In the latest issue:

An Ordinary Woman

Alan Bennett

Anglo-America Loses its Grip

Pankaj Mishra

Short Cuts: John Bolton’s Unwitting Usefulness

Mattathias Schwartz

Smells of Hell

Keith Thomas

Mrs Oliphant

Tom Crewe

Tippett’s Knack

Philip Clark

At Tate Modern: Steve McQueen

Colin Grant

Catherine Lacey

Nicole Flattery

Churchill’s Cook

Rosemary Hill

The ‘Batrachomyomachia’

Ange Mlinko

On Dorothea Lange

Joanna Biggs

Paid to Race

Jon Day

Poem: ‘Traveller’s Tales: Chapter 90’

August Kleinzahler

The Soho Alphabet

Andrew O’Hagan

Old Tunes

Stephen Sedley

Victor Serge’s Defective Bolshevism

Tariq Ali

The Murdrous Machiavel

Erin Maglaque

Diary: Insane after coronavirus?

Patricia Lockwood

A Technical PhilosopherHilary Putnam
Close
Close
Vol. 5 No. 9 · 19 May 1983

A Technical Philosopher

Hilary Putnam

1836 words
The Varieties of Reference 
by Gareth Evans, edited by John McDowell.
Oxford, 418 pp., £15, October 1982, 0 19 824685 4
Show More
Show More

Gareth Evans died of cancer when he was barely 34 years of age. He had been working on this book for several years; the task of completing it from his notes was carried out by John McDowell. (The first two chapters and the introduction were rewritten by Evans himself in the last months of his life.) Evans’s death at such an early age is a tragedy. We can have no real idea what his mature years might have brought forth, and this book is no substitute for those additional years of life and thought: it is the desperate attempt of a young man on his deathbed to leave a lasting mark on his profession. I do not like – in fact I hate – to say that he did not (in my opinion) succeed. And I apologise to those who will feel personally hurt at a negative review of a work produced by a vital person whom they knew and loved and miss today.

For reasons I shall discuss shortly, it is not possible to convey Evans’s main claims, conclusions and arguments in a review for a general audience, nor even to give the flavour of his mode of reasoning. Instead I shall confine myself to describing an example which he relies upon to illustrate and help establish certain main sub-points in his argument.

A man sees one of two whirling steel balls at time A. At time B he sees the other (imagine they cannot be distinguished by him). He has a memory of the second seeing, but not of the first (Evans postulates a bit of amnesia, but ordinary forgetting would do as well). Also, the man (I will assume the man is myself, for simplicity of discussion) does not know there are two different balls.

Can the man – that is, can I – think about the ball I remember? We recall that I have what seems to me to be a perfectly good memory of one (just one) steel ball whirling around. It is in fact a perfectly good memory (if we could trace the origin of the memory trace in my brain, it would go back to an event involving just one of the two original balls). I can believe that I am thinking: ‘that ball was whirling around terrifically fast.’ But, according to Evans – and this is a vitally important conclusion for this whole book – I am deceived. What is really going on is that I appear to myself to have thought a thought: but there was no thought of the kind I appeared to myself to have thought (no thought about a particular ball) to be thought in my situation.

In addition, in Evans’s view, a thought about a particular object which I perceive (or seem to myself to be perceiving) and which I identify by the use of an ordinary demonstrative (‘that ball’, ‘that eagle’ etc) presupposes the non-illusory existence of that object for its very existence: if the relevant ball, eagle or whatever is a mirage or an illusion or a hallucination, then the ‘thought’ is also an illusion. Russell believed (for very different reasons from the ones Evans gives) that there were propositions whose existence presupposed the existence of the objects they were about (for Russell these were all propositions about sense-data). For this reason, Evans calls a thought with this property – the property that it could not exist if the object it is about did not exist – a ‘Russellian thought’. To establish the existence of Russellian thoughts, Russellian Ideas (Idea, with a capital ‘I’, is Evans’s term for the concept of an individual thing – e.g. the concept which corresponds to the words ‘that eagle’ when I successfully think, ‘that eagle is flying in circles’), Russellian referring expressions, etc, is the avowed object of this book.

