that by the time I finish this essay, Professor Putnam will have changed his mind yet again, thus rendering my remarks obsolete. If the least that we can expect from a target on the "philosophical shooting range" is that it will stand still, then like postmodernism and existentialism, Putnam's self-styled "Realism With a Human Face" will disappoint us by constantly shifting and changing, refusing to be reduced to a slogan.

"Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell," Putnam says, "belongs in one."

In fairness, it should also be acknowledged that Putnam's concern to respect scientific learning and common sense as well as the reality of moral imperatives in our lives may explain many of his own shifts of emphasis over the years. If Putnam were a boxer, he might be thought of as a kind of "Sugar Ray Leonard" of philosophy: quick, deceptively clever, but more powerful than you may think.

Putnam was born in 1926 in Chicago. He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California at Los Angeles. Since 1965, he has been a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. Since 1976, he has received a fancier title at Harvard, but it amounts to the same thing. He teaches philosophy at that university. His interests have "evolved" from the philosophy of science and mathematical theory to the puzzles of metaphysics and epistemology. Perhaps the key turning point in Putnam's career is the publication in 1982 of Reason, Truth and History which marked his transition from scientific or metaphysical realism to "internal" realism.

This more mature and personal position is related to Putnam's "ideal limit theory of rationality and truth," and partial abandonment of his earlier "functionalism," all of which bears comparison with the work of leading thinkers both in the Anglo-American analytical-linguistic as well as in the pragmatist traditions, and in the Continental philosophical schools. Putnam's work is usually discussed with the same level of respect and attention accorded to the writings of Richard Rorty, Jurgen Habermas, Alasdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams and Robert Nozick.

I shall offer a close reading of, and commentary upon, a single essay by Putnam: "Why is a Philosopher?," in Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal, eds., The Institution of Philosophy: A Discipline in Crisis? (La Salle: Open Court, 1989), p. 61. I have drawn on other writings by or about Professor Putnam to shed light on this one essay, notably his own subsequent articles entitled: "Why Reason Can't be Naturalized," in K. Baynes, J. Bohman, T. McCarthy, eds., After Philosophy: End or Transformation? (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), p. 217; and "After Empiricism," in J. Rajchman and C. West, eds., Post-Analytic Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 20.

I have mostly ignored commentaries by rival scholars in order to remain within the constraints of a brief Internet discussion.

I begin by setting forth Putnam's argument, focusing on his celebrated hypothetical examples and indicating where areas of difficulty are to be found. I shall then provide a clear statement of my guarded sympathies for Putnam's "Kantian-pragmatism" with a postmodern twist. I conclude with an assessment of Putnam's place among contemporary thinkers, adding some reservations and qualifications of my own. Before turning to that discussion of Putnam's views, there is something that I wish to say about philosophy in the United States.

A. Is philosophy for everybody?

It is dismaying that the audience for first-rate philosophical work is so small and unrepresentative of the general population. Such a state of affairs is suspiciously convenient for the powers that be. Ideas and the capacity to discuss them intelligently must be something that some American elites do not wish to see brought within the reach of most people in society. I am sure that greater inclusiveness in America's philosophical conversation is possible and would be beneficial for the culture. For one thing, more philosophical sophistication may lead people to question the policies and positions of so-called elites which is a good thing, in my judgment, if one lives in a democracy. ("Why philosophy is for everybody.")

We all want things to make "philosophical" sense. When people are ill-equipped to do so intelligently -- in other words, to philosophize adequately -- they become easy prey for those offering simplistic models of reality ("it's all the fault of the Jews, or whites, blacks, or Muslims, and so on"), and are quickly made to hate. Getting people to stop hating is not so easily nor so quickly accomplished. Philosophical education is in the national interest. So yes, philosophy is "for" everyone. ("Is Western Philosophy Racist?")

Conservatives should have no fear. American ideas (or the fundamental principles of U.S. Constitutionalism) will do very well in any competition with rivals in the "marketplace" of ideas, which is not to say that the Conservatives themselves will flourish, but they should not be afraid of a little competition. Philosophy, as I never tire of arguing, is a vital necessity for free persons.

Those who lack the skill to develop an intelligent or sophisticated philosophical stance will develop a not-so-intelligent or an unsophisticated one. What people cannot avoid is having some kind of philosophical outlook on life. This means that genuine education and high levels of literacy are essential.

