The Meaning of Meaning
Putnam has two main conclusions in Meaning and Reference. He claims that the meaning of words are not individual mental states. Putnam also concludes that the meaning of words often involves a great deal of division of linguistic labor. In order to accomplish this, Putnam makes several assumptions about intension and extension. Following this framework of meaning, Putnam extrapolates several creative examples to persuade the reader to side with his philosophical position. However, Putnam’s analysis is not completely compelling. In this essay, I will review Putnam’s characterization of the extension/intension distinction. Finally, I will outline how Putnam’s interpretation of the intension/extension distinction leads him to derive some very peculiar conclusions from his thought experiments. In revising the characterization of intension/extension, we will notice that the outcome of Putnam’s examples will change.
Putnam’s main argument is, “The traditional concept of meaning is a concept which rests on a false theory” (p. 289). We can trace Putnam’s discomfort to one of the assumptions that Putnam attaches to the traditional concept of intension/extension:
(2) That the meaning of a term determines its extension (in the sense that sameness of intension entails sameness of extension).
I also have a discomfort with this second assumption, but we will probably disagree over what is troubling about this second assumption. I hold that the meaning of a term and the set of available ostensive examples to a speaker determines its extension.
Putnam makes an integral assumption when he conducts his thought experiments. He says, “Two terms cannot differ in extension and have the same intension” (p. 288). Putnam claims that philosophy never had occasions to analyze this argument due to the nature of the theory of intension/extension. I believe that Putnam’s assumption is faulty. Not only is it possible for two terms to differ in extension and have the same intension, but this scenario occurs quite frequently. This assumption is essential to Putnam’s conclusions. Therefore, by refuting this assumption, we will see that Putnam’s conclusions also change accordingly.
Consider the Twin Earth example. Putnam argues that the Twin Earthians are exact duplicates of Earthians (except perhaps that the “water” in their bodies has a different molecular structure), that the water on Earth is H2O, and that the water on Twin Earth is XYZ (a shortened formula). Putnam stipulates that in 1750 the Doppelgangers on Twin Earth have the same psychological states as their respective twins on Earth. This stipulation forces the mental criteria of water to be the same on Earth and Twin Earth. However, due to the differences in molecular chemistry, water on Earth is very different from the water on Twin Earth, except for the fact that the two versions of water have the same physical properties. H2O boils at the same temperature as XYZ—they also have the same freezing point. In fact, without equipment for molecular testing, Earthians and Twin Earthians have no way to discriminate between H2O and XYZ.
Given this example, Putnam makes several conclusions. The extension of water on Earth in 1750 is H2O, and the extension of water on Twin Earth is XYZ. Putnam also says that Oscar (on Earth) and his Doppelganger (on Twin Earth) understand water differently. Putnam says:
Oscar1 and Oscar2 understood the term ‘water’ differently in 1750, although they were in the same psychological state, and although, given the state of science at the time, it would have taken their scientific communities about fifty years to discover that they understood the term ‘water’ differently. Thus the extension of the term ‘water’ (and, in fact, its “meaning” in the intuitive pre-analytical usage of that term) is not a function of the psychological state of the speaker by itself. (p. 289)
A keen reader will notice that Putnam subtly introduces the term ‘understanding’ into his analysis. This move confuses Putnam’s argument, and the reader has to deal with this by conflating meaning with understanding. I interpret Putnam as saying that Oscar1’s meaning of water is different from Oscar2’s meaning of water. Putnam pairs this statement with the observation that the Oscars have the same psychological state. These two statements make for a strong conclusion: the psychological state of a speaker (by itself) does not determine the meaning (extension) of the speaker.
Putnam’s subsequent analysis makes this immediate argument more compelling, especially when we see that the previous conclusion is very specific. Putnam said that the speaker by itself does not determine the meaning of a term. This language opens up the possibility that a speaker’s individual psychological state contributes to the meaning of a term. This possibility is a part of Putnam’s sociolinguistic hypothesis.
Putnam’s example of gold distills a common structure of linguistic cooperation prevalent in human affairs. In particular, Putnam describes through an example that human society frequently commissions ‘experts’ to cooperatively define the meaning of a term and to prescribe that meaning to those individuals who are not ‘experts.’ This notion of linguistic outsourcing coheres with Putnam’s formal hypothesis:
Hypothesis of the universality of the division of linguistic labor: Every linguistic community exemplifies the sort of division of linguistic labor just described; that is, it possesses at least some terms whose associated “criteria” are known only to a subset of the speakers who acquire the terms, and whose use by the other speakers depends upon a structured cooperation between them and the speakers in the relevant subsets. (p. 292)
There are several important facets of this hypothesis. The hypothesis defines two subsets of a linguistic community: a subset of speakers “who acquire the terms,” and a subset of speakers who depend “upon a structured cooperation between them and the speakers in the relevant subsets.” This second subset refers to people who depend on the analysis of experts in order to create criteria for the meaning of terms.
