Putnam's kind of realism

Damien Broderick (d.broderick@english.unimelb.edu.au)
Wed, 03 Nov 1999 17:11:37 +0000

At 12:37 AM 3/11/99 -0500, Dan wrote a nice summary, adding:

>I presented an example similar to this when I said that the character 7
>simply referred to that theoretical invention of ours, the number seven.
>So with the real world, balls, horses, etc. Each of these words refers to
>internal theoretical constructs; we judge the theories based on their
>explanatory/predictive value.

Standard apres-Sausurre poststructural (Derridean/Lacanian) analysis might cast this in terms of signifiers, signifieds and (inaccessible) referents, with many signifieds being, in turn, signifiers pointed to by other signifiers. Rudely: signifier = word, signified = concept, referent = thing in the word that the concept stands in for, to some degree of adequacy. A symbol is a seamless blend of signifier and signified.

In practice, referents often seem to drop out of this account. Putnam's version, as Dan describes it, seems to work the same way.

I assume a cog sci/neurosci account would want some more hidden layers. Dan says:

>Under anti-realism, the internal symbol "ball" simply refers to the
>internal theoretical construct of a ball.

Here, a poststruck account would presumably say that the signifier `ball' (whether inwardly thought or uttered aloud/written) stands in for the signified <ramified concept of a ball>. The cog sci equivalent, I assume, would be the neural attractor or web synaptically activated by most situations that involve either the idea of a ball or the perception of an actual or represented ball in the outside world.

I conclude that Putnam and poststructuralism offer a story that's not as ridiculous as it first sounds (and is similar to Humberto Maturana's, perhaps),

[ e.g., http://www.oikos.org/maten.htm ]

but both risk losing their grip on/need for access to a genuine referent out there (whatever that means in a QT/relativistic universe).

Damien Broderick