Monday, February 1, 2010

Putnam, you Kant make me think this way!

There have been two things that have been wracking my brain the entire evening as I attempt a stroll through Aristotle's Politics. As you could probably already tell by the title, it was thoughts on both Hilary W. Putnam and Immanuel Kant. It's like mixing vodka and rum in your mind - doesn't go down smooth and definitely won't settle well. Now you're about to see what happens when it comes back up!

The first issue of the day resided in Hilary Putnam. In Meaning and Reference Putnam creates a thought experiment which supposes that another world, labeled Twin Earth, in which all things are equal to Earth except that the chemical combination for what Twin Earth calls "Water" is different (denoted as XYZ) from that of Earth's H2O. Even the function of "Water" on both planets is exactly the same - quenches thirst, cleans, is found in rain, etc. . So then the question arises - what do we do with the word "Water?" Do we simply state that the term water has become ambiguous from now on, meaning either H2O or XYZ, or do we expand the term "Water" such that on Earth "Water" means H2O but includes XYZ as an added on meaning. My gut instinct tells me to side slightly with Bertrand Russell. That there is a set of descriptions which help to define the meaning of a term. At the same time, that term has a physical entity that is at its root, as theorized by Gottlob Frege. If this is the case, then the term "Water" actually holds an interesting position. There is one set of descriptions which holds the header H2O while another set of descriptions holds the header XYZ. Now the word "Water" is only ambiguous insofar as someone does not know whether or not the physical entity they are pointing at is XYZ or H2O. It should also be noted here that any shared qualities between H2O and XYZ would not fall under the ambiguous-ness of the term "Water." This is because, in either physical entity that is denoted, these traits exist. Therefore, "Water" in either set (H2O or XYZ) would contain these common qualities (such as thirst quenching, raining, etc.) and so is never in a state entirely ambiguous. In my mind, that allows for both the social/common use of the term and meaning as well as the scientific terminology.

The latter thoughts are hardly as developed, mostly because of my ignorance of Immanuel Kant. I do understand his concept of "duty" to a degree in his ethical approach to life. However, I still think there are a lot of difficulties or, as Patrick so well expressed, puritanical issues. Morality that cannot exist in degrees of variance (the attempt to do good is meaningless) seems too idealistic to be applicable in the real world. However, most of my thoughts for this stand on Georg Urich's (Trinity College Dublin) work and I do not wish to spoil anyone the pleasure of reading it for themselves when it is complete.

Well, that went better than expected. Though now I think I need to brush my teeth.