On all of these fronts, U.S. society is failing its citizens and we all must do more, collectively, to improve our national performance in education and to become more philosophically adept. Sadly, the philosophical "profession" (meaning the APA) is not meeting its unique responsibility to bring philosophy to the public square, so as to contribute to this effort, making it clear to all people -- especially to the poor and minority persons -- that philosophy is important and necessary for everyone. ("Robert Brandom's 'Reason in Philosophy.'")

Professor Cornel West, addressing a gathering of African-American philosophers, bemoaned the transformation of humanistic learning into something merely decorative in an excessively commercial and business climate in the United States, one which has invaded our universities, and he went on to warn:

"When we shift to the discourse on the underclass, we see in fact that the culture of consumption, which is to say the culture of advanced capitalist American society, evolves more and more around the market, around buying and selling, around a process of commodification that tends to undermine values, structures of meaning, in the name of the ... procuring of profit."

Professor West goes on to say:

"This is indeed more than a challenge -- it is a highly dangerous situation. [emphasis added] In a market culture in which commodification holds sway over more and more spheres of human life, an addiction to stimulation becomes the requisite for the consumerism that helps keep the economy going. Therefore, it tends to undermine community, links to history and tradition, neighborhoods, even qualitative relations, since the very notion of commitment becomes more and more contested and bodily stimulation becomes a model for human relations. We see it in the employment of women's bodies in dehumanized ways in the advertising industry. We see it in the television sit-coms that tend to evolve around orgiastic intensity. ... Stimulation becomes the ends much more so than the means, yet the means is the very sphere in which human relations, community, and traditions are linked to human history, especially traditions of resistance."

"Philosophy and the Urban Underclass," in Bill E. Lawson, ed., The Underclass Question (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1992), pp. 194-195. (Compare Frank Kirkland's essay in the same collection entitled, "Social Policy, Ethical Life, and the Urban Underclass," Ibid., at pp. 152-182.)

Marginal outreach efforts by philosophers are not enough. I am a great fan of "No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed." (I was saddened to learn of Ken Knisely's recent death.) I support any attempts to use television and other "new" media for philosophical purposes -- including philosophical hip-hop music. I welcome, especially, the philosophy lectures offered by the "Teaching Company," but these efforts are far from sufficient. They require much more support from the professionals. For this reason, to take one example, Professor West's decision to participate in The Matrix: Reloaded film should be commended.

West's visibility and participation in that movie, which was filled with ideas, will bring non-traditional students to philosophy. West's decision to use the mass media for philosophical and political purposes is a creative reversal of the mechanism of pacification in our entertainment society. (See the final section of my essay "The Galatea Scenario and the Mind/Body Problem.")

Too often academic philosophy is merely a topic of conversation for highly comfortable and privileged people, inhabiting the upper crust of the society who seem concerned, primarily, to display their cleverness for and to one another, while chatting about their shared experiences as graduate students at Columbia, Yale or Harvard, rather than addressing the many issues demanding the application of philosophical intelligence in our world. ("Mind and Machine" and "Consciousness and Computers" then "John Searle and David Chalmers On Consciousness.")

When most of the population of the planet survives on a dollar a day or less, and 50% of those persons on substantially less than a dollar a day, the cost of the average philosophy book published in the U.S. -- ostensibly dealing with issues like social justice for those same billions of poor people -- is between $25.00 and $35.00.

This economic fact alone should tell us something about the esoteric nature of much philosophical talk and the exclusiveness of its audience. (See "Support the ONE Campaign.")

We must do better than this. Philosophers must not become the equivalent of intellectual "stamp collectors," trading particularly "attractive" articles among themselves, producing works that are read only by one another. Philosophy is too important for that rarefied and "gentlemen's club" kind of feel to hold sway.

II. "Why is a Philosopher?"

It will be useful to prepare for my analysis by summarizing Putnam's critique of the conventional view of meaning and reference. The traditional theory of meaning postulates that "meaning exists in the head" and that "meaning fixes reference." In other words, "the meaning of a term determines the truth conditions or conditions of satisfaction that anything must meet in order to be part of the extention of that term."

After Philosophy, p. 217.

Putnam's "semantic externalism" begins with the importance of intentionality (and this feature of his work alone makes him interesting to phenomenologists), and demonstrates that the traditional theory fails to explain how it is that mental states can refer to (or "set satisfaction conditions for") extramental entities.

