Conceptual Relativity and Metaphysical Realism

Noûs 36 (s1):74-96 (2002)
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Is conceptual relativity a genuine phenomenon? If so, how is it properly understood? And if it does occur, does it undermine metaphysical realism? These are the questions we propose to address. We will argue that conceptual relativity is indeed a genuine phenomenon, albeit an extremely puzzling one. We will offer an account of it. And we will argue that it is entirely compatible with metaphysical realism. Metaphysical realism is the view that there is a world of objects and properties that is independent of our thought and discourse (including our schemes of concepts) about such a world. Hilary Putnam, a former proponent of metaphysical realism, later gave it up largely because of the alleged phenomenon that he himself has given the label ‘conceptual relativity’. One of the key ideas of conceptual relativity is that certain concepts—including such fundamental concepts as object, entity, and existence—have a multiplicity of different and incompatible uses (Putnam 1987, p. 19; 1988, pp. 110 14). According to Putnam, once we recognize the phenomenon of conceptual relativity we must reject metaphysical realism: The suggestion . . . is that what is (by commonsense standards) the same situation can be described in many different ways, depending on how we use the words. The situation does not itself legislate how words like “object,” “entity,” and “exist” must be used. What is wrong with the notion of objects existing “independently” of conceptual schemes is that there are no standards for the use of even the logical notions apart from conceptual choices.” (Putnam 1988, p. 114) Putnam’s intriguing reasoning in this passage is difficult to evaluate directly, because conceptual [1] relativity is philosophically perplexing and in general is not well understood. In this paper we propose a construal of conceptual relativity that clarifies it considerably and explains how it is possible despite its initial air of paradox. We then draw upon this construal to explain why, contrary to Putnam and others, conceptual relativity does not conflict with metaphysical realism, but in fact comports well with it..



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Author Profiles

Terry Horgan
University of Arizona
Mark Timmons
University of Arizona