Truth: a concept unlike any other


This paper explores the nature of the concept of truth. It does not offer an analysis or definition of truth, or an account of how it relates to other concepts. Instead, it explores what sort of concept truth is by considering what sorts of thoughts it enables us to think. My conclusion is that truth is a part of each and every propositional thought. The concept of truth is therefore best thought of as the ability to token propositional thoughts. I explore what implications this view has for existing accounts of concepts (such as prototypes, exemplars, and theories), and argue that truth is a concept unlike any other.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    This assumption is consistent with those pluralist views about truth that find plurality among truth properties but unity in the concept (e.g., Wright 1992; Lynch 2009). If, as on Kölbel’s view (2008; 2013), our truth-related talk and thought is ambiguous in a way that suggests there are multiple truth concepts, then my conclusions apply to whichever of those concepts is governed by the various alethic phenomena I invoke in my arguments.

  2. 2.

    See, e.g., Wright (1992, 1996, 2013), Sosa (1993), Alston (1996, 2002), Bar-On and Simmons (2007), Lynch (2009) and Asay (2013). To get a taste for philosophizing without a clear concept/property distinction, turn to the opening sections of Principia Ethica (Moore 1903).

  3. 3.

    See Machery (2009) for an overview of much current thinking about concepts in philosophy and psychology, and a negative answer to the final question stated here.

  4. 4.

    Assuming propositions exist, of course. Those who don’t subscribe to propositions should modify my remarks accordingly, as my intent is to be highlighting certain phenomena regarding truth and its role in our thought that still concern the proposition-denier.

  5. 5.

    I intend to stay neutral regarding just which thoughts are the truth-apt ones (and so, e.g., whether moral judgments express propositional thoughts). I also intend to remain neutral on the issue of whether or not there can be thoughts with non-conceptual content; if there can be such things, they have no bearing on truth.

  6. 6.

    What composes propositions is therefore a separate matter, and one I shall set aside for present purposes. To my mind, Fregean thinking about propositions coheres perfectly with the idea that which propositions we can express is a function of which concepts we possess. If propositions are composed by concept types (and thus, presumably, identical to thought types), then there is no mystery as to why the set of propositions I can express is a function of which concepts I possess. For those who take propositions to be unstructured sets of possible worlds (e.g., Stalnaker 1976), pleonastic entities (e.g., Schiffer 2003), or Russellian entities composed by objects and properties (e.g., Salmon 1986) it remains to be seen how to bridge the gap between which concepts we have and which propositions we can express.

  7. 7.

    To preserve continuity between concepts and thoughts, I use small-caps sentences to name thoughts. I use ‘<p>’ later on in the standard way as a name for the proposition that p.

  8. 8.

    Note that I do not intend anything theoretically loaded in using the terms ‘predicate’ and ‘sentential prefix’ here; I am attending only to the surface grammar of sentences. The claims are simply that ‘is true’ appears to be the predicate in an ordinary subject-predicate sentence, and that ‘it is true that’ has been appended to the front of a declarative sentence to result in a further declarative sentence.

  9. 9.

    But see prosententialism (e.g., Grover 1992), and Strawson’s expressivism (1949). Though proponents of these views would surely take issue with many of my claims in this paper, I must set aside discussion of them for another day.

  10. 10.

    My thanks go to the anonymous referees for the journal for pushing me on this point.

  11. 11.

    A related thesis, defended by Boghossian (2010), is that the concept proposition presupposes truth, and so anyone possessed of the former is possessed of the latter. I’m inclined to agree, though I stress that my own thesis is stronger. On Boghossian’s view, one cannot token proposition without possessing truth. On my view, one cannot token a proposition without possessing truth.

  12. 12.

    If deflationists think that truth never contributes to the composition of thoughts, then, given the position that concepts are to be understood as the building blocks of thought, perhaps deflationists should maintain that truth simply doesn’t exist. There is no need to posit such a concept, since there is no thought-constituting role for it to play. There remains an expressive need for the word ‘true’, of course, but that is another matter. I leave it to deflationists to decide whether or not such a consequence is a tolerable addition to their view.

