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Phil 101: Introduction to Philosophy 
Jeremy Anderson, Ph.D.
Hilary Putnam's Internal Realism Briefly Explained
Jeremy Anderson

I. Introduction: Realism, Relativism, and the Problems They Pose

[1] Like Descartes and Berkeley, many of us tend to be realists about the world: we think there really are such things as rocks, tables, and chairs, and that if our beliefs about the world match the way it really is then our beliefs are true; otherwise they are not. However, for reasons I will explain below, if we take realism seriously we find that perhaps most of our ordinary beliefs about the world are false. This may tempt us to reject realism and embrace relativism--the belief that the world is how each person or culture believes it to be, and that there are no "objective" facts but rather only matters of opinion. But relativism, too, runs into problems. Hilary Putnam has offered an alternative to realism and to relativism he calls internal realism and  which, he argues, provides many of the benefits of realism without running into certain problems realism suffers from. In what follows I will explain how Descartes and Berkeley are realists, then briefly explain a problem with realism, and then explain why we might not want to embrace relativism as an alternative. My main project in this paper then will be to explain the core ideas of Putnam's internal realism, and the main arguments he offers in favor of it and against alternative views.

[2] Metaphysical realism. As different as they are, Descartes and Berkeley have some ideas in common. One idea they share--and which many of us tend to assume is true--is this: that the way things are in the world is independent of our beliefs, our interests, and so on. If there is a cliff before me with a long drop into a lake below, this is true whether I believe it or not, or whether I want it to be true. I may believe with all sincerity that the ground continues level ahead of me and wholeheartedly wish to walk out on it, but if I do I will nevertheless fall and get wet. Similarly, there really is a desk in front of me on which my computer sits as I type, whether I believe it or want to believe it or not, a floor under my feet, air, rocks, atoms, electrons, etc. Let's call this view of the world metaphysical realism, which Putnam calls "Realism with a capital 'R'": there's a "real world" that exists "out there," outside of our beliefs and interests. There's a way things really are. Things have 'intrinsic' properties, properties that are independent of whatever we believe or feel about those things. Things may also have 'dispositional' properties--for example, the wall of my office appears to be white, but whiteness isn't really in the wall; it's just that the microscopic structure of the wall's surface (which is an intrinsic property) tends to (i.e., is 'disposed to') reflect light in a way that I perceive as white.
[3] It is obvious that Descartes is a metaphysical realist, because he thinks that there are things like towers and desks and paper that exist outside of him, and that his beliefs about such things are true insofar as they match how those things really are. In Descartes we see it from the First Meditation: he claims that some of his beliefs about the world have been mistaken, and that it is possible all of them are wrong. Think about it: these errors can only be possible if the world is independent of his beliefs. Descartes' entire project in the Meditations is to find a way to bridge the gap between the ideas in his mind and the world outside of his mind: to find a way to tell with absolute certainty which of those ideas are "veridical"--that is, which ideas match the way the outside world really is. Also, according to Descartes, the world outside of his mind is largely material: there are solid, unthinking things outside us, wholly independent of us.
[4] As for Berkeley, it may be tempting to assume that he is not a metaphysical realist. After all, doesn't he maintain that everything is "just inside our minds"? If so, how can there be a world "out there," independent of us? To see how Berkeley is nevertheless a metaphysical realist, we need to be clear about where "out there" is. Many of us tend to automatically think like Descartes and assume that "out there" means "out in the world of material things." But if you look again at the definition of metaphysical realism above, you'll see that "out there" only means "outside of our beliefs and interests." This includes "out in the material world" (assuming there is one), but includes more besides. Look inside your own mind, as Descartes did in the Fourth Meditation, and notice that beliefs and interests are separate from perceptions: it is one thing for you to perceive an apple, and another for you to believe the apple is real (as opposed to a hallucination, say) or to want to eat it. So perceptions are outside of our beliefs and interests, in the sense that they are distinct from them. And Berkeley maintains that the world simply consists of perceptions given to us by God. Thus, Berkeley maintains that the world is separate from our beliefs and interests, and he is therefore a metaphysical realist.
[5] This becomes even clearer when we notice that Berkeley plainly distinguishes between what we believe about the world and how it actually is. He insists on this distinction in PHK section 34: "There is a rerum natura [a way things are], and the distinction between realities and chimeras [illusions] retains its full force" even if we agree with him that the heavens and the earth are nothing but ideas in our minds. After all, what is Berkeley trying to do in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge if not correct the erroneous belief that material objects exist? Berkeley wrote the book because he knows that many of us, when we perceive an apple, believe that there is a material object outside of our minds which is causing our perception. He wants to convince us that this belief is a silly mistake--it fails to match the way the world really is. So to him there is a way the world is, independently of our beliefs.

