Putnam’s Change of Mind

Ian Hacking

  • Representation and Reality by Hilary Putnam
    MIT, 136 pp, £14.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 262 16108 7
  • Mental Content by Colin McGinn
    Blackwell, 218 pp, £25.00, January 1989, ISBN 0 631 16369 7

Big issues and little issues: among established working philosophers there is none more gifted at making us think anew about both than Hilary Putnam. His latest book is motivated by large considerations, most of its arguments are driven by small ones, and its topic is deliberately restricted to something middle-sized: the brain, the mind and the computer program. At the end he soars and contemplates all of metaphysics and epistemology. The book will mostly be read as Putnam’s denunciation of his former philosophical psychology, to which he gave the name ‘functionalism’. I’ll try to explain that, but first a glance at what Putnam calls, when he soars, his ‘approach/avoidance’ relation to a family of large ideas.

The thoughts which he wants to avoid, but which tug at him still, are (his list): The truth about the world is independent of what we think about it. What we say is true when it corresponds to the world. Anything with content that we affirm must be either true or false. The truths that we do know should be thought of as fragments of the one true complete description of reality. The fourth of these theses, which he calls Uniqueness, has been less noticed in recent philosophy than the other three, but it may be what most attracted Putnam in the first place. After a decade and more in which pragmatists, relativists and other kinds of anti-realist have been so busy maligning the three theses of Independence, Correspondence and Bivalence, it is good to have the fourth in focus.

On his last page Putnam emphasises his final ground for rejecting the most general version of his earlier attempts to formulate a philosophy of the human mind: ‘The project assumes from the outset that there is a single system (“the organisms and their physical environment”) which contains all the objects that anyone could refer to.’ This has been a great and perhaps painful discovery for him. Peter Strawson spoke for the opposite style of thinking when he wrote over thirty years ago in Individuals that ‘the idea of an “exhaustive description” is in fact quite meaningless in general, although sense may be given to it in a particular context of discourse.’ He was writing critically about Leibniz, whose credo Putnam shared: ‘the way to solve philosophical problems is to construct a better scientific picture of the world,’ as Putnam himself put it. Putnam has recanted. Hence his recent books use capital letters, italics, exclamation-marks, to shout that the idea of a theory of everything doesn’t make much sense. The immediate application is mind. There can’t be one universal theory of the human mind and its place in nature.

We say things like this: She was recalling with amusement how dreadful last night’s movie was, when she heard the telephone ring in the next room. She was about to go and answer when she remembered that it was probably the local organiser of her political party wanting her to canvass. She had already let him down once; she couldn’t bear to confess her disloyalty, so she decided to sit there and let the phone ring.

What was happening? For the past couple of centuries much philosophical psychology has tried to employ a general form of description that speaks of ‘mental states’ (by which are usually meant not amusement and embarrassment, but beliefs and desires) and mental events (hearing, remembering, deciding), all of which result in action or inaction. Since we take for granted that minds and brains have everything to do with each other, mental states and events are supposed to be related to states and events in the brain. How? The answers commonly canvassed are quite dismal.

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