Traditional understandings of meaning, according to Putnam, bring us dangerously close to the "solipsistic dilemma."

Putnam insists that what a linguistic term "refers" to is not determined by mental states alone, but by "paradigmatic examples" that are established in a linguistic or interpretive community and by historical or causal connections that exist in the non-linguistic world.

There is something "out there," existing independently of our descriptions, that has a lot to do with the "accuracy" of those descriptions, given our shared perceptions of that something. I can confirm this on the basis of my occasional need to find a public restroom. I am quite certain of just when I have "really" found one, as opposed to having merely "conceived" of one linguistically. (See my essay entitled "A Critique of Richard Rorty's Ethical Skepticism.")

This "nuts-and-bolts" theory of reference leads Putnam to criticize, equally, "metaphysical realism" and "relativism," both of which are views that may be rejected without giving up some notion of objectivity in our truth-claims or in ethics.

During the course of lengthy Internet debates -- with persons claiming expertise in philosophy -- it was impossible for me to get these distinctions across to my adversaries. I am happy to learn that Putnam agrees that some claims are indeed more true than others in a pretty "objective" sense of the word "true."

Metaphysical realism also does not work, according to Putnam, because it requires a "god's eye point of view" or, as Thomas Nagel puts it, "the point of view from nowhere" upon our words and how they "hook up" with the world.

Relativism fails, equally, because it undermines the necessary distinction between a belief's being right and merely appearing to be right. This is a point that Susan Haack has made in her critiques of Rorty's work. Thus, according to one scholar:

"Putnam's own alternative, which, with an explicit reference to Kant, he calls 'internal realism,' holds that the rejection of metaphysical realism need not entail the rejection of all trans-subjective standards of rational justification. Epistemic notions such as 'justified,' 'true,' and 'warrantedly assertible' are elements of an irreducibly normative conception of rationality, which it is the task of the philosophers ... to elaborate."

After Philosophy, p. 218.

Notice that the key term in this passage is "irreducibly normative." Putnam's systematic tendencies lead him to make important connections at this point. He formulates a "transcendent normative component" to his theory because, if truth is "idealized rational acceptability" -- meaning acceptability under "epistemically ideal conditions" -- then how we understand the concept of truth will depend upon our conception of rationality and this will presuppose some conception of the "good."

The parallel to John Rawls's discussion of "reflective equilibrium" in A Theory of Justice is obvious. Lately, I have been reading about Jurgen Habermas, whose "ideal communicative condition" is also analogous to Putnam's theory of "idealized rational acceptability." Putnam writes:

"Any choice of a conceptual scheme presupposes values [and this includes the conceptual scheme of science,] ... because no conceptual scheme is a mere 'copy' of the world. The notion of truth itself depends for its content on our standards of rational acceptability, and these in turn rest on and presuppose our values. Put schematically and too briefly, I am saying that theory of truth presupposes theory of rationality[,] which in turn presupposes our theory of the good. 'Theory of the good,' however, is not only programmatic, but is itself dependent upon assumptions about human nature, about society, about the universe (including theological and metaphysical assumptions). We have 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."

Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 215.

There is no description of reality nor any representation of it that is unrelated to values, Putnam contends.

This is hardly to suggest that all descriptions are created equal. They are not. Some descriptions and/or representations will be "better," epistemically, than others. This superiority of some descriptions will result, in part, from how things are and not just from how we represent or describe them. "Meaning," as Putnam said, "ain't in the head."

Moreover, there can be no decision about "what is a fact" that is unreflective of value choices; nor is there a "value-judgment" that is unconnected to our perceptions of fact. Our values decisions also have something to do with how things are and what is the case.

I can now turn to the specific argument in the essay "Why is a Philosopher?"

A. Positivism and Relativism are Self-Refuting.

Putnam notes at the outset that logical positivism and a chastened form of empiricism were at the center of "Anglo-Saxon" philosophical thought from about 1930 to 1960, prior to the neo-realistic challenge of thinkers such as Putnam and Saul Kripke. He suggests that various forms of "relativism" have been at the center of contemporary French thought. It should be noted that the essay under discussion served as an encyclopedia entry concerning Anglo-American as compared with French philosophical thought at the end of the twentieth century. Putnam wonders about French skepticism (which is now closer to nihilism):

"... philosophers in all countries regularly remark that positivist and relativist ideas are self-refuting (and they are right to do so). But the fact of self-contradiction does not seem to stop or even slow down an intellectual fashion, partly because it is a fashion, ... I have been trying to stop these fashions because they begin to threaten the possibility of a philosophical enterprise that men and women of good sense can take seriously." (p. 62.) ("Why I am not an ethical relativist" and "John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism.")