One thing a review cannot convey is the relentless technicality of the book. It could not be used in a graduate course in philosophy of language without several preliminary lectures on Davidson, on Kripke, etc (not to say a preliminary course in math logic). It is a book addressed to Evans’s fellow specialists, and only to them. Philosophy, as Evans pictures it, is as esoteric as quantum mechanics.

The model of philosophy as a Wissenschaft, if not actually a science, informs the treatment of Evans’s great predecessors as well. That Russell’s ‘propositions’ were not ‘thoughts’ (they were extra-mental objects which literally had ordinary objects as constituents) is an essential fact about Russell’s metaphysical system which Evans feels free to ignore; that Frege did assign referents to what Evans calls ‘empty’ descriptions in his ideal language, and that he regarded none of the more-or-less vague expressions we use in everyday language as having sense at all (in spite of what Evans calls the ‘viability’ of everyday language), are also not mentioned. Particular technical problems are simply ripped out of their place in the rich filigree of the metaphysical system as though they had a significance independent of their historical context.

In spite of this relentless technicality, it gradually becomes clear that Evans does have a philosophical picture of his own, and not just a set of technical claims about technical issues. The picture is roughly as follows: thoughts are not sentences, nor are they symbols in the mind or brain (they are not ‘sentence-analogues’ in a language of thought, as some Chomskyans think). Thoughts are exercises of structured systems of abilities. The thought that object a has property F involves an ability which is the Idea of a and an ability which is the idea of F.

This claim only has content if we can describe the Idea of, say, ‘that eagle’ otherwise than as ‘whatever capacity one has to have to make such judgments as “that eagle is flying in circles,” “that eagle is old,” etc. Evans’s tack, as I read him, is not to claim that we are in a position to do this completely, but to indicate at least in part what such a non-trivial characterisation of the Idea in question might look like.

According to Evans, I can only think about eagles (or any other sort of things) if 1. I possess a ‘Fundamental Idea’ of what it is to be an eagle (is a Fundamental Idea an analytically necessary and sufficient condition, or what? Evans does not say), and 2. I know what makes an object of the sort different from another object of the sort (in the case of eagles or other material objects this would be spatial location). When I pick out an object as ‘that eagle’ in a perceptual situation, my visual transaction with the object puts me in an ‘informational state’ which immediately gives rise to at least two abilities: an ability to roughly locate the object relative to my body (to locate the object in ‘egocentric space’, in Evans’s terminology); and an ability to locate the object in public space (‘objective space’, in Evans’s terminology).

Now we can say what is wrong when the object is not really there. If I am fooled by a mirage and I say, ‘That oasis is a good place to water my camels,’ then I think I have acquired an ability (the ability to locate the oasis in objective space) which I have not in fact acquired. This is what Evans’s notion of thinking I have a thought when there is no such thought to be thought cashes out to in such a case.

The problem with the whirling balls is similarly treated. If I describe the ball I remember as ‘whichever ball caused this memory’, then, in Evans’s view, I am simply passing the buck. I am not showing that I have an Idea of the ball (an ability to locate it in objective space, or to decide of objects which I can locate in objective space whether or not they are ‘that ball’), but simply indicating conceptually how I might get such an Idea. The fact that I cannot either locate ‘that ball’ in objective space nor decide which ball was ‘that ball’ (imagine I have since learned that there were two) shows that ‘that ball’ no more refers to a determinate real thing than ‘that oasis’ does when there is a mirage.

I find none of this convincing at all. (For example, if I don’t recall, even briefly, in which direction I was looking when I thought, ‘that eagle flew by very fast,’ then I did not acquire an ability to locate the eagle in either egocentric space or objective space: so it would follow I didn’t really think a thought on Evans’s view.) But this is not the place for a rebuttal of any of Evans’s claims. What bothers me is the conception of philosophy behind all of this. Evans appears to assume that philosophy is a technical discipline in which problems have a significance independent of the actual system of thought that generated them; and that one can make uncritical use of the notion of a ‘conceptual’ truth. These two ideas undergird each other: what gives substance to the notion of philosophy as a technical discipline for Evans is his amazing confidence that he is discovering indisputable conceptual truths and not just talking in a way he finds compelling.

