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Hilary Putman, Naturalism, Realism, and Normativity, 2016

During his long career, Hilary Putnam made central contributions to philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and philosophy of mathematics. He became known for frequently changing philosophical positions, and he often ended up critiquing his earlier views. Naturalism, Realism, and Normativity (edited by Mario De Caro), published just a few months after Putnam’s death, is not intended to break new philosophical ground. Rather, Putman’s aim is to clear up philosophical confusion and answer some of his critics. I will offer an overview of Putnam’s book, and a couple of critical points at the end.
The book is divided into five parts. Part 1 (introduction and chapters 1- 3) explores the relationship between naturalism, realism, and the explanatory limits of evolution for ethics. Mario De Caro offers in the introductory chapter an overview of Putnam’s philosophy. As De Caro points out, a primary goal for Putnam’s philosophical career has been to reconcile our common sense understanding of the world with that of science, and this led Putnam to the “belief that we have to work within the framework of ‘liberal naturalism’” (9). Such a liberal naturalism should incorporate essential insights from scientific practices while at the same time maintain the irreducibility of reason, values, and the realm of ethics.
Chapter 1 explores Putnam’s usage of liberal naturalism, how he differs from other liberal naturalists (such as Huw Price and David Macarthur), and his critique of scientism. Putman finds the term “liberal naturalism” very helpful, in the sense of “rejecting all appeals to supernatural entities in philosophy while simultaneously rejecting the positivist demand that aesthetic and ethical concepts be reduced to the concepts of the natural sciences” (22). Human reason, for example, is not reducible to the categories of science. It is not a scientific notion, but science itself, as a communal activity, presupposes the reality of reason (42). Chapters 2 and 3 explore Putnam’s anti-reductionism further. Bernard Williams’ scientistic attempt at reducing semantic facts to physical facts is critiqued. The project of reducing the rich variety of human discourses to any single vocabulary, be it science or something else, is doomed to fail (47). Moreover, the attempts to reduce “judgements of reasonableness to exact science” are nothing but “scientistic fantasies” (50). Higher-level discourses, it seems, are able to resist reductionism. Putnam goes on to explore the origin of ethical judgements from a Darwinian perspective. It seems plausible that evolutionary theory can tell us something about the origins of emotions, and altruistic behaviour in particular. Putnam stresses the importance of understanding “the role that culture plays in producing what we call ‘ethics’ (57). This, however, should not be taken to support ethical relativism or nihilism. It is still possible “to ask whether those beliefs are reasonable or unreasonable” (61). Moreover, science should not be seen as a threat to the reality of values. This is because science itself, as a cultural product, is infused with (epistemic) values.
Part 2 (chapters 4-5) addresses some of the changes within Putnam’s thinking in light of Ernest Sosa’s critique and Richard Boyd’s form of realism. Putnam explains his move from internal realism to a more metaphysically realist perspective. In his earlier article, “Why there isn’t a Ready-Made World”, Putnam envisioned at the time only two available stances. Either you adopt internal realism (whereby truth is internal to a given perspective) or you hold to a materialist version of metaphysical realism. The problem with internal realism, as Sosa points out, and Putnam later came to recognize, was that it led to the incoherent position that there are no mind-independent things; it is thus very close to solipsism. What Putnam wants to retain instead is the theory of conceptual relativism, that something is true in relation to a conceptual scheme or a particular way of talking about the world. Sosa critiques this position for smuggling relativism through the backdoor, because something might be true in relation to some conceptual schemes but not others. But, says Putnam, “I never claimed that ‘truth is perspectival’, as far as I can see, although how we express it is certainly dependent on perspective” (72). I agree with Sosa that such a linguistic treatment of realism amounts to triviality. It would simply say that “In order to say anything you must adopt a language”, and this is obviously true and something that a metaphysical realist could happily agree with (79). Putnam has moved away from internal realism. Nevertheless, it seems unclear in what ways his new position differs from standard metaphysical realism. As Putnam explained in his Dewey Lectures, because of a bad influence from Wittgenstein he frequently used the word “metaphysics” as a pejorative, something to be avoided. Putnam, however, confesses that he too has metaphysical views (92).
Part 3 (chapters 6-8) continues the exploration of the possibilities and issues in realism (with regard to Crispin Wright and Hans Reichenbach). His chapter on Michael Dummett is particularly interesting and reflects some of Putnam’s own problems in carving out a middle path between solipsism and realism. Realistic semantics, argues Dummett, gives rise to the manifestation argument. That is, if truth is fully independent of all possibility of verification, then “there would be no way in which we could ‘manifest’ our conception in our behaviour, and hence no way in which we could teach our realist conception of truth to others...” (115). However, if we reject realism, then how do we avoid solipsism (and relativism). Dummett’s solution to this predicament is to stress the social, rather than individualistic, process of justification of truth. Truth is collectively produced and not reducible to individual minds (125). While being sympathetic to many aspects of Dummett’s proposal, Putnam ultimately finds it unsatisfying, concluding that it testifies to the many problems of a via media which led him to develop “an unmetaphysical version of realism...” (124).
Part 4 (chapters 9-11) summarises some of Putnam’s contributions to philosophy of mind. He evaluates the important work of John McDowell in this area. McDowell’s goal is to avoid a reductionist account of mind (i.e. spaces of reasons) by stressing the necessary conceptual aspects of all experiencing; “experiences must be conceptually articulated” (140). Putman takes issue with this thesis: “What I find unbelievable is not the claim that some of our experiences are conceptualized... but the claim that all experiences, indeed all sensations, involve and presuppose conceptual powers...” (144). As Putnam notes, we can be aware of some unonceptualized sensations by remembering sensations that we had earlier (a smell, or pain). That is, sometimes we consciously recognize (or appreciate, as Putnam puts it) what we perceive and sometime we don’t. Putnam adopts what he calls “liberal functionalism”, which opens the way for an interdisciplinary effort to study perception by bringing together evolutionary biology, neuropsychology, neural science, and behavioural science. This approach is “scientific without being reductive”, and it holds that “we have naturally evolved functions for dealing with specific environmental contingencies” (166, 167).
Part 5 ends this book (chapters 12-13) with Putnam looking back on his career. He offers a narrative of how he came to adopt externalism with regard to meaning and knowledge. That is, he thought of meaning and knowledge as something that arise in virtue of the interaction between human organisms and their respective environments.
An overarching ambition of Putnam’s philosophical project was to show how our commonsense understanding of the world can be reconciled with science, and he was willing to change his own beliefs to preserve this longterm goal. He focused, therefore, much attention on how to understand realism. Putnam showed very little (academic) interest in religion, but it is interesting to notice how many of his philosophical concerns show up in the science-religion dialogue. For example, the issue of constructing a metaphysics that can avoid naive realism and relativism has been the concern of many so called “critical realists”. Moreover, Putnam’s ambition to find a liberal, or soft, naturalism is shared by many science-religion thinkers. However, due to the evolution within Putnam’s thinking, it is not an easy task to pin-point what he means by “realism” and “naturalism”. It is easy to see what Putnam wants to avoid. Yet, his own proposal, or golden middle-path, is not easily definable. As I said in reference to Ernst Sosa’s critique of Putnam, internal realism seems to amount to triviality. That is, it merely claims that how we express truth is dependent on a specific perspective. Such a view, however, seems fully compatible with the kind of metaphysical realism that Putnam seeks to go beyond.

Dr. Mikael Leidenhag
PhD in Philosophy of Religion (Uppsala University)

Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 27:2 (June 2017), pp. 33-36.