In debating people who held self-contradictory and absurd views I found myself encountering statements such as these: 1) "it is just true that there is no truth"; and 2) "it's wrong to think that there is such a thing as right and wrong."

Despite my best efforts, as I say, I was unable to convey the absurdity of these statements to my adversaries. Relativism cannot consistently be affirmed as objectively true; ethical relativism cannot be held to bind everyone because it is objectively (or non-relativistically) true; such views are self-contradictory or literally "nonsensical."

Putnam makes a highly intelligent observation about the positivism underlying the relativist current that is fashionable in America today:

"Nietzsche himself (whose Geneaology of Morals is the paradigm for much contemporary relativist-cum-post-structuralist writing) is at his most positivist when he writes about the nature of truth and value. It seems to me that what bothers both relativists and positivists about the problem of representation is that representation -- that is to say, intentionality -- simply does not fit into our reductive post-Darwinian picture of the world. Rather than admit that [such a] picture is only a partial truth, only an abstraction from the whole, both positivists and relativists seek to content themselves with oversimplified, in fact with patently absurd, answers to the problem of intentionality." (p. 63.)

Intentionality has to do with the ways in which human orientation to the world is shaped by motives, theories, concerns and values that are, in traditional terms, "subjective." Intentionality is inescapable because human consciousness is always consciousness "of" something, directed towards the environment in which consciousness emerges, which includes the social-conceptual environment.

A distinction must be borne in mind between "aboutness" (intentions, purposes, meanings) and "causality" (empirical operations) in assessing human actions (or events) and the network of human constructs in which we always find ourselves situated. We must distinguish actions from events.

Wittgenstein says that there are "no private languages"; and Sartre speaks of the ways in which "emotions are magical transformations of the world." We never perceive the world in a pristine or unmediated manner. We cannot step out of the human perceptual apparatus to examine the "facts" in order to jump back into our minds and test the facts against our values. Values shape what we call a fact in the first place. ("A Philosophical Investigation of Ludwig Wittgenstein.")

This is not -- not at all! -- to claim that there are no facts. It is to insist that there are no unmediated natural "facts" nor a language of nature that we simply apprehend. No, this does not mean that we must accept all of Nietzsche's rants. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth.

Scientific facts always come to us dripping with linguistic and conceptual as well as theoretical languages and categories. This is not to deny that there is a way things are, empirically, nor that we may have intentional states concerning (shaping and shaped by) those ways in which things are. This does not preclude the possibility of objectivity, in other words, so long as we understand that it is a human objectivity that we achieve. Merely because knowledge is human does not make knowledge "inherently subjective" (meaning strictly personal or unstable), nor is it all "arbitrary" or some such nonsense. It is still knowledge and there is still truth. With regard to knowledge and truth subjects and the world establish what Octavio Paz calls: "an alternating current." ("Carlos Fuentes and Multiculturalism" and "Cornel West On Universality.")

At the same time, knowledge is never unrelated to such things as human purposes. What this amounts to is offering the skeptic his or her due, a half loaf but not the whole loaf, while retaining a meaningful notion of truth in communications. Simon Blackburn's recent book, which I am reading as I write this essay, is very helpful in discussing these issues and may be associated with key aspects of Putnam's work. ("Can you lie to yourself?")

Suppose that I purchase a speedy European automobile so that I can zip to my philosophy class more quickly, and look really snazzy as I do so. With my French scarf flying in the wind, as I drive my convertible -- say, a red Ferrari -- I come to a traffic signal that is "red." I stop my vehicle because I have read the signal as "red" and interpret its message as "stop." My knowledge of the language of traffic signs and signals, rules of the road and so on, is knowledge of a very human sort. It is a highly human or even automotive knowledge -- but it is still knowledge, so that there is such a thing as being mistaken or wrong about what that red signal "means." This is true objectively, since any other driver coming upon that signal will interpret it as I do. The consequences of being wrong may be disastrous. (Professor Roderick makes use of a similar example in his video course on Nietzsche which is available from The Teaching Company.)

