Putnam's Elm/Beech Example
In “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’,” Putnam points out that the traditional theory of meaning rests on two fundamental assumptions:
(TR1) Knowing the meaning of a term (i.e. grasping the intension) consists in being in a certain psychological state.
(TR2) Intension determines extension.
(TR1) and (TR2), respectively, have the following corollaries:
(TR1´) The sameness of the psychological states (of two persons) entails the sameness of the intension (that they grasp when they are uttering or thinking some words or sentences).
(TR2´) The sameness of intension entails the sameness of extension.
From (TR1´) and (TR2´), it follows that:
(TR3) The sameness of psychological states entails the sameness of extension.
Aiming to refute the traditional view, Putnam proffers some counterexamples to (TR3). One of them concerns the concepts of two terms whose stereotypes are quite similar. Suppose I do not competently distinguish elms from beech. I might have some experiences like touching or seeing elms and beeches, but let us say that the concept that I associate with the word ‘elm’ has no difference from the concept that I associate with the word ‘beech.’ If (TR3) is true, Putnam says, the extension of ‘elm’ in my idiolect must be the same as the extension of ‘beech’ in my idiolect. Yet, the extensions of ‘elm’ and ‘beech’ are different from each other — I will refer to elms when I utter ‘elm,’ and to beeches when I utter ‘beech.’ Thus, Putnam concludes, this example also shows that (TR3) is based on a false theory of meaning.
Through the refutation of the traditional view, Putnam, as an externalist, attempts to establish the thesis that the meaning of a term, for the most part, is determined by the external linguistic environments of the speaker. On the other hand, Searle, defending the internalist view, tries to challenge the counterexamples provided by Putnam.
In the course of his objection to the elm/beech example in Intentionality (1983), Searle interprets Putnam’s argument as being based on the following:
(i) The concept of ‘elm’ in my idiolect = the concept of ‘beech’ in my idiolect
(ii) The extension of ‘elm’ in my idiolect ≠ the extension of ‘beech’ in my idiolect
Searle’s strategy is to deny (i). He asks how I (i.e. the speaker of (i) and (ii)) can know (ii) is right. According to Searle, my knowing (ii) depends on my knowledge of the following:
(K) Beeches are not elms and elms are not beeches.
Searle contends that (K) constitutes a part of my conceptual knowledge regarding elms and beeches. From this, he argues that, contrary to (i), my concept of ‘elm’ cannot be the same as my concept of ‘beech.’
This objection can be interpreted to indicate that, given my conceptual knowledge of the dissimilarity between elms and beeches, my psychological state in entertaining ‘elm’ will not be the same as my psychological state in entertaining ‘beech.’ However, this difficulty can be easily avoided with a slight change of the example. Suppose Arnold, an Austrian immigrant in the United States, is a German-English bilingual. He knows that ‘elm’ designates certain types of trees he has observed in the United States, and he also knows that the German word ‘Buche’ designates certain types of trees he had seen in Austria. Given that he is not much into botany, the concept he associates with ‘elm,’ may well be just the same as the concept he associates with ‘Buche’ (= a German word for ‘beech’). He might not realize that the two concepts associated by him are the same (maybe he has never compared them before), or even he might think (mistakenly) that ‘elm’ is an English translation of ‘Buche.’ In either case, however, the extension of ‘elm’ in his idiolect is elms and the extension of ‘Buche’ in his idiolect is beeches. Everything is just the same as in the original elm/beech example except that Arnold does not possess the conceptual knowledge that beeches (as extension of ‘Buche’) are not elms (as extension of ‘elm’). Thus, Searle’s objection does not seem to refute the heart of Putnam’s elm/beech example.
 This example was inspired by another example offered by Putnam in “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’,” which is close to but slightly different from this example. Putnam’s example aims at making a different point: i.e. to show one can have two synonyms, like ‘beech’ and ‘Buche,’ in his idiolect and not know that they are synonyms.
 In fact, we do not need to assume that Arnold is from a foreign country. It may well be the case that a natural born American (or Englishman, whatever) associates exactly the same concepts with both ‘elm’ and ‘beech’ without realizing that he does. Or, he might (mistakenly) think that ‘elm’ and ‘beech’ are exact synonyms.