Truth: a concept unlike any other

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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 <‘

    figurea

    ’ 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.

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Acknowledgements

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).

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Correspondence to Jamin Asay.

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Asay, J. Truth: a concept unlike any other. Synthese 198, 605–630 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1661-z

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Keywords

  • Truth
  • Concepts
  • Properties
  • Deflationism
  • Frege