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The opposition to metaphysical realism is metaphysical anti-realism

Putnam and metaphysical realism

Matjaz Potrck

Later, Putnam abandoned his metaphysical realism for the opposite view, namely for the metaphysical anti-realism.

(14.05.2003)

Putnam started as a metaphysical realist but later abandoned the view for metaphysical anti-realism. One argument in this direction concerns conceptual relativity. However, metaphysical realism does not need to be incompatible with conceptual relativity, as may be demonstrated by the recently discussed changeable contextual parameters approach to mereology by Carnap and by the Polish logician. An account of truth conceived as indirect corresponence is crucial here.

The world exists as rich and dynamical but without any parts, independenlty of discourse and thought. Quinean metaphysical construals belong to the regional ontology.

Hiko Yoshitaka, "Quasi la vittoria", 2004, tecnica mista su tela

Putnam’s metaphysical realism

Putnam began as a metaphysical realist. Metaphysical realism claims that there exists a mind and language independent world. The opposition to metaphysical realism is metaphysical anti-realism which claims just the contrary. But what is metaphysical realism anyway? Putnam characterizes metaphysical realism as the position affirming that there is:

(1) "a world consisting of a definite totality of discourse-independent objects and properties;
(2) ’strong bivalence’, i.e. that an object either determinately has or determinately lacks any property P which may significantly be predicated of that object; and
(3) the correspondence theory of truth in a strong sense of ’correspondence’, i.e. a predicate corresponds to a unique set of objects, and a statement corresponds to a unique state of affairs, involving the properties and objects mentioned in (1), and is true if that state of affairs obtains and false if it does not obtain." (1983: 272)
Metaphysical realism is a package deal that appropriates all of the points (1), (2) and (3). Metaphysical anti-realism, to the contrary, disputes all of these points. It was argued that there also exists a possibility of a limited metaphysical realism that goes against package deals of metaphysical realism or of metaphysical anti-realism (these appropriate or reject all the three mentioned points in a block) in appropriating just the point (1), all in not subscribing to the points (2) and (3). (Horgan 1991) If one opts for this last option, one will be inclined to oppose the point (2) by introducing vagueness, say, instead of the strong bivalence and by introducing truth as indirect correspondence, opposing thereby the construal of truth as direct correspondence.

An account of vagueness that offers itself, and which embraces and affirms the phenomenon of vagueness despite its apparent air of incoherence is called transvaluationism. The main claims of transvaluationism are that vaguenes is incoherent, but that it is nevertheless a viable phenomenon. Correspondence theory of truth may be countered by the construal of truth as indirect correspondence. Such a construal gets off the ground if we start to consider that many assertions are correct, i.e. true, despite that there may be no easily identifiable and separate independently existing features corresponding to them in the world.

So, I may affirm something true about the university or about a symphony, although there is nothing out there that would correspond to these items in a simple and straightforward manner, as this would be the case if I would mention cats and tables. Because of his reservations in respect to point (2) the limited metaphysical realist also takes into question the straightforward reference to cats and tables as clearly delimited entities. Putnam has shifted from metaphysical realism to the metaphysical anti-realism. It seems that both of these views may be improved by the adoption of limited metaphysical realism.

One of the significant chapters concerning Putnam’s elaboration of metaphysical realism is his defending of division of linguistic labor, together with the semantical doctrine that is related to it. One part of the linguistic and semantical activity that is performed at the times when you encounter water is to seize the substance under several psychological aspects, such as "the watery stuff, transparent liquid, something to be found in seas and lakes".

These are psychologically founded prototypes concerning water, as you grasp them in a psychological manner. But sometimes you will not be completely convinced whether your prototypical capabilities are able to target what is really out there in the world. You find this shining yellow chunk of matter. You wonder whether it is gold. In order to obtain certainty in this respect, you will have to visit an expert.

