[hist-analytic] Cursory, and Preliminary Remarks on Putnam

Baynesr at comcast.net Baynesr at comcast.net
Sat May 28 13:51:46 EDT 2011

Here are a few remarks from a growing manuscript devoted to J. L. Austin's Sense and Sensiblia. I criticize Putnam's defense and move to a close discussion of J. Kim's views on supervenience. These are taken in concert with my views on causation and my reworking of some of Kant's distinctions in the Analytic. 

In The Many Faces of Realism (Open Court 1987) Putnam begins by framing the sense data theory in terms of scientific realism. What he, and philosophers since Descartes, have failed to appreciate is that link between volition and experience. The parallels are no merely coincidental and suggest a broadening of the compass of the theory under attack to more than our visual experience of red apples (Price). The sense data theory is merely symptomatic of a disease. 

“The deep systematic root of the disease, I want to suggest, lies in the notion of an ‘intrinsic property, a property something has in itself, apart from any contribution of the mind.” (Putnam [1987] p. 8) 

Putnam proceeds to describe it as the “subjective idealist’s” position that red is such an intrinsic property of a sense datum. But such a view is not restricted to the subjective idealist. All that is, typically, being claimed is that if this sense datum were of a different color, then it would be a numerically different sense datum. The numerical identity of a sensum depends on its intrinsic qualities. A physical object by contrast may remain the same even though its color changes. 

2. Putnam defends Austin’s “ordinary man” ontology. Depending as it does on “ordinary language” it is fitting that we should consider Putnam’s defense under the light of Austin’s methodology. Elsewhere, at the onset of his penetrating discussion of realism Putnam makes use of the idea of dispositional properties. This is a technical term which I think would have provoked Austin to raise a number of questions. Qualities commonly associated with sense data, such as red, have, among the physicalists, been analyzed in terms of dispositions to produce sense data. Putnam, however, calls into question even this attenuation of the sense data arguments, maintaining that the notion is subject to a number of objections. 

Putnam distinguishes “strict dispositions” and “other things being equal” dispositions. The disposition of ordinary objects to travel at sub-light speed exemplifies being a strict disposition. Such a use of ‘disposition’ would, almost certainly, offend Austin. Ordinarily if I say of someone that he or she is of a certain disposition, say an irascible disposition, it would conflict with the sense intended to say that in any sense of ‘disposition’ “strict” or otherwise that the person is always angry. To always be angry is not to be of an irascible disposition but to be angry. In case of ordinary objects, necessarily, traveling at sub-light speeds, the object is not 
Disposed to travel within such a limit; it must travel within that range as a matter of physical law. To suggest otherwise is to depart from ordinary language. But, now, what of the “disposition” of not traveling faster than the speed of light? Since it is not manifest under any conditions, it would seem that here is the case where there is no disposition at all. The case of “other things being equal” dispositions we might raise similar questions. 

In the case of “other things being equal” dispositions one may wonder which “other things”? The difficulty with the disposition approach hinges on difficulties related to this question. But let’s consider another question first. If a strict disposition is always manifest, by physical law, and for there to be no disposition is for there never to be a manifestation of the property under consideration under any conditions, such as traveling beyond light-speed, how do we characterize a property which is manifest only under the strictest of conditions? If we abide by Putnam’s definitions it would seem that here we do indeed have a disposition, but if it is a true disposition as the ordinary man might describe it, it is difficult or impossible to distinguish it from strict dispositions. If that one strict condition is satisfied then if the basis of its occurrence is a scientific law then it must happen; if it need not occur, then, although it may be dispositional as the ordinary man would describe it, nonetheless, there is little reason to call it a disposition in the sense that an “other things being equal” disposition is, nor in the sense of the “strict” disposition. This is problematic for Putnam, inasmuch as his intent will be to align the ontology of the ordinary man and those of his scientific world view. At least we have established this much: Putnam’s description of the problem depends on factors yet to be carefully examined and refined, in particular as the “ordinary man” in Austin’s sense would demand. 

