Playing the Game of Language: An Introduction to Contemporary Pragmatism

Intuition Turned on Its Head

Perhaps the most peculiar trick that we’ve developed as a species is the ability to make noises with our mouths that somehow end up being about things in our world.  We can talk to others about the things that we stumble upon in the world.  We can express our views on what those things are like.  We can agree, or disagree, or agree to disagree.  When you think about it for a moment, this is a very befuddling ability of ours.  How should we go about trying to explain how it works?  Let’s start with a suggestive thought experiment:

Imagine you’re a toddler in sitting in a crib.  You constantly see a bunch of adults moving around you, making all sorts of strange noises with their mouths.  Eventually, seeing that they often make these noises while looking at or gesturing towards various objects, you realize that these noises signify different things around you.  “Hat,” for example, signifies to those things that the adults put on their heads.  Gradually, you learn how to make these noises with your mouth as well, giving you the ability to talk about things just like the adults.  Perhaps you want the adults to give you the hat, and so you say, “Hat!” in the hopes someone will give it to you.  Slowly but surely, you learn how to string these noises together to fully express your thoughts and desires, and, like that, you come learn language.

This picture of language implies that words mean what they do in virtue of the things they represent in the world.  We string them together to explicitly express our experiences and thoughts, our feelings and desires, and so on.  Clearly, this is the most intuitive way to think about language, and, until the middle of the 20th century, most philosophers thought that it worked this way.  That was until a philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein published a book called Philosophical Investigations, now widely considered the most important philosophical work of the 20th century.


Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein famously started the Investigations by laying out this intuitive picture that most of us take for granted.  He then goes on to argue that it’s completely, utterly wrong.  If we want a fundamental model for thinking about language, he argues, we shouldn’t think of it as a means for explicitly representing our thoughts or experiences, our beliefs or desires, or anything like that.  It is really just a practice, something we do that’s woven seamlessly into our other activities.

The striking thing about Wittgenstein’s suggestion is that, on his view, only once we’re thoroughly immersed in this practice are we able to possess the sort of understanding that will allow us to know what we’re doing by speaking a language.  If we don’t understand what we’re doing when we begin to speak a language, the intuitive way I’ve just described a toddler’s learning of language is impossible.

On Wittgenstein’s way of thinking about things, one is blindly conditioned into the social practices of language, and it is only by way of competence in these practices that one can be said to have any concepts or understanding at all.  Here’s one passage from the Investigations that tries to illuminate this idea:

“A child has hurt himself and he cries; then the adults talk to him and teach him exclamations and, later, sentences; They teach the child new pain-behavior.

‘So are you saying that the word ‘pain’ really means crying?’—On the contrary: the verbal expression of pain replaces crying, it does not describe it.”

When reading this, it’s easy to get tempted into thinking that crying is just a way of expressing the thought that one is in pain, and, when we learn language, we’re just learning a more efficient way of expressing this inner emotion.  Wittgenstein, however, is saying the exact opposite of this.  Crying is just what we do when we’re in pain, and saying we’re in pain is, at root, the same sort of thing.  If we think of language in this way, the notion of representation entirely drops out as a fundamental explanatory feature.  In the first and most central instance, there is no thought or experience  that these verbal expressions attempt to capture; one just does them.

The issue of whether or not we ought to think of language in this broadly Wittgensteinian fashion is one of the great dividing lines in philosophy.  One way of drawing this division is to say that representationalism stands on one side, and pragmatism stands on the other.  We can think of this distinction between representationalism and pragmatism in terms of two opposite orders of explanation.  For the representationalist, we should explain our use of language in terms of how we employ various words and sentences to convey meaning.  For the pragmatist, on the other hand, we shouldn’t explain the use of language in terms of meaning.  Quite the contrary, the meaning of words and sentences is to be understood in terms of how these things are used in language.

While Wittgenstein famously said that the meaning of a word can be explained in terms of its use, he did not actually provide a theory about how that explanation should go.  Wittgenstein was not particularly keen on philosophical theorizing.  In fact, he thought there should be no philosophical theories at all!  Many contemporary pragmatists, however, don’t share this sentiment and believe that we can offer a systematic theory of meaning in terms of use.  In the rest of this article, I’ll give an outline of what this sort of theory looks like and why we should favor it over a representationalist one.

Speech Acts, Social Practices, and Pragmatic Force

According to Wittgenstein, speaking a language is more like playing a game than painting a picture.  To get a clearer conception of this, Wittgenstein has us consider a society of builders who have a primitive language that they use when they’re building.  One builder will utter “Slab!” and, upon hearing it, the other builder will hand him a slab.  The builder might then utter, “Block!” and, upon hearing this utterance, the other builder will hand him a block.  Looking at this language, we can see that the function of these utterances is not to conjure up some picture in the heads of the ones to whom it’s spoken.   While it’s possible that the utterance “Slab!” might elicit the mental image of a slab, it’s clearly unnecessary in order for the utterance to do what it’s supposed to do.  Insofar as the utterance pushes the hearer to get a slab, so to speak, it has accomplished its goal.

