Paper Draft on Putnam

Here’s my first draft of a paper on Hilary Putnam’s “Meaning and Reference.” Alexi, the lecturer, stressed that we need to write clearly so that even an elementary student can understand it. While i hope that my audience is more mature than I am, I would still appreciate any feedback that anyone has on the paper.

Draft 1 for Paper 2

In “Meaning and Reference,” Hilary Putnam challenges the traditional view that meaning is a set of properties. He wants to show that one’s psychological state doesn’t determine exactly what objects in the world are being picked out. To do this, he breaks this claim into two parts: one, psychological state determines the meaning, or intension, of a term, and two, the intension determines the satisfying objects, or extension, and shows that these parts aren’t jointly satisfiable. Although he maintains that intension determines extension, Putnam only gives a short argument in a footnote for why. I will first analyze what Putnam does say on whether intension determines extension, then explain why his argument is not compelling.

In this paper, Putnam doesn’t explicitly define intension and only comes closest when he says that knowing a word’s intension is “understanding a word” (700). Fortunately, this definition will be sufficient in our discussion of Putnam as it is enough to say that the intuition that intension determines extension is the same as the intuition that the meaning of a word determines what the words refer to. We can find evidence that Putnam does believe that intension determines extension in the Twin Earth example. As mentioned, he separates the belief that psychological state determines extension into two parts, with intension as the bridge. To prove this theory wrong, he must show that exactly one part is true, and exactly one part is false. If both are true, then the theory hold, and if both are false, then the decomposition is meaningless. He chooses to mainly attack the idea that psychological state determines intension and uses the H2O-XYZ thought experiment and socio-linguistic division of labor to explain why. We can assume that Putnam’s argument is well-formed so intension determines extension is correct and psychological state determines intension is wrong.

In his discussion of indexicality, Putnam gives more evidence that he believes intension determines extension. He points out that natural-kind words (words that are grouped by natural, not artificial qualities) have an implicit indexicality, meaning that those words also depend on the frame of reference of the speaker. For example, when we say “water,” we’re referring to everything that appears to be watery in our local environment. Depending on the universe, that water might be H2O or XYZ, so the claims that words have intensions and intension determines extension cannot both be true. If so, all instances of the word “water” should refer to H2O, regardless of the universe. We can deny either of these two claims to resolve this conflict. Notably, Putnam rejects that words have intensions and says, “as we have chosen to do, that difference in extension is ipso facto a difference in meaning for natural-kind words,” to maintain his belief that intension determines extension (710).

Putnam does present a short argument for why he believes intension determines extension in a footnote to the indexicality discussion. He appeals to our intuition about how words work with the following example: assume intension didn’t determine extension. Thus, when one person in our universe said water (referring to H2O) and one person in another universe said water (referring to xyz), they had the same meaning. We can imagine that in this parallel universe, language might have developed slightly differently, such that “water” is pronounced “quaxel.” Now, two words apparently have the same intension even though they are pronounced differently and pick out different things. And our intuition is that this is a contradiction because they can’t have the same meaning.

Although I share this intuition, I remain unconvinced by this argument because it takes advantage of our pre-conceived notions about water from the Twin Earth argument. Instead, I will show that Putnam’s argument isn’t valid in other examples. To see this, we must first consider how Putnam believes we arrive at our psychological states and intensions. Putnam explains the difference between the operational definition and actual definition for an object. The operational definition is a standard for how we understand the nature of an object without getting at what he considers its essential qualities. For example, an operational test for water would be a series of tests that could yield superficial properties though not guarantee certainty about the microstructure of something that might be water.

The most apparent drawback to this interpretation is that he bases the difference on an empirically determined definition for the microstructure of water. He says, “Once we have discovered that water (in the actual world) is H2O, nothing counts as a possible world in which water isn’t H2O” (710). Yet even this definition for water based on its microstructure is based upon possibly faulty experiments, and history has shown that we should likely discover a deeper scientific quality that should allow us to make finer distinctions in the future. Several hundreds years ago, one might have made a compelling argument that all things which are clear with a certain taste are water, and the apparent color under a microscope indicated the true nature of what water is. And in another 100 years, we may determine that some quality to hydrogen within water does or doesn’t make it water. If we discovered that H2O could also exist in non-water states as, say, rocks on a distant planet, we must clearly adjust what we intend when we refer to water. A potential counter-argument is that this is the indexicality that Putnam explains in his essay. I, however, feel that that argument trivializes all intension and extension because it is beyond human understanding. The consequence is that we have never and will never actually know the true extension of anything. Because we might learn something more in the future, we can’t even assure that natural-kind groupings don’t have more partitions within.

With that, we can revisit Putnam’s original argument. We can break down the difference between our “water” and Twin Earth water, “quaxel” that make the answer so intuitive. By assumption, the intensions agree because the two terms mean the same thing. The extensions are different because we know that one is H2O and the other is XYZ. And the pronunciation is different. Intuitively, I would also say that “water” and “quaxel” can’t mean the same thing.

So let’s consider a different example. We know what oxygen is. We know we can breathe it, and that it has a specific number of protons in its microstructure and commonly binds with one other oxygen atom to form an oxygen molecule. Now, let’s imagine that there’s a Twin Earth out there where they also have oxygen. If we were to send our scientists there, they would agree that everything there is oxygen. Thus, it would seem that we have the same psychological state, intension, and extension. The only difference is that on Twin Earth, their English sounds different, though each word still corresponds to one of our English words. When they say “yorpit,” they are referring to our “oxygen,” and we should believe that they mean the same thing. The intension and extension are the same, and the pronunciation difference isn’t important.
Now, remember the argument above that extensions are uncertain because they are only known through empirical study. Imagine that time travelers from the future come to visit us today, and in their time, they have discovered new and wonderful properties about elements that allow them to make finer distinctions. They discover that there are actually two types of oxygen, where in Earth oxygen, an sub-magnetic field appears within its electrons yet it doesn’t in Twin Earth oxygen. In fact, these researchers laugh that we call these two substances both oxygen because it’s obvious to them that they only share superficial qualities like their microstructure. To reiterate, though, both oxygen and yorpit behave in exactly the same ways that we can breathe it, use it to fuel fire, and are released by plants in photosynthesis. Only because the time travelers have discovered faster-than-light methods of transportation did they notice the difference.

With this new information example, we have the same breakdown as with “water” and “quaxel.” They have the same intension, but different extensions and pronunciation. To me, it doesn’t seem so. Because of my social and scientific context, I couldn’t care less about the sub-magnetic field. And even though yorpit and oxygen are different words, and the time traveler asserts to me that these two are fundamentally different, I wouldn’t be willing to buy it. When considering why I have come to two different conclusions for the water and oxygen examples, I don’t think it’s that intension determines extension is guiding my judgment. It’s my intuitive sense about what counts as the same that is really making a difference here. Yet in either case, a more careful analysis about the consequence of the uncertainty of the true nature of something means that I shouldn’t believe anything is the same.

When Putnam points out the socio-linguistic quality of words, I think he makes an interesting point about the relevance behind the social aspect to meaning. While this thought experiment doesn’t prove that intension doesn’t determine extension, I don’t believe that Putnam’s appeal to our intuition is necessarily strong enough because of the limited perspective of our intuitions.
Works Cited
Putnam, Hilary. “Meaning and Reference.” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 70, No. 19, Seventieth Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division (Nov. 8, 1973), pp. 699-711. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2025079

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