Putnam - "The meaning of meaning" (Socially Distributed knowledge)

Putnam H (1975). "The meaning of meaning", in Mind, Language, and Reality: Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Background and Summary of Putnam’s Theory

Hilary Putnam was an American Philosopher who was influential in the philosophy of language. He developed the "theory of meaning" which stated that we need only acquire a general knowledge of the basic meaning of words as we rely on experts to judge the more complex characteristics. He called this the "linguistic division of labour".


Putman uses "gold" as an example. Most people can easily recognise "gold" as "gold" because they have a representation in their mind of what "gold" should look like. However, they may struggle to distinguish between real gold and fake gold, whereas an expert who knew the chemical properties of gold would be able to distinguish between real gold and fake gold. For this purpose, we rely on the knowledge of expert when, for example, buying a gold ring. Anyone who gold may be important to has to acquire the word "gold" but they do not need to acquire the exact method of recognising gold, as they can rely on experts to do so.

Similarly, "water" is a term most people are familiar with. We know what water looks like and tastes like. However, if we were given a colourless liquid that looks like water and tastes like water, how do we know it really is water? In the same way, we would have to rely on an expert who could test the chemical properties to identify it is really is water.

Putnam proposes a set of norms which should be used in the description of meaning of every term:

1. Syntactic markers e.g "noun", "verb"
2. Semantic markers that apply to the word e.g. "animal", "period of time"
3. Stereotype features
4. Description of extension (the components it is made up of)

He uses "water" to illustrate this model

1. Noun
2. Liquid, natural
3. Colourless, tasteless, thirst-quenching
4. H2O

Is it worth reading?

Personally, from a non-philosophical background, I would say no! If you have a particular interest in philosophy then it might be worth reading. However, if, like me, your psychological background requires you to obtain empirical evidence for every hypothesis that is proposed, then you will probably find Putnam's chapter on "the meaning of meaning" rather confusing and repetitive. The chapter in the book seems to just repeat the same information I have given in the above summary over and over again, including a strange science-fiction story about life on "Twin-Earth", and how his "doppelganger" calls the liquid he drinks "water" even though it is not actually H2O. It may appeal to some people?!

Personal Opinion and Critique of Putnam

I agree with the theory, in so much that it applies to the words which Putnam uses in his examples, mainly "gold" and "water". However I don't think it is applicable to all words. Take "apple" for example, we always know an apple is an apple regardless of what an apple expert may tell us. In particular, I struggle to identify how his theory may have implications in the psychology of learning. It may be true that we must rely on others who know the real meaning and components behind certain words. However it is possible to feel comfortable using a word without knowing the full story behind it. Clark (1985) uses "coffee" as an example. He identifies the various ways in "coffee" can be used. For example, it can be berries, beans, grain, jars, liquid...etc. It is not a definite concept as it is related to so many uses. We may not know the full story behind how coffee is grown, picked, ripened, fermented, roasted, ground, brewed etc, yet we still understand the varies meanings. Clark illustrates the point with the following examples. If someone said "I have spilt the coffee, go get the mop", we would know they were referring to coffee in the liquid. If they said "I have spilt the coffee, go get the broom", we would know they had spilt the beans or gains. If they said "I have spilt the coffee, re-stack the shelves", we would know they had knocked over the jars. In summary, Putnam may have proposed a plausible theory, but it is little value in terms of implications for learning.

Socially Distributed Knowledge

Key Paper: Isaac E. A & Clark H.H (1987). References in conversation between experts and novices. Journal of experimental psychology: General, 116, 26-37. If you are only going to read one thing on this topic, I recommend this paper.

This paper is the closest practical application to Putnam's theory of "the linguistic division of labour". The authors agree that for a conversation to be successful, all participants must understand the meaning behind the topic of interest. Each participant is likely to have different ideas, levels of knowledge and beliefs about a particular concept, therefore they all must share this understanding with the rest of the group. This way, the novices can learn from the experts, allowing a social distribution of knowledge. In conversation, it is necessary to start at the level of the person who knows the least and build up their knowledge until they reach the same level and understanding of the expert on that topic.

To test this application, Isaac & Clark (1987) assessed conversations between pairs of participants who were familiar with New York and who are not. Those familiar with New York (the expert group) had to describe pictures postcards of New York City landmark to those unfamiliar with New York (the novice group) and vice-versa. The references they made on the postcards were compared to references made on the same postcard by pairs of experts or pairs of novices. One of the pair was appointed the position of "director" and the other was appointed "matcher". The director had 16 postcards in the correct order and the matcher had the same 16 postcards in a different order. The aim was for the matcher to order their postcards correctly. The pair could not see each other, therefore had to verbally describe the postcards and reach a common agreement. For example, the expert might begin by saying "postcard number 10 is the Empire State Building", and the novice might reply with "is that the tall building with the pointed roof?". Each pair carried out 6 trials whereby they had to match the same 16 postcards in a different order each time. Performance was found to improve with each trial. For expert-expert pairs, the percentage of proper names used remained high and constant throughout each trial. For novice-novice pairs, the percentage of proper names used remained low and constant throughout each trial. For novice-expert pairs, the percentage of real names used started low at trial 1 and increased by trial 6. On the other hand, for expert-novice pairs, the percentage of real names used started high at trial 1 and decreased by trial 6. The results show that experts and novices adapted their terminology to match the level of knowledge their partner had. In conversation, knowledge is assessed, supplied, and acquired according to level of expertise. This way, novices can learn appropriate terminology which they can use in future reference. Both speakers work towards reaching a mutual understanding of the terminology used.

This adaptation of Putnam's "linguistic division of labour" seems much more convincing and applicable to real life.


Clark, H. H. (1985). Language use and language users. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (3rd ed., pp. 179-231). New York: Harper and Row

Isaac E. A & Clark H.H (1987). References in conversation between experts and novices. Journal of experimental psychology: General, 116, 26-37

Putnam H (1975). "The meaning of meaning", in Mind, Language, and Reality: Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


The following link will take you to Hertbert H. Clark's page, which has a list of his publications: