South African Journal of Philosophy

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‘Biologising’ Putnam: saving the realism in internal realism

Michael Vlerick


Putnam’s internal realism attempts to overcome both radical subjectivism and metaphysical realism. While he agrees with subjectivists that we understand the world through conceptual schemes, Putnam rejects their ‘anything goes’ relativist conclusions, arguing that states and properties of the external world co-determine our understanding of the world, and that some theories are more rational to accept than others. Theories, in other words, while they can’t be expected to correspond ‘absolutely’ to the external world, can nevertheless be objective-for-us. When theorising about rationality, however, Putnam runs into problems, claiming that the criteria of rational acceptability, determining the choice of conceptual schemes, are a set of historically evolving cultural norms. This causes a slide into subjectivism and relativism. In this paper, I argue that the main tenet of internal realism – the possibility of an objectivity-for-us – can be maintained. Taking a naturalistic approach, I defend the view that both the conceptual tools and the epistemic values making up our conceptual schemes are ultimately grounded in our genetically determined cognitive apparatus. The conceptual schemes mediating our understanding of the world, therefore, are not merely contingent cultural products but, to an important extent, necessary biological products. In this regard, although Putnam explicitly rejects any attempts to naturalise reason, I argue that it is precisely such a naturalistic approach that provides his internal realism with the necessary backing.

South African Journal of Philosophy 2014, 33(3): 271–283

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