Semantic Pragmatism and A Priori Knowledge

Canadian Journal of Philosophy 31 (4):455-480 (2001)
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Hillary Putnam has famously argued that we can know that we are not brains in a vat because the hypothesis that we are is self-refuting. While Putnam's argument has generated interest primarily as a novel response to skepticism, his original use of the brain in a vat scenario was meant to illustrate a point about the "mind/world relationship." In particular, he intended it to be part of an argument against the coherence of metaphysical realism, and thus to be part of a defense of his conception of truth as idealized rational acceptability. Putnam's conclusions about the scenario are, however, actually out of line with central and plausible aspects of his own account of the relationship between our minds and the world. Reflections on semantics give us no compelling reason to suppose that claims like "I am a brain in a vat" could not turn out to be true.

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Henry Jackman
York University


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