Monday, December 31, 2012

Truth as a property of a statement

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Truth as a property of a statement
Date: 29th January 2009 11:17

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 21 January, with your essay for the University of London Logic module, in response to the question, ''When we say that some statement is true, we are attributing the property of truth to that statement.' Critically discuss this claim.'

This is a knowledgeable answer which shows that you have grasped the main issues around the question of whether or not truth is a property of true statements. You expressed reservations regarding whether you had covered all the relevant issues. However, I think that the problem is that although you discuss the central question -- which concerns the challenge of deflationist theories of truth -- you don't give this question sufficient priority.

Having said that, one might criticize the question for not making this sufficiently clear. In an exam, you can say this whenever you are genuinely in doubt about what you are being asked to do, then state your version of the question. If you are wrong about the examiner's intentions, at least they can see that this was partly their fault!

If I was answering this question, I would certainly mention the question what kind of property truth is, if it is a property (correspondence vs coherence etc.) As you explain, it is difficulties with the various substantial theories which have been offered of truth that motivates the various versions of deflationism. However, the question didn't ask you to survey all the possible theories of truth. (You don't mention pragmatism, or Field's physicalist theory of truth, or Collingwood's theory that truth is an always an answer to a question or etc. etc.) This is something you would never be asked to do in an exam. (Don't worry, it is extremely unlikely that you will ever be asked about Collingwood -- you can look at his 'Metaphysics' and 'Autobiography' if you're interested to know more.)

Or to put the matter more succinctly: it is relevant that deflationism is motivated by certain difficulties, and it is appropriate to refer to these difficulties. However, the argument for deflationism is not, 'All other theories of truth have failed therefore deflationism is the only option.' If it was, then deflationism would always be vulnerable to an overlooked possibility. Deflationists are confident that the very idea of truth being a substantive property is wrong, and any theory which assumes this is doomed to fail. The question is asking you to assess this claim.

Because so much space is given to the various theories of truth, your coverage of the deflationist question is rather brief. You mention the main issues -- like the difference between Ramsay's redundancy theory and Horwich's minimalism, or the question of the kinds of entity that are quantified over if the statement, 'Harry said something true' is to be interpreted in terms of quantification over propositions -- but this was a chance to go into these issues more deeply.

For example, if objectival quantification is ruled out, then a substitutional interpretation of the propositional quantifier implies that such statements are short for infinite conjunctions or disjunctions of propositions/statements, which in turn implies that truth, construed 'minimalistically' is still a very powerful concept/ notational device which in effect conveys a content which could only otherwise be conveyed by means of an infinitely long statement.

Another line of argument which would be relevant is the deflationist's view of what we are doing when we assert a statement. There seem to be very deep metaphysical questions about the way language or thought relate to reality, which the various traditional theories of truth are trying to answer. Has deflationism given up on these questions, or does the deflationist have something to say here?

For example, Michael Dummett claims that the redundancy theorist is committed to an 'anti-realist' view of truth, according to which there is nothing in reality which 'makes' e.g. a statement about the past true or false. Statements are Wittgensteinian moves in the language game, judged as 'true' or 'false' according to the rules of that game -- and that's all there is to say. The task for the philosopher of language is to devise a theory of meaning explaining these rules. That theory, in effect, explains what truth is indirectly, by showing what role it plays in the theory.

It would take some argument to connect the issue of anti-realism (for or against) to deflationism, but in principle it would be relevant to the question; which doesn't mean that you have to mention it. There is no 'model answer' to this question. You have leeway to discuss the issues around deflationism that you find gripping. But you need to show the examiner that your focus is firmly on that question.

All the best,

Geoffrey