It is possible that the above hypothesis is an answer to Putnam’s argument that meaning is not a matter of an individual person’s psychological state. The hypothesis opens the possibility that meaning is a matter of the psychological states of an array of people. It could mean that meaning spans the minds of a whole community of experts. Putnam’s metaphor of language as a tool is appropriate here: language is better conceived as a steamship that requires the work of many people, rather than a simple tool like a hammer that an individual can wield without the assistance of others.
As Putnam continues (in the Indexicality and Rigidity section), it is difficult to say whether this answer is appropriate. Putnam obviously wants to go in a different direction, because his next observation is that the Twin Earth water example features no division of linguistic labor, because he claims that there were no ‘experts’ in the Twin Earth example in 1750. Putnam’s analysis involves a theory of reference, rather than a theory of the universality of the division of linguistic labor. Putnam presents two hypotheses, rejects the first, and affirms the second. The first hypothetical theory of reference is this:
(1) One might hold that ‘water’ was world-relative but constant in meaning (i.e., the word has a constant relative meaning). On this theory, ‘water’ means the same in W1 and W2; it’s just that water is H2O in W1, and water is XYZ in W2. (p. 292)
This hypothetical theory denies Putnam’s assumption that “two terms cannot differ in extension and have the same intension” (p. 288). Putnam wants terms to have a complete meaning and have a one-to-one relation with the world, so he prefers the second hypothetical thesis:
(2) One might hold that water is H2O in all worlds (the stuff called “water” in W2 isn’t water), but ‘water’ doesn’t have the same meaning in W1 and W2. (p. 292)
This hypothetical theory coheres with Putnam’s assumption. If we agree with the conclusions that Putnam makes from his examples and his claim that “two terms cannot differ in extension and have the same intension” (p. 288), then this second hypothesis is right.
But in the context of water in 1750 between Earth and Twin Earth, water is not a rigid designator. According to Kripke (quoted by Putnam), a designator is rigid if “it refers to the same individual in every possible world in which the designator designates.” Water is not a rigid designator in the Twin Earth example, because the Twin Earthians point to XYZ and call it water, and the Earthians point to H2O and call it water. In fact, there probably are cases where water is not a rigid designator even on Earth. Consider an Earthian that does not have the training or equipment to test the salinity of water. If water has enough salt dissolved in it, then the water has different properties. In some respects, salt water is not the same as water, but small amounts of salinity are sufficient to change its properties of electrical conductivity without affecting a person’s palette.
Consider this thought experiment. I took a glass and filled one with salt water. I bring a child into the room, and describe to her that there is a glass on the table. Then, I ask the child to tell me if the glass really is water. The intelligent child tells me, “Yes it is water.” I thank the child and ask her to send in her brother. Before the brother comes in, I drain the salt water and refill the glass with water from the tap. The brother comes in, and I describe to the other child that there is a glass on the table, and I ask him to tell me if the glass is water. As before, the intelligent child tells me, “Yes it is water.”
Putnam characterizes a term’s intension as the criteria for belonging to a certain extension, or the “necessary and sufficient condition for falling into the extension of the term” (p. 288). Because we are talking about two children making similar decisions at a similar time, I can safely stipulate that the two siblings employ the same intension for identifying water. The only difference between the two children and me is that the children are not aware of additional criteria that are important for discriminating salt water from tap water. This example points out that it is possible for a single intension to have different extensions, because I engineered a difference between the two glasses of water while keeping the two children unaware of that fact.
The same thing happens in the Twin Earth example. The Earthians and the Twin Earthians employed the same intension for water in 1750. These intensions only changed after each of the two planets’ inhabitants discovered the chemical composition of their respective waters. The Earthians and the Twin Earthian’s would now look at each other’s water supply in a strange way, but in 1750 nobody would notice a thing, except Hilary Putnam and his readers. The two children would only have to drink the salt water to discover that it was not water. This awareness alters the criteria of water, and it subsequently alters the ostensive glasses of water that the children identify as water. The same phenomena occurs in Putnam’s Twin Earth example.