Philosophy 1890d: Theories of Truth

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23 January Introductory Meeting
The Role of the Concept of Truth
25 and 28 January

J.L. Austin, "Truth" (DjVu), and P.F. Strawson, "Truth" (DjVu), Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 51 (1950-51), pp. 111-56. (Both papers together on JSTOR)

P.F. Strawson, "Truth", Analysis 9 (1949), pp. 83-97; J.L. Austin, "Unfair to Facts", in his Philosophical Papers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); P.F. Strawson, "Truth: A Re-consideration of Austin's Views", in his Logico-Linguistic Papers (London: Methuen, 1971).

Austin wants to claim that a sentence like "It is true that snow is white" makes reference to a statement and asserts that a certain correspondence obtains between this statement and a fact. What does Austin mean by "statement" and "fact"? What sort of correspondence does he think is asserted? What sorts of views does he take himself to be opposing? Strawson insists that to say "It is true that snow is white" is just to say, as it were, in other words, "Snow is white". Why does he want to make this claim? How and why does he think it alone serves to undermine Austin's view? What additional problems does he have with the details of Austin's position?

30 January

A.J. Ayer, "Truth", Revue Internationale de Philosophie 7 (1953), pp. 183-200. (DjVu)

A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (New York: Dover, 1952), Ch. 5; F.P. Ramsey, "The Foundations of Mathematics", in his Foundations of Mathematics and Other Logical Essays (London: Routledge, 1954).

Ayer wants to insist, as against Strawson, that the concept of truth is not ‘superfluous'. Still, he agrees with Strawson that Convention T amounts to a complete explanation of the meaning of the word ‘true'. But then, he wants to deny that the philosophical problem of truth is thereby solved. How can Ayer hold all three of these views simultaneously? What sorts of problems does Ayer think Strawson's view leaves unaddressed? How does Ayer propose to solve these problems himself?

1 February Discussion
4 February

Alfred Tarski, "The Semantic Conception of Truth and the Foundations of Semantics", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 4 (1944), pp. 341-76. (DjVu, JSTOR) You need only read pp. 341-355, that is, the first part of the paper.

  • Tarksi insists that a definition of truth must be "materially adequate" and "formally correct". What does he mean by these two phrases?
  • If a definition of truth satisfies convention T, that is supposed to imply that it is in some sense correct. In what sense? And why? Note here the difference between extensional and intensional correctness that Tarski himself discusses.
  • What does Tarski mean by saying that truth is a "semantic" concept?
  • What is Tarski's diagnosis of the Liar Paradox? That is: To what exactly do his conditions (I), (II), and (III) come? To answer this question, analyze the informal presentation of the Liar on pp. 347-8. Where exactly do the three conditions play a role? Is there anything else that plays a role that Tarski is not mentioning?
  • Why exactly does Tarski mean when he says that he will not "use any language which is semantically closed"? Why, if we do that, are we then forced to distingish object-language from meta-language?
  • Tarski says that the meta-language must be "essentially richer" than the object-language if we are going to be able to define truth for the object-language. How exactly must the meta-language differ from the object-language?

6 February

Michael Dummett, "Truth", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 59 (1958-59), pp. 141-62. (DjVu, JSTOR) It is unlikely that we will discuss anything beyond p. 154.

This paper is legendarily hard, so I am going to provide a lot of guidance for your reading of it. Read the paper slowly, and take a lot of deep breaths.

