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Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

‘History of the Water Molecule’, R. Hayward, reproduced from L. Pauling and R. Hayward, The Architecture of Molecules (San Francisco: W H Freeman and Co., 1964).

Reflections on Water Public Lecture - Water as an example in philosophical literature

3rd February 2010, 17:30 to 18:30, Room 202, Calman Learning Centre, Science Site, Professor Jonathan Lowe (Philosophy Department)

This is the seventh lecture in the 'Reflections on Water' public lecture series.

Ever since Thales taught that water is the fundamental principle of everything and Aristotle that water is one of the four elements mixed in all material things, philosophers have been fascinated and at times even obsessed with water. This fascination has persisted right up to the present day.

Those not familiar with recent developments in analytic philosophy might be surprised to learn that 'Water is H2O' is probably one of the most frequently cited statements in its current literature, thanks to the seminal work of Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam in the 1970s on the semantics of natural kind terms. Both of these contemporary philosophers owe an intellectual debt to the empiricist metaphysics of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690, while disagreeing profoundly with Locke about the reality of natural kinds. Locke employs an intriguing example involving water to support his case for saying that kinds (or 'species'), such as water and gold, are the workmanship of the human mind rather than really existing in nature. This is the point of his story about a winter visitor to England from Jamaica, who is astonished to find his shaving water turned solid overnight, and proceeds to call it 'hardened water'. Perhaps surprisingly to modern readers, Locke criticizes this judgment, maintaining that it is more consonant with common sense to regard water and ice as different kinds of substance. Putnam, in his turn, has generated his own modern myth, much more fanciful than any of Locke's travellers' tales, with the aim of supporting a position directly opposed to Locke's anti-realism. This is his famous hypothesis of Twin Earth, a distant planet where a watery-looking substance, XYZ, rather than H2O, falls from the skies as rain, fills the oceans and rivers, and is drunk by the inhabitants. Putnam maintains that common sense supports the judgment that XYZ and H2O, despite their superficial similarity, are not the same kind of substance, precisely because their molecular constitution is different. But what is a 'substance' and why should we continue to use this peculiar and archaic term, which literally means 'that which stands under'? It is a term which, odd as it may seem, has been retained by modern chemical and physical science, despite its ancient metaphysical roots and its strange role in traditional Christian theology. And, of course, its casual use still pervades everyday language. Whatever we may make of Locke's and Putnam's imaginary examples, it cannot be denied that reflecting on water -- what it is, what it could be, what the word 'water' means, and how that meaning may have changed over time -- is a good way to highlight a host of interrelated problems in metaphysics, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of language, logic, and the philosophy of mind. Indeed, the very ubiquity and indispensability of water should remind us that, as philosophers have always been quick to observe, the most mysterious and perplexing things are often those that are superficially most familiar to us.

This series of public lectures will bring together eminent scientists, historians, theologians and philosophers, stimulating speakers involved in current research, to shed new light on the nature and cultural significance of a very familiar substance.

The level of the talks will be aimed at a general audience to encourage everyone from students and the interested general public to attend.


Image credit: 'History of the Water Module', R. Hayward, reproduced from L. Pauling and R. Hayward, The Architecture of Molecules (San Francisco: W H Freeman and Co., 1964).

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