Re: Putnam's kind of realism

Dan Fabulich (
Wed, 3 Nov 1999 04:00:35 -0500 (EST)

'What is your name?' 'Damien Broderick.' 'IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT YOUR NAME IS!!!':

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

Putnam's approach is not relativism, though many people who consider themselves anti-realists are relativists. For Putnam, "coherence" is the criterion for evaluating sentences, as is the case for many relativists, but many of them go on to assume that there is no meaningful notion of "objective truth," there is only true-for-me, true-for-you, true-for-Putnam, etc. ie relativized truth.

Putnam, however, argues that there must be some OBJECTIVE notion of rationality, and on this account, not any old conceptual scheme is rationally acceptable. He argues that to reject the idea of objective rationality would require one to embrace total relativism, a position which he argues (correctly, I think) is totally incoherent. "If there is no conception of rationality one objectively *ought* to have, then the notion of a 'fact' is empty. Without the cognitive values of coherence, simplicity [Ockham's Razor] and instrumental efficacy, we have no world and no 'facts,' not even facts about what is so *relative* to what, for those are in the same boat with all other facts." Under internalism, truth is the ultimate goodness of fit.

In rejecting total relativism, he provides a rather puzzling argument, however. Maybe one of you can sort it out for me. He bases it on Wittgenstein's "Private Language" argument, as follows:

"The argument is that the relativist cannot, in the end, make any sense of the distinction between *being right* and *thinking he is right*; and that means that there is, in the end, no difference between *asserting* or *thinking*, on the one hand, and *making noises* (or *producing mental images*) on the other. But this means that (on this conception) I am not a *thinker* at all but a *mere* animal. To hold such a view is to commit a sort of mental suicide."

I have no idea how he thinks he can make the leap from ("I think that P" <-> P) to meaninglessness, and he appears to leave it undefended. He explicitly rejects the argument that the equivalence of "I think that P" and P requires one to perform it an infinite number of times: "I think that I think that I think that ... P", but rather only shows that it CAN be repeated any number of times.

I've guessed that maybe Putnam's argument has something to do with the fact that in this situation one is speaking in a language in which one can't ever be wrong, (and thus all sentences have the same cognitive value,) or perhaps his argument hinges on the fact that sentences no longer HAVE to be about anything in order to be right. If anyone can shed some light on this argument, I'd appreciate it.

Thankfully, he also provides the more conventional arguments against relativism, which, I think, are pretty palatable to all of us: "If anyone really believed that [every conceptual system is just as good as every other], and if they were foolish enough to pick a conceptual system that told them they could fly and to act upon it by jumping out of a window, they would, if they were lucky enough to survive, see the weakness of the latter view at once." :)


-unless you love someone-
-nothing else makes any sense-

e.e. cummings