Louis Proyect | 24 Jan 00:26 2013

Hilary Putnam

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(Putnam was a fellow traveler of the Progressive Labor Party, a Maoist 
sect of the 1960s. He seems to have an affinity for Wittgenstein like my 
old friend, the late Guy Robinson.)


C’est mon métier
Jerry Fodor

     Philosophy in an Age of Science by Hilary Putnam
     Harvard, 659 pp, £44.95, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 05013 6

It would take at least two workaday philosophers to keep up with Hilary 
Putnam. Philosophy in an Age of Science is a case in point. It’s a 
collection of papers, most of them previously published, devoted among 
lots of other things to: the philosophical interpretation of quantum 
mechanics, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, the 
philosophy of mathematics, philosophical ethics (analytic and 
otherwise), and the debate between solipsists, phenomenologists and 
realists about the epistemological and metaphysical status of ‘external’ 
objects. That is a long list and it is a long book. One might well doubt 
that there are philosophers positioned to say important things on all of 
these topics; but there are, and Putnam is one of them.

I, however, am not. What I know about quantum mechanics amounts to 
rather less than nothing; what I know about the philosophy of 
mathematics is only that it is very hard; and, though I have my doubts 
about ethics and epistemology as they are currently practised by 
philosophers (viz, as attempts to ‘refute’ one or other sort of 
scepticism: what a bore!), they are at best dark suspicions and at worst 
mere prejudice. Nobody, myself certainly included, could suppose that my 
views about any of these things are informed. On the other hand, I have 
spent a lot of time over a number of decades thinking about mind and 
language, and I do have fragments of stories (both philosophical and 
empirical) to tell about them. And if the sorts of story I’m inclined to 
tell are even close to right, then quite a lot of what Putnam says on 
these topics is wrong; indeed, wrong-headed.

Putnam starts from a good place. He shares (and presupposes) Quine’s 
anti-reductionism, his epistemological holism, his respect for the 
physical sciences, and his rejection of the analytic-synthetic 
distinction; which is to say, putting this another way, that Putnam 
shares Quine’s theses that the evidence relevant to the rational 
(dis)confirmation of beliefs is not restricted to ‘data’ (still less to 
‘observational’ data); that the predictive and explanatory success of 
our best scientific theories is a strong prima facie argument for their 
truth, and that the distinction between ‘conceptually (or semantically) 
true’ and ‘true as a matter of fact’ can’t be sustained. Fine. But then 
Putnam’s Quine gets mixed up with Putnam’s Wittgenstein in aid of theses 
of which I’m not at all sure either would have approved.

Quine’s worries about the distinction between analytic truths and 
empirical truths are part and parcel of his epistemological holism. You 
can’t trust the fact/meaning distinction because considerations of 
simplicity, elegance, the availability (or otherwise) of alternative 
theories, and compatibility with theories in other sciences can all be 
pertinent to the acceptance of empirical beliefs and they can trump 
putative claims of conceptual, linguistic or semantic necessity. Indeed, 
they often do. Empirical confirmation spreads through networks of 
beliefs so that whole theories are what constitute the units of 
empirical acceptability. No doubt, such very holistic views of 
confirmation can tend to hyperbole. Data from well controlled and 
publicly replicable experiments can have a certain intractability even 
in the face of well-entrenched theoretical commitments. But the 
traditional empiricist account of confirmation as the comparison of 
punctuate beliefs about the world with correspondingly punctuate facts 
about the world is at least equally implausible, and it is, for better 
or worse, currently out of fashion. So be it. But Putnam has it in mind 
to add a dash of Wittgenstein to the mix, and I think that gets him into 
trouble. In fact, Quine and Wittgenstein hold quite different views, 
ones that I doubt are even compatible.

