On two articles in the “ordinary language” tradition of philosophy called “Truth” from 1950 by J.L. Austin and P.F. Strawson.
You may remember John Langshaw Austin as the performatives guy, but it’s actually Peter Frederick Strawson (whom we covered in the context of free will) who (shortly before either of these papers) came up with what has become known as the performative theory of truth.
This is a breed of what we’ve called the deflationary theory of truth: the idea that “is true” doesn’t actually add any cognitive content to a sentence (“It is raining,” vs. “It is true that it is raining,” tell you the same thing). The “performance” here is the idea that adding “is true” is a signal in a conversation that you agree with something, that you’re willing to assert it, that you believe it. So it serves a role in a language game, and in that way in using the term you mean something over and beyond just stating the sentence itself.
Austin responded to Strawson’s idea in outlining his theory of truth in his paper for the 1950 Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. According to traditional views, truth is a property of sentences or propositions, whereas on any deflationary view, truth is not going to be a property at all. Austin says that Strawson was right in saying that truth is not a property of sentences, but denies that it’s not a property. On the contrary, says Austin, it is a property of utterances, i.e., statements made at a particular time by a particular person. Every such utterance involves two sets of conventions: descriptive conventions that correlate the words used with types of situations and things that are found in the world (for “It is raining,” this would include an understanding of what “rain” in general refers to), and demonstrative conventions (“demonstrative” just means something like pointing at something) that correlate the words with historic situations in the world (what is referred to in the particular situation of saying “It is raining,” by “It,” i.e. the environment as determined by the context of the utterance). When the state of affairs pointed out (demonstrative conventions) is “of a type with” the what is being described (descriptive conventions), then the utterance is true.
The Strawson paper that we read (written for the same society meeting) responds to Austin: Strawson thinks that this idea that it’s the utterance that’s true or false is wrong: Clearly, it’s not a particular speech act that is true or not, but what is said in that speech act that’s true or not, and of course you and I can say the same thing at different times. Now, note that this may be a misinterpretation of Austin, because Austin himself says that of course you and I can make the same statement; his point is that the truth conditions of the statement are determined by the situation of a particular speaker. You and I can both say “It is raining,” and mean different things. This was the whole reason that the idea of a “proposition” was invented distinct from particular utterances or sentences: because the same meaning can be conveyed using different words, by different speakers at different times, using different demonstrative conventions.
So it may not be the case that Austin and Strawson actually disagree on this point, but Austin is stressing the fact that meaning is set not in the abstract but by a particular performance. Per his ideas about performatives (and he didn’t give those lectures that we talked about until five years after this), being a performative doesn’t mean that a speech act doesn’t also have a true/false dimension; it just gives you other dimensions to talk about a sentence, and Austin thinks that we very much overemphasize “true” and “false” as opposed to “exaggerated” or “vague” or “misleading” or “too concise.” These are all ways, according to Austin, that a sentence can serve or fail to serve desired functions.
Strawson does not think that those other words are in the same class as “true” and “false.” The latter are more fundamental, he says, and don’t require as sophisticated a language. However, Strawson’s main objection to Austin is that he thinks Austin is not deflationist enough: Austin has given a “purified” correspondence theory, but it’s still a correspondence theory, and that’s bad.
First, how is Austin’s theory “purified?” Well, for early Wittgenstein, for instance, a proposition was true if it had an isomorphism with something in the world. “The ball is green” is true if there’s a ball in the world, and it’s coupled with the color green. By stressing conventions, Austin wants to point out that there’s no rule that says that language always has to express facts in this structurally transparent way. “It is raining” doesn’t connect a particular “it” to rain, for instance, or you could have a whole language where single words pick out complex situations (my example on the podcast is “Fubar!”).
Second, what’s wrong with correspondence theory? On the traditional picture (or on Austin’s), you’ve got a sentence (or utterance, or proposition), and it corresponds with something in the world. But what are these “things” to which it corresponds? “The ball is green” doesn’t correspond with the thing that is the ball; that doesn’t sound quite right. It corresponds with “the ball being green,” i.e., with the fact that the ball is green, or perhaps you’d prefer to say (as Wittgenstein does) the state of affairs of the ball being green.
But what is a fact? Is a fact a thing? Is it in the world? No, when you look around, you see things like balls, you see green, but nowhere do you see a fact. “Fact,” according to Strawson, is a term that already crosses the mind-world divide. There are no facts in the world, and saying that a statement corresponds with a fact doesn’t actually tell you anything; it’s just another way of saying that the statement is true. Now, Austin doesn’t like “fact,” either and instead goes with “state of affairs,” but Strawson says that doesn’t help; a state of affairs is just a collection of facts, so that term also has mind baked into it already.
Strawson claims that the question “What is it for a statement to correspond to a fact?” is similar to “what is it for a command to be obeyed?” If you already understand what a command is, then you already understand what obeying is because they’re part of the same vocabulary set. Likewise, if you already know what a statement is, then you already know what it is for a statement to be true.
This should very much remind people of Davidson’s and Field’s criticisms of Tarski: Why would you think that you can define truth (a semantic notion) by nonsemantic notions (e.g., things in the physical world)? We can only understand terms within the same vocabulary domain in terms of their relations to each other.
Austin admits that if you admit “It is raining,” you also admit “It is true that it is raining,” but that doesn’t change the fact that these sentences mean different things. By comparison, if someone commits a crime and I state that fact, and I’m accused of slander, well, yes, according to our laws (that entail that slander must be false), if we prove you committed the crime, then we prove that I didn’t slander you. However, there could still be different trials to resolve these two issues; the slander and the truth of the crime are not one and the same thing.
Both articles plus those for the previous episode can be found in Truth (Oxford Readings in Philosophy), edited by Simon Blackburn (guest for ep. 196) and Keith Simmons, or you can read them online here and here.
Austin image by Charles Valsechi.
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