On Reconciling Putnam and Alston

By Doug Shaver
July 15, 2010

In A Realist Conception of Truth, Alston offers Putnam's conceptual relativity as an opposing alternative to his own alethic realism and then argues that, contrary to Putnam's own claim, the two theories are actually compatible. This paper will summarize both theories along with Alston's proposed reconciliation, then argue that the reconciliation will not work.

Alethic realism, as Alston defines it, is the conjunction of two theses. One is that a proposition is true if and only if what it says to be the case actually is the case. The other is that truth is important, that there exist reasons for us to be concerned about correctly assessing propositions for their truth value (Alston 1996, 1).

Alston identifies propositions as the primary bearers of truth values, the entities having the truth-bearing content of beliefs, assertions, statements, and the like. A proposition can be thought of as the information encoded in the brain state comprising or corresponding to a belief, or in the linguistic elements comprising a statement or assertion. Propositions exist independently of the means by which they are expressed. Thus, for example, “Obama is president of the United States” and “Obama es el presidente de los Estados Unidos” express the same proposition (Alston 1996, 15-17).

The conception is realist in asserting the mind-independence of the truth of any proposition. It assumes the existence of states of affairs that obtain independently of human cognition, and it holds that the truth of a proposition depends solely on a match between its content and some such state of affairs (Alston 1996, 65). In this it is reminiscent of correspondence theory, as Alston acknowledges. One way it differs is in declining to elaborate on the precise nature of the correspondence between true propositions and actual states of affairs (Alston 1996, 37-38).

As explicated by Alston, Putnam's conceptual relativity asserts the nonexistence of a unique true description of reality. According to Putnam, an indefinitely large number of inconsistent propositions can truly describe some given state affairs. There is no mind-independent fact of the matter by which to assess their truth value. Or, if there is such a fact, it is cognitively inaccessible because there is no way to state the fact without presupposing some conceptual scheme that constrains how reality may be described (Alston 1996, 162-165). Thus, a conceptual scheme, for Putnam, is a variety of Kuhnian paradigm insofar as it determines what sorts of things may exist, what observable properties they may possess, and under what conditions these properties may be observed. One difference is that, whereas a Kuhnian paradigm presupposes the possibility of facts that it cannot accommodate (otherwise there would be no scientific revolutions), a Putnamian conceptual scheme is ontologically closed. According to Putnam, there just are no facts other than those that the scheme is capable of describing, and from this it follows that there is no way to appeal to facts as grounds for choosing among competing schemes.

This is not to say that Putnam identifies “truth” with “conceptual scheme,” although what distinction he makes is not immediately obvious. He acknowledges the existence of a mind-independent reality, but says we have no way to describe it independently of how we think about it and no way to justify any claim that one way is closer than another to the true way of describing it (Putnam 1991, 422).

Alston claims to see no necessary contradiction here between him and Putnam. “We can,” he says, “in the spirit of alethic realism, continue to take truth to be a matter of what we are talking about being as we say it is, but recognize that what we are talking about is not theory independent” (Alston 1996, 184). Insisting that his own theory is metaphysically noncommittal, Alston says he can stipulate Putnam's claim that what facts there are depends on how we describe them while maintaining that a proposition is true just in case it states such a fact (185). As Alston construes him, Putnam must reject alethic realism because, being a kind of correspondence theory, alethic realism must presuppose metaphysical realism. But, says Alston, it does not actually have to do that (180).

Putnam also seems to endorse an epistemic theory of truth, according to Alston (183). But, Alston responds, this is not a necessary component of Putnam's theory. Alston perceives “tensions in Putnam's thought” arising from its ambivalence with respect to Kantianism. Putnam's “internal realism” can be interpreted either as a relativized Kantianism or as something inconsistent with relativized Kantianism, and on the former interpretation, it can accommodate Alston's realism (Alston 1996, 186). From this it follows, according to Alston, that “even if we embrace Putnam's conceptual relativity without reservation . . . the realist conception of truth would be left standing” (187).

Alston is surely to be commended for his accommodationism, but it is not apparent to me how an amalgamation of his view with Putnam's could fail to sacrifice at least one essential component of at least one of them. Either it would no longer really be alethic realism, or else it would no longer really be conceptual relativity. It seems important to distinguish between what truth is, on the one hand, and on the other hand whatever measure we might employ to recognize it. It is not clear that conceptual relativity consistently maintains this distinction or can be made to maintain it, but alethic realism, I think, is obliged to maintain it.