If the picture that lies behind all of this – the picture of language as hooking onto the world through the medium of specifiable object-involving dispositions and capacities – could be shown to have some force, then one could, perhaps, throw away the technicalities and discuss that picture. But the impossibility of really specifying even one of these ‘capacities’ blocks that path (or so it seems to me, as it did to Wittgenstein and Quine before me). What specifiable ‘capacity’ must anyone have to have an ‘adequate Idea’ of an eagle, of an elm tree, of water? What reason is there to think that such a capacity could be specified in finitely many words in a non-question-begging way? Or, if it cannot be specified, why is this capacity-reductionism any better than the now abandoned sense-data-reductionism of Ayer and Russell? Evans does not discuss these questions at all.

It has been said that there are two sorts of analytic philosophers today: those who worry about whether a bundle of sticks would still be the same bundle if one stick were removed, and the therapists who try to cure the first sort of that kind of worry. With respect to Evans’s worries about the existence of ‘Russellian thoughts’, my stance is that of the therapist. But the larger question is what philosophy might be if it gave up the pretence of having a special authority of the kind a real technical discipline possesses. When Evans describes the phenomenology of egocentric space and objective space in one of his chapters (Six), he begins to move in the direction of such a philosophy: I wish he had done more of this and less over-elaborate ‘theory’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 5 No. 12 · 7 July 1983

SIR: I am surprised at Hilary Putnam’s negative review of Gareth Evans’s The Varieties of Reference (LRB, 19 May). This book I take to be original, profound and extremely well-argued. Putnam complains that it is overly technical and of interest only to professional philosophers: but I am in complete agreement with the philosopher who, twenty years ago, replied to similar complaints in the following way:

If any further evidence were needed of the healthy state of philosophy today, it would be provided by the hordes of intellectuals who complain that philosophy is overly ‘technical’ … For such complaints have always occurred precisely when philosophy was significant and vital! … The sad fact is that good philosophy is and always has been hard, and that it is easier to learn the names of a few philosophers than it is to read their books. Those who find philosophy overly ‘technical’ today would no more have found the time or the inclination to follow Socrates’s long chains of argument, or to read one of the Critiques, in an earlier day.

The philosopher who wrote these beautiful lines is Hilary Putnam (Philosophical Papers, Vol. II, pp. 132-133).

François Recanati
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

SIR: May I comment on Hilary Putnam’s review of The Varieties of Reference by Gareth Evans? Putnam gives the impression that the book is a failure, deserving attention only in one chapter, and even there only in spite of its theoretical ambitions. I think most readers will find this judgment perverse.

Putnam accuses the book of ‘relentless technicality’. It is certainly difficult, but Putnam himself offers a roughly adequate exposition of one of its main lines of thought, and so undermines his own suggestion that its drift is inaccessible to a general audience. No one disputes that Russell’s Theory of Descriptions is a prominent feature in the landscape of reflection about reference, and it is not idiosyncratic on Evans’s part to presuppose acquaintance with Russell’s logic in discussing Russell’s issues; nor is it out of the way to take Kripke’s work as one point of departure for a contemporary approach to naming, or to have Davidson bulk large in the background when considering a broadly realist conception of meaning. None of this is particularly abstruse, and Putnam’s phrase ‘as esoteric as quantum mechanics’ is an absurd exaggeration.

