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[ Last updated 17 Mar 2003 ]

Putnam on the relations between language and the world

The text is based solely on the book Words & Life (Hilary Putnam [edited by James Conant],1996 (third edition), Harvard University Press, 0-674-95607-9 ). Because Putnam is quite a prominent philosopher, and most of the book is discussion of other people's work, the book can be thought of as a reflection of the current thinking in philosophy. I selected this book more or less by chance.

The point I discuss here is Putnam's apparent belief that language refers to the world independently of the agents (currently on earth that means humans) that interpret it and the mental processes that go in their heads (or the equivalent of a head). In most of the discussions in the book that are about language this belief manifests itself in completely ignoring mental operations (thinking) . Here I quote all the places in the book where the point actually comes out.

I use here the heading from the book, though I don't actually discuss the contents of the chapters in general. I comment only on Putnam's remarks about the relation between language and the world. Indented paragraphs are exact quotes from the book.

1. The return of aristotle

On p.12, Putnam says:

Sentences (whether I say them or write them or just think them in my mind) do , indeed, have semantical properties. The sentence "There are cows in Rumania" has the property of being true, for example, and it contains words which denote the set of cows, the extended individual we call Rumania and the set [(x,y)|x is spatially contained in y].
For a spoken or written sentence, it is obvious that it contains words, but is that also true about thinking it? It is certainly not a logical necessity (and I think it is simply false, based on the stochastic connectivity in the brain), but Putnam takes it for granted, presumably because he does not recognize thinking a proposition as a different thing from language. He later says (p.12);
Truth and denotation are not in anyway derivative from the mind; they are rather derivative from language.

He mentions that Chisholm thinks otherwise, and gives in a footnote a letter that argues that language on its own does not have a meaning (p.19 note 13). However, he completely ignores this argument, here and in the rest of the book. instead, he goes on to mention Fodor's idea of "Language Of Thought", which explicitly views thinking as using language, and then the idea of "causal chain", which, the way he describes it, has nothing to do with what people think.

The way Putnam (and according to him, the people he argues with) ignores thinking processes become clearer when he brings examples, e.g. p.15 :

The question I want to ask is, "Why doesn't phlogiston denote valence electrons"?
The obvious answer is that this is because when we hear (or read) phlogiston, it does not cause us to think about the properties of valence electrons. For Putnam (and apparently, for the people he argues with) this explanation seems to be out of reach.

The next example (which Putnam thinks is "a better one") about electrons demonstrates the other error that Putnam (and many other philosophers) do. The term 'Electrons' means 'Ubiquitous sub-atomic particles with a negative charge', and that was the meaning of 'Electrons' in 1900 as well. Based on the fact that Bohr believed in 1900 that electrons have definite trajectories, Putnam adds trajectories to the meaning of 'electrons' for Bohr in 1900. However, there is no reason why Bohr belief that electrons have definite trajectories should lead to the conclusion that when he used the term 'electrons' he referred to their trajectory as well. Putnam attributes this conclusion to the "causal chain" supporters, but this is completely arbitrary.

Putnam claims that this example demonstrates that (p.16)

Interpretating someone is not something you can reduce to algorithm.
but this assertion is not based on any actual analysis. From this, he jumps to the assertion that (p.16):
To say what is an "appropriate kind of causal chain" we would have to have a normative theory of interpretation as a whole, not a description of certain kinds of "causal chains."
The first part of this sentence is obviously false, as humans interpret each other without normative theory. Putnam actually admitted this in the previous paragraph, but dismissed this point because (p.16):
But it takes all of the intelligence we have to do it.
First, this is obviously false, as people with quite low intelligence (by any standard ) can still understand language. Secondly, this is not to the point, because our intelligence is not normative, and Putnam tries to argue for the need for normative theory.

Note that I am not arguing that the "causal chain" idea, the way Putnam describes it, is correct. But the arguments that Putnam uses here do not make sense.

