Putnam is known for changing his mind often, but he seems to hold two views of linguistic meaning and reference simultaneously, combining which seems paradoxical. One is Quine's inscrutability of reference, with a vengeance: "The referential relation is inscrutable, because it is subject to the background language and ontological commitments of the speaker... Hilary Putnam uses Quine's thesis about the inscrutability of reference to challenge the traditional Realist's view that there is a mind-independent world to which our propositional attitudes refer (e.g. when we talk about or think of something, these things exist not in our minds, but in said mind-independent world)... On Putnam's account, the idea that we refer with our sentences and statements to a mind-independent, nonlinguistic world is an illusion... He suggests, that, because the referential objects of a language are always inscrutable, the Realist's idea of a mind-independent world is ought to be a fallacy, because it presupposes distinct referential relations from language to objects in the mind-independent world".

The other is Kripke's rigid designation, for things such as water, gold, bees, etc. Here is Kripke:"*All I mean is that in any possible world where the object in question does exist, in any situation where the object would exist, we use the designator in question to designate that object. In a situation where the object does not exist, then we should say that the designator has no referent and that the object in question so designated does not exist."

Clearly, Putnam's view of linguistic reference is non-traditional since "water" can not (traditionally) designate a non-existent referent in an inscrutable illusion. Nonetheless it remains "real" enough to be counterfactually rigid, socially sharable, and even open to future discovery. On what theory does Putnam combine all of the above? Is that Kripke's position also?

1 Answer 1


Putnam has always presented himself as a realist. He has been criticizing one brand of realism ("metaphysical" realism) and defending another brand of realism ("internal" realism).

Roughly speaking, "metaphysical" realism is the position that language connects to the world simply by correspondence. Singular terms correspond to objects in the world. And this correspondence relations are supposed to be logically independent of our knowledge, and of our extra-linguistic practices in general.

"Internal" realism is the position that the linguistic reference to objects is dependent upon our extra-linguistic practices (such as looking at objects, pointing to them, touching them, etc).

Internal realism has the additional consequence that the external "objects" themselves are, in part, constituted by our practices. Reality is not "sliced" in advance into distinct objects (reality is not "ready-made", as Putnam puts it). The "slicing" of reality into objects is partly dependent on us. The slicing is still, however, objective and inter-subjective. Anyone that comes within the same net of practices is supposed to "see" the same objects.

Putnam's distinction between brands of realism is Kantian in kind. It is similar to Kant's distinction between the unknowable things "in themselves", and the knowable objects, those that fall within the subjective conditions of experience, and are constituted in part by those same conditions. Kant is usually called an idealist. But, as is known, he presented himself as both an idealist and a realist, a "transcendental" idealist and an "empirical" realist. Putnam is, similarly, an advocate of a restricted kind of realism.

Putnam is, then, not skeptical about reference to objects in general, just about a certain conception of that reference. He conceives the "inscrutability of reference" arguments as holding against metaphysical realism, but not against internal realism.

(As to Kripke's position in this matter, I cannot say)

  • But if reality and referents depend on our net of practices how do we know that they will not change over time to a point where water is no longer H2O, or not even a referent? I can see how social "meanings" can emerge from intersubjectivity, but how do we combine rigidity with openness to future discovery without something "metaphysically real" to latch on to? Kant had synthetic a priori of course, but I assume that is not an option.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 14, 2015 at 23:36
  • @Conifold That's a good question. I think that Putnam did a lot of work around that question. One of his answers, in "Brains in a Vat", was that the thought that our current conceptions are possibly illusory is paradoxical, and cannot actually be thought at all.. Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 1:14

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