In fact, the main focus of Putnam’s complaint seems not to be the logical formulae and presupposed background, but rather his allegation that Evans’s use of Frege and Russell wrenches ‘particular technical problems’ out of their place in the ‘systems’ of those thinkers. Putnam’s picture has each philosopher constructing a ‘metaphysical system’, within which alone his theses and concerns make sense. Carried to extremes, this would have the consequence that if we fall short of completely accepting an earlier philosopher’s ‘system’, he can have nothing to say to us: but I doubt that Putnam believes that. The sane view seems to be that whether a piecemeal use of an earlier philosopher involves a continuation of his worthwhile concerns, or a brutal extraction of technicalities from their context, depends on the answer to a question on which there is typically room for dispute: what was the philosopher really on to? As for Frege, Evans indeed ignores his idea that natural language is, strictly speaking, beyond the reach of semantic theory: here he is broadly in line with Dummett’s account of what Frege can offer to present-day philosophy of language – an account that is no doubt open to question, but adherence to which hardly indicates an intellectually disreputable conception of philosophy in general. As for Russell, Putnam baldly asserts that Russell’s ‘propositions’ (since they had ‘extra-mental’ objects as ‘constituents’) were not ‘thoughts’: this does not refute Evans’s interpretation of Russell, but betrays a failure to see its point. Russell’s ‘propositions’ were, after all, meant to be the objects of propositional attitudes (e.g. belief), and Russell himself supposed that in his talk of ‘propositions’ he was addressing concerns that Frege had addressed in his talk of ‘thoughts’. Putnam simply assumes that Russell’s ‘constituent’ idea – which Evans does not ignore, but rather interprets – rules out a construal of ‘propositions’ as ‘thoughts’: this is to embrace, quite without argument, a conception of thought and its relation to objects that it is perhaps Evans’s main purpose to dislodge. (A genuinely suitable case, one might suggest, for ‘therapy’.)

Adherents of one central tradition in post-Cartesian philosophy have been gripped by the idea that the ‘contents’ of the mind must be determinately the way they are, independently of any facts about how the mind’s owner is related to ‘extramental’ reality. On Evans’s account, Russell’s conception of singular ‘propositions’ contains the seeds of the destruction of that idea, although Russell’s own adherence to the tradition prevented their proper germination in his work. Putnam claims that Russell’s reasons for the conception were ‘very different’ from Evans’s, but this is open to question. Russell’s sense-data – the only particulars, apart from the self, that can strictly be ‘constituents’ of Russellian ‘propositions’ – were not unambiguously intra-mental. And it is arguable that he was led to his conception of singular ‘propositions’ by a distaste for the way in which the Cartesian tradition typically disconnects the mind from its world: although the tradition reasserted itself in his inability to link the mind, in the direct way he wanted, with anything further out into the world (so to speak) than sense-data.

Putnam asks why Evans’s ‘capacity-reductionism’ is any better than ‘sense-data-reductionism’. Five paragraphs back, however, he seems clear that it is not a matter of reduction at all. The point he credits to Wittgenstein and Quine might be put by saying that there is no room for theorising about how thought and language relate to objects except from within thought and language; and this is fully congenial to Evans’s position. It is quite another thing to suggest that there is no room for theorising about the subject at all. That smacks of an anti-intellectual defeatism, and would anyway be hard to sustain in the face of a proper appreciation of the exemplary theorising that Evans offers. (Putnam has faint praise for some of this, in his remarks about Evans’s sixth chapter. Why no mention of the brilliant reflections on the self, in the companion seventh? But in any case it is inconceivable that Putnam can have properly appreciated Evans’s ‘phenomenological’ insights into perceptually-based demonstrative thinking, when he totally withholds approval from their theoretical context.) As for ‘sense-data-reductionism’, the superiority of Evans’s position lies (obviously enough for it to be unsurprising that he does not discuss the matter) in its exemplifying the possibility of theorising (from within thought, by all means) about how thoughts relate to reality, without imposing the Cartesian tradition’s characteristic disconnection between minds and the ordinary objects of the world.

