“this rather trivial sounding formula”


By William Gamester


The video is engrossing. It might be staged, but the conversation flows naturally. The participants are sharp and engaging. They draw you in, and it is thrilling to feel that you’re in the room with these titans of philosophy, however briefly. You can almost smell the cigarette smoke. And, beneath that, another (more sinister?) scent.

The whiff of deflationism.

Deflationists think it is a mistake to pursue a substantive, interesting account of the nature of truth. Rather, truth is to be entirely illuminated by the instances of a trivial-sounding schema like:

(T1) “p” is true iff p.

(T2) It is true that iff p.

Plugging in declarative sentences for “p”.

This conversation takes place a couple of decades before deflationism really started to take hold, and the central question is framed in a rather non-deflationary way: “to show how all true statements resemble each other”. It’s striking, then, that Strawson’s starting point is the suggestion – drawn from the oft-cited grandfather of deflationism himself, Ramsey – that there is “no serious problem about the general nature of truth”. Rather, the answer is given by a “rather trivial sounding formula”:

A statement (belief) is true if and only if things are as one who makes that statement (holds that belief) thereby states (believes) them to be.

Evans worries that even this is too much, placing too much emphasis on “things in the world in thus and such a condition”. He advances, instead, a “thin” interpretation of Ramsey’s formula, whereby our grasp on truth comes from generalising over instances of the schema:

(T3) He said that pand p.

(Yes, “he”. Evans’s notion of truth is, it seems, a peculiarly masculine one.)

What’s going on? Well, appearances can be deceptive. In particular, Strawson’s pronouncement that there is “no serious problem” about the nature of truth can be somewhat misleading. What Strawson’s proposal does is split the question in two:

In virtue of what does someone who makes a statement (holds a belief) thereby state (believe) that things are a certain way?

What is it for things to be that way?

The first is a metasemantic question: it asks in virtue of what a statement or utterance means what it does (or belief has the content that it has). The second looks like a  metaphysical question: it asks what it is for a certain state of affairs to obtain.

Strawson is not quite explicit about what “the problem of the nature of assertion” is, but it’s plausible he had something like question (1) in mind. While Evans objects to a “realist” interpretation of question (2), his schema (T3) presupposes an account of saying that– i.e., an answer to question (1). And as Cheryl Misak argues in her contribution (and wonderful book), even Ramsey thought that there was a further, substantive question to answer here.

In short, Strawson’s “trivial sounding formula” only gets to sound trivial because it takes so much for granted. Ramsey’s claim was not that there is no serious problem of truth but that there is no separateproblem of truth, once we’ve solved these problems. The Ramseyan approach Strawson draws on is thus not, in and of itself, the deflationary one of denying that there is a substantive account of truth to be given. It is, rather, to reduce the problem of truth to, inter alia, the problem of meaning or content.

Deflationists, of course, need not deny that there is a substantive metasemantic question here. However, if to explain meaning or content is to explain that in virtue of which an utterance of belief has the truth conditions that it has, then giving a substantive answer to this question just is to give (part of) a substantive account of what it is for an utterance or belief to be true. So it seems the deflationist’s lot is to explain meaning and content withoutinvoking truth-conditions (and, arguably, to discard key advances in semantic theory and cognitive science in the process).

Probably this point isn’t too controversial, but it can be obscured. For instance, probably the most influential defence of deflationism is Paul Horwich’s. But Horwich appeals to (T2), which concerns truth for propositions. So, you might think (though this isn’t Horwich’s own view) that the metasemantic question simply addresses a different issue to the deflationist: one concerns sentential or attitudinal truth, the other propositional truth.

But, as Hartry Field argues, it is odd to frame deflationism as a view about propositional truth. For one thing, propositions strike many as suspicious entities, the kind of “excessive” metaphysics Strawson and Evans are concerned to avoid. Invoking propositions to explain truth might just replace one mystery with another. For another, once we’ve invoked propositions, it’s hard to know what the deflationist/substantivist contrast amounts to. (If, for instance, propositions are sets of possible worlds, the nature of truth is straightforward to explain: it’s for the actual world to be in the set. Who could disagree?)

In Field’s view and my own, the interesting dispute here concerns, not propositions, but utterances and beliefs; and on this front the dispute between deflationists and substantivists amounts to nothing more nor less than a dispute about the nature of meaning and content.

This matters. Deflationism has come to dominate contemporary alethiology, and I think that’s at least partly because it is typically marketed as pursuing a methodology of shrewd, no-nonsense economy. The deflationist gets by with a “thin”, “demystified” notion of truth, where the substantivist invokes something “spooky” and “metaphysical”. The onus is on the substantivist to show why we need this extra ingredient.

There’s more to say about this than I can say here, but I doubt that’s right. If what we have here are rival approaches to meaning and content – and hence semantics and psychology – the resources needed by the deflationist will be different, not fewer. There’s no burden or bias. Which approach is better is to be judged only once both theories are on the table.

About the Author

Will Gamester is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Leeds. His research focuses mainly on truth, realism, and anti-realism, and the relationships between them, with a particular interest in metasemantics, expressivism, and the alethic paradoxes. His doctoral dissertation, “The Diversity of Truth”, motivated, formulated, and defended a novel and radical kind of pluralism about truth. His current research project, Meta-Alethic Expressivism: A New Theory of Thought and Talk about Truth, looks to develop an expressivist theory of alethic thought and language.

His recent publications are: “Shopping for Truth Pluralism”, “Logic, Logical Form and the Disunity of Truth”, and “Truth: Explanation, Success, and Coincidence”.