On the next page Putnam does mention the possibility of investigating the brain. Then he says (p.17)

A correct model of how the brain works might, in the Utopian limit, actually predict what people will say about what a word refers to and about whether a phrase is or is not a good paraphrase of a given expression as used in a particular context.
But "predicting what people will say about what a word refers to" is not the main point of understanding how the brain works. The main point is to understand what people think (i.e. what processes are active in their brain, and what stimuli (including other words) and actions tend to be 'primed' (possibly indirectly)) when they hear the word. (Note that this can be investigated by both neuroscientific and psychological approaches.) As usual, Putnam completely ignores thinking in his argument. The rest of the argument is based on the same confusion, e.g. when he writes (p.17):
But if the question is not "Do most people think that phlogiston refers to valence electrons?" but is instead "Does phlogiston refer to valence electrons?";
The question "Does phlogiston refer to valence electrons?" is clearly equivalent to "Do people think about valence electrons when they hear the word phlogiston", but Putnam does not bother even to mention this possibility, let alone argue against it. It seems he cannot even conceive it.

4. Logical Positivism and Intentionality

Putnam declares explicitly his belief that language is independent of mind on p.85-86:
But, to pre-philosophical common sense at least, it would seem that any account of the relation between language and the understanding of language has to include some account of the relation between language and the world.
That is quite odd common sense, because language obviously does not have any relation to world except through some agent understanding it. Words on their own, whether spoken, written or expressed in any other mode and whether they are alone or arranged in phrases, sentences etc., are just another kind of physical phenomena, without any relation to the entities that they understood to describe by the agents that interpret them. Putnam, however, takes the relation between language and the world as common sense, and does not bother to give us any kind of supporting argument or evidence. He does tell us that this relation is intentionality. The rest of the chapter is trying to refute the way positivists dismiss the 'problem', but the ideas of the philosophers that he criticizes also ignore mental operations completely, or at least Putnam represents them this way.

14. Realism without Absolutes

The closest Putnam gets to use thinking in his argument is when he answers Quine assertion that 'Tabitha' can refer to a cat or to the universe minus a cat (quoted on page 279). In p. 283 he says:

By speaking of perceiving, what I have in mind is not the minimal sense od "see" or "feel", the sense in which one might be said to "see" or "feel" a coffee table even if one hadn't the faintest idea what a coffee table is; rather I mean the full achievement sense, the sense in which to see a coffee table is to see that it is a coffee table that is in front of me.
Obviously, the underlying difference between these two senses is some mental processes (in other words, thinking). Putnam, however, seems to be unable to grasp this point. He says in the next paragraph that there is some "cultivated naivete" about this move (i.e. using the second sense), presumably because, since he does not regard mental processes as real phenomena, he cannot see a scientific basis for the second sense. In the rest of the chapter, Putnam uses the idea of perception determining reference several times (p.284, p.291), but mental processes are not mentioned.

15. The question of realism

In his discussion of McDowell's ideas, which Putnam uses to reject Rorty's rejection of representations (at least that it seems to me, the logic of argument is not easy to follow), Putnam mentions his famous 'Twin Earth' idea, and describes it in a footnote (note 23, p.312):
I argued, in particular, that we could imagine, humans who would be neuron for neuron identical, but who still thought different thoughts. I did this by imagining a planet called Twin Earth on which the liquid called "water" by the inhabitants had the same superficial properties as our water but a different chemical constitution, say XYZ, and argued that the Twin English word "water", and the thoughts of Twin English speakers involving this word, should be thought of as referring XYZ while our thoughts should be thought of as referring to H2O
This argument is self-contradicting. If the person on Twin-earth that corresponds to, say, Jim (we will refer to him as T-jim), is neuron-for-neuron identical to Jim, he will think exactly the same thoughts. Either both think that "water" is made of some specific things (e.g H2O), or both don't know the answer, and this can be tested by asking them what water is made of. In either case, the assignment of reference that Putnam makes is independent of what the person knows (in the sense that he can tell us), at least for one of the Jims. What justifies this assignment?