  • Dummett begins the paper by expounding Frege's claim that sentences refer to their truth-values. It is easiest to understand this claim when it is put differently: that the "semantic value" of a sentence is its truth-value. And what that claim is best understood in terms of the truth-tables: that the central semantic fact about a sentence is that it is true or false.
  • Dummett then rehearses an argument that a sentence cannot refer to the proposition is expresses. The argument is:
    1. "Mark Twain was an author" and "Samuel Clemens was an author" express different propositions.
    2. "Mark Twain" refers to the same person as "Samuel Clemens".
    3. The corresponding parts of the two sentences therefore have the same reference.
    4. Reference is "compositional", in the sense that the reference of the whole is completely determined by the references of the parts.
    5. Hence, the two sentences must have the same reference.
    6. Hence, that reference cannot be the proposition expressed.
    The point of this is really just to introduce the idea of thinking of truth from the perspective of logic.
  • Dummett then suggests that, while it's reasonable to think that sentences do have "semantic values", Frege has to earn the right to say that their semantic value is their truth-value. On pp. 142-3, Dummett introduces an analogy between truth and falsity, and winning and losing, to illustrate what Frege would have to do to earn that right. What exactly does Dummett think Frege would have to do?
  • Dummett then proceeds to argue, on pp. 145-6, that (the propositional version of) the T-scheme may not even be correct. The argument turns on the idea that there may be sentences that are perfectly meaningful—they express proposition—but are neither true nor false. A putative example would be something like, "The greatest prime number is one less than a perfect square". Frege would have held that this expresses a proposition, but does not have a truth-value, due to the fact that there is no greatest prime. Why, then, does Dummett think that:
    It is true that the greatest prime number is one less than a perfect square iff the greatest prime number is one less than a perfect square.
    is not itself true?
  • Dummett then argues, on pp. 146-9, that, even if its instances are all true, the T-scheme "cannot give the whole meaning of the word 'true'". The argument turns on the assumption that the truth-tables have some explanatory value, in particular, that they embody (at least partial) explanations of the sentential connectives. How exactly is this argument supposed to go?
  • On p. 149, Dummett then concludes that a theory of truth must be possible in a certain sense. In particular, he thinks that it must be possible for us to articulate the point of our characterization of assertions as true and as false. There is a sketch of what Dummett has in mind in the paragraph running from p. 149 to p. 150. Try to articulate as best you can what research program he means to be articulating.
  • On pp. 150-4, Dummett then argues in support of a very general claim that he makes on p. 150: that, given the point of the characterization of assertions as true and as false, there is no need, and no room, for any finer characterization, and so that it is senseless to say that an assertion is neither true nor false. The core of the argument is on p. 153, where Dummett suggests that, although we might call both conditionals with empty antecedents and sentences containing non-referring terms "neither true nor false", there is an important asymmetry between the two cases that this common terminology lacks. What is that asymmetry?
  • Finally, on p. 154, Dummett concludes that "we should abandon the notions of truth and falsity", at least in connection with the explanation of the meanings of statements. In fact, however, that isn't quite what he means. He thinks there is a particular way of using "true" and "false" that is unhelpful and another way of using them that would still be OK. What is the difference? And how is it related to Dummett's central thesis about the role of the concept of truth?
  • Dummett then proceeds, on pp. 154-7, to explore whether thre might yet be a point in calling certain statements neither true nor false. He argues that there may well be, but that, if there is, it must necessarily concern the way such statements behave when they occur as parts of other statements (e.g., as antecedents of conditionals). It is morally certain that we will not get to this material, so you do not need to read beyond p. 154. But if you wish to do so, then the question to ask here is just how Dummett's arguments here are supposed to cohere with the earlier ones, and what point he thinks there could be in distinguishing among different ways a statement might be true or false.
  • Finally, on pp. 157-62, Dummett introduces a set of considerations that are supposed to show that the notions of truth and falsity that are appropriate to the evalaution of assertions are not the classical notions of truth and falsity. Rather, calling an assertion "true" is like saying it is justified, and calling it "false" is like saying that it is unjustified. This sort of argument is one that became closely associated with Dummett, and he spent much of his career trying to develop it and to fill in the details. We certainly will not discuss this material.
Good luck!

8 February


Topics for first short paper announced.

Tarski's Theory of Truth
11, 13, 15 February

Handouts: Formal Background for the Incompleteness and Undefinability Theorems, The Diagonal Lemma: An Informal Exposition
You do not need to do the exercises at the end of the "Formal Background" handout. They are not part of the first problem set due 8 March. However, it wouldn't be a bad idea to attempt at least some of them, as a way of checking your understanding of the material.

15 February

First short paper due.

18 February

No class: Presidents' Day Break

20, 22, 25, 27 February

Handout: Tarski's Theory of Truth
You should do the exercises at the end of this handout. They are what constitute the first problem set, due 8 March.

1 March

No Class: Instructor lecturing at UC-Davis

4 March

Hartry Field, "Tarski's Theory of Truth", Journal of Philosophy (1972), pp. 347-75. (DjVu, JSTOR)

Field's paper is organized around the contrast between two theories of truth: T1 and T2.

  • What does T1 accomplish? Why does Field regard the accomplishment as important? What other reasons might one have to regard it as important?
  • What does Field think T2 purports to add to T1? What might someone want a theory of truth to do that T1 does not do that they might think T2 did do?
  • In §III of his paper, Field discusses one such motivation for dissatisfaction with T1: physicalism. How and why does physicalism provide a reason to be dissatisfied with T1? What does Field think answering the physicalist challenge to semantics requires us to do?
  • Field argues in §IV of his paper that what T2 adds to T1 is completely trivial and so that T2 is no advance whatsoever over T1. What does Field think T2 adds to T1? Why is that supposed to be "trivial"?
  • Field argues as well, on p. 370, that we can say, quite precisely and rigorously, exactly what "T2 minus T1" is. How does that argument go exactly?

6 March

John Etchemendy, "Tarski on Truth and Logical Consequence", Journal of Symbolic Logic 53 (1988), pp. 57-79. (DjVu, JSTOR) You need not read section 2 (which is on logical consequence, not on truth).

Etchemendy thinks there is an irremediable conflict between Tarski's goal of rehabilitating the notion of truth and the project of "doing semantics", that is, of making informative claims about the meanings of linguistic expressions (e.g., the truth-conditions of sentences). This is supposed to result from Tarski's giving a definition of truth that is both explicit and eliminative.

  • Why does Etchemendy think Tarski must give (or must have preferred to give) an eliminative definition of truth?
  • Etchemendy points out that, if "true" is defined in Tarski's way, then T-sentences, such as
    "'Snow is white' is true iff snow is white"
    are (definitional equivalents of) mathematical truths. Why is that? Why does that imply that Tarski's definition does not "illuminate the semantics of the object-language"?
  • Etchemendy argues that we can recover interesting semantic claims from Tarski's definition simply by "re-introducing a primitive notion of truth". That is, very roughly, we may reconstrue the clauses of Tarski's recursive definition, such as:
    "A & B" is true iff A is true and B is true
    not as part of a definition at all but instead as making substantive claims about the intuitive notion of truth. But Etchemendy argues that, if we do that, then we are simply not doing what Tarski was trying to do. Why?
  • Although he is prepared to allow, then, that Tarski made a real contribution to "formal semantics", Etchemendy thinks that is but a happy accident, since the recursive structure of Tarski's definition is, as he sees it, in no way essential to it. Rather, it is required only for technical reasons, namely, that the languages in which Tarski was interested contain infinitely many sentences, and so we cannot give a "list-like" definition. What is the basis for this claim? Are there any reasons one might prefer the recursive definition to a list-like one, even if one is interested in giving definition of truth?

8 March

Richard Heck, "Tarski, Truth, and Semantics", Philosophical Review 106 (1997), pp. 533-54. (DjVu, JSTOR).

  • Heck argues in §2 that Tarski's recursive definition of truth can be formalized in two very different ways. What are these, and how do they relate to the recursive definition?
  • Etchemendy had suggested that, if we add such claims as
    A is true iff A ∈ TRUE
    to Tarski's recursive definition, then the result is equivalent to the axiomatic theory. Making Tarski's work of interest to semantics 'only' requires re-introducing a primitive notion of truth, therefore, but Etchemendy claims that this is inconsistent with Tarski's goals. What is Heck's argument against this claim?
  • Etchemendy also argues that re-introducing a primitive notion of truth means abandoning Tarski's solution to the Liar paradox. What is Heck's response to that argument?
  • Finally, Etchemendy argues that the recursive character of Tarski's definition is inessential: Tarski could just as well have used a list-like definition. What is Heck's response to that claim?

First problem set due.

Kripke's Theory of Truth
11 and 13 March

Saul Kripke, "An Outline of a Theory of Truth", Journal of Philosophy (1975), pp. 690-716, esp. pp. 690-702. (DjVu, JSTOR)

Do not worry yet about the more mathematical parts of Kripke's paper, starting around p. 702. We will discuss those separately.

  • What does Kripke mean by saying that many of our ordinary attributions of truth are "risky"?
  • How is the notion of "groundedness" supposed to contribute to Kripke's analysis of the Liar paradox?
  • Why is the Nixon-Dean example, discussed on pp. 695-7, supposed to show that the "orthodox approach" to the Liar paradox is unsatisfactory?
  • Kripke tells a little story, beginning on p. 701, about what rules might govern our use of the truth- and falsity-predicates. What are these rules? How do they relate to convention (T)? Why doesn't Kripke just use convention (T) here, instead of the more complicated rules he states?

15 March


18, 20, and 22 March

Handout: Kripke's Theory of Truth

Solomon Feferman, "Toward Useful Type-free Theories, I", Journal of Symbolic Logic 49 (1984), pp. 75-111, 1984; Melvin Fitting, "Note on the Mathematical Aspects of Kripke's Theory of Truth", Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 27 (1986), pp. 75-88; Michael Kremer, "Kripke and the Logic of Truth", Journal of Philosophical Logic 17 (1988), pp. 225-78; Vann McGee, "Applying Kripke's Theory of Truth", Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989), pp. 530-9.

25, 27, 29 March

No class: Spring Break

Note: Due to snow days and other reasons, the schedule got changed rather a lot after spring break.
5, 8 and 10 April

Hartry Field, "Deflationist Views of Meaning and Content", Mind 103 (1994), pp. 249-85. (DjVu, JSTOR)

Hartry Field, "The Deflationary Conception of Truth", in G. MacDonald and C. Wright, eds., Fact, Science and Morality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), pp. 55-117; Hartry Field, Truth and the Absence of Fact (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001); Paul Horwich, Truth (Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 1990); Dorothy Grover, Joseph Camp, and Nuel Belnap, "A Prosentential Theory of Truth", Philosophical Studies 27 (1975), pp.73-125; Dorothy Grover, A Prosentential Theory of Truth (Princeton NJ: Princteon University Press, 1992; Volker Halbach, "Disquotationalism and Infinite Conjunctions", Mind 108 (1999), pp. 1-22.
Field has recently developed an interesting, but extremely complex, formal theory of truth. See "A Revenge-Immune Solution to the Semantic Paradoxes", Journal of Philosophical Logic 32 (2003), pp. 139-77, and Saving Truth From Paradox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  • Field suggests that the fundamental division among theorists of meaning and content is whether truth-conditions can or should play a central role in such theories? How is this issue related to the question how we should understand the truth-predicate?
  • What is a "purely disquotational" truth-predicate? How does Field propose to explain it?
  • What does Field mean when he says that a purely disquotational truth-predicate can only be applied to sentences that we understand? that it is "use-independent"?
  • How is the inflationary story about the meanings of logical operators supposed to work? Why does Field take it to be problematic? What alternative does he propose?
  • Field argues that a purely disquotational truth-predicate is essential to the formulation of certain sorts of claims about the physical world. Which and why? What is the dialectical importance of this claim?
  • What does Field take to be the fundamental contrast between a disquotational truth-predicate and a Tarskian one? Why must a deflationist forego any serious interest in compositionality?
  • How does Field respond to the objection that we seemingly can apply the ordinary English truth-predicate to sentences we do not understand? What are the limitiations of this strategy?
  • How does the use-independence of the purely disquotational truth-predicate lead to the conclusion that, if "true" is purely disquotational, then "Even if `snow is white' had meant that pigs fly, it would still have been true" is true? How does Field respond to the objection?
  • The purely disquotational truth-predicate is originally explained for sentences. How does Field propose to extend it to utterances, so as to account for indexicality?

8 April

Second problem set due.

12 April

Anil Gupta, "A Critique of Deflationism," Philosophical Topics 21 (1993), pp. 57-81 (PDF)

  • Gupta's overall strategy is to distinguish what he takes to be the core claims of deflationary theories of truth from the larger philosophical consequences that those claims are meant to have. In particular, he argues that these consequences follow only on an implausibly strong reading of the core claims. The key claims are what he calls the Disquotation Thesis and what he calls the Infinite Conjunction Thesis.
    • What are the Disquotation Thesis and the Infinite Conjunction Thesis?
    • What are the stronger and weaker readings of these theses?
  • Section 3 of Gupta's paper is concerned with what is sometimes known as the "success argument" against deflationism, which claims that the notion of truth plays an important role in explaining bheavioral success: E.g., people with true beliefs tend to get what they want.
    • How does Horwich (as Gupta reads him) respond to this argument?
    • Why does Gupta think that Horwich's response depends upon the strong reading of the Infinite Conjunctions Thesis?
    • Why does Gupta think, as he says on p. 67, that this thesis is "plainly false" so read?
  • Section 4 is concerned with the deflationist thesis that truth can play no role in semantics, in particular, that the meaning of a sentence cannot be taken to be its truth-condition.
    • Why does Gupta think this argument depends upon the strong reading of the Disquotation Thesis?
    • Why does Gupta think the strong reading of the Disquotation Thesis is implausible?
  • In Section 5, Gupta considers the possibility of replacing the Disquotation Thesis with some other principle that might imply it: one that conceives of there as being some simple rule, or general principle, that governs the use of "true" and that thereby explains its meaning. The most interesting of these is the inferential account that he considers last. What are his objections to this account?
  • At the end of the paper, Gupta suggests that "true" plays an important role in our thinking precisely because the Disqutation Thesis and Infinite Conjunction Thesis are false. What are his reasons for this claim?