Quine is, by and large, dismissive about meaning (sometimes he’s 
behaviouristic about meaning, which comes to much the same thing). 
Wittgenstein’s semantics is more nuanced: he doesn’t think the meaning 
of a word is a definition; but he does think that much of the work that 
philosophers have hoped to do by appealing to meanings can instead be 
done with the notion of the ‘use’ of a word in a ‘public’ language. For 
Wittgenstein, the use of an expression is something like its ‘role in a 
language game’ or even its role in a ‘form of life’; and, though appeals 
to use perhaps don’t support a notion of analyticity, they do support a 
notion of ‘criterion’, which is, very roughly speaking, a ‘way of 
telling’ whether a word/concept applies to a thing. So to have the 
concept chair (to understand the word ‘chair’) is, among other things, 
to know that things like this count as chairs. Accordingly, anyone who 
is sceptical that there even are such things as chairs, or that we can 
know that there are, has something less than a full grasp of the word or 
concept. Perhaps holding that sort of view isn’t quite tantamount to 
endorsing a notion of truth-in-virtue-of-meaning; but it certainly 
doesn’t sound much like Quine, and it serves to distinguish his project 
from Wittgenstein’s.

Wittgenstein’s semantic holism is directed primarily against scepticism; 
Quine’s epistemological holism is directed primarily against empiricism. 
I think Putnam ignores this crucial difference. Quine doesn’t care much 
about what meaning is; he cares mainly about what confirmation isn’t. By 
contrast, Wittgenstein wants very much that meaning ‘supervenes on’ use. 
‘As supervene on Bs’ is philosophers’ jargon for the proposition that 
there are ‘no differences among As without some difference among Bs’. 
So, whereas Quine rejects analyticity out of hand, in Wittgenstein it 
just goes underground. Truth in virtue of the (implicit) rules of use 
replaces truth in virtue of meaning (i.e. analytic truth, i.e. truth by 
definition); but Wittgenstein fully accepts the positivist thesis that 
it would be some sort of semantic mistake to claim, for example, that 
elephants are numbers. Positivists say that ‘Elephants are numbers’ is 
‘nonsense’; Wittgenstein says that if you think elephants are numbers – 
or if you even think they could be – then you haven’t grasped the 
concept of an elephant (and/or the concept of a number): you don’t know 
how ‘we’ use the expressions ‘elephant’ or ‘number’. (Who exactly, ‘we’ 
are is never made clear; but it doesn’t include metaphysicians.) Perhaps 
you think that makes the difference between Wittgenstein’s sort of 
semantics and a positivist’s sort mostly nominal. So do I; but don’t 
tell that to Wittgenstein. Or to Putnam.

Putnam adheres to both Quine’s epistemic holism and Wittgenstein’s 
semantic holism. But, crucially, where Wittgenstein is a semantic 
holist, Quine is a semantic nihilist. Putnam apparently wants to add to 
Wittgenstein’s doctrine of meaning-as-use (perhaps I should say: ‘use 
instead of meaning’) a very expansive understanding of ‘use’. ‘Pointing 
out the differences in the way we answer the questions “why is water 
trickling down the windowpane?” and “why are you cutting the bread?” is 
clarifying the “grammar” of intentional explanation.’ But that glosses 
over the question whether intentional explanation is, or can be, itself 
a species of causal explanation; a question that is not about language 
or concepts but about the metaphysics of mind. When Descartes asked how 
the mind makes the body move, he was not making a ‘category mistake’, 
still less a ‘grammatical’ mistake. He was raising a perfectly sensible 
question (to which, by the way, the answer is still unknown).

