PSA 1974 pp 603-610 | Cite as

Philosophy of Language and Philosophy of Science

  • Hilary Putnam
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 32)


For over a hundred years, one of the dominant tendencies in the philosophy of science has been verificationism: that is, the doctrine that to know the meaning of a scientific proposition (or of any proposition, according to most verificationists) is to know what would be evidence for that proposition. Historically, verificationism has been closely connected with positivism: that is, at least originally, the view that all that science really does is to describe regularities in human experience. Taken together, these two views seem close to idealism. However, many twentieth century verificationists have wanted to replace the reference to experience in the older formulations of these doctrines with a reference to “ observable things ” and “ observable properties ”. According to this more recent view, scientific statements about the color of flowers or the eating habits of bears are to be taken at face value as referring to flowers and bears; but scientific statements about such “ unobservables ” as electrons are not to be taken as referring to electrons, but rather as referring to meter readings and the observable results of cloud chamber experiments. It is not surprising that philosophers who took this tack found themselves in a certain degree of sympathy with psychological behaviorism. Just as they wanted to “ reduce ” statements about such unobservables as electrons to statements about “ public observables ” such as meter readings, so they wanted to reduce statements about phenomena which, whatever their private status, were publicly unobservable, such as a person’s sensations or emotions, to statements about such public observables as bodily behaviors.


Linguistic Meaning Private Status Psychological Behaviorism Dominant Tendency Conceptual Revolution 
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  1. 1.
    The sense in which this is so is discussed in ‘The Analytic and the Synthetic’, chapter 2 of my Mind, Language, and Reality (Cambridge 1975), and in David Lewis’ Convention, (Harvard 1969).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    I say this even though these terms are not often used “ neat ”. Very often we say a theory is probably false, or likely to be close to the truth, not “ false ” or “ true ” simpliciter. For probable truth and approximate truth presuppose the notions of truth and falsity themselves.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    This difficulty cannot be avoided by saying that every group of scientists should be thought of as sharing a “ formalization of total science ”. For then it becomes a miracle that I can say anything true, if the very meaning of my terms presupposes a theory most of which I don’t know.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1976

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hilary Putnam
    • 1
  1. 1.Harvard UniversityUSA

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