15 April

Richard Heck, "Truth and Disquotation", Synthese 142 (2004), pp. 317-52. You may skip the third section. (DjVu, Springer)

Hilary Putnam, "Does the Deflationary Theory of Truth Solve All Philosophical Problems?", "On Truth", and "A Comparison of Something with Something Else", in his Words and Life (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 264-78; John O'Leary-Hawthorne and Graham Oppy, "Minimalism and Truth", Nous 31 (1997), pp. 170-196; Vann McGee, "Maximal Consistent Sets of T-Sentences", Journal of Philosophical Logic 21 (1992), pp. 235-41.

  • Field argues that we need a disquotational truth-predicate to express infinite conjunctions.
    • Why does Heck regard the reply (which is more or less in Gupta) that we might yet convey such conjunctions without a disquotational truth-predicate as inadequate?
    • Heck goes on to claim that we can express such claims using a propositional notion of truth. What is the central worry about this move? How does Heck respond to it?
  • In what sense does Heck think T-sentences are "special"? In what senses does he think they are not?
  • Heck claims that T-sentences are in no sense trivial or insubstantial. What are his reasons? Which of these depend upon the existence of context-dependence, and which of them are independent of it?
  • How does Heck propose to explain the "specialness" of T-sentences?
  • At the very end of the paper, Heck offers an explanation of why the Liar reasoning seems so compelling to us. What is that explanation? How plausible is it?

17 April


19 April

No Class: Instructor lecturing at University of Toronto

Topics for second short paper announced.

Semantic Primitivism
22 April

David Wiggins, "What Would Be a Substantial Theory of Truth?", in Z. van Straaten, ed., Philosophical Subjects (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 189-221; you do not need to read sections VI, VII, and VIII, though, so you can stop at p. 213 (DjVu)

This is a very difficult paper, and I am in some ways hesitant about even assigning it. But it is also very important, and is the earliest attempt to approach questions about truth in a certain distinctive way. So we are going to read it and try to make some sense of it. Your main task, really, is simply to try to understand how Wiggins wants us to approach questions about truth and why he thinks it is important to approach the questions this way.

If you have not familiar with Donald Davidson's paper "Radical Interpretation", or his work on truth and meaning generally, then you may want to have a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Davidson, especially section 3, which is on meaning and truth. It couldn't hurt to read Davidson's paper, either (DjVu, Wiley Online).

One way to think of what Wiggins is suggesting is this. It is a common thought that the meaning of a sentence is its truth-condition. Suppose that is right. What can we say about truth simply on the basis that truth is whatever property φ of sentences figures in this formula: The meaning of a sentence is its φ-condition?

Wiggins spends sections II and III of his paper elaborating and refining this idea, ending up with something like the following sequence of claims:

  1. A proper account of meaning requires a theory which yields theorems of the form: "Snow is white" is φ if, and only if, snow is white.
  2. Truth should be identified with whatever is best suited to play the role of φ here.
  3. The correctness of such theories should be evaluated in terms of their capacity to help us 'make sense' of speakers.
(See pp. 203-4 for such a summary.) The question then becomes, as said above: What can we say about φ-ness, simply given that it must play this role? Section V is then devoted to enumerating some of the "marks" of any concept suitable to play this role. These will be marks of truth since we know (Wiggins supposes) that truth is (at least) one of the concepts fit to play this role.

24 April

Dorit Bar-On and Keith Simmons, "The Use of Force Against Deflationism: Assertion and Truth", in D. Greimann & G. Siegwart, eds. Truth and Speech Acts: Studies in the Philosophy of Language (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 61-89 (DjVu, Manuscript PDF)

  • Bar-On and Simmons distinguish various sorts of deflationism. Their main point is that what they call "metaphysical" and "linguistic" deflationism do not imply "conceptual" deflationism. What are these various positions?
  • How is this related to the distinction Bar-On and Simmons make between questions about "true" and questions about truth?
  • In what way do deflationists tend to derive conceptual deflationism from lingistic deflationism?
  • Bar-On and Simmons take from Frege the idea that asserting a thought is presenting it as true. Why do they think that the use of "true" in this formula cannot be "deflated"?
  • What is "illocutionary deflationism" and what are the problems with it?
  • Bar-On and Simmons several times mention an analogy between certain forms of ethical non-cognitivism and certain ways of thinking about the nature of truth. What is the point of this analogy?

26 April

Mark Textor, "Frege on Judging as Acknowledging the Truth", Mind 119 (2010), pp. 615-55 (DjVu, Oxford Journals)

Questions TBA

Second short paper due

29 April


Topic for final paper must be cleared with instructor

9 May

Term paper due

Richard Heck Department of Philosophy Brown University