In a nutshell: Wittgenstein thought that meaning is somehow a matter of 
use; Putnam raises the ante by understanding ‘use’ anthropologically, as 
the totality of a word’s (concept’s) ‘entanglements’ with how we speak, 
think and live. Thus Putnam approves of Iris Murdoch’s remark that ‘it 
is always possible to improve one’s understanding of a concept like 
“bravery” or “justice”.’ Well, maybe it is; but, at first blush, that 
appears to conflate improving one’s understanding of the concept of 
justice with improving one’s understanding of justice, and those seem to 
be two quite different things. Or maybe they aren’t; maybe there isn’t 
any such distinction. But you can’t show that there isn’t by appealing 
to the ‘use theory of meaning’, because there isn’t, in fact, any such 
theory. A theory of meaning-as-use would have to say, at minimum, which 
meanings supervene on which uses. Wittgenstein doesn’t even try to do 
that and, to the best of my knowledge, neither do any of his sisters or 
cousins or aunts. Worse yet, it appears that taking Wittgenstein’s sort 
of line about conceptual/linguistic content eventuates in theories about 
language and thought that, in practice, do nobody any good. To my 
knowledge, nothing in cognitive psychology or in ‘linguistic semantics’ 
underwrites an anthropological account of conceptual or linguistic 
content; and philosophers appeal to it only when they’re doing what they 
sometimes call ‘philosophical therapy’, i.e. when they want to represent 
the theories other philosophers hold as insensitive to linguistic usage 
or as conceptually confused.

I think it’s quite likely that insisting that meanings are inextricably 
entangled with forms of life is to give up on the possibility of either 
empirical theories of language or empirical theories of mind. Putnam 
sometimes seems to agree, but he thinks that’s OK: geology doesn’t 
translate into, or reduce to physics; why would you expect linguistics 
or psychology to do so? But this misses the point once again: it 
conflates Quine’s holism about confirmation (it isn’t just consonance 
with observation but also relation to basic science that determines a 
theory’s acceptability) with Wittgenstein’s holism about meaning. 
‘Geology doesn’t translate into physics’ is a thesis about semantics, 
not a thesis about confirmation. ‘This is water’ doesn’t translate as 
‘this is H2O’; still, the former is well confirmed if and only if the 
latter is. (This is, ironically, a point that Putnam is rightly praised 
for having insisted on.)

There are ironies aplenty for those who like that sort of thing. The 
‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy started with positivism, which held that 
semantics – in particular, verificationist semantics – can save us from 
metaphysics. Now the tables have turned: ‘analytic’ philosophy holds 
that semantics – in particular, anthropological semantics – can save 
metaphysics from us. Normative discourse is ‘entangled’, but science is 
too; these are, as it were, separate but equal kinds of entanglement. 
This is this and that is that and everything is quite correct. But, to 
repeat, that puns on ‘entanglement’. Quine’s kind is epistemic; 
Wittgenstein’s is semantic. In fact, I detect a soupçon of special 
pleading: the point of dwelling on the entanglement of the normative 
(on, as one says, the ‘thickness’ of normative concepts) is to protect 
it from the depredations of the empirical; namely, by arguing that no 
sharp fact/value distinction can be drawn in respect of either. This is 
a predominant theme in Putnam’s book, and in the work of several of the 
philosophers Putnam approves of (in particular Stanley Cavell and John 
McDowell). But the trouble with that strategy is that nothing 
ontological follows from the fact of entanglement. Apollo was much 
entangled with the forms of life in ancient Athens; but if there isn’t 
any Apollo, then there isn’t. It is not a defence of theism to point to 
its entanglement with religious forms of life. As Peter De Vries once 
brilliantly remarked, it is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that He 
needn’t exist in order to save us.

There really is a difference between normative matters and matters of 
empirical fact; both are entangled, but with quite different sorts of 
things. Observations and data are tangled with theories; norms are 
tangled with forms of life. I think Hume and Edmund Burke had this more 
or less right: ethics is intrinsically about us in ways that empirical 
science isn’t. Consensus about norms rests on – presupposes – 
convergences of sympathies and sensibilities in ways that empirical 
consensus doesn’t. In the long run, this may well come down to brute 
biology: if a lion could speak, it would, perhaps, be possible to 
converse with it about which empirical beliefs are true; but not, I 
think, about whether eating people is wrong. ‘C’est mon métier,’ says 
the lion, with a Gallic shrug.

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