We do not need the voice of God to emerge from the clouds saying "stop when the light is red" because we can be pretty clear about what our signs mean -- after they are "read" -- in the relevant context, even if it is only our particular social context and even if the signs used are arbitrary, so that we might have chosen an entirely different set of signals to convey the same message.

B. Logical Realism and the Empiricist Reaction.

For most of the twentieth century American philosophers have adopted some form of logical empiricism and/or pragmatism, happily ignoring the various forms of relativism and totalizing theories that came and went on the European continent. I should acknowledge that my sympathies have always rested with the politically-engaged Continentalist philosophers, both in Europe and in the U.S., though not with any of the various forms of trendy Parisian nihilism, anarchism, or relativism. Although I admire and have learned from some of the post-structuralists, especially Foucault and Derrida (only recently have I begun to read about Lacan, who was previously just a name), I have no doubt that my thinking is best classified as phenomenological, with some attachments to Kantian moral theory and the hermeneutic tradition derived (mostly) from Hegel.

Paul Ricoeur is much more reliably interesting and profound -- if less dazzling -- than the glitzy "Master-Thinkers" of the Parisian Left, whose names change from week to week. In my continuing rejection of some analytical philosophy and all scientism, together with vestiges of logical-empiricism and some pragmatism (a combination of these last two philosophies provides much of the unexamined theoretical background in American law schools), I have found myself over the past two decades quite at home among several of the best philosophers in the United States. This is very strange. Suddenly, American professors of philosophy seem to agree with me about many things. Worse, I seem to agree with them. I fear that this means that I am getting old. This is depressing and worrisome. If I find myself in agreement with some mainstream thinkers, then I must be doing something wrong.

For too long the "masculine" toughness of American philosophy, which was proud to dispense with all that "mushy" talk of emotions, so as to focus on the "facts, just the facts" was off-putting to me. Philosophers in the U.S. like to walk around campus in white smocks chatting about "paradigm shifts" and "evolutionary accounts" of entities like tenure committees. Lately, even they have begun to feel uneasy about this language, however, thanks to the writings of people like Putnam and Rorty -- or Susan Haack, who wields a logical razor with what can only be described as "glee." The cracks in the empiricist facade actually began to appear in the early sixties, in the works of W.V. Quine, whose devastating criticisms of empiricism came from within the empiricist camp. Putnam comments:

"For Quine, ... truth is not a property at all; 'to say a sentence is true is merely to reaffirm the sentence.' (Quine also says that the only truth he recognizes is 'imminent truth' -- truth from within an evolving doctrine. Note how very French this sounds!) But if truth and fasity are not properties at all -- if a sentence is 'right' or 'wrong' in a substantive sense only epistemically (only in the sense of being confirmed or disconfirmed by the present memories and experiences of a speaker) -- then how do we escape solipsism?" (p. 63.)

The answer is that empiricists do not escape it. The empiricist ends in his or her own head with "sense data." There goes the objectivity of science that empiricists hope to rescue. Empiricism is bound to be ultimately unsatisfying. This explains the nihilism of many young people today. They simply assume the validity of an empiricist epistemology and then are disappointed when it does not work out.

As "Morpheus" (a good empiricist himself) once said to Neo: "...Real is just electrical signals interpreted by your brain."

The only answer to this is a variation of Neo's "Whoa."

All of this helps to explain the "neo"-realism (no pun intended!) of Saul Kripke and Putnam, together with the popularity of Richard Rorty's ("hey, everything goes as long we're ironic!") post-modern-ironic-liberal-pragmatism, which has been called American "Whateverism."

This is not a criticism of Rorty, but of the misuse (or misinterpretation) of his carefully expressed views by far less talented thinkers as a blanket sanction for nihilism. Rorty is not a nihilist.

C. The Theory of Direct Reference.

In elaborating upon his theory of direct reference, Putnam sets forth one of his most celebrated hypothetical examples. He first summarizes his theory:

"We may use descriptions to indicate to whom or to what we mean a word to refer, but even when those descriptions are correct they do not become synonymous with the world. Words acquire a kind of 'direct' connection with their referents, not by being attached to them with metaphysical glue, but by being used to name them even when we suppose the identifying description may be false, or considering hypothetical situations in which it is false." (p. 64.)