[6] A problem with metaphysical realism: the ordinary world no longer exists. Although metaphysical realism seems commonsensical to many of us, it has its problems, one of which I will discuss here. Let's go back to that apple we're perceiving. Offhand, we tend to think of it as merely an apple, a single object, sitting still on a table maybe. But according to our best current scientific theories--the theories we rely on to tell us what's "really real" about the world--that's not right. Not even close. The apple, like all material objects, consists of an astounding number of molecules too small to see, which themselves consist of atoms, which themselves consist of protons, electrons, and so on, and these tiny particles are moving through space at incredible speeds. The apple really is a collection of tiny particles in motion within vast reaches (proportionately speaking) of empty space. Thus, our belief that the apple is a single, solid object sitting still is just plain false. The apple, as we ordinarily perceive it, does not really exist. Neither do tables, chairs, floors, buildings, or any of the other ordinary objects which we usually think of as the real, solid objects around us. If we take metaphysical realism seriously, we--in effect--lose the world as we ordinarily experience it; that world of tables and chairs just isn't real, and our ordinary, commonsense beliefs about tables and chairs are false.  This seems wrong.

[7] One alternative to metaphysical realism: relativism. On the other hand, denying metaphysical realism seems to lead us into another sort of problem. Metaphysical realism says:
Our beliefs and interests are independent of how things really are. Reality is one thing, our beliefs and interests are another, and our beliefs may fail to be veridical.
To deny that, then, seems to say:
Reality depends on our beliefs and interests--our beliefs and interests determine what is real.
If we say this, we appear to be endorsing a view known as relativism, which says that propositions like "that is a table" are true if and only if we believe they are. Actually, there are several forms of relativism. One is individual relativism--sometimes called subjectivism--which says that truth is relative to each individual: "that is a table" is true (or rather "true for you") if and only if you believe it. Another form is cultural relativism, which says that "that is a table" is true within a given culture if and only if the members of that culture believe it.

[8] Relativism appeals to a lot of people when they first meet it. It conforms to our sense that people may legitimately disagree about what is true and what is real. We may believe that our beliefs are, after all, just our beliefs, and that we have no special access to the truth that entitles us to say that those who disagree with us are mistaken. Metaphysical realism cannot tolerate such differences; it says there's one true way the world is and whoever disagrees with it is just flat wrong. But relativism tolerates differences of opinion; it says all opinions are equally OK. This fits well with the commonly-held belief that people are essentially equal. According to relativism, we're all equally entitled to our opinions, because they're all equally true.
[9] However, both individual and cultural relativism run into serious problems. For example, what if you, or the members of your culture, say "that island belongs to our nation" and I, or the members of my culture, say "no, that island belongs to us"? There seems to be no way to settle our disagreement; we're left having to say that both cultures have an equal, valid claim to the same land. We could ask someone to serve as judge in a dispute, but that person would merely be expressing their opinion, and there would be no more reason to respect their judgment than to believe anyone else. That seems lame, and it seems to fly in the face of our experience. To judge from our behavior, we do think that some people's opinions carry more weight than others. When you're seriously ill, don't you see a doctor rather than asking just anybody for medical help? If relativism were true, the opinion of any stranger on the street--some muttering drunk who happens to be passing by, for example--would be as just as good as any doctor's diagnosis. If relativism were true, there would be no reason to ask your professor for help figuring out what a difficult part of a book means; any five-year-old's opinion--or yours, for that matter--would be just as good as the professor's. After all, if something is true if you believe it to be true, then whatever opinion you happen to form, about anything whatsoever, is true, just as true as what anyone else thinks.

