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Hilary Putnam on Realism and Relativism

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  1. Introduction
  2. Explaining Putnam's views on realism and relativism
  3. Putnam differing from descriptive relativism
  4. Putnam application his theory of relativism to every property
    1. Humans going against their natural and most innate beliefs
    2. Turning his very argument for relativism against him
  5. Conclusion

Perhaps one of the most widely and longest-held issues that have been debated in the study of philosophy, is that of the dispute over the way in which we as humans can accurately describe the external world with regards to our everyday lives. Philosophers range in opinion from a view in accordance with that of George Berkeley and Bertrand Russell--who believe that we receive knowledge about the external world from our sense experience of a sole, correct picture of reality--to those who agree with skeptics such as Peter Unger--who insist that nobody can ever know that anything is so. Hilary Putnam tends to avoid either view by claiming a somewhat unique position, which allegedly evades both ?descriptive relativism' and ?radical cultural relativism'. He in turn maintains that respective ways of describing the world are equally accurate; because there is no ?conceptually neutral description of the world?. Putnam's argument, I feel, lays the ground for accepting his view, and with sufficient evidence and explanation can persuade his readers to take his stance.

[...] Putnam is also careful to differentiate between belief and truth, so he can be distinct between what humans using a certain concept believe to be the case versus what really is the case (inside of that particular concept). Putnam would have to concede that there would have to be, in fact, a ?conceptually neutral description of the world? inside of a framework that decides what is true inside of that particular framework. Putnam makes clear that just because someone thinks something is true (even within his/her concept, for example, that sandpaper is flat), that does not in fact make it true. [...]


[...] Because Putnam applies his theory of relativism to every property, he must answer to various arguments against his normative relativist stance in order to make his argument succeed. One example of such an argument would be posed if Putnam were presented with the concept of morality. A philosopher such as Bertrand Russell would argue that the concept of morality is an example of a universal, something that people just ?know'. Humans in general would have to go against their natural, most innate beliefs in order to say that there was nothing wrong with something as heinous as killing an innocent child, for example. [...]

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