  13. 13.

    See also Simmons (2006) and Bar-On and Simmons (2007), from which I learned this argument.

  14. 14.

    This difference seems to be the driving force behind Künne’s objection to omnipresence (2003, p. 51).

  15. 15.

    Obviously, in learning a language one can formulate new thoughts that involve the objects of that language, such as how the English speaking Chinese learner becomes able to think thoughts that express <‘


    ’ means the same thing as ‘I am an American’>.

  16. 16.

    But note that my criticisms here also apply to the earlier version of (D).

  17. 17.

    One issue I don’t address here is how to understand the difference between mere possession of a concept and mastery of it. It might be that I’m correct that all proposition-users possess truth, though mastery of it may result only after enormous practice, philosophical reflection, etc. If this is a tenable distinction, then my claim is the weaker one: propositional thought betrays possession, but not necessarily mastery, of truth. Thanks to a referee for pushing me on this point.

  18. 18.

    To see why, suppose I ask someone to tell me three features of the sentence ‘Snow is white’, and I receive the following reply: ‘The sentence ‘Snow is white’ is in English, fewer than five words long, and true’. By my lights, the mission has been accomplished. On other views, the respondent has failed to reply to the task at hand, since in calling the sentence true, the sentence has somehow been left behind and a claim about snow has been asserted in its place. In effect, the reply is understood as ‘The sentence ‘Snow is white’ is in English, fewer than five words long, and snow is white’. I find this an implausible understanding of the use of ‘true’ here, and a demonstration of why Field’s “pure disquotational truth” predicate does not belong to any natural language, a conclusion with which he may agree (1994, p. 266). (I also see this as an argument against prosententialism.) A sentence about a sentence is not cognitively equivalent to any sentence that is not about a sentence.

  19. 19.

    See Asay (2013) for more thoroughgoing discussion of how Tarski and Frege connect to the views adumbrated here.

  20. 20.

    Thanks go to Max Deutsch and Dorit Bar-On for helpful discussion of this suggestion.

  21. 21.

    See also Mascaro and Morin (2015), which explores very young children’s abilities vis-à-vis truth and falsity, and finds them from a very young age.

  22. 22.

    Thanks go to Jake Beck and Max Deutsch here for identifying some different aspects of this issue.

  23. 23.

    Hence, I see my approach here as fitting what Peacocke has identified as the “simple account” of the relation between philosophical and psychological accounts of concepts (1992, pp. 177–178). See Machery (2009, pp. 38–47) for criticism of this view.


  1. Alston, W. P. (1996). A realist conception of truth. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Alston, W. P. (2002). Truth: Concept and property. In R. Schantz (Ed.), What is truth? (pp. 11–26). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Asay, J. (2013). The primitivist theory of truth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Asay, J. (2014). Against truth. Erkenntnis, 79, 147–164.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Ayer, A. J. (1950). Language, truth, and logic (2nd ed.). London: Victor Gollancz.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bar-On, D., Horisk, C., & Lycan, W. G. (2000). Deflationism, meaning and truth-conditions. Philosophical Studies, 101, 1–28.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Bar-On, D., & Simmons, K. (2007). 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 (pp. 61–89). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Barsalou, L. W. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 577–660.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Blackburn, S. (1984). Spreading the word: Groundings in the philosophy of language. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Boghossian, P. (2010). Our grasp of the concept of truth: Reflections on Künne. Dialectica, 64, 553–563.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Davidson, D. (1996). The folly of trying to define truth. Journal of Philosophy, 93, 263–278.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Davidson, D. (2005). Truth and predication. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Dummett, M. (1993). The seas of language. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Edwards, D. (2013). Truth as a substantive property. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 91, 279–294.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Field, H. (1994). Deflationist views of meaning and content. Mind (New Series), 103, 249–285.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Frege, G. (1879). Begriffsschrift: Eine der Arithmetischen Nachgebildete. Halle: Verlag von Louis Nebert.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Frege, G. (1952). On sense and reference. Trans. Max Black. In P. Geach, & M. Black (Eds.), Translations from the philosophical writings of Gottlob Frege (pp. 56–78). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

  18. Frege, G. (1956). The thought: A logical inquiry. Trans. A. M. Quinton and Marcelle Quinton. Mind (New Series), 65, 289–311.