Putnam finds Evans’s theoretical construction unconvincing. (Hardly surprisingly, since he evidently does not understand its point. The single reason he offers, parenthetically, for his judgment is in fact an ignoratio elenchi: it applies Evans’s treatment of perceptual demonstrative thinking to an example of what Evans calls ‘memory demonstratives’.) Putnam’s main concern, in any case, is not to confute the theory, but to air a dark methodological suspicion. Apart from Evans’s idea that philosophers can bequeath us their problems without convincing us of their ‘systems’, which I have already discussed, Putnam’s suspicion turns on the notion of a conceptual truth. But it is an astonishing distortion to suggest that that notion has any grand methodological significance in Evans’s work. Insofar as the work can be classified by method, the right thing to say about it is that it belongs to the analytical tradition. (This is not to be equated with having a vested interest in the concept of analyticity.) It seems quite absurd to suggest that Evans’s book, more than any other work in that tradition, is informed by some sinister quasi-scientistic conception of philosophy. Of course the analytical approach is not sacrosanct: but it will be a sad day for our philosophical culture if a book’s analytical character becomes a ground for branding it a failure. And it is worth mentioning the convergences, perceptively discussed by Charles Taylor in the Times Literary Supplement, between Evans’s response to the Cartesian tradition and those of philosophers from a different school, notably Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. It is regrettable that Putnam should have let a general and largely irrelevant methodological preoccupation blind him to the specific and substantial merits of Evans’s book.

John McDowell
University College, Oxford

Vol. 5 No. 13 · 21 July 1983

SIR: Why is Hilary Putnam so sure that The Varieties of Reference is fundamentally mistaken in its approach to the question of how language hooks onto the world (LRB, 19 May)? The ‘picture that lies behind’ Gareth Evans’s book is roundly condemned by Putnam in the next-to-last paragraph of his review. In this paragraph we learn that the charge is ‘reductionism’ (an allusion, presumably, to the fact that Evans’s work treats of the linguistic in terms of the psychological) and that Putnam regards ‘Wittgenstein and Quine before me’ as having seen the error of this way. But Putnam does nothing more to make it clear just what he thinks is wrong, and with what, in Evans’s approach.

Evans’s basic assumptions (hard to discern in Putnam’s review) are, first, that language latches onto the world through the thoughts people have in understanding each other’s speech, and, second, that a person cannot think about a particular object without being able to identify it. The claim that people have ‘object-involving’ identificatory capacities (such a capacity being one which is specifiable only by someone who accepts the existence of an object to which it is directed) is a further claim that Evans attempts to establish in the course of his book: see, for example, his ingenious discussion of the kind of capacity he believes is associated with the word ‘I’. Evans does not in this book extend his discussion to general terms as such, but he could in all consistency have said that some general words are associated with kinds of identificatory capacities that are ‘quality-involving’ in a sense parallel to ‘object-involving’.

Putnam’s penultimate paragraph implies the existence of an objection to Evans’s approach relative to which the question of object-involving or indeed quality-involving capacities is a mere matter of detail. We are left to presume that Putnam’s objection is that no capacity which contributes to thought can be described without alluding, not merely to other concepts, but to the thinker’s participation in a linguistic community. Hence, no concept whatsoever can be described adequately in what would be a ‘non-question-begging way’ relative to the task of giving an account of linguistic reference in any of its forms.

Is there any general consideration which shows that such a sweeping conclusion should be accepted? Putnam’s own work on the ‘division of linguistic labour’ (whereby a person’s identificatory procedures pass, via the word, to other people, and only then to the world) does not show that the buck never has to stop. Nor does Putnam’s work on ostensive definition show that words latch onto individuals, or onto samples of stuff, off their own bat. Putnam’s pontifications are a poor substitute for the reasoned argument he should have provided here.