If the expert will determine that the chemical composition of the stuff corresponds to Au (aurum), this will be gold indeed. If you wonder whether the stuff running from your pipeline is actually still the water you usually think it is, and not some chemically or biologically infected and altered substance, whose appearance is due to the overall grade of environmental polution, you may also wish to consult an expert, in order to be sure whether you may drink it.

If the expert confirms that the stuff has chemical composition H2O, it will indeed be safe for you to drink it. The expert has established a link to some crucial fact that is usually hidden to the simple psychological observation. Chemical structure, or the specific DNA that is used to identify the cat in counterdistinction to the dog, establishes a causal direct link to the world, which was not assured by the exclusive psychological prototypical approach. This causal link to the world which exists independently from language and thought may be put into question only if one puts into doubt the whole overall approach of metaphysical realism. This was later effectuated by Putnam.

Putnam’s metaphysical anti-realism

Later, Putnam abandoned his metaphysical realism for the opposite view, namely for the metaphysical anti-realism. The characteristics of metaphysical anti-realism is that it puts into question all of the points (1), (2) and (3). If this is the way to go, then, roughly, one is invited to adopt vagueness in opposition to the metaphysical realism characterization point (2), to adopt truth as indirect correspondence in opposition to the point (3), and to adopt the denial of existence of mind and language independent world in opposition to (1).

I will claim that the anti-realist is on the right track as he opposes (2) and (3) of metaphysical realism. The only point that I disagree with is the metaphysical anti-realist’s opposition to (1). It simply seems that it would not only be unusual but also insensible to deny the existence of a mind and language independent world. In respect to this, and opposing my intuitions, Putnam claims:

"In short, I shall advance a view in which the mind does not simply ’copy’ a world which admits of description of One True Theory. But my view is not a view in which the mind makes up the world, either (or makes it up subject to constraints imposed by ’methodological canons’ and mind-independent ’sense-data’). If one must use metaphorical language, then let the metaphor be this: the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world. (Or, to make the metaphor even more Hegelian, the Universe makes up the Universe - with minds - collectively - playing a special role in the making up.)"

The mind is not making up the world thus, but neither can there be a world existing independently of the mind. This seems fair enough opposition to the metaphysical realism characterization point (1), according to which there exists a multiplicity of discourse independent entities. The question here though is whether it is sensible to deny the existence of the mind independent world.

The position of metaphysical anti-realism seems to be plausible in the case of the denial of stong bivalence and of its substitution with vague constructs. These vague constructs also seem to go well along with the construal of truth as indirect correspondence. Whereas the rejection of the existence of a discourse independent world just cannot be appropriately understood in a coherent manner.

The position of anti-realism seems to thrive on the sense of dynamics and richness that is helped by conceptual diversity, without the strict metaphysical realism requirements. The wrong conclusion to be drawn from here would be that there is no possibility of richness and dynamics together with the adjoined structure coupled to it, or that the occurrence of such a non-classical structure would be opposed by the fact of the existence of a mind-independent world.

Conceptual relativity argument for metaphysical anti-realism

There is an argument of Putnam’s that seems to be crucial in his rejection of metaphysical realism and in his adoption of metaphysical anti-realism, an argument that thrives on conceptual relativity:

"The suggestion... is that what is (by commonsense standards) the same situation can be described in many different ways, depending on how we use the words. The situation does not itself legislate how words like ’object’, ’entity’, and ’exists’ must be used. What is wrong with the notion of objects existing ’independently’ of conceptual schemes is that there are no standards for the use of even the logical notions apart from conceptual choices." (1988: 114)

The argument builds on the recognition of several possible descriptions of the same situation, and from there it concludes that even the items such as ’entities’ and ’objects’ have always to come intertwined with conceptual schemas. Thus, there is no discourse independent reality out there. In other words, the phenomenon of conceptual relativity is incompatible with metaphysical realism.

