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The Proceedings of the Twenty-First World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 6, 2007


Ulvi Doğuoğlu
Pages 59-67

Sense and Sensitivity
Putnam and Travis on Meaning, Sense and Understanding

When are the meanings of two utterances the same? And how, if at all, could we determine this sameness? In this paper I take a look at the contextualist answer of Hilary Putnam and Charles Travis. One characteristic trait of Hilary Putnam's conception of meaning is what he calls 'semantic externalism' and what I shall label 'public semantics' to avoid confusion with the topological or what I call 'locational' connotation of externalism in other contexts:1 the meaning of a word and the full meaning/sense of a sentence or utterance are not determined by some private mental state(s) of the speaker but are determined by the use of words on an occasion or in a saying. According to Hilary Putnam and Charles Travis (both elaborating on Wittgenstein's discussions in his Philosophical Investigations), the varieties of such situational uses or occasions, the varieties of public semantics, can themselves not be described or determined once and for all. It is therefore not possible to reduce or absorb each and every pragmatic aspect into semantics. That means that semantics is essentially open and questions as to the sameness of meaning or sense of utterances cannot be answered independently of a pragmatic approach. Travis extends this diagnosis in his most recent book {Unshadowed Thought) to thought, beliefs and attitudes: no one thought, attitude or belief can be individuated independently of relevant situational aspects, these including, among others, acts in accord with, say, an attitude on some occasion or other. The approach pursued here claims that pragmatics is in either of these areas unavoidable and genuine. It cannot be explained away or be re-absorbed into semantics or epistemology.2 This has important consequences for what it means to do philosophy, as can be seen in Putnam's arguments as to the unintelligibility of various philosophical positions.

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