Life at the end of inquiry

Richard Rorty

  • Realism and Reason: Philosophical Papers, Vol. III by Hilary Putnam
    Cambridge, 312 pp, £22.50, June 1984, ISBN 0 521 24672 5

In theory, it is the highest virtue of the philosopher to be constantly receptive to criticism, always willing to abandon his own views upon hearing a better argument. In practice, students tend to become exasperated when an important philosopher changes his mind. It suits their doxographic purposes best to use the philosopher’s name to denote the monolithic set of doctrines which initially made him famous. Bertrand Russell is an example of an important and influential philosopher who changed his mind several times and thereby induced exasperation. Hilary Putnam is another. Just when people have finished writing a devastating critique of Putnam, they discover that Putnam has written a similar critique of his own previous views. This refusal to serve as an unmoving target has sometimes led to attempts to dismiss him as a reed shaken by every new wind of doctrine. But such attempts fail, for Putnam is one of the most vigorous and thoughtful representatives of the second generation of analytic philosophers.

This generation (which also includes Quine, Goodman, Sellars and Davidson) separated itself from the generation of Russell and Carnap by developing doubts about the atomism which had linked these earlier figures to the British Empiricists. Russell and Carnap had shared a vision of language as tied down to the world at lots of discrete points, and of philosophy as offering an account of the relations between these points by exhibiting ‘the logical syntax of language’. This was reminiscent of Hume’s vision of human nature as something which philosophy could split up into lots of psychological atoms (‘impressions and ideas’), and then describe in terms of the relations between these atoms. Carnap’s and Russell’s disciples, however, realised that there are as many ways to tie language down to the world as there are languages. Goodman’s example of ‘grue’, and Quine’s of the various ways to translate ‘gavagai’, suggested that there were as many ‘logical syntaxes of language’ as there were vocabularies. Contemplation of such examples led to holistic theories of meaning, reference and justification and thus to the view that all these are ‘relative to a choice of language’ or to ‘a background theory’ or to ‘linguistic practices’ – suggestions which chime with the older Wittgenstein’s repudiation of the atomism of the Tractatus and his mockery of the idea that ‘logic is something sublime.’

In the early Sixties, Putnam identified himself with this movement towards holism and relativism, but in the late Sixties he began to have doubts about it. He then briefly affiliated himself with a third-generation backlash in favour of the atomism of the grandfathers – the anti-Quine, anti-Wittgenstein movement spearheaded by Kripke. This backlash protested the deconstruction of the model of philosophy common to Hume and Russell – philosophy as piecemeal analysis. It tried to reformulate the ‘traditional problems of philosophy’ which the second generation had been inclined to dissolve, and in particular to breathe life into the notion of ‘reference’ which Quine thought indeterminate and Davidson dispensable. In Volume Two of his Philosophical Papers, published in 1975, Putnam joined Kripke in suggesting the desirability of a new, non-intentional, ‘realistic’ and physicalistic theory of reference – a way of viewing the ties between language and world which would be immune to Quinean and Davidsonian dissolutions.

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