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pathways (letters)

1 January 1997

Dear Daniel,

Happy New Year! I am settling down (as usual) with my laptop in the kitchen after an early breakfast...

Thanks for your letter of 16 December, which raises some interesting points (more of which in a moment). Unfortunately, I was not able to finish preparing unit 12 before the university IT centre closed for the holidays. Meanwhile, you might find the enclosed supplement useful. (It is a spare course pack for a two term series of lectures on metaphysics I gave at Sheffield.)

The piece by Dummett is referred to in unit 12, but you will find it hard going. (I am only concerned with his core argument for an anti-realist theory of meaning, not with the trimmings.) Evans is an important article relevant to idealism and solipsism. The essay by Santayana on reality and the Unknowable is beautiully written, and I think you will enjoy it.

The central point to make about the predicate '...is true', or equally the operator, 'It is true that...' is that their use is notationally equivalent to that of propositional quantification. Instead of writing, 'What Daniel said is true,' I could write, 'For Some P, Daniel said that P; and P.' Quantifying over propositions saves me from repeating all you said that I agreed with. Some philosophers (notably Williams in his slim book for CUP What is Truth?) take that as showing that there is nothing more to say about the concept of truth. However, the very possibility of a realist/anti-realist debate about meaning and truth would seem to indicate that they are wrong to make that inference. I would say that the point about notation enables us to identify the concept: it does not touch the deep semantic and metaphysical issues surrounding the concept of truth.

The interesting thing about your examples is the way they divide neatly into notationally equivalent variants of the truth predicate or operator, and those which are very clearly not. Thus:

'R is honest'. Honest he may be, but he may still be mistaken in thinking that he broke the glass. (The ball would have bounced off, but Mr White who was in the greenhouse at the time, accidentally hit the glass with a hammer at that very moment while he was doing some repairs.)

'R is right.' = What R says is true. What day of the week it is a 'fact' like any other. (If R is a foreigner learning English, then it is possible he/she knows that today is 'Lundi' but is unsure of the translation. But the correctness of a translation is a 'question of fact' too, about which there can be agreement or disagreement. — 'But at what point does the difficulty or uncertainty of translation make talk of truth inappropriate?' So long as we can agree or disagree with the claim that 'R said that P', where P gives a purported translation of what R said, then one can talk of truth or falsity. S, in saying that R said that P, spoke the truth. The words R actually uttered were, in our view, tantamount to saying that P. We agree with S's gloss or translation.)

'R is in agreement with the majority view.' But the majority can be wrong (in my view!). (How about, 'R is in agreement with my view'? That is borderline: there are occasions when one wants to say, 'My view is, and has for a long time been that..., but I can see now from what you say that my view must be wrong after all.')

'R is wrong to say "The earth is flat".' If R had said it in the fourteenth century, then what he said would have been judged 'right'. But remember all the while that this is a statement that I am making/we are making from my/our standpoint. So we can say that R is wrong and also would have been wrong if he had said what he said then...The issue is an important one, however, highly relevant to the realism/anti-realism debate. (Anti-realists are sometimes accused of allowing or even encouraging Orwell-style attempts to 'change history' by tampering with the evidence. I argue in The Ultimate Nature of Things that the anti-realist conception of truth can be defended against this charge.)

The correspondence theory, however formulated, seeks to make truth independent of what this or that person or group believes. Truth depends upon 'the facts' and nothing more. I would argue that Tarski goes as far as one needs to go here, and that more substantial correspondence theories are really attempts (ultimately ineffective) to shore up the realist view of truth. — To repeat, it is important to be able to define truth in a way which leaves this metaphysical dispute open.

Christ said, 'I am the Truth,' (I seem to recall, my wife will correct me) to which jesting Pilate replied, 'What is truth?' Any analytical philosopher would have made the same reply. Arguably, what Christ meant was that all the 'important' truths — truths about how we should live, about the meaning of life, about the ultimate foundation of our existence — can only be known 'through me'. (If Christ 'is' the Deity, and the Deity is omniscient, then it might appear to follow logically that Christ is omniscient, so that any factual 'truth' can be defined as 'What Christ believes'. But that is to ignore the fact that Christ was supposedly a man, and subject to human limitations. In other words, the 'logical' inference fails to take account of the sophisticated logic of the doctrine of the Trinity. In any case, it just doesn't seem plausible that this is what Christ meant.)...

Actually, I think that just about wraps it up. I trust that you will not take my foray into theology in the wrong way. The only kind of search I can really grasp or feel myself at one with is the philosophical search, and any example offered just becomes grist to the analytical mill. But I know enough to recognise the ultimate limitations of such a way of thinking. (The Wittgenstein of the Tractatus was wrong: to recognise a certain kind of 'limit' to thought is not necessarily to go beyond it or find the far side of that limit 'thinkable'.)

All the best, and do take care in this awful weather,

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner