The Essence of Trooth

The debate concerning so-called ‘theories of truth’ has always stumped me, because it seems prima facie absurd. When I use the predicate ‘is true’, what I’m referring to is correspondence to the facts. The purpose of all my investigations is, first and foremost, to discover how the universe actually is. When I first encountered someone arguing for the pragmatic theory of truth, for example, I was rather surprised and confused. What were they trying to achieve exactly?

If it merely a matter of words, then I have no objection, in principle, to defining the predicate ‘is true’ to refer to theory’s usefulness for categorising and predicting phenomena. Any objection on my part would be merely conventional, i.e. using the words ‘is true’ in this sense is liable to mislead. However, if the pragmatic use should become the norm, then I would not hesitate to adopt the pragmatic theory of truth.

But mere definition cannot be why people care about this debate. Even if I begin using the predicate ‘is true’ in a pragmatic sense, that does not change the purpose of my investigations. Besides, I would just coin new words to describe correspondence to the facts, such as ‘troo’ and ‘thalse’, and carry on as before.

However, it seems a change in purpose is precisely what was expected. The arguments proceed as though there is some ineffable essence of truth that each theory is attempting to grasp, and our problem is to discover which one is “right”. Only once we know what the truth really is, as it were, will we know what our purpose has been all along. So to accept the pragmatic theory of truth, for example, is more than just to accept a change in definition, but to embrace a new ideal for all our investigations to orbit.

This is essentialism at its most degenerative.

If there is a debate to be had about what the goal of our investigations ought to be, then we should have that debate. There is no need to approach the matter obliquely through wordgames about ‘theories of truth.’

In any case, this is not a matter I have studied in great detail and less something I have discussed much with others. It was affirming, then, when I recently discovered that Alfred Tarski made precisely the same argument in his 1944 paper, The Semantic Conception of Truth (HT. Alex Naranieki):

I hope nothing which is said here will be interpreted as a claim that the semantic conception of truth is the “right” or indeed the “only possible” one. I do not have the slightest intention to contribute in any way to those endless, often violent discussions on the subject: “What is the right conception of truth?” I must confess I do not understand what is at stake in such disputes; for the problem itself is so vague that no definite solution is possible. In fact, it seems to me that the sense in which the phrase “the right conception” is used has never been made clear. In most cases one gets the impression that the phrase is used in an almost mystical sense based upon the belief that every meaning (a kind of Platonic or Aristotelian idea), and that all the competing conceptions really attempt to catch hold of this one meaning; since, however, they contradict each other, only one attempt can be successful, and hence only one conception is the “right” one.

Disputes of this type are by no means restricted to the notion of truth. They occur in all domains where — instead of an exact, scientific terminology — common language with its vagueness and ambiguity is used; and they are always meaningless, and therefore in vain.

It seems to me obvious that the only rational approach to such problems would be the following: We should reconcile ourselves with the fact that we are confronted, not with one concept, but with several different concepts which are denoted by one word; we should try to make these concepts as clear as possible (by means of definition, or of an axiomatic procedure, or in some other way); to avoid further confusions, we should agree to use different terms for different concepts; and then we may proceed to a quiet and systematic study of all concepts involved, which will exhibit their main properties and mutual relations.

Referring specifically to the notion of truth, it is undoubtedly the case that in philosophical discussions — and perhaps also in everyday usage — some incipient conceptions of this notion can be found that differ essentially from the classical one (of which the semantic conception is but a modernized form). In fact, various conceptions of this sort have been discussed in the literature, for instance, the pragmatic conception, the coherence theory, etc.

It seems to me that none of these conceptions have been put so far in an intelligible and unequivocal form. This may change, however; a time may come when we find ourselves confronted with several incompatible, but equally clear and precise, conceptions of truth. It will then become necessary to abandon the ambiguous usage of the word “true,” and to introduce several terms instead, each to denote a different notion. Personally, I should not feel hurt if a future world congress of the “theoreticians of truth” should decide — by a majority of votes — to reserve the word “true” for one of the non-classical conceptions, and should suggest another word, say, “frue,” for the conception considered here. But I cannot imagine that anybody could present cogent arguments to the effect that the semantic conception is “wrong” and should be entirely abandoned.

About Lee Kelly

Amateur philosopher
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3 Responses to The Essence of Trooth

  1. Rafe says:

    It is amusing to note that the pragmatic theory of truth (truth is what works) does not evade the correspondence theory of truth.

    It just begs the question, is it true that it works?

  2. Lee Kelly says:

    Gah! I should never have mentioned the pragmatic theory of truth; I should have went with the coherence theory for my example. Daniel Kuehn has already taken me to task over it and completely missed the point.

    Suffice to say, this post is not intended as a critique of pragmatism, but rather about a whole lot of confusion surrounding “theories of truth”, which I believe has its roots in a nascent essentialism.

    And Rafe, you’re right, but you’re also wrong. Pragmatism is like a methodological solipsism. Whether it’s true that a theory is useful for categorising and predicting our experiences is, in this view, knowable, whereas its correspondence to the facts is something we have no access to. So the pragmatic “theory of truth” is really not necessary for those facts which immediately present themselves to the intellect, so to speak.

  3. Pingback: Browsing Catharsis – 08.12.12 « Increasing Marginal Utility

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