In The Many Faces of Realism Putnam engages in the time honored strategy of looking towards one’s own assumptions and conceptions to determine what role they may or may not play in the knowledge one presumes. Kant did this. Kant never doubted that our knowledge of the world is real, and neither does Putnam. What Putnam does that Kant couldn’t do, though, is to clear away some of the conceptual baggage that we have inherited and elaborated, sometimes implicitly, from Kant’s own attempt to reconcile three equally unshakable intuitions into a coherent view of how and what we know—three intuitions that Putnam shares: that something exists independently of us; that we can only know this something through the conceptions we bring to the enterprise; and that nevertheless our attempts to know this something results in real knowledge.
Putnam’s method is tentative and exploratory, not conclusive. He ends his chapter on “Realism” versus “realism” with a “programmatic” note without even outlining what that program is. Aside from declaring a tautology based on two of these intuitions, he offers no positive theory about how real knowledge is possible. This is refreshing. Why not start with an honest tautology that “mind and world jointly make up the mind and world,” then move from there to a discussion of the implications of how various attempts to explain knowledge rely on it, ending in silence, with an open invitation to ponder the almost mystical implications of our three unshakable intuitions? The resulting cleaning may leave one wishing there was more in the way of furniture in the room, but at least one has the peace of mind that comes with returning to an uncluttered house, one waiting to be fulfilled with the mementos of a life actually lived. Putnam suggests we try to live this life, even without the assurance that we will be living it in the right way. His de-cluttering also implies a recommendation that we sit in that room and find a way to overcome the dichotomies and the paradoxes of the Critique of Pure Reason. Pondering the first line of that book would be as good a place to start as any.
Putnam’s house cleaning also serves us in another way: it frees us from the oppressive ‘the objects of science are Real and we are chumps for thinking that ordinary objects are real too’. He does this by showing that this brand of Objective Realism leads precisely where those Realists don’t want to go, namely, to a non-reducible intentionality “projecting” meaning ‘onto’ things-in-themselves, thus making in fact quite ideal—and hence subjective—the very notions and processes that insure our knowledge of scientific entities as ‘the truly Real of reals.’ Either that or they get inert particles in fields “knowing” themselves. In other words, he shows us, without explicitly saying so, that Objective Realism ends up with Kant’s empirical realism and transcendental idealism—in other words, it ends up nowhere new, aside from a misplaced faith (a faith logically indeterminable in its own terms, as Putnam shows) that we really do know things-in-themselves. Putnam doesn’t say this, but he just as easily could have said that at least Kant was more honest and thorough than his Objective Realist progeny, in that he proposed we can’t really say either way whether things-in-themselves “exist” or “don’t exist,” existence itself being a category applicable only to things as they are for us. So the unshakable intuition in an independently real something creeps back in, as does the reality of knowledge, and Putnam devotes the rest of his essay to asking why, if these intuitions push one toward pragmatism, can’t we use this pragmatism to rehabilitate “the reality and mystery of our commonsense world”.
Indeed, why not?