[10] Relativism says that this is how things are, but most of us think--or at least behave as if--it's nutty. Every time we consult an expert, it is because we think some people know better. And we generally think they know better because they have studied the matter at hand (be it medicine, literature, law, or whatever) and found out more about it than we have. But to "find out more about it" presupposes that there is something to be found--some facts to be discovered, that are not merely matters of opinion. In other words, we behave like realists, who believe there is a real world and that by careful study some people have learned more about certain aspects of it than we have, and we consult them for their expertise. And an individual's or culture's refusal to believe the cliff is there is not going to stop them from falling into the lake if they walk over it, is it? When you get right down to it, relativism is hard to buy. As much as we may value tolerance and equality, we don't generally believe that all individuals' or cultures' opinions are equally true.

[11] The apparent dilemma. It may appear that we're stuck: reality either depends on our beliefs or it doesn't. If reality depends on our beliefs, then relativism seems to be true; if reality does not depend on our beliefs, then realism seems to be true. So we might think we have to choose between (1) having our commonsense beliefs turn out to be false because ordinary objects are really reducible to tiny particles (as with realism) or (2) believing that reality is just whatever people think it is--just a matter of convention--despite the fact that people still accidentally fall off cliffs.

[12] The point of Hilary Putnam's view, which he calls internal realism, is to show that we are not really stuck with this dilemma. Putnam's views are laid out in two books, The Many Faces of Realism (abbreviated MFR) and Representation and Reality (RR). In them, he argues that internal realism provides a way for us to be realists about the ordinary world of tables and chairs around us, yet at the same time acknowledge that truth may depend on one's personal beliefs to some extent.
II. Putnam's Solution: Internal Realism
[13] The core of internal realism is a view of reality and truth which provides an alternative to metaphysical realism and cultural relativism by insisting that 'conceptual relativity' and realism are compatible, and that thus we can be realists about tables and chairs and about electrons and space-time regions etc., and not reduce the former to the latter (MFR pp. 1, 16, 17). In favor of this Putnam argues that we cannot talk about "what is really there" in the world apart from our conceptual schemes and interests (MFR 33, 37-39; RR 114); but that at the same time what is true or false is not merely a matter of convention as cultural relativists maintain it is (MFR 20). There is more to Putnam's view than this; internal realism is key to his views on causation, intentionality and reference, for example. But for brevity I will restrict myself to explaining the above-mentioned core ideas and arguments, and to exposition rather than criticism.
[14] Conceptual Relativity. To make his point concerning the relationship between matters of fact and our conceptual schemes, Putnam asks us to imagine a "world" containing the individuals x1, x2, and x3.

x1         x2         x3

He asks, "How many objects are there in this world?" (MFR 18). The obvious answer seems to be "three." But Putnam points out that this answer is "version-relative." He remarks, "How we go about answering the question 'How many objects are there?'--the method of 'counting', or the notion of what constitutes an 'object'--depends on our choice" of a certain conceptual scheme through which we view the world (MFR 32-3). In this case, the answer "three" is the answer we arrive at given a conceptual scheme such as Rudolph Carnap's, which sees x1, x2, and x3 as logical atoms. But Putnam notes that this conceptual scheme is not the only one, and that another scheme could yield another, and equally valid, verdict. As an example of such an alternative he uses the scheme of some Polish logicians, who believe that for every two particulars there is an object which is their sum (MFR 18). When this logical doctrine is applied to our hypothetical world, the verdict is that there are seven objects:

x1 + x2
x1 + x3
x2 + x3, and
x1 + x2 + x3.
[15] What this example demonstrates is that even when it comes to the most basic notions we have concerning things in the world--e.g., what it is to be an "object," and whether something "exists"--there is not one absolute meaning for the terms we use. Rather, there are a variety of different meanings we might choose between (MFR 19, RR 114). How we employ our terms reflects our choice of conceptual schemes, and this, in turn, affects how we view the world, even with regard to the most "objective"-seeming aspect of it: what is an object and what is not. There is nothing about the world which dictates the choice of the Carnapian scheme over the Polish logicians' scheme, or vice versa; neither of them is "more right" than the other, let alone the "one true version" of reality (MFR 35, RR 114-115). Yet if we assume Carnap's scheme, the statement 'there are more than four objects' is false, while under the Polish logicians' scheme it is true, concerning the same world. Thus, what is real about the world is relative to some extent; it is relative to our conceptual schemes.

[16] How is Putnam a realist? Now, if we cannot describe the world except through the use of terms which reflect our choice of conceptual scheme, and the scheme we choose determines how we will answer the most basic questions concerning the world, including questions concerning what constitutes an object, then the notion of an "object existing independently of our conceptual schemes" is unintelligible. It makes no sense at all. And in that case, the distinction between the properties things have "in themselves" (their intrinsic properties) and non-intrinsic properties breaks down, for we are unable to talk intelligibly about intrinsic properties (MFR 36). But without this distinction, how can Putnam call himself a realist? Doesn't realism entail such a separation between our minds and language on the one hand and the "world out there" on the other? If the way the world is is inseparable from the choices we make, aren't we left with relativism?
[17] Putnam's reply is twofold:
Part of my answer [is that f]ar from being constitutive of commonsense realism, that dichotomy [between intrinsic and non-intrinsic properties] tends to undermine it.... But another part of the answer must consist in showing that the rejection of this [dichotomy] is not a simple capitulation to garden-variety cultural relativism, or to the idea that every conceptual scheme is as good as any other. (MFR 30.)