When we refer to empirical objects, there is something inherent in the objects (their nature) that 'fixes' meaning as opposed to mere agreement or solipsistic self-satisfaction. Yes, words are part of a language and establish their place or meaning within those languages.

We do not decide, arbitrarily, that "this object that I wear on my foot is called a shoe," but there is something in the nature of the object, in its construction, design and material elements, for example, not to mention tradition and culture, "fitting" it for its purpose and matching its description and name, within a language, with a history. ("Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz.")

Notice that this says nothing about references to non-empirical entities, where words may connect with descriptions alone. It is also to leave aside the difficulties surrounding proper names. In other words, we can still debate the "existence" of Sherlock Holmes. It is time to turn to Putnam's imaginative examples.

1). Putnam's "Twin Earth" Example.

Putnam says:

"If somewhere in the universe there is a Twin Earth where everything is much as it is here except that the liquid that plays the role of water on twin earth is not H2O but XYZ, then that does not falsify our statement that 'Water is H2O'. What we refer to as water is whatever liquid is of the composition, etc., of our paradigmatic examples of water. ... [The] reference of the terms 'water,' 'leopard,' 'gold,' etc., is partly fixed by the substances and organisms themselves. ..." (p. 65.)

The result of Putnam's argument, as illustrated by his example, is to suggest that reference is "fixed" by a "division of linguistic labor" which has to do with how words are defined over time in languages, but also by the contributions of the environment. Hence, a term refers to an object that is named in a language shared with others, which has something to do with the empirical nature of the object itself -- a nature that is always better understood through science.

Everyone might agree, mistakenly, that XYZ is H2O, but this will not change the "facts" once a scientist comes along and reports on the true chemical compositions of the different substances. What the liquid is will not be altered by linguistic fluctuations or confusions, which are real enough, even in what we understand by the word "fact."

Making this distinction as to what is a fact is, of course, also a value-laden distinction and choice. Liquid A will continue to be XYZ; whereas liquid B will continue to be H2O; and this is so whatever descriptions we use to capture that difference, regardless of our immediate sense data. Please bear in mind the distinct epistemological and ontological issues raised by Putnam. Linguistic purity merely heightens the difficulties surrounding realism as demonstrated by the next hypothetical case:

2) Brains in a Vat: "You've been living in a dream world, Neo."

Putnam distinguishes, then, between the phenomenological character of representations and the set of objects that the representations denote, on the basis that no intrinsic connection is said to exist between the two. This is because what is denoted inheres in the object in a "dormant" stage, until it is awakened by a better understanding of the object's nature. Successful communication (meaning), in Putnam's theory, is like the kiss by which the prince (representation) awakens Sleeping Beauty (denotation). To further illustrate this point, Putnam provides a celebrated hypothetical case that must have served as one inspiration for the Matrix films:

"Now imagine a race of people who have been literally created by a mad super-scientist. These people have brains like ours, let us suppose, but not bodies. Instead of bodies, they have the illusion of bodies, of an external environment (like ours), etc. In reality they are brains suspended in a vat of chemicals. Tubes connected to the brains take care of the circulation of blood, and wires connected to the nerve-endings produce the illusions of sensory impulses coming to the 'eyes,' 'ears,' etc., and of 'bodies' executing the motor commands of these brains." (p. 66.)

If one of these beings were to say: "I am not a brain in a vat." This speaker would be right, if he or she were describing the phenomenological experience of life in terms of the normal meanings of the words used. Such a person does not experience him- or herself as a brain in a vat, but as someone leading a normal life. Let us say, falling asleep at his computer, going to work in the morning for the "Metacortex" corporation, meeting Trinity at the club later. (We all seem to work for "Metacortex" now.)

Yet the person who is indeed a "brain in a vat" -- if "awakened" to his or her predicament, to the true nature of his or her actual empirical situation -- this same person, using the words correctly, would be forced to conclude that he or she is "a brain in a vat."

The correct reference of the words is established, then, not only by the phenomenological character of the experiences associated with them, but by the intrinsic empirical reality inhabited by the speaker as determined objectively.

Reference has to do with how things are in the world and not necessarily in the head.

It is this truth which makes it possible for Morpheus to "awaken" the slaves of the machines to their dilemma. (Phenomenological and idealist objections are likely to focus on how you can know the difference between "what's in your head" and "what's in the world.")

How wonderful it would be if the philosophers could do the same "awakening" for contemporary Americans.

