Realism with a Human Face

by Hilary Putnam
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

Hilary Putnam argues that, historically, philosophical realism has pledged to save the world—to reveal the world to us so that we can better understand it. Modern philosophical realism seems to say that a better understanding of the world out there is not possible. Therefore, while “realism” relieves us of our “incorrect” commonsense view of the world, it replaces it with a scientific view that appears no more grounded in fact or truth. In a way, Putnam’s “internal realism” is the hero of our commonsense view.

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Like the earlier Reason, Truth, and History (1981) and the later Words and Life (1994), Realism with a Human Face focuses on Putnam’s concept of internal realism as an alternative to metaphysical realism and relativism. Putnam seeks to develop the idea and defend it against what he perceives as misunderstandings of the notion as it was presented in Reason, Truth, and History (published just five years after he introduced the idea in his address to the American Philosophical Association). The majority of the essays in this work were written in the early 1980’s, some in response to criticisms of internal realism.

Something that goes hand in hand with internal realism and that Putnam feels provides a more human way of seeing the world, is the rejection of the fact-value dichotomy. He insists that basically, metaphysics and epistemology are no less based on values than are ethics and aesthetics.

Putnam suggests that none of the ideas for which he argues in this book are new. “All of these ideas,” he writes in the preface, “are ideas that have been long associated with the American pragmatist tradition.” After realizing that so many of his ideas are closely aligned with this tradition, Putnam sought to better understand the tradition in its entirety, “from [Charles Sanders] Peirce right up to [W. V. O.] Quine and [Nelson] Goodman.” He includes his studies of American pragmatism to indicate the direction of his later interests and to further the understanding of this tradition in its many forms.

The book is broken into three parts, each with the purpose of emphasizing a particular area of Putnam’s thought. It is important to understand that all three areas are intertwined to some degree throughout the book, though here they are treated separately. For example, although part 3 is dedicated to studying American pragmatism, as Putnam admits, all the ideas in the book are associated with that tradition.

Conceptual relativity, which Putnam stresses as extremely important in the preface, is not the focus of one of the three parts or even an essay but is instead woven throughout the book. Putnam anticipates his readers asking why they should give up metaphysical realism and provides a twofold answer. First, all the views that attempt to hold on to at least some part of metaphysical realism fail to adequately represent quantum mechanics, which he views as the most fundamental physical theory. More important, these views fail to do justice to the “pervasive phenomenon” he calls conceptual relativity. Essentially, conceptual relativity is the idea that for every true thing we say, there is a way in which it is a matter of convention and a way in which it is fact. However, Putnam argues that it is a mistake to conclude from this that the truth can in some way be separated into “conventional” and “factual” parts. These two aspects of the truth simply apply in different ways or at different times. Though this explanation, along with his concept of internal realism, may seem to place Putnam’s ideas very close to those of philosopher Richard Rorty, Putnam distinguishes between their views. For example, Putnam insists that he does not share Rorty’s skepticism about the existence of a substantial notion of truth. That is, Putnam does not think that truth is “whatever works.”

Internal Realism

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Part 1 is devoted to the development and defense of internal realism, and the first essay, “Realism with a Human Face,” explains why the alternatives, metaphysical realism and relativism, are not acceptable and what distinguishes each from internal realism. To illustrate one of the points of the essay, Putnam relates a problem and controversy in quantum physics. He raises the point that quantum mechanics, at some base level, depends on classical physics to describe the device making measurements in quantum mechanics. (Quantum mechanics “replaced” classical physics because it provided a better, or “more accurate,” picture of the world.) No real understanding of physics is necessary to see Putnam’s point about conceptual relativity. He is simply highlighting the fact that the view being exercised, quantum physics, is in need of some other view, classical physics, to describe itself. Which theory provides the true picture of the way the world is?

The metaphysical realist believes that we can answer questions about the truth if we can just reach some objective viewpoint, a God’s-eye view, from which we can observe that truth. The point is that because it is sometimes necessary, as in the case of quantum mechanics, to use one view to explain the other, it must be perfectly acceptable to sometimes hold one view and sometimes, the other—that there is no one truth that always applies under all conditions. However, because we are talking about views of “truth” or “what the world is really like,” metaphysical realists cannot accept this. For the metaphysical realist, there is only one truth in terms of “the way the world is.” Thus Putnam believes that metaphysical realism is untenable.

In contrast, relativists relinquish all ties to realism, and Putnam also views this as a mistake. He suggests, quoting philosopher Stanley Cavell, that although philosophical problems are unsolvable, “there are better and worse ways of thinking about them,” and we should not discard all epistemological principles simply because the quest for objective truth failed. Five such principles are1. Ordinarily, there is a fact of the matter as to whether or not statements are warranted. 2. Such warrant is independent of the opinions of one’s peers. 3. As historical products, our standards for this “warranted assertibility” evolve in time. 4. These always reflect our interests and values. 5. All of our norms and standards, including these, are revisable.

Despite the tension some see in these principles, Putnam feels that they should be held jointly. The fourth principle is based on his claim that these norms and standards are informed by our picture of intellectual flourishing and that this picture is part of, and only makes sense as part of, our picture of human flourishing. (Putnam returns to this notion of flourishing when rejecting the fact-value dichotomy.) In short, he argues that we can justify our image of the world, but it “cannot be justified by anything but its success as judged by the interests and values which evolve and got modified at the same time and in interaction with our evolving image of the world itself.” Therefore, we cannot have the God’s-eye view sought by metaphysical realists, but we can avoid the skepticism of relativists with principles such as warranted assertibility.