Julie Jack
Somerville College, Oxford

Hilary Putnam will reply in the next issue to the letters of objection which have been directed at his review.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Vol. 5 No. 14 · 4 August 1983

SIR: John McDowell’s (Letters, 7 July) and Julia Jack’s (Letters, 21 July) comments on my review of Varieties of Reference by Gareth Evans raise important issues. Before speaking to these, let me first say something about McDowell’s more lively accusations. I am accused of ‘not understanding’ the ‘point’ of Evans’s theoretical construction and of ‘withholding approval’ from its ‘theoretical context’. At the same time, ‘Putnam himself offers a roughly adequate exposition of one of [the book’s] main lines of thought, and so undermines his own sugestion that its drift is inaccessible to a general audience.’ Well, if I have given a roughly adequate exposition of one of Evans’s main lines of thought, then I am quite content to let the readers of my review decide for themselves whether that line of thought should be taken seriously. Secondly, McDowell’s charge of an ignoratio elenchi in my review is based on the fact that I employed a past-tense sentence containing what Evans calls a ‘memory demonstrative’ (‘That eagle flew by terrifically fast’) as an example, rather than the corresponding present-tense sentence. But the point would have been exactly the same: the speaker, even if he says, ‘That eagle is flying by terrifically fast,’ as the eagle is flying by (and thus employs a ‘perceptual demonstrative’), need not have acquired the capacity to locate the eagle in objective space (the speaker may be lost). McDowell might reply that at least a weaker condition is fulfilled: I can locate the eagle in relation to my body (locate it in ‘egocentric space’, in Evans’s terminology). But Evans was interested in this capacity as it feeds into the capacity to locate the object in objective space; moreover, if I didn’t notice which way my head was turned, then isn’t it a rather desperate expedient to say I had even the more limited capacity for just an instant and lost it a second later? We could as well say that I thought a perfectly true thought and that Evans is just mistaken in holding that such a thought (containing a perceptual demonstrative or a memory demonstrative) requires the presence (or the existence in the past) of these particular capacities. Similarly, when I say, ‘That oasis is a good place to water my camels,’ and there is no oasis but rather a mirage (another example employed in my review), there is no need to accept Evans’s main piece of ‘theorising on the subject’, as McDowell terms it: i.e. to accept the astonishing claim that in such a case I have failed to think a thought at all. We could as well say I have thought something false, or that the whole question of truth or falsity lapses when we find out the oasis did not exist. We could talk in the way Evans wishes us to talk; to think we fail to grasp ‘theoretic’ truth if we don’t is to be in the grip of a picture. That Evans describes his claims as ‘conceptual truths’ seems very significant in this connection; I simply cannot believe that this ‘has no grand methodological significance in Evans’s work’. (Evans’s only argument for one of his most important claims – the claim that a fully determinate Thought cannot lack a truth value, which is a ‘key’ to establishing his own view, as well as to rejecting Strawson’s theory of descriptions – is that the denial of this principle is ‘incomprehensible’. If this sort of talk shows only that Evans’s work ‘belongs to the analytical tradition’ it is a version of ‘the analytical tradition’ that is remarkably uninformed by Quine or Wittgenstein.)

Furthermore, I must reject McDowell’s account of the history of Russell’s thinking. I dislike talk of ‘the Cartesian tradition’, but if McDowell is thinking of Russell’s break with idealism, as I take it he is, then it is just not the case that Russell was ‘led to his conception of singular “propositions" by his distaste for the way in which the Cartesian tradition typically disconnects the mind from the world; although the tradition reasserted itself in his inability to link the mind, in the direct way he wanted, with anything further out into the world … than sense-data’. The Russellian notion of a ‘proposition’ was, in fact, first put forward by G.E. Moore in 1899 (‘The Nature of Judgment’), and taken over bodily by Russell in The Principles of Mathematics (written in 1902, published in 1903). In these works the constituents of propositions are tables, chairs, numbers etc – whatever one can think about. There is no hint of objects of acquaintance or of any problem of reaching out beyond objects of acquaintance before ‘On Denoting’ (1905), and no identification of objects of acquaintance with sense-data before about 1910. (With the rise of Russell’s interest in epistemology there even came doubt – voiced by Russell in 1912 – that there are such things as ‘propositions’.) In the period (prior to 1910 or so) in which Russell talked confidently of propositions and their constituents, his view was that idealist talk of propositions as parts of mental events cut off and fixed by the mind (Bradley) was simply nonsense. Thinking, for both Frege and Russell, involved direct relation to complex extra-mental entities.

