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Are Meanings in the Head?

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Karen Ortiz        

Philosophy 409

Second Paper

November 18, 2004

Are Meanings in the Head?[1]

The doctrine that the meaning of a term is a concept carried the implication that meanings are mental entities.  Frege, however, says that meanings are public property—that the same meaning can be “grasped” by more than one person and by persons at different times—he identified concepts with abstract entities rather than mental entities; however, “grasping” these ‘abstract entities’ was still an individual psychological act.  Secondly, the timeworm example of ‘creature with a kidney’ and ‘creature with a heart’ shows that two terms can have the same extension and different intension, but two terms can’t have different extension and that same intension.  So the theory of meaning came down to two unchallenged assumptions: 1) knowing the meaning of a term is just a matter of being in a certain psychological state, and 2) that the meaning of a term determines its extension.  In Putnam’s Meaning and Reference, he argues that these two assumptions are not jointly satisfied by any notion, let alone any notion of meaning and claims that the traditional concept of meaning rests on a false theory (288-289).  

For Putnam’s argument that meanings are not merely in the head, he uses the “twin earth” example, which is as follows:  there is a planet out there that we will call Twin Earth, and in almost every situation, Earth and Twin Earth are exactly alike.

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 for their corresponding planets even though they understood what the terms meant differently in 1750 than in 1950 and even though they were still in the same psychological state.  Therefore, according to Putnam, the extension of the term “water” is not a function of the psychological state of the speaker by itself (289).

          Another example that Putnam posits to strengthen his argument is the elm tree vs. beech tree example.  On Twin Earth, a beech tree is the same as an elm tree is on Earth.  Therefore, my Doppelganger sees a ‘beech’ tree on Twin Earth, and I see an “elm” tree on Earth, yet we both mean the same thing because we are both seeing the same tree, regardless of what we call it.  Therefore, we are both in the same psychological state, which shows that meanings are not in the head (290-291).  

Putnam explains that this example depends on the division of linguistic labor.  He admits that we wouldn’t be able to use words such as “elm” if we didn’t possess a way of recognizing elm trees, but he goes on to say that just because everyone agrees that the distinction is important doesn’t mean that they have to be able to make that distinction (291).  Take the word “car,” for example.  I have a

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actual nature of the particular things that serve as paradigms, or ideal examples, and this actual nature not generally fully known to the speaker.  Traditionally semantic theory leaves out two contributions to the determination of reference—the contribution of society and the contribution of the real world; a better semantic theory must encompass both (294).

There is one argument that Martinich gives against Putnam’s idea that ‘water’ and “water” have the same meaning on Twin Earth and on Earth, respectively.  He says that since they are different liquids, namely XYZ and H2O, what if we were to rename ‘water’ as in XYZ to another name, perhaps ‘quaxel.’  Then quaxel and water would mean the same thing, according to Putnam, even though they were different substances.  Although Martinich makes a valid point here, I’m not sure if I agree with the assumption that that’s what Putnam is saying.  I think by the water example, he’s not saying that they are the same substance, he’s actually saying the opposite.  He’s saying that they have the same name on different planets, but have different definitions, which is true.  Furthermore, he’s saying that the only way that Twin Earth’s ‘water’ can mean the same thing as Earth’s “water” is if XYZ was the same liquid as actual Earth’s H2O, which it isn’t.  Therefore, I agree with Putnam.

[1] All information taken from Hilary Putnam’s Meaning and Reference paper, pages 288-295 of A.P. Martinich’s The Philosophy of Language, Fourth Edition, 2001.

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