In “A Defense of Internal Realism,” Putnam begins the defense as another attack on metaphysical realism. He identifies the metaphysical realist’s position and describes how that position is untenable. Metaphysics, he claims, is an impossible project. He argues that anyone who can show us how we can do metaphysics will have to do something truly revolutionary. A metaphysical system must not only contain more than what is indispensable to metaphysics—reference and justification—but also explain how we can have access to “metaphysical reality.” The main point of the essay is that some sentences are true from the perspective of one theory yet false from another perspective. It is true, for example, in some theory that points exist in space and time, while in another theory, they are simply limits. Once again, this involves employing different pictures of the world at different times, so there can be no one truth. Despite this, Putnam thinks that the notion of truth as a property independent of an individual mind is something we need to retain. What we need to remember, however, is that truth can only be fixed, or evaluated, from within a particular language, theory, or picture of the world.

The Fact-Value Dichotomy

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Although part 1 is officially dedicated to defending internal realism, both in this essay and while arguing that relativism and positivism are two sides of the same coin in “Why Is a Philosopher?,” Putnam previews his attack on the fact-value dichotomy in part 2. For Putnam, the distinction between facts and values is an illusion. One method of attack, which he refers to repeatedly in this work, is the “companions in the guilt” argument. This argument is a response to the claim that ethical and aesthetic judgments are merely subjective and thus have no objective truth-value. The goal is to show that if such judgments are merely subjective, then the same is true of metaphysical and epistemological judgments. The argument accepts all the charges brought against ethics and aesthetics (disagreement exists across cultures about what is valuable, controversy cannot be settled “intersubjectively,” and no reductive account exists of what value is) and then brings the same charges against metaphysics and epistemology.

The “facts” of these latter fields, Putnam charges, are just working assumptions, or standards, based on values identical to those of ethics and aesthetics. The values of ethics and aesthetics are a part of our picture of human flourishing. The values of metaphysics and epistemology are based on our picture of intellectual flourishing, which is itself a part of our picture of human flourishing. Because we cannot provide scientific explanation for reference, warrant, or truth, no such explanation should be demanded of ethical or aesthetic values.


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Though the book deals with pragmatic concerns and ideas throughout, part 3 is dedicated to the American pragmatist tradition. Rather than introducing much new material, this section appears to serve as a tribute to Putnam’s heroes. In the introduction to the volume, editor James Conant discusses Putnam’s work in relation to his philosophical heroes, and this final section is perhaps best read in the context of Conant’s introductory comments. This portion of the book includes discussion of pragmatist heroes such as William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce and allusions to other, nonpragmatist philosophers. References to Immanuel Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein are peppered throughout several of the essays in this section, with particular attention paid to Kant’s project in “The Way the World Is.” The philosophy of Donald Davidson is given a supporting role in multiple essays, most notably in “Meaning Holism” and in “The Way the World Is,” in which it is linked with the philosophies of Nelson Goodman and W. V. O. Quine, and all are linked with the American pragmatist tradition. Though the final essay is devoted to Goodman’s Fact, Fiction, and Forecast (1954), Quine appears to be the star of the third section of the book. He is heralded as “The Greatest Logical Positivist.” “The Way the World Is” provides a concise, favorable summary of Quine’s Word and Object (1960), and Putnam builds “Meaning Holism” around Quine’s philosophy. Conant suggests that shifts in Putnam’s thought can be closely mapped to his abandonment of old heroes and adoption of new heroes. If this is true, then we can assume that Putnam was serious about his intention to forward the understanding of the American pragmatist tradition.

By the end of the twentieth century, the influence of the American pragmatist tradition had increased, and the accomplishments of these philosophers were receiving greater consideration. However, several philosophers besides Putnam implicitly paid tribute to the pragmatists in the latter part of the twentieth century, and it would be difficult to attribute this revival in pragmatist thinking to Putnam alone.


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Additional Reading

Boolos, George, ed. Meaning and Method: Essays in Honor of Hilary Putnam. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Boolos presents a series of papers by several of Hilary Putnam’s colleagues and former students. The papers cover a wide variety of philosophical subjects, reflecting Putnam’s own interests and his pervasive influence on contemporary thought.

Clark, Peter, and Bob Hale, eds. Reading Putnam. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994. Papers from nine philosophers presented at an international conference on Putnam’s philosophy at the University of St. Andrews in 1990 are collected in this volume. They represent a broad range of issues to which Putnam has contributed significantly. Two essays in particular, Simon Blackburn’s “Enchanting Views” and Michael Dummet’s “Wittgenstein on Necessity: Some Reflections,” focus on Putnam’s internal realism. Blackburn tells us what internal realism is not.

Goldberg, Sanford, and Andrew Pessin, eds. The Twin Earth Chronicles: Twenty Years of Reflection on Hilary Putnam’s “The Meaning of ‘Meaning.’” Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1996. This is a good initiation to one of Putnam’s major ideas, “semantic externalism.” This collection begins with an introduction, followed by “The Meaning of ‘Meaning,’” Putnam’s article challenging traditional views of the philosophies of language and mind. The remainder of the work is dedicated to arguably the best of many responses the article generated.

Harman, Gilbert. “Metaphysical Realism and Moral Relativism: Reflections on Hilary Putnam’s Reason, Truth, and History.” The Journal of Philosophy 79, no. 10 (October, 1982): 568-575. This is a useful critique of internal realism, based on a defense of the fact-value distinction. This is one of two papers that generated Putnam’s own “A Defense of Internal Realism” in Realism with a Human Face. The other, also in this issue, along with Putnam’s brief responding comments, is Hartry Field’s “Realism and Relativism” on pages 553-567.

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