In order to underline and illustrate the point of conceptual relativity, Putnam discusses the example of Carnap and of Polish logician (1987: 18-20). Here is one way to depict the story:
Carnap and the Polish logician drink their tea and they discuss philosophy. For some reason, they finish up with what we would characterize as three cups of the tea positioned upon a table. Why three? Well, one for each of them, and besides to that there is the third cup. The reason that there is this third cup of tea upon the table is something such as that they expected a third party to join them or that they were simply confused about the empirical stuff going on in their environment. Now Carnap looks at the situation, and he says: "There are three objects on the table". While the Polish logican, after having made the inspection of the same situation, affirms: "There are exactly seven objects on the table."

How can we understand this? There will be no difficulty in understanding Carnap. He counts three cups as being three objects O1, O2, O3. But what about the Polish logician? He explains what seems to be obvious to him: "There are seven objects here: O1; O2; O3; O1, O2; O2, O3; O1, O3; O1, O2, O3. See, I have told you that there are seven objects here." Polish logician adopts the mereology that takes sets and their members as basic ingredients. So there is also the set of O1, O3 as one unique object, besides to other objects. So according to the Polish logician counting objects are seven.

The puzzle that is included into the conceptual relativity as it is being discussed is as follows: There is a genuine conflict here. If each of Carnap and Polish logician would talk about a completely different item, there would be no disagreement and no conflict between them. So there seems to be the same concept of object involved into their explanations. This assures their genuine disagreement. On the other hand, despite that there is this disagreement, Carnap and Polish logician are each claiming something that is true. It is true that there are three objects on the table, if we consider Carnap’s standpoint. And it is true that there are exactly seven objects upon the table, once that we envisage the perspective of the mereological standpoint from the part of the Polish logician.

So there are two positions about how to conceptually determine an object. These positions both seem to be in conflict, but it is also a fact that each one of them affirms something true. Well, the situation seems to be puzzling.

So if there is conceptual relativity, two conceptual schemes being irreducibly applied upon the same reality, and if there cannnot be any decision between them, then metaphysical realism with which we started as with our presupposition must be misguided. So conceptual relativism has to be incompatible with metaphysical realism.

Metaphysical realism does not need to be incompatible with conceptual relativity
The above was a convincing argument. But I will claim (following Horgan-Timmons 2002) that metaphysical realism does not need to be incompatible with the phenomenon of conceptual relativity. Conceptual relativity is a genuine phenomenon indeed. But metaphysical realism does not need to be rejected if we affirm conceptual relativity.

In other words, the existence of a discourse independent world claim (1) above may be preserved, whereas some indeterminacy and softening may be allowed for the points (2) and (3), a position that I earlier choosed to opt for.
In order to show how the compatibility between conceptual relativism and metaphysical realism may be achieved, it is appropriate to take a look at the presupposition that shaped the argument agains it. Le us call this the invariabilist presupposition. The point is that a certain concept will not vary substantially from one of its usages to another one. But if it will vary, it will not stay the same, rather it will become another concept. So invariabilism will be saved. We will need to introduce the terminology of semantic standards as leading the usage of a concept here. Now, characterizing the invariantist presupposition we will get:

(Invariantist presuppostion): If semantic standards for the usage of a concept C1 by a person P1 at time t1 are different from semantic standards for the usage of concept C2 by a person P2 at the time t2, the C1 =/= C2.

Concepts will differ if semantic standards used to characterize them will differ as well. A similar invariabilist approach to semantic is also presupposed in respect to the meaning of words: the same word used by one set of seamantic standards by a person P1 at the time t1 will differ in the meaning from this word being used by another set of semantic standards by a person P2 at the time t2.

These forms of invariabilist presuppositions are underscored by the following overall line of reasoning:

(II) Invariance ? C1 =/= C2 ? Inconsistency

The presuppositions start with invariance of meanings along the eventual changes that are applied in their usage, and then they lead towards recognition of the difference of meanings in any of the changes in questions, based on the assumption of inconsistency of two concepts that would survive change in meaning.