Maybe Putnam would like to claim that the superficial properties of water are logically equivalent to what it is made of. But since, according to the assumptions of the imagined situation, both XYZ and H2O have these properties, the proper reference of "water" is something like "either H2O or XYZ" for both Jim and T-Jim. So why does Putnam assign H2O in the case of Jim?

You may think that Putnam does this because Jim has never been in any contact with XYZ, but that just means that the reference that Putnam thinks about is indexical, i.e. is based directly on the location and identity (and possibly other attributes) of the person that is referring (for example, the term 'my head'). Indexical references are trivially different (in general) between individuals, and what Putnam tries to show that is that non-indexical references can be different between identical individuals.

In short, the "demonstration" that people can refer to different things even if their brain states are the same is based on a nonsensical assignment of references to Jim and T-Jim.

There is an additional possibility, which is that Putnam thinks that it is possible that Jim thinks that Water is made of H2O (in the sense that he can tell us that), and T-Jim thinks that water is made of XYZ, in which case the assingment does make sense. However, this would mean that Putnam believes that two identical humans can think differently, i.e. he believes in dualism. Putnam himself seems to reject this idea, but some people seem to interpret the 'Twin-Earth' this way (e.g. here ).[17 Mar 2003] This page is now different from the last time I read it, and now does not seem to take a dualistic view.)

24. Why functionalism didn't work

In p. 443, Putnam says:
What the nature of something is (not in the metaphysician's sense of "the nature," but in the scientist's or the artisan's) can determine the reference of a term even before that nature is discovered. What chrysos (gold) was in ancient Greece was not not simply determined by the properties ancient Greeks believed gold to have (although many philosophers still make the mistake of thinking that a community's notion of a substance is the definition of the substance for that community).
Here Putnam simply confuses between the actual thing (e.g. gold) and the word that refers to it (by being interpreted as such). He is right to say that gold in the ancient Greece has properties that the Greek didn't know about, but the discussion is not about the properties of gold. It is about the properties of words ( chrysos in this case), and to equate the reference of chrysos with all the properties of gold is totally arbitrary.

The last bracketed comment makes the confusion totally clear. Obviously, the philosophers that Putnam mentions meant that the notion of a word (not a notion of a substance) is the definition of this word. It seems that Putnam is totally unable to distinguish between a word and what it refers to.

The way Putnam continues is even worse (p.444):

If the beliefs ancient Greeks had about chrysos defined what it is to be gold (or "chrysos") at that time, then it would have made no sense for an ancient Greek to ask himself, "Is there perhaps a way of telling that something isn't really gold, even when it appears by all the standard tests to be gold?" Remember that this is precisely the question Archimedes did put to himself, with a celebrated result!
First, Putnam repeats the confusion: The beliefs of the Greek defined (according to some philosophers) the meaning of the word chrysos, not what it is to be gold. Secondly, he supports his argument by claiming that otherwise Archimedes actions don't make sense. However, Archimedes was human like the rest of us, and hence did a lot of things that do not make sense, so it cannot be used as an argument.

The worst error, though, is that Putnam misrepresents Archimedes's problem. It was not checking if something is gold after it passed all the tests, but to check if an artefact (a crown) is pure gold without damaging it. Archimedes knew he can check this by comparing the weight of the crown to its volume, but he had the problem of finding the volume of the crown, and the latter problem is the one he solved in the bath.

It is disappointing that Putnam can get the 'Eureka' story so wrong, but it much more worrying that it appears in an article which is reprinted from another book, and in the third edition of this book. This (presumably) means that none of the readers of the original article have commented on this point. Considering the popularity of Putnam, that puts a big question mark on the ability of members of the philosophy of language field to criticize each other properly.


Yehouda Harpaz