  19. Frege, G. (1979). Posthumous writings. In H. Hermes, F. Kambartel, & F. Kaulbach with the assistance of G. Gabriel and W. Rödding, trans. P. Long and Roger White, with the assistance of R. Hargreaves. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

  20. Grover, D. (1992). A prosentential theory of truth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Horwich, P. (1998). Truth (2nd ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Kölbel, M. (2008). “True” as ambiguous. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 77, 359–384.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Kölbel, M. (2013). Should we be pluralists about truth? In N. J. L. L. Pedersen & C. D. Wright (Eds.), Truth and pluralism: Current debates (pp. 278–297). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Künne, W. (2003). Conceptions of truth. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Künne, W. (2008). Frege on truths, truth and the true. Studia Philosophica Estonica, 1, 5–42.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Laurence, S., & Margolis, E. (Eds.) (1999). Concepts and cognitive science. In Concepts: Core readings, (pp. 3–81). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  27. Lewis, D. (1983). New work for a theory of universals. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 61, 343–377.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Lynch, M. P. (2009). Truth as one and many. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Machery, E. (2009). Doing without concepts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Margolis, E., & Laurence, S. (2014) Concepts. In E. N. Zalta. (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring Edition).

  31. Mascaro, O., & Morin, O. (2015). Epistemology for beginners: Two- to five-year old children’s representation of falsity. PLoS ONE, 10, 1–20.

    Google Scholar 

  32. McGinn, C. (2000). Logical properties: Identity, existence, predication, necessity, truth. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Moore, G. E. (1903). Principia ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Patterson, D. (2010). Truth as conceptually primitive. In C. D. Wright & N. J. L. L. Pedersen (Eds.), New waves in truth (pp. 13–29). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Peacocke, C. (1992). A study of concepts. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Prinz, J. J. (2002). Furnishing the mind: Concepts and their perceptual basis. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Quine, W. V. (1970). Philosophy of logic. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Read, S. (2002). The liar paradox from John Buridan back to Thomas Bradwardine. Vivarium, 40, 189–218.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Salmon, N. (1986). Frege’s puzzle. Cambridge: Bradford Books.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Scharp, K. (2013). Replacing truth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Schiffer, S. (2003). The things we mean. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Simmons, K. (2006). Deflationism and the autonomy of truth. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 72, 196–204.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Sosa, E. (1993). The truth of modest realism. Philosophical Issues, 3, 177–195.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Stalnaker, R. (1976). Propositions. In A. F. MacKay & D. D. Merrill (Eds.), Issues in the philosophy of language (pp. 79–91). New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Strawson, P. F. (1949). Truth. Analysis, 9, 83–97.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Tarski, A. (1956). The concept of truth in formalized language. In Logic, semantics, metamathematics: Papers from 1923 to 1938, trans. J. H. Woodger (pp. 152–278). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  47. Wright, C. (1992). Truth and objectivity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Wright, C. (1996). Response to commentators. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 56, 911–941.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Wright, C. (2013). A plurality of pluralisms. In N. J. L. L. Pedersen & C. D. Wright (Eds.), Truth and pluralism: Current debates (pp. 123–153). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


I would like to thank the New York Philosophy of Language Workshop and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, where versions of this paper were presented in April 2015. Special thanks go to Dorit Bar-On, Max Deutsch, Friederike Moltmann, Matt Moss, and Keith Simmons for their stimulating discussion with me on these matters, and to Jeremy Wyatt for his extensive comments. Finally, thanks go to the referees for the journal, who offered very substantial feedback. The research in this paper was supported by a grant from the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China (HKU 23400014).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jamin Asay.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Asay, J. Truth: a concept unlike any other. Synthese 198, 605–630 (2021).

Download citation


  • Truth
  • Concepts
  • Properties
  • Deflationism
  • Frege