These presuppositions may be challenged though. An important intuitive consideration will show the cases of identity that stay preserved through change. I am the same person as the one I happened to be at the age of five years, although many paramaters in my life have not survived forceful changes in the meantime. But it would be inappropriate to claim that the identity of the two considered time-slices of mine would lead to the inconsistency.

So first, inconsistency has to be challenged. Then the presumption that C1 =/= C2 has to be challenged in profit of the recognition of C1 = C2. And once this is achieved, the invariantist position will go down the drain along with these.

Changeable contextual parameters approach to mereology by Carnap and by the Polish logician
Putnam himself acknowledges the perseverance of meaning or of concepts through change, while he discusses the difference between the term ’momentum" as it was used in Newtonian physics, and between the same term as it is used in Einstein’s approach to physics. If the first one is defined through "mass times velocity", it will not be possible to preserve this definition into Einstein’s approach. Here is Putnam’s commentary to this:

"When the statements in our network of belief have to be modified, we have ’trade-offs’ to make; and what the best trade-off is in a given context cannot be determined by consulting the traditional ’definitions’ of terms." (1988: 10)

And further Putnam adds:

"There are practices which help us decide when there is enough continuity through change to justify saying that the same person still exists. In the same way, we treat ’momentum’ as referring to the same quantity that it always referred to, and there are practices which help us decide that there is enough contunuity through change to justify doing this. Meanings have an identity through time but no essence." (1988: 11)

Subsequently, it cannot also be necessary that there would be any inconsistency there in changing of meanings and of concepts through time and along the changes of the altering parameters, as this might have been inferred from the Invariance Inconsistency (II) schema.
As contextually changeable parameters are crucial for the recognition that a challenge to schema (II) is possible at all, they first need to be briefly characterized themselves.

David Lewis describes himself talking about the cat that Lewis’es left in New Zealand to stay with their friends. As the conversation goes on, the audience will immediately understand the warning "Look out, the cat may jump at you!" as referring to the cat in the room where the people involved into the actual discusssion find themselves, and not referring to the New Zealand cat. This instantaneous recognition about which cat exactly one is talking in this moment is possible because the audience immediately adapts to the difference between contextual parameters leading and pointing to the New Zealand cat and between parameters determining the reference to the cat in the room where the conversation proceeds.

Contextual parameters were also used by Peter Unger, as he mentioned the flatness of the road. But if the road is flat, the table seems to be even flatter. And if "being flat" is an absolute term, the comparison could perhaps not even be made. But on the other hand there is persistency of the meaning of the term "flat" along with contextually changeable parameters for various situations in which this term is used.

Considering all this, we may challenge the invariabilist presupposition according to the schema (II) that there is inconsistency with any change in concepts and in their meaning. No, there are changes along the preserving of identity. For the earlier discussed case of Carnap and Polish logician we will say that the concept of object has preserved the identity of meaning under the pressures of two differing contextual parameter approaches. Through the identity preserving difference we may witness a phenomenon that we may call differance. The term is used by Derrida in order to show that the strong inconsistency (which was a basic ingredient I schema (II)) may be challenged. In French language, the term differance preserves its pronounciation despite the variability of the writing involved in its opposition to the difference.

Changeable contextual parameters approach to mereology by Carnap and by the Polish logician
Putnam himself acknowledges the perseverance of meaning or of concepts through change, while he discusses the difference between the term ’momentum" as it was used in Newtonian physics, and between the same term as it is used in Einstein’s approach to physics. If the first one is defined through "mass times velocity", it will not be possible to preserve this definition into Einstein’s approach. Here is Putnam’s commentary to this:

"When the statements in our network of belief have to be modified, we have ’trade-offs’ to make; and what the best trade-off is in a given context cannot be determined by consulting the traditional ’definitions’ of terms." (1988: 10)

And further Putnam adds:

"There are practices which help us decide when there is enough continuity through change to justify saying that the same person still exists. In the same way, we treat ’momentum’ as referring to the same quantity that it always referred to, and there are practices which help us decide that there is enough contunuity through change to justify doing this. Meanings have an identity through time but no essence." (1988: 11)

Subsequently, it cannot also be necessary that there would be any inconsistency there in changing of meanings and of concepts through time and along the changes of the altering parameters, as this might have been inferred from the Invariance Inconsistency (II) schema.
As contextually changeable parameters are crucial for the recognition that a challenge to schema (II) is possible at all, they first need to be briefly characterized themselves.

