Can realism be naturalised? Putnam on sense, Commonsense, and the senses


  • Chistopher Norris Univeristy of wales



Hilary Putnam has famously undergone some radical changes of mind with regard to the issue of scientific realism and its wider epistemological bearings. In this paper I defend the arguments put forward by early Putnam in his essays on the causal theory of reference as applied to natural-kind terms, despite his own later view that those arguments amounted to a form of 'metaphysical' realism which could not be sustained against various lines of sceptical attack. I discuss some of the reasons for Putnam's retreat, first to the theory of 'internal (or framework-relative) realism proposed in his middle-period writings, and then to a commonsensepragmatist stance which claims to resituate this whole discussion on ground that has not been trorldden into ruts by the contending philosophical schools. In particular I examine his protracted engagement with various forms of anti-realist doctrine (Michael Dummett's most prominent among them), with Wittgenstein's thinking about language-games or meaning-as-use, and with a range of sceptical- relativist positions adopted in the wake of Quine's influential attack on the two last 'dogmas' of logical empiricism. My paper seeks to show that Putnam has been over-impressed by some of the arguments — from these and other sources — which he takes to constitute a knock-down case against the kind of extemalist and causal-realist approach developed in his early essays. It concludes by re-stating that position in summary form and relating it to other, more recent defences of causal realism in epistemology and philosophy of science.

Author Biography

Chistopher Norris, Univeristy of wales

My BA degree (First-Class Honours in English Literature) was awarded by the University of London in 1970, as was my Ph.D. five years later (thesis topic: ‘William Empson and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism’). My first teaching post was at the University of Duisburg in West Germany (1974-6), after which I worked for a year as Assistant Editor of the magazine Books and Bookmen and then came to Cardiff as a lecturer in the UWIST English Department. In 1987 I was appointed to a chair in the recently-merged joint institution (University of Wales, Cardiff College) and then – in 1991 – crossed over to the Philosophy Department, mainly as a result of changes in my fields of teaching and research over the previous few years. I was awarded the title Distinguished Research Professor in 1997, which has brought relief from most administrative duties although I continue to teach a full complement of undergraduate and graduate courses. These include BA modules on Philosophy of Science, Modern French Philosophy, Deconstruction, Literary Theory, and Philosophy of History.
At MA level I offer courses on ‘Philosophy of Language in the “Two Traditions”’, ‘Deconstruction and Analytic Philosophy’, and ‘Topics in Recent Analytic Philosophy’, along with classes on research methodology and writing skills. Since coming to Cardiff I have supervised 23 successful Ph.D. candidates whose thesis topics have ranged over most of my own chief interests and fields of research. At present these have to do mainly with philosophy of music, deconstruction, and the work of Alain Badiou, about whom I am currently completing a book, due for publication in 2009. Teaching Interests: Philosophy of Science; Epistemology; Philosophy of Language; Modern Continental Philosophy (especially the work of Jacques Derrida).