Truth and the Absence of Fact

I bought this book about four years ago, because it was cheap in Galloway and Porter in Cambridge. It then sat in my pile of “things I will get around to reading” for quite a long time, partly because it got left in England when I came out to Japan. Anyway, I finally got around to reading it. It’s a technical work of academic philosophy, primarily concerned with the philosophy of language. I thought quite a lot of it was very interesting, so this post is also likely to get a bit technical.

Hartry Field, the author, is (or, at least, was in 2001 when this book was published) a proponent of the disquotational theory of truth. This holds that there is nothing more to truth than sentences of the form “”Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white”. It’s called “disquotational” because all you really do is remove the quotation marks.

One of the odd things is that he, and other proponents of this theory, occasionally talk as if proponents of other theories of truth are committed to sometimes violating the disquotational formula. They can’t really mean this, because it’s obvious that no theory of truth can actually violate the formula; the terms “snow” and “white” means the same both inside and outside the quotes (if they don’t, disquotation is wrong), which means that the equivalence must hold no matter what makes the statements true.

Disquotationalism is also applied to reference, the theory of how words refer to things in the world. The worry raised for other theories is “how do we know that “snow” refers to all the snow, and only to snow?”. However, this is also obviously an empty worry. Snow is the stuff that “snow” refers to, no matter what the theory of reference. If there are cases of small, agglomerated ice crystals falling as precipitation that are not referred to by “snow”, then they are not snow. I’m not quite sure what they would be; some variety of sleet or hail, perhaps.

There are genuine problems quite close to this one, however. The example that Field uses is the pre-relativity use of “mass”. According to relativity theory, there are two quantities, rest mass and relativistic mass, each of which has some of the properties attributed to “mass”, but neither of which has all of them. There is a real problem as to what we should say about mass when we discover this. There are several options. We can say that there is no such thing as mass, and adopt different terms for the relativistic quantities. Or we can say that we had false beliefs about mass, and there are several choices for which beliefs were false. Finally, we can say that our usage of mass was fundamentally ambiguous, with indeterminate reference.

I’m not sure that there is a right answer to these questions. I think we can choose, to a great extent, because language is something that we create. (Of course, we can’t normally choose as individuals; language is socially created, so we have to go along with other speakers of the language if we want to communicate.)

One thing I am sure of, however, is that disquotationalism doesn’t advance the discussion. It is remarkable how much you can do without worrying about the deeper issues, but I still think the deeper issues are real issues, and that philosophers should be trying to solve them.

Posted in Books, Philosophy, Philosophy of Language.

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