C’est mon métier
- Philosophy in an Age of Science by Hilary Putnam
Harvard, 659 pp, £44.95, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 05013 6
It would take at least two workaday philosophers to keep up with Hilary Putnam. Philosophy in an Age of Science is a case in point. It’s a collection of papers, most of them previously published, devoted among lots of other things to: the philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mathematics, philosophical ethics (analytic and otherwise), and the debate between solipsists, phenomenologists and realists about the epistemological and metaphysical status of ‘external’ objects. That is a long list and it is a long book. One might well doubt that there are philosophers positioned to say important things on all of these topics; but there are, and Putnam is one of them.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 35 No. 5 · 7 March 2013
The positions that Jerry Fodor criticises in his review of my Philosophy in an Age of Science, and that he ascribes to the supposed fact that I have it ‘in mind to add a dash of Wittgenstein to the mix’ (‘the mix’ being several good ideas I am admitted to share with Quine and Fodor), are not positions I hold or that I defend in my book (LRB, 24 January).
First, one of the ‘Wittgensteinian’ views ascribed to me is that to have a ‘full grasp’ of the concept chair is ‘to know that things like this count as chairs. Accordingly, anyone who is sceptical that there even are such things as chairs, or that we can know that there are, has something less than a full grasp of the word or concept.’ I do not defend that view, and in Philosophy in an Age of Science, I argue that Wittgenstein didn’t hold it either. I say that on my view and on Wittgenstein’s, ‘one cannot show that the sceptic is talking nonsense by suggesting that our words may not apply to the world although the criteria for applying them are manifestly fulfilled.’
Second, I express approval of a certain interpretation of the Wittgensteinian notion of grammar, in particular of the ‘grammar’ of intentional explanation; but that approval is accompanied by an explicit rejection of the ‘suggestion that constructive philosophical work and grammatical investigation must be incompatible, that is, that philosophy must consist merely of “therapy”’. (The whole of Chapter 28 is a criticism of Wittgenstein’s idea of philosophy as therapy.)
Third, Fodor writes that ‘Wittgenstein thought that meaning is somehow a matter of use; Putnam raises the ante by understanding “use” anthropologically, as the totality of a word’s (concept’s) “entanglements” with how we speak, think and live,’ and adds: ‘you can’t show that there isn’t [any distinction between one’s understanding of the concept of justice and understanding justice] by appealing to the “use theory of meaning”, because there isn’t, in fact, any such theory.’ I emphatically agree that there is no such theory, and would not be caught dead presupposing such a ‘theory’. My reference to ‘improving one’s understanding of a concept like “bravery” or “justice”’ was supposed to be made clear by the illustration of someone coming to see that mere rashness or foolhardiness do not amount to bravery; this was not an appeal to a ‘use theory of meaning’ or any other theory of meaning. As for whether this is improving one’s understanding of bravery as opposed to improving one’s understanding of ‘bravery’, I don’t have a hound in that race.
Fourth, my notion of ‘entanglement’ was supposed to be based on ‘anthropological semantics’. My usage of that term, as I explain in the book, has two related senses. First, ‘factual judgments, even in physics, depend on and presuppose epistemic values’ (as examples of epistemic values, I mention ‘coherence’, ‘simplicity’, ‘beauty’ and ‘naturalness’). This is an epistemological claim, not a semantical one, and Fodor does not discuss it. The second way in which facts and values are entangled, in my view, is that although terms like cruel and brave can be used to state matters of fact, to use them with any discrimination one has to be able to understand an evaluative point of view. And I do describe this form of entanglement as ‘logical’ or ‘grammatical’. If this is the evidence that leads Fodor to accuse me of ‘anthropological semantics’ and ‘a use theory of meaning’, he is guilty of a simple mistake: this is indeed evidence that I think some terms are such that to understand them one has to understand an evaluative point of view (which perhaps requires an empathetic understanding of a form of life), but I did not say, and do not believe, that every term has that property.
It seems that Fodor was seized by what seemed to him to be the ‘key’ to all my views: Wittgensteinian semantics! You got me wrong, Jerry, I am no ‘Wittgensteinian’.