The American consumer is "plugged-in" to an illusion-generating media system, he or she is not unlike the "slaves" depicted in the Matrix films. Hence, the stage is set for Professors Putnam and West to don the black Armani suits and dark glasses, jack into the "Matrix," leap between buildings, in order to meet up with Professor Martha Nussbaum at the club later, to which she will travel on her sleek motorcycle. It should be obvious that the part of Agent Smith, the villain of this piece, can only be played by Richard Rorty, as he happily denies the "objective" existence of goodness and truth: "Mr. Anderson ..."

II. Summary and Conclusion.

Putnam wishes to avoid the solipsistic dilemma into which many French philosophers, especially of the post-war generation have fallen. He accepts the fatal difficulties with metaphysical accounts of a "real" correspondence between statements and the world. Platonism is gone.

Yet the notion that our words are disconnected from the realities that they seek to describe -- or that they are meaningful only in terms of other words (Derrida), so that our best descriptions "refer" only in our own minds where languages live -- is equally unacceptable. After all, languages are social instruments, existing for purposes that are shared. Professor Putnam was led, like many others, to follow Kant:

"... in distinguishing between two sorts of realism ... . The two sorts I called 'metaphysical realism' and 'internal realism.' The metaphysical realist insists that a mysterious relation of correspondence is what makes reference and truth possible; the internal realist, by contrast, is willing to think of reference as internal to texts' (or theories), provided we recognize that there are better and worse 'texts.' " (p. 69.)

It is at this point that Putnam delivers the knock-out punch to the relativists:

"But the notion of a right (or at least a 'better') answer to a question is subject to two constraints: (1) Rightness is not subjective. What is better and what is worse to say about most questions of real human concern is not just a matter of opinion. Recognizing that this is so is the essential price for admission to the community of sanity. ... (2) Rightness goes beyond justification. ... My own view is that truth is to be identified with idealized justification, [emphasis added] rather than with justification-on-present-evidence. 'Truth' in this sense is as context sensitive as we are. The assertibility conditions for an arbitrary sentence are not surveyable." (p. 70.)

The use of the term "idealized" is highly significant. To claim that a belief is justified "ideally," is to contend that we ought to accept it. It is to dissolve the fact/value dichotomy. It also leads Putnam to a rejection of relativism in the most powerful language of this essay:

"Rather than looking with suspicion on the claim that some value-judgments are reasonable and some are unreasonable, or some views are true and some false, or some words refer and some do not, I am concerned with bringing us back to precisely these claims, which we do, after all, constantly make in our daily lives. Accepting the 'manifest image,' the Lebenswelt, the world as we actually experience it, demands of us who have (for better or worse) been philosophically trained that we both regain our sense of mystery (for it is mysterious that something can both be 'in' the world and 'about' the world) and our sense of the common (for that some ideas are 'unreasonable' is, after all, a common fact -- it is only the weird notions of 'objectivity' and 'subjectivity' that we have acquired from Ontology and Epistemology that make us unfit to dwell in the common)." (p. 74.)

Putnam's work amounts to a highly sophisticated defense of common sense. His philosophy links with the pragmatist tradition and with various forms of American intellectual populism, all of which are suspicious of "fancy" theories that would have us believe all-too easily that fundamental distinctions found in the Western tradition for centuries are simply errors to be discarded. ("John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism.") ("Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Author.")

The ways in which we think over centuries are more deeply rooted in the nature of civilization -- and of ourselves -- than such "trash-talking" philosophers suppose.

My next foray into the deep waters of American philosophy will be an engagement with the ideas of Donald Davidson.

The strongest substantive objections to Putnam's theory will come from those rejecting the notion of idealized rational justification as "other-worldly," or as unreflective of the "real" world. Similar criticisms have been brought against both John Rawls and Robert Nozick for making use of the social contract device. Mary Midgley is eloquent in articulating this objection.

Putnam will defend idealized rational justification as the most plausible method of justification in the discourse of the humanities or in philosophy because it allows for objectivity and universality. It seeks to eliminate bias, which adversaries claim cannot be eliminated (except, of course, from their own writings). We can count on decades of give-and-take on these issues.

Putnam has left us with wonderful imaginary cases for classroom discussion and a sturdy vindication of common sense notions of goodness and truth. Professor Putnam's work is important, plus he is a clear and elegant writer.

Hilary Putnam is a major American philosopher.

Labels: ,

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home