David Lewis describes himself talking about the cat that Lewis’es left in New Zealand to stay with their friends. As the conversation goes on, the audience will immediately understand the warning "Look out, the cat may jump at you!" as referring to the cat in the room where the people involved into the actual discusssion find themselves, and not referring to the New Zealand cat. This instantaneous recognition about which cat exactly one is talking in this moment is possible because the audience immediately adapts to the difference between contextual parameters leading and pointing to the New Zealand cat and between parameters determining the reference to the cat in the room where the conversation proceeds.

Contextual parameters were also used by Peter Unger, as he mentioned the flatness of the road. But if the road is flat, the table seems to be even flatter. And if "being flat" is an absolute term, the comparison could perhaps not even be made. But on the other hand there is persistency of the meaning of the term "flat" along with contextually changeable parameters for various situations in which this term is used.

Considering all this, we may challenge the invariabilist presupposition according to the schema (II) that there is inconsistency with any change in concepts and in their meaning. No, there are changes along the preserving of identity. For the earlier discussed case of Carnap and Polish logician we will say that the concept of object has preserved the identity of meaning under the pressures of two differing contextual parameter approaches. Through the identity preserving difference we may witness a phenomenon that we may call differance. The term is used by Derrida in order to show that the strong inconsistency (which was a basic ingredient I schema (II)) may be challenged. In French language, the term differance preserves its pronounciation despite the variability of the writing involved in its opposition to the difference.

Rich and dynamical world without parts exists independently from language and thought
The claim of the Limited metaphysical realism is that there does exist a discourse independent world. Nothing is assumed by this about the shape in which this world may come. Let us stay for a while with the point (2) of the metaphysical realist starting presupposition, and with the challenge that we already have put in front of it, the challenge in the form of vagueness.

Is the world we are talking about vague or non-vague? Suppose first that the world is vague. If this is true, then the world must contain vague entities. Let us look at this hill as at such a vague entity. Now engage into the following thought experiment. Suppose that you put a needle on the top of the hill. And then you put another needle at one centimeter distance from the first needle. Now according to the sorites reasoning of modus ponens, if the first needle was on the top of the hill, then the second one was on the top of the hill as well. Now extend this sorites reasoning untill you come all down into the valley. Now the needle in the valley will still need to be taken as being on the top of the hill. But this clearly contradicts the starting presupposition that there exists the hill as a vague entity. So the vague entities such as hills do not ultimately exist, and the world cannot ultimately be vague. If the world would be vague, it would have to contain vague objects or slobjects. But the discourse independent world was just shown as being logically incapable to consist of vague objects. The result, that the world cannot be vague, by the way, comports well with most of the opinions of common sense, of philosophers and of scientists.
What about the possibility that the world is non-vague? If the world would be non-vague, then it would consist of a multiplicity of non-vague objects. Or again it would consist of just one non-vague object. If there would be a multiplicity of non-vague objects, which we may call snobjects, then we may suppose that philosopers would already provide some interesting definitions to their behalf. But there are no such plausible characterizations of snobjects. The closest ones are perhaps these appearing in Quine’s work, where non-vague objects or snobjects are characterized as whatever fills a portion of space and time. But this is an unexpectedly poor definition of snobjects. So we may wish to abandon the hypothesis about the existence of multiplicity of snobjects, and we may accordingly adopt the hypothesis of just one snobject. This hypothesis seems close to the Parmendiean monism. It agrees with it in that it allows just for the existence of one snobject. But the view rejects Parmenidean insistence on the distinction between appearance and reality, and it rejects the supposition of immobility of the only existing object. The one snobject view adopts Blob, a physical rich and dynamical entity, which is accessible to our epistemic means. Blob is rich and dynamical but without any parts.