[18] What's wrong with Realism with a capital 'R.' To take the first part first: "commonsense" realism is the view the there really are "ordinary middle-sized objects" such as tables, chairs, and ice cubes--that in thinking of such things as single objects rather than as, say, collections of particles, we are not making a mistake (MFR 3, 16). And Putnam argues that the dichotomy between intrinsic and non-intrinsic properties is at the root of a line of thinking that ends up denying the existence of such ordinary objects (MFR 4). Besides the intrinsic/non-intrinsic distinction, the chief elements of this line of thinking are the beliefs that only the objects described by science really exist, and that other properties are but projections of our minds (MFR 4-5, 13).
[19] On the view Putnam wants to reject, the properties an ordinary object is held to have "in itself" are those which are scientifically describable (say, in terms of analytic geometry or physics). But Putnam notes that there is no scientific account in the offing which fully explains the phenomena of color and solidity (MFR 5-6, 7-8). Thus these qualities--which, Putnam points out, make up our conception of typical commonsense objects--along with most of an object's other qualities (MFR 12) end up in the category of projections of our minds. The gist of Putnam's argument seems to be that if only those qualities described by science really belong to an object, and there is no scientific description of color or solidity or other dispositional properties, then these properties are not really in the objects themselves. And if what isn't in objects themselves is a projection (i.e., the result of thinking the object has properties it does not have, but which we imagine, without being conscious of doing so; MFR 11), then dispositional properties are projections of our minds. And to explain dispositions in terms of projection is to explain "just about every feature of the commonsense world in terms of thought" (MFR 12).
[20] Think of it this way. If we try to be thoroughgoing metaphysical realists, we need to distinguish what is real about the world from what we believe, since metaphysical realism holds that beliefs and reality are independent. To discover what is real, we rely on our best scientific theories. They tell us that what is real about, say, a sheet of paper, is that it is a collection of tiny charged particles whizzing around through space-time regions, and that is all. If that's all that's real about the paper, then the only thing to say about the rest of what we believe about it--that it's white, smooth, handy for writing on, etc.--is that these must be things that we "project" with our minds. But this is to say that most of what we ordinarily experience about the world is a mere fabrication of our minds'. It isn't real, and, strictly speaking, such beliefs as "that is a table," "this paper is white," "terrorism is wrong," and so on are false, because they do not match anything that our best current scientific theories find "out there" in the world.
[21] This, says Putnam, is a paradoxical result, because it denies the reality of the commonsense world, "the world we experience ourselves as living in" (MFR 12). Instead of championing our sense that "of course there are tables and chairs, and any philosophy that tells us that there really aren't...is more than slightly crazy" (MFR 3-4), Realism with a capital 'R'--metaphysical realism--ends up crazily asserting that it is false that there are tables and chairs and ice cubes. And the root cause of this is metaphysical realism's employment of the notion of intrinsic properties and the resultant dichotomy between intrinsic and non-intrinsic properties (MFR 8-9). Metaphysical realism says that there are properties an object really has independently of our beliefs--intrinsic properties. But Putnam's conceptual relativity argument (the one with the world containing x1, x2, and x3) showed that the very idea of an object depends on our beliefs, and that therefore the notion of intrinsic properties is nonsense. The intrinsic vs. non-intrinsic dichotomy should be abandoned, and reference to the notions of an intrinsic property and of an object "in itself" should be dropped (MFR 36).

[22] Next, to show that giving up the intrinsic/non-intrinsic dichotomy is not tantamount to relativism, Putnam is careful to point out that while which conceptual scheme we use to go about answering a question like "How many objects are there?" is a matter of convention, the answer itself is not likewise a matter of convention:
If I choose Carnap's language, I must say there are three objects because that is now many there are. If I choose the Polish logician's language...I must say there are seven objects, because that is how many objects (in the Polish logician's sense of 'object') there are. (MFR 33)
In other words, it may be that a group of people agrees to follow a Carnapian scheme which does not recognize the sum of two particulars as an object. They are neither right nor wrong to do so, since this is simply one perfectly good scheme among others. But if they then unanimously declare there to be (say) four objects in the hypothetical world, their agreement on the matter does nothing to vindicate them because it is simply a fact that, given the Carnapian way of counting objects, there are only three objects in the world. (And likewise, given the Polish logician's conceptual scheme, it would be true that there are seven objects.) This is what distances Putnam's conceptual relativity from cultural relativism. Cultural relativism says that if we agree that there are four, or seven, or twenty objects, that's how many there are, simply because we agree it is so. Relativism is objectionable, Putnam points out, because it implies that "there is no truth to be found... 'true' is just a name for what a bunch of people can agree on" (MFR 17-18). But conceptual relativity avoids this problem because the choice (or assumption) of a conceptual scheme only determines how one goes about finding an answer--in this case, how one counts 'objects'--but does not determine what the answer is. The answer is to be discovered, not agreed upon.

[23] The final part of Putnam's reply to the charge that he is not a realist--his claim that his view does not lead to the idea that every conceptual scheme is as good as any other--is not explicitly supported in the text. It seems to me that there are at least two arguments open to him, however. One is simply that his view provides no particular reason to believe that all conceptual schemes are equally good. The fact that there are different schemes we may choose from, and that more than one of them may be legitimate in a given case, does not of itself imply that none are better than others. There is simply insufficient data to claim that all conceptual schemes are equally good. Secondly, given his evident sympathy for pragmatism, I speculate that Putnam would think that some conceptual schemes are more useful than others. If so, then even if there's nothing about the world which dictates the choice of any particular scheme to us, we might still have a basis for choosing between schemes. We just have no grounds for declaring one scheme to be the "one true" scheme.

