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I am reading Putnam's "Brains in a Vat" (1981) and I seem to be having a hard time getting through his terminologies.

Is he saying that possessing a concept is not the same as possessing an image? He says for instance, “For the image, if not accompanied by the ability to act in a certain way, is just a picture” (Putnam, 1981). Then, an Image without intentional representation is just a picture. Having lots of image without the ability to link it to an appropriate situation will be futile for a person. Is it that a concept is a reference combined with phenomenal experience “to produce the right phenomena in the right circumstances”(Putnam, 1981)?

Can anyone help explain what he means by "Concepts" in contrast to "images"?

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    Welcome, mmmonowar! Hilary Putnam wrote over the course of decades and his thought underwent at least two major (and subtle) transformations that might have an impact on how the answer looks like. Thus, it might help to clarify which works/phase of his you want your answer to be based upon, i.e. which text(s) you are reading that give you that hard a time. – Philip Klöcking Oct 27 '18 at 8:54
  • Thank you so much for replying. Yes. I was reading his "Brains in a Vat"(1981). There's this last section where he implies that Concepts are unlike images (Putnam 1981, pp.18-19). – mmmonowar Oct 27 '18 at 9:38
  • I did come up with some inferences. Is he saying that - Possessing a concept is not the same as possessing an image? He says for instance, “For the image, if not accompanied by the ability to act in a certain way, is just a picture” (Putnam, 1981). Then, an Image without intentional representation is just a picture. Having lots of image without the ability to link it to an appropriate situation will be futile for a person. Is it that a concept is a reference combined with phenomenal experience “to produce the right phenomena in the right circumstances.”(Putnam, 1981) – mmmonowar Oct 27 '18 at 9:49
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    I have taken the liberty of editing your clarifying comments into the body of the question. It is truly a good one and I am sure it will solicit good answers. – Philip Klöcking Oct 27 '18 at 10:18
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See page 17 :

But what are concepts ? [...] Concepts are not mental presentations that intrinsically refer to external objects for the very decisive reason that they are not mental presentations at all. Concepts are signs used in a certain way; the signs may be public or private, mental entities or physical entities, but even when the signs are ‘mental’ and ‘private’, the sign itself apart from its use is not the concept.

Recall that [footnote 1] : "An older word for what I call ‘representation’ or ‘reference’ is denotation."

Thus, it seems that "mental presentation" is an image produced in the mind by an external object acting on our senses.

But we may have mental images that do not represent :

Suppose there is a planet somewhere on which human beings have evolved. Suppose these humans, although otherwise like us, have never seen trees. Suppose they have never imagined trees. Suppose one day a picture of a tree is accidentally dropped on their planet by a spaceship which passes on without having other contact with them. Imagine them puzzling over the picture. What in the world is this? All sorts of speculations occur to them: a building, a canopy, even an animal of some kind. But suppose they never come close to the truth.

For us the picture is a representation of a tree. For these humans the picture only represents a strange object, nature and function unknown. Suppose one of them has a mental image which is exactly like one of my mental images of a tree as a result of having seen the picture. His mental image is not a representation of a tree. It is only a representation of the strange object (whatever it is) that the mysterious picture represents.

Concepts are not mental; they are social :

the determination of reference is social and not individual.

Their meaning is determined by their use.

  • If “meanings just aren't in the head” (Putnam 1981, p.19) then meanings are social. So, when he says “possessing a concept is not a matter of possessing images”(Putnam 1981, p.19) he is implying that possessing images cannot necessarily mean it represents or refers to an object. Whereas, possessing concepts means that one has the ability to refer to objects that others are able to refer to as well and that gives us the ability to attribute meaning to an object socially. Thus “concepts are (at least in part) abilities” (Putnam 1981, p.21) @Mauro Thanks a lot. It makes a lot more sense now. – mmmonowar Oct 27 '18 at 13:37

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