Gareth Evans’s ‘thoughts’, on the other hand, are exercises of structured systems of capacities a person has. Whatever the merits or demerits of such a conception, it has no relation whatever to Russell’s notion of a ‘proposition’. There was, thus, no call for Evans to give an account (an incorrect one, in my view) of Russell’s doctrine that propositions can have objects as constituents at all. This does not mean that there is never a point to discussing whether Russell’s views (the ones he actually held) are tenable or not, nor does it mean that ‘if we fall short of accepting [Russell’s] system he can have nothing to say to us’ – the view McDowell ascribes to me. To write that one should not rip philosophers’ statements out of the complex system of ideas which gives them sense, as I did, is not to say anything like this.

The question how language hooks onto the world is, on the other hand, a question in which both Frege and Russell were vitally interested, although not in a ‘Cartesian’ setting. Why does talk of people having ‘object-involving capacities’ not speak to this question?

In one way, of course, it does: but not in the way in which this was a question for analytic philosophy in its formative period. The question was not ‘what statements can we make about words and things?’, but how can there be a ‘singled-out’ relation, a relation of reference, at all? That, from an interpreter’s point of view, there can be a relation between my doings and sayings and some object or other is not at issue. This remark only pushes the question back to the question of how the interpreter’s words can have a ‘singled-out’ relation to certain objects rather than to any others. If our ‘capacities’ were self-identifying, if there were no possibility of asking why my doings should be intrinsically exercises of this capacity rather than that, then the remark that we have capacities which involve particular things would solve the problem of words and the world (in which case it would have been a silly problem to begin with), but essentialism about ‘capacities’ is no more satisfying as a remedy for a serious metaphysical worry than any other kind of essentialism. With this; I think, McDowell agrees. He takes Evans’s project (correctly, I believe) to have been a different project, a ‘Davidsonian’ project of describing the words-world relation assuming whatever notions we find helpful, whether these be question-begging from the point of view of the original philosophical worry or not. (But then why pretend one is speaking to the original issue?)

Such a project, if it ‘paid off’, might contribute to cognitive science: where I differ with John McDowell and Julia Jack is over the chances of success. I feel that the attempt to produce ‘theories’ of ‘how language latches onto the world’ has proved corrupting. But I did not reject Evans’s work because it proceeds from a different standpoint on this highly controversial issue (as McDowell and Jack suggest): rather, the fact that Evans’s attempt to produce such a ‘theory’ is so deeply unconvincing seemed, sadly, to support my negative attitude towards the conception of philosophy as the ‘theory’ of something or other.

Last but not least, I still agree with the words I wrote over ten years ago that François Recanati quotes in his letter. To say that long and technical argument has a place in philosophy is one thing; to think that philosophy can or should have the authority of a science is another. I admit that I think of philosophy as one of the humanities and of its products as works and not theories: this hardly commits me to holding that there is no place for hard argument in philosophy.

Hilary Putnam
Harvard University

Vol. 5 No. 17 · 15 September 1983

SIR: Hilary Putnam’s attempt (Letters, 4 August) to refurbish his solitary argument against Gareth Evans only makes things worse. Certainly someone who is lost can entertain a thought expressible by a sentence like ‘That eagle is flying terrifically fast,’ and certainly I want to say that this is because he can locate the bird in his ‘egocentric space’. Putnam points out, as if it made this response irrelevant, that Evans is ‘interested in this capacity as it feeds into the capacity to locate the object in objective space’. Certainly: Evans’s plausible thought here is that the capacity to locate things in ‘egocentric space’ is intelligible only because it normally does ‘feed into’ something involving knowledge of where one is. That is, an ability to identify objects in the perceptually demonstrative way even when one is lost – something whose existence Evans never denies – would be unintelligible if there were no such thing as not being lost. As for the idea that a perceptually demonstrative thought requires some ability to locate its object, I confess that what Putnam finds ‘a desperate expedient’ strikes me as something of a truism. (Not noticing which way one’s head is turned need not undermine one’s command of ‘over there’, ‘up there’, and so forth.) Putnam’s mirage example is somewhat off-target: here the thinker certainly focuses on something (the mirage), and the question whether to say he thinks something false about it, or what, turns in large part on issues about what ‘oasis’ (rather than Evans’s concern, ‘that’) contributes to thoughts that might be expressed by ‘That oasis would be a good place to water my camels’ – issues about which Evans is deliberately tentative.

