Putnam, Hilary (1926–2016)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q117-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 03, 2023, from

6. Functionalism

In a series of papers beginning in 1960, Putnam proposed a fresh approach to the philosophy of mind, functionalism, seeking to secure the autonomy of mind without positing a non-physical mind-substance. ‘The question of the autonomy of our mental life does not hinge on and has nothing to do with that all too popular…question about matter or soul-stuff. We could be made of Swiss cheese and it wouldn’t matter’ (1975b: 291). What matters, Putnam argued, is functional organization. Putnam’s guiding analogy for functional organization was the computer (Turing machine). Evidently, different machines need not share the same hardware to carry out the same computation. Similarly, Putnam claimed, pain-states, or jealousy-states, can be functionally alike though physically different. In other words, each pain-token has a physico-chemical realization, but no reduction of the type, pain, to a given physico-chemical state is assumed. The computer analogy suggested that mental states are computational states, characterized syntactically, the projected research programme being to provide the ’software’ for their interaction.

In the late 1970s, Putnam began to reconsider this proposal. First, there were considerations of meaning (§3). Thinking of something seems like a simple enough example of a mental state, but if, as Putnam argued, ‘meanings just ain’t in the head’, then meanings cannot be identified with internal computational states. The response of some theorists, notably Fodor and Block, was to use the distinction between narrow and wide content, presented by Putnam in The Meaning of Meaning, to save the computational picture. While acknowledging the contribution of physical and cultural environment to meaning in the wide sense, they held on to computationalism with respect to meaning in the narrow sense. Putnam’s concern over intentionality led him to reject this solution. As he argued in Representation and Reality, narrow-content computationalism is still an attempt to reduce the intentional to the non-intentional. But since even the ascription of meaning in the narrow sense involves interpretation, the attribution of beliefs, charity and reasonableness, eliminating intentionality is untenable. Functionalism had conceived the computational level as autonomous, that is, irreducible to, even if supervenient on, the physico-chemical level. Putnam’s critique of functionalism makes an analogous point with regard to the autonomy of the mental vis-à-vis the computational (see Computational theories of mind; Functionalism; Reductionism in the philosophy of the mind).

Citing this article:
Ben-Menahem, Yemima. Functionalism. Putnam, Hilary (1926–2016), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q117-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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