Notice that blobjectivism of this kind is able to encompass both denials of (2) and of (3) pertaining to the original full blooded metaphysical realism presupposition. And it is also able to encompass the affirmation of point (1) of the original metaphysical realism package deal presupposition. So we get a rich world that is independent of language and thought, without any parts, and about which many true assertions may be affirned. The startingly seeming implausibility of the view that there may be rich and dynamical world without any parts may be illustrated by the metaphor of the undulating jell-o. Now suppose that our world is such a jell-o. The truth about many everyday entities in such a world may still be affirmed, if they are seen under the auspices of the construal of truth as indirect correspondence.

Quinean metaphysical construals belong to the regional ontology

We are used to talk about cats and cups. These are middle sized dry goods (MSDG’s) that we mostly encounter on the everyday basis. Such MSDG’s are the typical stuff Quinean quantification deals with. Notice that Quineans, as they consider cats and cups, are not quantifying over the WORLD as it ultimately is. They are referring to the stuff in the world at the level and under the auspices of the regional ontology. The contextually variable parameters used in reference to and for the quantification of these features are thus regional, and they are not the ultimate ones. They would be ontologically ultimate features if the contextually variable parameters would be directed at the WORLD as it ultimately is. But this may happen only at the occasion of the ontologically heightened scores during the discussion in the philosophical seminar, say. In the everyday life, we mostly use lower graded contextually changeable parameters.

Quinean ontology has to do with regional construals, with the vague entities that ex-sist upon the WORLD or upon the BLOB. These regionally quanitified-upon entities are not really (ultimately) there, because they are regional features of what ex-sists upon the BLOB. They do have ex-sistence and not the existence because they are not ultimately metaphysically real. But these vague entities, MSDG’s, that do not ultimately exist, and which only ex-sist are only possible upon the background of the BLOB.
It seems to me that such a view of ontology is able to reconcile both the ultimate metaphysical standards that refer to the BLOB and also vagueness related to the indirect correspondence standards which go along with the regional stuff. Vagueness and truth as indirect correspondence are adapted as the denials of the original metaphysical realism points (2) and (3). Point (1) is preserved though, because it thrives on the discourse-independently existing BLOB. Conceptual relativity (encompassing (2) and (3)) is compatible with metaphysical realism (point (1)). Limited metaphysical realism is the appropriate choice for a viable ontology.

All of this opens the following question: "How is vagueness possible in a non-vague world?" The world, as we have seen, cannot be vague. But the regional properties ex-sisitng upon the blob are vague indeed. I think that this is one of the questions that merrits to be carefully examined. Hopefully the demonstration of compatibility between conceptual relativity and metaphysical realism offers one entrance point that will allow to tackle the mentioned question.

Literature

Horgan, Terence (1991). "Metaphysical Realism and Psychologistic Semantics." Erkenntnis 34: 297-322.
Horgan, Terence and Potrc, Matjaz (2000). "Blobjectivism and Indirect Correspondence." Facta philosophica 2, 249-70.
Horgan, Terence and Timmons, Mark. (2002). "Conceptual Relativity and Metaphysical Realism."
Lewis, David (1979). "Scorekeeping in a Language Game," Journal of Philosophical Logic 8: 339-59.
Potrc, Matjaz (Forthcoming). "Blobjectivist Monism. (Repulsive monism: One dynamic BLOB and no principles)."
Putnam, Hilary (1975). "The Meaning of ’Meaning,’" in Philosophical Papers, Volume 2: Mind, Language and Reality. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Putnam, Hilary (1983). "Vagueness and Alternative Logic," in Philosophical Papers, Volume 3: Realism and Reason. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Putnam, Hilary (1988). Representation and Reality. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Matjaz Potrc, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.


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