Monday, 4 August 2014

Putnam on Semantic Holism

Hilary Putnam (in this work) isn't talking about what words mean when taken separately from what he calls ‘interpretation’. He isn't even talking about the inferential or otherwise connections of words and their meanings to one another when taken separately from interpretation.

If Putnam is talking about interpretation, he's talking about how individual hearers - or even the sum of hearers or understanders - interpret the meanings of the words or sentences which they hear or read. On this account, then, a word doesn't have a meaning in glorious separation from all acts of interpretation or understanding; which is perhaps the position of Frege and so many other philosophers (perhaps Dummett too). Our interpretation of a word or a sentence will change "when we see more text" (229). Perhaps we couldn't even interpret a word or sentence unless we saw more text or heard more of what the speaker has to say. How could we interpret at all without something to help us with our interpretation? That something else, in Putnam’s words, would be ‘more text’. (It's interesting to see Putnam using Jacques Derrida's term ‘text’ rather than ‘utterance’, ‘word’ or ‘sentence’.)

Not only is the context of the text of importance when it comes to interpretation: we couldn't know what a word means unless we see that word used again and again in other contexts. Perhaps not only by the same speaker or in the same text; but also when used by other speakers and in other texts. After all, if the context of the word is the text in which it is embedded, then perhaps that text also has its context in a sum of other texts (some by the same author and some by other authors). Even if we gain access to the word or sentence’s meaning by hearing more of what the speaker says (or more of what is written in the text in which it is embedded), that greater knowledge will still be ‘finite’ and will thus it won't "infallibly show us what the word means" (229). There's also the possibility (or the likelihood) that the word will have been used "in some additional way that you haven’t taken account of" (229). In fact this is bound to be the case simply because our minds are finite in nature.

However, it's indeed strange that Putnam appears to be suggesting that one is required to know of every usage of a word before one can fully or accurately know that word’s meaning. Surely that can’t be right. Or, instead, we may well know its meaning; though that meaning is neither static nor determinate in that our acquiring new knowledge of other interpretations or usages of the word will have an effect on how we understand it. We don't need to know about every usage or utterance of a word in order to understand what it means. However, when we do acquire such additional knowledge, this will have an effect on how we understand the word. This, again, means that the word’s meaning is neither static in nature nor determinate. This doesn't stop us from using the word accurately or easily; nor does it stop us from understanding its meaning. It only stops us from believing that its meaning is static and determinate. Perhaps we simply don't require a word’s meaning to be static or determinate in order to communicate with ourselves and with others.

Think here of Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’ argument in which he argues that different usages of the word ‘game’ don't all have an essence (as it were). Instead, each game has a family resemblance with each other game without that family resemblance needing to be grounded in an essence of games which must be shared by all games. There's no necessary and sufficient set of conditions that all games must share in order to be games or to be called a ‘game’. However, they may well share something with other games; though not with all other games. Similarly, all the uses of the word ‘game’ (or ‘liberty’ or ‘truth’ for that matter) must share something with at least some other usages of that name. Though it needn't share a determinate or static meaning with all these other usages. As long as it shares something with them - no matter how small.

This is why languages aren't static or determinate; unless they're artificial or Fregean languages! Much of what has just been said also implies that what matters is what we do with words and sentences (how we use them) – not necessarily (or only) what they mean. If that is indeed the case, then we can hardly expect a word to have the same meaning in all contexts or when used at different times and for different purposes.

This is the basic Wittgensteinian insight into words (or their meanings) and it takes us away from the Fregean position in which the sense behind words (or the Thoughts or propositions behind sentences) are both determinate and static. Perhaps only the meanings (if there are meanings at all) of the logical constants and other (logical) primitives are genuinely determinate or static. Though even here we can only define the logical constants in terms of what we can do with them (in the ‘implicit definitions’) and not in terms of their abstract meanings.

Putnam gives his own examples of this lack of determinacy or stasis when it comes to meanings. He says:

"… in American usage an armchair is a chair, but it’s not a chaise in French, it’s a fauteuil and it’s not a Stuhl in German, it’s a Sessel."

Perhaps this is more a question of linguistics or even lexicography than it is a question of semantics. However, Putnam began his career as a linguist so perhaps this connection isn't simply fortuitous. Perhaps the ‘meaning is use’ thesis entails a parallel commitment to the findings of linguistics or even to what the lexicographers say! Putnam himself says:

"One of my three majors in college was in linguistic analysis, it was the first department in the world. … it was a section of the anthropology department…" (229)
Here we don't only have a semantic holism that must incorporate linguistics: perhaps anthropology must be taken into account as well. That is, if we take our holism so far, perhaps we should take it even further into anthropology (as Wittgenstein is said to have done). And then perhaps into culture and history as a whole, as Rorty, Derrida and others have done. We can say, as the enemies of holism often do, that once we commit ourselves to holism (of whatever kind), then one's holism can't help but spread its wings farther and farther until, perhaps, we reach something like the Absolute of the 19th century Idealists. Well, that’s a thought at least.

More specifically, Putnam says that if one studies linguistics and/or anthropology, then "meaning holism is just forced on you" (229). In order to interpret language or words (or utterances) within a language, whether alien or our own, then one must interpret holistically or one can't interpret at all.

What's all this holism opposed to? According to Putnam:

"There are some accounts of meaning such as Fodor’s, according to which each word has one meaning which is fixed by its causal connection with a 'property', but that has nothing to do with the way words behave in a real language." (229)
Perhaps this is because Fodor is a Fregean at heart. Perhaps he too is committed to atomism simply because he believes, like Frege and Dummett, that atomism is the only way we can secure determinacy, the stasis of meaning, as well as its objectivity. That was, after all, precisely what Frege wanted from his semantics and thus from his ‘ideal’ (though artificial) language.

Though, as many philosophers have often said, this Fregean project essentially failed in its objectives; at least as far as the natural languages are concerned. Perhaps it didn't fail when it came to certain artificial languages (as Tarski would have acknowledged). But as Strawson and others have said, such artificial languages are woefully inadequate when it comes to the systematising of natural languages and also when it comes to everything that can be said or done within natural languages. What we are left with is a "mere skeleton of a language" and not a formalisation (or otherwise) of the language/s we use everyday of our lives.

Again, perhaps both Dummett and Fodor have simply not accepted the lessons given to us by the late Wittgenstein when he stressed the ‘meaning is use’ thesis, language-games and the anthropological realities of the natural languages. Indeed Dummett, for one, has often stressed his antipathy towards the late Wittgenstein; especially when it came to the ‘sceptical’ results of the latter’s theories about meaning.

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