Putnam has a view about what made reference an issue for the founding fathers of analytical philosophy: in effect, he thinks it was a craving for a real link between language and something like Dinge an sich. He sees that this is not what bothers Evans: that is why he is so sure that Evans’s way of relating himself to Frege and Russell brutally distorts those thinkers. But my point, which Putnam has done nothing to meet, was that this version of history is not sacrosanct. On a perfectly arguable different view, what takes centre-stage is a certain conception of the mind’s ‘contents’, one whose roots lie in the position that natural science occupies in our culture; that conception threatens to force on us a falsely attenuated picture of a quite ordinary relation between thought and quite ordinary objects, and in recoiling from this threat Frege and Russell were, not succumbing to dubious transcendental hankerings, but reinforcing other considerations that enable us to recognise the conception as a mere prejudice. (Taking Frege to share the movement of recoil reverses the usual account of him, and this innovative reading by Evans is brilliant whether right or wrong.)

If it were possible to establish Putnam’s contention that, had Evans succeeded, his work might have been at best a contribution to ‘cognitive science’, rather than ‘speaking to the original issue’, it would be by showing that this different view of ‘the original issue’ is wrong. Putnam, however, apparently cannot even see that there is a question about this; he thereby reveals, as I suggested, that he is not qualified to assess Evans’s work as what it is. Both in supposing that his display of erudition about Russell somehow confutes what I wrote, and in supposing (‘… content to let the readers of my review decide for themselves’) that to undermine Evans’s ‘no object, no thought’ idea (not, incidentally, his ‘main piece of “theorising on the subject" ’), it suffices merely to hold it up for inspection, Putnam betrays an unthinking adherence – naturally taking it for granted in his readers as well – to a form of the conception that I have called ‘a prejudice’. It is ironic that, for all his holier-than-thou historicism, Putnam is so unreflective about this historically-conditioned warp in his own thinking that he cannot even see it as an assumption, let alone comprehend a philosophy that would call it in question.

Putnam sees his attack on Evans as defending a humane and historically self-aware approach to philosophy against a self-deceptively ahistorical scientism. This is just wildly off the mark. (If there is scientism anywhere, it is in Putnam’s unconscious assumption.) Unable, as I have explained, to understand what Evans is doing, Putnam has given himself something to grapple with by foisting on to Evans a particularly crude version of the self-image that Richard Rorty attributes to analytical philosophers. That he ‘simply cannot believe’ he is wrong about this hardly meets my charge of misrepresentation. The only support Putnam offers is the quite remarkable suggestion that Quine and Wittgenstein have taught us not to attach the label ‘incomprehensible’ to anything, as Evans does to the idea that there is a gap between ‘The whole question of truth and falsity lapses’ and ‘There is no thought here.’ Reasoned criticism of bogus distinctions is exactly characteristic of Quine and Wittgenstein, and that is what Evans undertakes; it is a gross travesty to suggest that the label carries all the weight. I doubt that either Quine or Wittgenstein would make a serious issue out of anyone’s particular choice of opprobrious epithets to drive such criticism home.

John McDowell
University College, Oxford

Vol. 5 No. 18 · 6 October 1983

SIR: As to ‘the question how language hooks onto the world’ (Letters, 4 August) – not only Gareth Evans but perhaps Frege and Russell also should have taken note of Coleridge’s apology for using ‘so trivial a metaphor’ when referring to ‘all the hooks-and-eyes of the memory’ (in the Friend) – thinking mind too mysteriously metamorphic to be pinned down finally by a metaphor so deceptively technical.

William Milne
London SW18

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences