By David Lewis
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 1999
Online Publication Date:February 2010
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511625343.003
Subjects: Epistemology and metaphysics
Hilary Putnam has devised a bomb that threatens to devastate the realist philosophy we know and love. He explains how he has learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. He welcomes the new order that it would bring (RT&H, Preface). But we who still live in the target area do not agree. The bomb must be banned.
Putnam's thesis (the bomb) is that, in virtue of considerations from the theory of reference, it makes no sense to suppose that an empirically ideal theory, as verified as can be, might nevertheless be false because the world is not the way the theory says it is. The reason given is, roughly, that there is no semantic glue to stick our words onto their referents, and so reference is very much up for grabs; but there is one force constraining reference, and that is our intention to refer in such a way that we come out right; and there is no countervailing force; and the world, no matter what it is like (almost), will afford some scheme of reference that makes us come out right; so how can we fail to come out right?
Putnam's thesis is incredible. We are in the presence of paradox, as surely as when we meet the man who offers us a proof that there are no people, and in particular that he himself does not exist. It is out of the question to follow the argument where it leads.