A linguistic trap

SOCRATES: … If a person does not attend to the meaning of terms as they are commonly used in argument, he may be involved even in greater paradoxes…..’ Theaetetus, Plato. (428 – 348 BC) 

Ordinary Language Meanings: A Linguistic Trap?

Instead of starting with one of the standard epistemological approaches, I will begin by turning to the ‘ordinary language’ meanings of the word ‘truth’ and examine their implications and uses.

The cynic might argue that the collective meanings of the word ‘truth’ that we have come to recognise in present-day English might be a mere accident of our cultural history. The word ‘port’ for example, can mean harbour, a place where aeroplanes arrive, a point of physical or virtual connection on a computer and a type of fortified wine. Do we use the word ‘truth’ in a similar fashion? Does the word ‘truth’ refer to a series of distinct concepts that are unrelated or are perhaps only have a historical or metaphoric linkage? The French use the word ‘vérité’ and the Italians ‘verità’ in an almost identical way that we use ‘truth’, so we at least have accidents in common if nothing else.

When different English meanings and implications are examined by looking at the synonyms of ‘truth’, such as reality, veracity, accuracy, exactitude and honesty, we are perhaps edged towards asking ourselves how are meanings related. Are the connotations interlinked at a deeper level than a mere accident of linguistic history might produce? There is no simple answer to that question so we have to pragmatically proceed to a discussion that might suggest to the reader whether or not I have fallen into a linguistic trap. 

My initial approach is therefore to begin by simply asking what are the meanings and uses of the word ‘truth’ as used in everyday English or when we speak non-technically about the logic of verbal propositions. We can also ask what are the inter-relationships of those meanings and uses if any? This approach is known as the ‘use-based’ ordinary language philosophy. Although it is presently less fashionable, there is much to commend it. Even although the various meanings of truth will be examined, we will see that truth is an elusive quality. Grammatically it is an abstract noun, like ‘beauty’. However, unlike beauty, truth only describes statements or other forms of representation. We can have a truthful statement and a beautiful landscape but not a truthful landscape.

We can meaningfully describe a statement as ‘true’, but there is not (at least in my opinion) a conceptual ‘thing’ called ‘truth’. Unlike abstract nouns such as ‘anger’, truth is not even a metaphysical entity with an ‘identity’ of it own. In more standard philosophical talk; there exists a predicate of the form ‘is true or ‘it is true that ….’. To express the opposite, we use the negation ‘it is not true that……’, which is equivalent to using the word ‘false’. These predicates operate within expressions in the same way as we might say of a subject ‘it is blue’. The truth predicate is attached to statements as a signifier of acceptance. Much of this work is dedicated to knowing whether or not we can meaningfully say more than this about truth. In other words, what lies behind our acceptance of any idea?

The notion that we can express acceptance through the tag ‘it is true that’ has surprisingly profound implications. In more general terms, if we argue that we are merely expressing our willingness to accept a statement and not intending to communicate anything else, we are adopting a ‘deflationary’ outlook about the nature of truthful statements. (In section 3 of the work ‘Deflation’ will be compared with alternative ideas.)

Five Uses That Will be Examined

For the purposes of this discussion, 5 particular interrelated uses will be considered in relation to a theory of understanding. The meanings addressed will be:

a) testimonial truth (honesty or testimonial sincerity)
b) truth by definition
c) accuracy 
of description (and the related concepts or adequacy or believability)
d) logical truth or reliability that emerges as the conclusion to logical arguments
e) axiomatic truth, which is the correctness of our most basic starting assumptions.

It is worth re-emphasising that although each of these uses is dealt with separately in this work, the meanings and uses are inter-related. By examining these uses, it is not my intention to create a new categorisation, logical system, or schema of philosophical analysis concerning the matter of truth. I only wish to use a convenient way of dealing with some of the possible interpretations of ‘truth’. (Later I will proceed to ask more searching questions about what lies behind these word uses.)

Further Reading
Ordinary Language Philosophy, Sally Parker-Ryan, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Steve Campbell
Glasgow, Scotland
2016, 2019
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