Putnam has indeed said things that, prima facie, can be construed as a version of realism. For example: “It is sentences that are true or false, and while it is true that the stars would still have existed even if language-users had not evolved, it is not true that sentences would still have existed” (Putnam 1991, 422). Depending on how much they wanted to argue about the difference between sentences and propositions, a realist might agree that only sentences are true or false, and if they did, they would also agree that there would be no truth if there were no sentences, and there would be no sentences if there were no people. Alethic realism, though, is not the claim that there would be no truth if there were no language-users, and conceptual relativity is not the denial of a reality existing independently of human beings and their language or cognitive functions, even if it often sounds as though it were. (Charity demands that we take Putnam's word for this.)

Alethic realism says that it is some kind of congruence between what a sentence says and the way things are that makes the sentence true. Conceptual relativity denies this. Any revision of either theory that would erase this conflict or make it irrelevant would be not alethic realism or not conceptual relativity.

According to Putnam, the truth of a sentence is a function, not of what exists or is happening outside the speaker's mind, but of the speaker's justification for uttering the sentence. Or so he said in a statement quoted by Alston:

‘Truth', in an internalist view, is . . . some sort of ideal coherence of our beliefs with each other and with our experiences as those experiences are themselves represented in our belief system — and not correspondence with mind-independent or discourse-independent ‘states of affairs' (Putnam 1981, 49-50, quoted in Alston 1996, 184).

In an article written 10 years later, Putnam appeared to have modified his position:

Yet for all that, some of our sentences state facts, and the truth of a true factual statement is not something we just make up. One might say, not that we make the world, but that we help to define the world. The rich and ever-growing collection of truths about the world is the joint product of the world and language users. Or better (since language users are part of the world), it is the product of the world, with language-users playing a creative role in the process of production (Putnam 1991, 422-32).

Independent reality thus has something to do with whether a sentence is true, but this position remains consistent with the claim that truth is “not correspondence with mind-independent or discourse-independent ‘states of affairs.'” Conceptual relativity, if the term is to mean anything at all like what Putnam says it means, cannot say that a sentence is true just in case whatever is says is the way things are, because on conceptual relativity, it is not necessary for its truth that what it says have anything to do with the way things are. All that is necessary for it to be true is that one be justified according to one's conceptual scheme in uttering it.

Of course, this is only a problem if the way things are is presumptively independent of human cognition — i.e. if metaphysical realism is true — and Alston says alethic realism is not wedded to metaphysical realism. Well, it's his theory, and if he says it can live with conceptual relativity, then he can make his separate peace with Putnam. But he also says that truth is important, and that this thesis is integral to alethic realism. It is, after all, the second conjunct of the thesis.

I'll not concern myself in this essay with whether someone who outright rejects any kind of metaphysical realism could embrace some version of alethic realism. Those who do are too few to concern us here. Putnam agrees that the stars would exist whether or not we humans existed. There is something metaphysically realistic about that assertion, and my remaining comments will presume that all parties to the discussion accept it, whatever their quibbles about how it should be labeled. We're assuming, then, that metaphysical realism, or something very hard to distinguish from it, is the case.

The second conjunct of alethic realism affirms the importance of truth, and one naturally supposes that its importance has to do with the congruence, referred to in the first conjunct, between a proposition and mind-independent reality. Alston says this is not necessarily so (231-2), but his concern at this point seems more tactical than theoretical. He wishes to address various truth-is-unimportant theses “without worrying about how 'true' is to be understood” (232). But, granted that we don't always have to define a term to debate the importance of whatever it represents, there should at least be good reason to presume that, whatever it is we're debating the importance of, it is the same thing that we all think it is.

In particular, if truth is either solely or occasionally just a matter of epistemic justification, as implied by conceptual relativity, then where does it get its importance? To be consistent with alethic realism, epistemic justification of a believed proposition would be important only insofar as it was likely to produce some congruence between the proposition and the corresponding aspect of mind-independent reality. I would be justified in believing or uttering some proposition just to the extent that I had good reason to think that what it said was the case actually was the case.

For these reasons, then, I suggest that it would be difficult at best for a Putnamian conceptual relativist to maintain a realist theory of truth of the sort advanced by Alston. The accommodation could possibly be achieved by means of semantic juggling that construes statement X so that it doesn't contradict statement Y even though X and Y seem prima facie inconsistent. And, it is always desirable to discover that a conceptual disagreement is more apparent than real, whenever that happens to be the case. When all such misunderstandings have been cleared away, though, it does look as though a conceptual relativist who embraces alethic realism has ceased to be a conceptual relativist.

(This was a class assignment for Dr. Matthew Davidson, Cal State San Bernardino.)

Works cited

Alston, W. P. (1996). A Realist Conception of Truth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Putnam, H. (1991). Replies and comments. Erkenntnis 34(3), 401-424.

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