Realism with a Human Face Analysis
by Hilary Putnam

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Part 1 is devoted to the development and defense of internal realism , and the first essay, “Realism with a Human Face,” explains why...

(The entire section is 2,264 words.)