Uncovering Understanding in Putnam's Theory of Meaning

When we consider the notions of competence and understanding, we see an intuitive relationship between them. Being competent in a subject entails being knowledgeable enough to accomplish a particular goal, perhaps established by context. Understanding something, on the other hand, implies a sort of complete knowledge about a subject. For example, we might say that doctors of the past were merely competent in medicine. They knew that certain herbs had the ability to cure certain diseases, but they did not know why. The modern doctor, by contrast, does know why, and thus we say that he understands medicine, at least better than his professional forebears. From this characterization, we can begin to see competence as a lower level of understanding.

In “The Meaning of ‘Meaning,’” Hilary Putnam makes clear his position on linguistic competence, though he does not address his stance on understanding. However, based in part on the previously discussed intuitive connection between the two, I will argue in this paper that Putnam’s position on understanding can be uncovered by analyzing his position on competence. First, I will reconstruct Putnam’s theory of meaning as a vector and discuss the components of it that he associates with linguistic competence. Then, I will draw upon Jason Stanley’s “Understanding, Context-Relativity, and the Description Theory” to elaborate on the relationship between competence and understanding as well as further discuss our intuitive conceptions about understanding. I will conclude that applying the idea that competence progresses towards understanding to Putnam’s theory of meaning as a vector will provide sufficient evidence to conclude that we can reveal Putnam’s underlying position on understanding. Furthermore, I will argue that this characterization of understanding will accurately reflect the way in which we ordinarily use the term “understand.” Finally, I will discuss potential objections to my hypothesis, though ultimately conclude that they are not sufficient to defeat it.

Putnam’s Theory of Meaning as a Vector

In this section, I will reconstruct the relevant parts of Putnam’s theory of the meaning of natural kind terms as presented in “The Meaning of ‘Meaning,’” presenting the necessary terminology and background for establishing my hypothesis.

Putnam’s theory of meaning is a vector composed of four parts: syntactic markers, semantic markers, stereotypical association, and extension. Putnam further separates this vector into two sections, attributing the first three components to linguistic competence. That is, if someone uses a term in correct syntactic, semantic, and stereotypical contexts, that person can be deemed competent in that term’s usage. Take for example the term “water.” First, to use it with correct syntax, one would have to recognize that it is a noun and use it in a sentence with correct grammar. He should not incorrectly say “I water on Sundays.” Second, to understand its semantic markers, he must recognize its qualities, such as its being a liquid, and take care not to say something like “I ate water yesterday.” Third, he must know the features of the stereotype of “water,” perhaps that it is colorless, transparent, or thirst-quenching (191). Putnam states that we can say that someone has acquired a word if his use of it passes muster, that is, that people cannot reasonably say that “he doesn’t know what water is” (167). From this characterization then, we can see clearly that a child who says, “Look at that dog!” while he points to a cow, is not competent in using the term “dog.” He has used it correctly syntactically and semantically, though he has failed to recognize its stereotypes, and we can surely say, “He doesn’t know what a dog is.”

The fourth component of the vector, extension, is not so straightforwardly understood. For Putnam, a term’s extension is the set of objects which satisfy the properties of that term. For example, the extension of “creature with a kidney” is the set of all existing creatures that have a kidney. However, with certain terms, this characterization is not so simple. For example, in determining the extension of terms like “aluminum,” we depend not on superficial qualities of aluminum, but its scientific composition. However, the burden of identifying extension falls upon only a small selection of people. Putnam places great importance on the division of linguistic labor in determining and knowing the extension of terms. As someone focused primarily on scientific knowledge, Putnam places scientists in the position of expert; only they have the information and ability to perform tests that can determine the extension of a term such as “aluminum.” So, when the average person attempts to determine the extension of a word, Putnam does not mean that he himself is able to identify its extension, but that he acquires the knowledge of what experts have already determined. At this point, I have established how Putnam defines linguistic competence in relation to his theory of meaning and discussed the role of the division of linguistic labor to extension.

Competence and Understanding

Now that I have presented the relevant parts of Putnam’s theory of meaning, I will begin to formulate my argument for how we can uncover his stance on understanding from his position on competence. To do this, we must further consider the notion of understanding and its relationship to competence. In “Understanding, Context-Relativity, and the Description Theory,” Jason Stanley defines understanding in the context of the Description Theory, which states that to understand a natural kind term, one must have non-trivial, uniquely identifying knowledge about its referent. That is, one must have a certain extent of knowledge about a particular term to understand it. Though, exactly what extent of knowledge seems to depend on context.

Consider a young student who does not know that “homo sapiens” is the scientific name for humankind. In acquiring this information, the student might think of his teacher, “Ah, he understands the term ‘homo sapiens,’” at least on some rudimentary level. Though, we should note that the term “understand” in this example is not used in the same way which I mean to understand something, as I have discussed previously. Rather, this is a colloquial use of “understand” that more closely represents what it means to use a term competently. It is the case that the teacher knows how to use “homo sapiens” correctly in syntax, semantics, and stereotypical context, though this is all he knows. Imagine the teacher in a separate circumstance, in discussion with paleontologists who are familiar with exactly what attributes homo sapiens have. Because of the teacher’s lack of knowledge, the scientists would certainly say to him “you don’t really know what homo sapiens are.” It is the case then, that the teacher is merely competent in its usage, as shown by the prior example, and nothing more.

Stanley defines “full understanding” in terms of knowledge that these experts have, stating that it is the knowledge one must have to “discourse competently with experts” (17). That is, that because the teacher cannot talk about homo sapiens competently with the paleontologists, we cannot say that he understands the term, even though he can use it competently. Though, in my terms, Stanley’s “full understanding” simply becomes understanding, and mental states that come prior to are viewed in terms of competence and incompetence. This also supports Stanley’s claim that understanding comes in levels, with linguistic competence at the bottom, and full understanding at the top. By obtaining more knowledge, individuals can approach understanding. In the end, we take from Stanley two essential ideas: first, that understanding is defined in terms of experts, and second, that competence progresses towards understanding.

Putnam, Competence, and Understanding

At this point, the comparison of Stanley to Putnam becomes clear. First, Putnam’s attribution of the first three components of his vector to competence leaves the fourth component, extension, free. And, Stanley’s characterization of understanding leads us to believe that understanding comes in levels, gradually progressing from competence. It seems appropriate then, to apply this progression to Putnam’s vector. Just as competence appears to be a stepping stone towards understanding for Stanley, the first three components of competence in Putnam’s vector are a stepping stone towards the fourth component. Thus, we can finally see what Putnam’s position on understanding might be: knowledge of a term’s extension.

Moving forward, I will defend why it is appropriate to draw this comparison between understanding and knowledge of extension by discussing the division of linguistic labor in greater detail and reconstructing Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment.

The Division of Linguistic Labor

Stanley’s characterization of competence and understanding seems to closely reflects Putnam’s division of linguistic labor. For Putnam, extension is determined by the experts, and the layman’s knowledge of extension is merely knowledge of what has already been determined. For Stanley, full understanding is having enough knowledge to proficiently discourse with experts. We can see from this comparison then, that Putnam’s extension is quite similar to Stanley’s understanding; both place emphasis on acquiring information that the experts have already determined. From this, we can refine Putnam’s supposed stance of understanding, which becomes knowledge of a term’s extension, as determined by the experts via the linguistic division of labor.

The Twin Earth Experiment

Interpreting Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment through this lens will reveal how similar knowledge of extension is to our intuitive notions of understanding. That is, that knowing a term’s extension implies an understanding of that term, as having a sort of complete knowledge of it. In presenting the thought experiment, I will focus on its parts that pertain to my hypothesis. As such, I will not discuss Putnam’s notion of intension.

The Twin Earth thought experiment focuses on Earth and a separate Twin Earth, both of which are almost completely identical. The only difference is the chemical composition of what people call “water” — on Earth, what people call “water” is H2O, and on Twin Earth, it is something else which Putnam abbreviates as “XYZ.” If a man, Oscar, visits Twin Earth from Earth, his conception of the water there would be no different. In this way, we can predict that Oscar will be competent in using the term on Twin Earth. However, we could not say that Oscar understands the term as he does not know its extension. From Stanley’s characterization, Oscar does not have sufficient knowledge of the term “water” to discourse with experts; he believes that “water” refers to H2O, but the experts know otherwise.

Maintaining that Oscar does not understand the term “water” also aligns with our traditional notions of understanding. From just his current knowledge, he believes that “water” on both planets refers to the same thing, though they are surely not, as they have different extensions. We would not say that Oscar understands the term, as he lacks fundamental knowledge we expect from someone who could discourse with experts. From these, we can see that Putnam and Stanley are quite compatible, and that drawing a comparison between them is not so far-fetched.


In this section, I will address potential objections to my theory. However, I will argue and ultimately conclude that these objections are not sufficient to discredit my hypothesis.

The Division of Linguistic Labor and Speaker Competence

Although we have established that understanding requires enough knowledge to discourse competently with experts, we might be unsure if Putnam’s extension alone is sufficient to fill this criterion. As Putnam is concerned mainly with natural kind terms, he rightly describes scientists as the appropriate experts. However, one might wonder if knowledge of other thing besides extension is required to say that we truly understand a term. In “The Division of Linguistic Labor and Speaker Competence,” Robert Ware discusses Putnam’s division of linguistic labor and its implications on the notions of competence and understanding, stating that there are other experts besides scientists.

Believing that scientists should be our experts is a reasonable stance, as it is specific extensions rather than superficial qualities that separate, for example, the two meanings of the term “water” on both Earth and Twin Earth. However, we should examine the possibility of there being other experts. Let us consider the term “red wine.” According to my hypothesis, understanding the term means we must be able to competently discourse with scientists. Thus, we might have to know that red wine is made from a particular fermentation process of dark grapes that results in a certain chemical composition. However, red wine is also the territory of the chef, who is necessarily an expert in his own right. To competently discuss with this expert, we might have to know how red wines contribute to the flavor profile of a dish or what foods they pair well with. Thus, we can see that there is more than one way to be said to discuss competently with experts. By applying Stanley’s definition to Putnam’s vector, there remain some apprehensions about if extension can truly be Putnam’s understanding. Unless we are confident about who our experts are, we remain unable to make a definitive judgment about Putnam’s view of understanding.

In defense of my hypothesis, I might urge us to stay in Putnam’s realm of natural kind terms. However, this is still not a complete defense. I must concede that there exist terms even within Putnam’s territory that exemplify what Ware calls an “indefiniteness” of extension (53). For such a term as “day,” the scientific use of the term depends on scientists’ discovery of a particular period of time on Earth, though this does not designate a particular extension. Further terms such as “heap,” “day,” “twig,” or “stone” also demonstrate this quality. For these terms, the criteria for understanding become even more elusive. Again, we begin to question if associating Putnam’s extension with his notion on understanding is appropriate.

It is the case, then, that there are these two main issues with my argument. First, that there are experts other than scientists that should be considered in defining what understanding means. And second, that there exist natural kind terms whose criteria for understanding are quite elusive and cannot be reduced to extension.

Who are the Experts?

In responding to the first objection, I must return to our own intuitive conceptions of what understanding a natural kind term means. First, it is an overwhelming fact that in the modern day, it is widely accepted that science is what defines what something is, a position shared by Ware (46). That is, ordinarily, when someone asks, “What is red wine?” we show our understanding of the term by describing what it is or how it is made, rather than stating what foods it goes well with or how to cook with it. It would seem rather bizarre if someone responded to the question by saying, “Red wine is a drink often paired with red meats.” In asking what a term is, we expect a scientific description. The previous response might be an appropriate answer to the different, more specific question, “What does red wine go well with?” Thus, it seems appropriate to deem scientists the primary experts of understanding, in accordance with Putnam’s theory.

Terms with Indefinite Extensions

Responding to the second objection regarding terms without definite extension is a bit more difficult and requires a closer look at the division of linguistic labor. Ordinarily, the scientist should necessarily know more than the layman. Scientists know terms’ extensions by way of their occupation, while the layman must seek this knowledge after the fact. Thus, the scientist should know facts before the layman and will never know less than him. However, with words such as “twig” and “pebble,” scientists have no such advantage. In these cases, then, the expert and the layman have the same amount of knowledge. Thus, under Stanley’s characterization of understanding, the average person will always have enough knowledge to discourse with experts, as long as he is competent in its usage. It appears then, that there exist terms whose understanding comes at the same time as being competent in their usage. This result solves the issue of understanding terms with indefinite extensions, though, one wonders if Putnam would agree with this characterization.

Are Terms Understandable at All?

As an additional consequence of my hypothesis, we would have to surrender that we might never know if we truly understand a term. We can see the problem more clearly if we consider the example of “jade.” In the past, “jade” was believed to have one extension, though by modern standards, we know that it refers to two different minerals, jadeite and nephrite. It is the case, then, that while laymen of the past thought they understood, by acquiring the knowledge that experts determined, they surely did not. In the future, it might be the case that we discover another more refined extension for the term, and we would be forced to admit that we did not understand “jade” either.

However, there is evidence to suggest that Putnam would not be against such a consequence, as such a characterization of understanding supports the idea of scientific progress. It is because we cannot be confident that what we currently know is the most accurate truth that we continue to discover new things. While the layman can be said to understand terms by acquiring knowledge of the experts, the experts themselves have no such luxury. The scientists themselves define understanding through their findings, and are under the obligation of their careers to make scientific progress. Therefore, it seems that associating understanding with knowledge of extension aligns with Putnam’s dedication to scientific knowledge and the division of linguistic labor.

Does the Hypothesis Still Stand?

In this section, I have considered the objections of who the experts of linguistic labor should be, the consequences of associating understanding with knowing extension, and terms with indefinite extensions. In response to the first problem, I concluded that scientists as experts reflects the answer we expect when we ask what something is. For the second, I suggested that such a characterization of understanding allies with the idea of scientific progress. Third, I claimed that for terms with indefinite extensions, understanding comes at the same time as competence. And while this defense is the least convincing of the three, I believe that it does not present such critical objections that my hypothesis should be dismissed.


In this paper, I have explored using Stanley’s description of a notion of understanding that comes in levels to uncover Putnam’s stance on understanding from his theory of meaning as a vector. Just as competence leads to understanding according to Stanley’s characterization, Putnam’s association of competence as the first three components of his vector leads to the fourth component, extension. More specifically, understanding becomes having the knowledge of extension as determined by the experts, by way of the division of linguistic labor. In drawing this comparison, we must consider the problems of the division of linguistic labor as Ware describes it, though refining the discussion to Putnam’s concern with scientific knowledge alleviates this concern. From this, we can see that such a characterization of understanding results in a paradigm that aligns quite closely with our natural intuitions about it. That is, in our modern society, understanding of a term is most often viewed in a scientific context.

Furthermore, this characterization leads to consequences that ally with the notion of scientific progress. The most problematic part of my hypothesis remains to be terms such as “day” or “twig,” which have indefinite extensions. I have reasoned that being competent in using these words also entails an understanding of them, though it is difficult to discern whether Putnam would agree with this claim. Ultimately, attributing Putnam’s notion of extension to his idea of understanding seems more persuasive than not, and it appears that the comparison is quite appropriate. Such a conclusion proves not only to reveal Putnam’s position on understanding, but also to provide insight on what we intuitively mean by the term “understand.” Overall, although the notion of understanding is difficult to define, we can begin to grasp its meaning through its relationship to other linguistic concepts.

Works Cited

Putnam, Hilary. “The Meaning of ‘Meaning.’” Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science,

Vol. 7, pp. 131‐193. PDF.

Stanley, Jason. “Understanding, Context-Relativity, and the Description Theory.” Analysis, vol.

59, no. 1, 1999, pp. 14–18. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3328311.

Ware, Robert. “The Division of Linguistic Labor and Speaker Competence.” Philosophical

Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, vol. 34, no. 1, 1978, pp. 37–61. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4319231.