Conceptual Change: Gods, Elements, and Water
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On what does the meaning of the concept of water depend? I consider three possible answers: the physical world, theory, or both the physical world and theory. Each answer supports a particular history. If the history unique to an answer is confirmed by the actual history of the concept of water, then there is supporting evidence for that account of meaning. I have documented the historical development of the concept of water, focusing on three periods: the ancient Greeks, the 18th and 19th centuries, and the 20th and 21st centuries. Conceptual change figures prominently in that history, and when enough historical data are available communication across theories is obvious. Those features suggest that the meaning of the concept of water depends on the physical world and the theory in which it is embedded. The physical world explains cross theory communication; and theory accounts for the conceptual changes that I have documented. The history of the concept of water suggests that Putnam (1975) is right: meaning depends on the physical world and the theory in which it is embedded. He’s right, however, for the wrong reasons. Putnam relies on a thought experiment to demonstrate that the physical world contributes to meaning, but the history suggests that he built some chemically implausible assumptions into that thought experiment.