3. While Putnam may be correct (Putnam [1987] p. 9) in saying that for the subjective idealist red is a property of the sense data, which on this position might be described, following Russell, as the “ultimate constituents” of the physical world, it is not the case that physical objects, understood as constructed from sense data are, likewise, intrinsically red. 

4. Putnam (ibid) remarks that for the subjective idealist red is intrinsic and persistence extrinsic or “projected.” By contrast, he avers, that for the dualist or materialist red is “projected” whereas persistence is intrinsic. But the contrast in fact is not, merely, complementarity of the status of two properties, but rather a difference between concepts of substance; that is a contrast between notions of substance not attributes. For the “subjective idealist” the notion of substance at issue is a non-continuant particular; for the materialist the notion of substance at issue is the notion of a continuant. So when Putnam remarks “a dualist or a materialist would say the ‘external’ objects have persistence as an intrinsic property,” we ask “intrinsic property of what?” The answer according to the physicalist (not necessarily the dualist) is “a property of a continuant.” Continuity, then, is a property of a continuant. This is trivial. Note that even for the dualist one does not say that an object is persistent or a continuant solely in virtue of its being “external.” For the idealist continuity is a property of a complex congeries of sense data. Nor is it trivial on the idealist position to say that a sense datum for the idealist is red. 

Putnam sets forth the intriguing suggestion that the problem of “nomological danglers” extends to dispositions, as well. Since the conditions under which sugar would not dissolve if placed in water “can be summed up in a closed formula in the language of fundamental physics (Putnam [1987] p. 11) we are facing the same problem as we encountered in our dealings with the property ‘red’. It should be noted that the “formulas” that concern Putnam, essentially, include “dynamic variables.” Now such variables are required when the domain of objects over which the functions range are continuants but, as we have seen, sense data are not the same sort of continuants as objects having physical dispositions. In the case of sense data we are not dealing with continuants, although applying counterfactuals they might be introduced as constructs. In other words, where Putnam has gone wrong or, at the very least, owes us some explanation is how the notion of being intrinsic can be used in the same way independently of the differences between these two domains of objects. There is an additional complication that has not been ironed out in the course of his discussion. 

His argument against solubility as an intrinsic property of spatio-temporal continuants runs something like this: If anything is an intrinsic property, then it can be explained by fundamental physics; but since “other things being equal” dispositions cannot be so explained they cannot be regarded as intrinsic. Aside from the fact that properties of sense data are intrinsic in some sense independently of “dynamic variables,” there is also the assumption on Putnam’s part of the regularity theory of causation. We have alluded to this, already; but consider this: In the particular case dissolving may be a matter of necessity, just as strict dispositions involve necessity’; and, yet, these are very different things. In other words, the dichotomy of “strict” and “other things being equal” definitions does not appear to be exhaustive, and this is of particular significance inasmuch as sense data qua objects of immediate awareness are not subject to the explanation that the regularity theory requires. 

Putnam speaks of “projection” a term one suspects he gets from N. Goodman but how this might be is doubtful, and while he remarks that philosophers who use it “rarely if ever say what projection itself is supposed to be.” (Putnam [1987] p. 11) However, Putnam is misleading here. ‘Projection’ is not used, or at least with any frequency, by idealists or sense data philosophers. Indeed, Putnam fails to produce one example where it has been used as he describes it. Further, regarding the philosophers he does mention, e.g., Wm. James it is especially misleading. Thus when Putnam describes the world as viewed by James he speaks of experience as being “lived in.” But this is misleading. A far more correct expression would be “lived through,” a term used by James and others, e.g. Samuel Alexander, to describe the world as given to us. Once, however, the substitution is made of “lived through” with “lived in”, Putnam succeeds in adding plausibility to the idea of “projection,” for it is difficult to make sense of projecting from experience when all that is given is what we live “through,” there being nothing into which what is projected is projected. Each move in Putnam’s reconstruction of the views he criticizes, and this holds of his critique of sense data in The Threefold Chord, as well, is a re-engineering of the historical reality with respect to philosophies that have relied on there being an irreducible mental component to the world. 

Steven R. Bayne 
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