[24] The realism of internal realism. Putnam cannot be a realist if "realist" means "holds the view that (at least some) objects exist independently of our minds and language," as it traditionally has. But as we have seen, Putnam denies the intelligibility of the notion of objects existing so independently. He rejects that notion because it ultimately undermines the belief that commonsense objects are real. His internal realism asserts that, since even our basic notions of object and existence are defined in relation to our conceptual schemes, there is no possible description of the facts which is completely independent of such schemes or, as he more conveniently calls them, "versions." Nevertheless, the versions we choose only determine how we look at the world, not what we then find in it. When I assume the "commonsense" version, I see the world as populated with objects such as tables and chairs, but it is not merely the choice of versions which tells me I am sitting on a chair now or that the chair is blue; these are facts I discover. If, on the other hand, I assume the physicist's version, I see the world as populated by congeries of electrons in regions of space-time; but whether the electrons are there and what they are doing are not a function of my conceptual scheme. They too are facts to be discovered, which exist independently of my judgments concerning them: if I judge that there are none beneath me at this moment or that they are in a liquid state, I judge wrongly. This independence of facts from our judgment (as opposed to the independence of facts from all our mental activities) is what constitutes Putnam's realism. On the internal realist view there are no facts, objects, or properties independent of our conceptual schemes (to talk of them "is to talk of nothing"; MFR 36); but, given a conceptual scheme, the facts are not chosen but found, or not found, as the case may be.
[25] This lends a certain sense to Putnam's slogan that "the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world" (MFR 1). According to the realist, the world "makes up the mind" in the sense that it is purely by reference to the world that we can tell whether the beliefs in our minds are correct; the way the world is, is the sole arbiter of truth. On the other hand, according to the relativist the mind "makes up the world" and that is that; the world is whatever the mind (or minds, in cultural relativism) say it is. But on Putnams's view, both of these are partly right. To him, the mind "makes up the world" in the sense that it is our conceptual schemes which determine how we make such basic judgments as, in the example of the Carnapian world, what constitutes an "object" and what "exists." But the world "makes up the mind" in the sense that once we have assumed a conceptual scheme, when we correctly make up our minds about, say, how many objects there are, it is on the basis of how things really are when viewed from the standpoint of that conceptual scheme--not because we "project" it or agree on it.
[26] And this helps explain what Putnam means when he says that
There are tables and chairs and ice cubes. There are also electrons and space-time regions and prime numbers and people who are a menace to world peace and moments of beauty and transcendence and many other things. (MFR 16)
Realism with a capital 'R,' following modern science, accounts for the fact that the object beneath me is both a chair and a collection of electrons by reducing the former to the latter. But this, Putnam argues, leaves the chair in an inferior ontological status--that of a mere mental projection--which it does not deserve. Putnam maintains that the collection of electrons and the chair are equally real, because they are the facts picked out (so to speak) by the usages of the terms which make up part of the different conceptual schemes involved, and neither scheme is "truer" than the other. The belief that there is some pre-structured or self-structured Reality is an illusion; and so, then, is the belief that correspondence to such a Reality is the ground of truth. There is, then, no way to justify the choice of one scheme or another by claiming that one "fits reality better."

[27] Conclusion. Internal realism is Putnam's attempt to avoid what he considers to be the pitfalls of metaphysical realism on the one hand and radical cultural relativism on the other, while taking key elements from both. In common with metaphysical realism, internal realism holds that there are things "out there," and that the truth is not simply legislated by us. And in common with relativism, internal realism holds that our assumptions and interests make a decisive contribution to our view of the world.


Putnam, Hilary. The Many Faces of Realism. LaSalle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 1987.

Putnam, Hilary. Representation and Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988.

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