Skip to main content

Long Ago, in a Context Far Away

Part of the The Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS,volume 78)


“Cut the pie any way you like, “meanings” just ain’t in the head.” With those jaunty words, Hilary Putnam may have launched nearly as many philosophical ships as Helen of Troy. Quite divergent theses can be arranged upon the frame of a gnomic aphorism and in this essay, I will suggest a new reading of Putnam’s dictum that emphasizes factors he never considered, although they spring from the same investigations of how scientific terms behave over time that originally inspired Putnam.


  • Propositional Content
  • Natural Deduction
  • Route Planning
  • Context Sensitivity
  • Contextual Shift

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Cut the pie any way you like, “meanings” just ain’t in the head.

Hilary Putnam (Putnam 1975b)

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-2582-9_4
  • Chapter length: 17 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
USD   129.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-94-007-2582-9
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   169.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   169.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)


  1. 1.

    See (Putnam 1975a). Most of the themes in this opening preamble are developed more fully in Wilson (2006).

  2. 2.

    (Putnam 1975) represents an important earlier working of these basic themes.

  3. 3.

    i.e., the doctrine that strong mappings of ζ and φ type are well defined. In truth, Scott Soames represents a clearer exponent of “fierce propositionalism” than Kripke himself, whose own opinions of “propositions” are rather guarded.

  4. 4.

    The implementation of existential instantiation happens to require a duplicated line (11/12) within this specific formalism, (based upon (Bergmann et al. 2004)) but the repetition can be avoided by other sorts of the “flagging rule”.

  5. 5.

    After Paul Ziff .

  6. 6.

    The manner in which “weight” shifts its significance even across these familiar adjustments in context provides grounds for doubting that contextually localized ζ maps can be successfully integrated into wider forms of “extension.” I discuss such issues at greater length in Wandering significance (Wilson 2006).

  7. 7.

    In Wittgenstein’s sense.

  8. 8.

    “Situations” in roughly John Perry and Jon Barwise’s sense.

  9. 9.

    I should mention that Jeffrey King is an advocate of structured propositions, but these items will induce strong propositional maps in the sense criticized here.

  10. 10.

    As stressed in the appendix below, the invocation of generic representatives should be regarded as a natural aspect of these “familiar semantic values.” Insofar as I can determine, such elements rarely surface within Stanley and King’s discussion of such issues, despite the fact that King once wrote up a nice context-based treatment of the generic ingredients employed in the natural deduction example of Section 4.2 (King 1991).

  11. 11.

    Often in a generic element fashion.

  12. 12.

    As a case in point, we might consider Cauchy’s famous error in confusing regular convergence with uniform convergence. Pace Frege , I doubt that the mistake can be explained through a simple invocation of quantifier order: we can trust that Cauchy recognized the difference between “Everybody loves somebody” and “Somebody is loved by everyone.” However, deeper pressures upon the generic elements that one employs in investigating a general equation within mathematics have a greater potential to explain the confusion of ordering.


  • Bergmann, Merrie, James Moor, and Jack Nelson. 2004. The logic book. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Google Scholar 

  • King, Jeffrey C. 1991. Pronouns, descriptions and the semantics of discourse. Philosophical Studies 61: 239–265.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • King, Jeffrey C. 2007. The nature and structure of content. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Kripke, Saul. 1982. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Putnam, Hilary. 1975a. It ain’t necessarily so. Journal of Philosophy 59: 658–671. Reprinted in Mathematics, matter and method: Philosophical papers, vol. 1, 237–249. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Putnam, Hilary. 1975b. The meaning of ‘meaning’. In Language, mind and knowledge: Minnesota studies in the philosophy of science, ed. Keith Gunderson, vol. 7, 131–193. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Reprinted in Mind, Language and reality: Philosophical papers, vol. 2, 215–271. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sperber, Dan, and Diedre Wilson. 1986. Relevance. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stanley, Jason. 2000. Context and logical form. Linguistics and Philosophy 23: 391–434.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Stanley, Jason, and Jeffrey C. King. 2005. Semantics, pragmatics, and the role of semantic content. In Semantics versus pragmatics, ed. Z.G. Szabó, 111–164. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wilson, George. 1984. Pronouns and pronomial descriptions – A new semantical category. Philosophical Studies 45: 1–30.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Wilson, Mark. 2006. Wandering significance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

Download references


I would like to thank Jeff King, Anil Gupta, Juliet Floyd and George Wilson for discussions on the topics of this essay. Some of these themes date to the very pleasant discussions Bill Demopoulos and I used to have when we both lived in Chicago long ago.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mark Wilson .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2012 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Wilson, M. (2012). Long Ago, in a Context Far Away. In: Frappier, M., Brown, D., DiSalle, R. (eds) Analysis and Interpretation in the Exact Sciences. The Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science, vol 78. Springer, Dordrecht.

Download citation