The ability an utterance might have to “push its hearers” in various ways is called the “pragmatic force” of an utterance.  Insofar as we think of utterances primarily in terms of their pragmatic force, it is apt to think of them as actions aimed to perform a particular function.  Following Wittgenstein and thinking about language in this way, a field in philosophy of language emerged called speech act theory.  Perhaps the most famous speech act theorist, J.L. Austin, gave some examples of how we should think of the main function of various familiar utterances in terms of their pragmatic force.  Suppose you’re getting married and the judge says, “I now pronounce you man and wife.”  Here, she’s not simply making a statement about what she’s pronouncing; she’s doing something—namely, legally binding you together in marriage.  The function of this is utterance should not to be thought of in terms of what her words mean, but, rather, what they do.

This notion of “pragmatic force” may sound somewhat magical, as if it’s straight from Star Wars, but it’s not really mysterious at all.  All you need is a bunch of people acting together and censuring each other’s behaviors such that they conform to certain patterns of actions.  In the words of John Haugeland, you just need a bunch of conformists. Conformists imitate the behaviors of each other, such that patterns of behavior emerge, and censure behavior that deviates from these patterns.  In the context of this conforming behavior, social practices emerge, and, in the context of these social practices, certain actions will result in certain sets of behaviors.  Speech acts are one class of actions that can have that effect, and that effect is what I’ve been calling their “pragmatic force.”  So, the reason the judge’s words have the pragmatic force that they do is because there are certain socially enforced patterns of behavior in which the act is contextualized.

Traditionally, the pragmatic force of an utterance has been seen as supplementary to its meaning.  However, some pragmatists have boldly claimed that, rather than merely being supplementary, the pragmatic force of an utterance is all there is to the meaning of an utterance.  Much like Wittgenstein’s primitive builders, the only thing our utterances do is “push people around” in various ways; there is no meaning they have over and above that function.  This suggestion will likely be met with incredulity from skeptical readers.  While it may make sense to think of the primitive “language” of Wittgenstein’s builders purely in terms of pragmatic force, it is easy to point out that their language is far from our own.  In fact, it is probably a stretch to call it a language at all.  While the utterance “Slab!” is going to causally initiate an action involving slabs, there is no sense in which it is a statement about a slab which may be true or falseOur sentences, on the other hand, are about various things in the world and they can be true or false . . . or, at least, so it seems.

One route that some pragmatists have taken is to deny that our sentences really are about things in the world, or really can be true or false.  Richard Rorty famously took this route, arguing that the idea that our sentences or thoughts mirror the world, representing the way things really are, is simply mistaken.  Rorty’s suggestion, however, is pretty hard to swallow.  It seems that, if I say “The cat is on the mat,” it’s about the cat and whether or not it’s on the mat.  If the cat really is on the mat, then my sentence has said it like it is, so to speak, and so it’s true.  If pragmatism must come at the price of denying this obvious intuition, then wouldn’t we be all the wiser to simply deny pragmatism?  It seems so.  We’ll have to do better than that if we want to explain language in pragmatist terms.


Robert Brandom

While Rorty wants to scrap the notion of representation altogether, Robert Brandom, one of Rorty’s students, thinks we can have our cake and eat it too.  Brandom thinks that we can account for the representational aspect of our language, the fact that we’re able to speak about various things in the world, strictly in terms of the pragmatic properties of those speech acts.  This is a bold and exciting prospect, and Brandom has spent considerable effort working out in detail how to do it.  If successful, it’s a genuinely revolutionary project for philosophy, dissolving longstanding problems about the nature of understanding.   It takes Brandom 700 pages to lay out this theory in his book, Making it Explicit, and even then there’s unfinished business to attend to, so my short summary of his view here will be a rough outline at best, but here it goes:

Brandom’s Game of Giving and Asking for Reasons

Let’s return to the game metaphor for a bit, since it’s one that Brandom finds particularly helpful.  To start, let’s take the example of chess.  What do you need to do in order to play chess?  Well, at the very least, you need to know the rules, play according them, and enforce play that accords with them (if you don’t stop your opponent from moving a rook diagonally, you’re no longer playing chess).  We can talk about the state of game at a particular point in terms of what Brandom calls deontic statuses: what you must do in some circumstance and you’re allowed to do in that circumstance.  If your king’s in check, for example, then you must make a move such that your king will no longer be in check, and there will be some set of moves that you’re allowed to make that will accomplish this goal.  The players of any game must be what Brandom calls “deontic scorekeepers,” they keep track of and enforce these deontic statuses.

Our linguistic practices, Brandom thinks, can be articulated in much the same way.  We are players in what Brandom calls the “game of giving and asking for reasons,” the most fundamental game we can possibly play.  This game can be centrally articulated in terms of two sorts of deontic statuses, commitments and entitlements.  Commitments are what you’re obligated to do according to the rules of the game, and entitlements are what you’re allowed to do according to the rules of the game.  In the same way that I alter the deontic statuses of the chess game when I move my rook to put your king in check, when I make a claim, I have altered the set of deontic statuses in a linguistic community.

Now, in chess, we understand all these deontic statuses explicitly.  We’re usually explicitly told the rules, and, when we correct behavior in others, we do so by telling them what the rules as well.  However, when it comes to the linguistic game that Brandom describes, we must be playing before we’re able to say that we’re playing, since our ability to say things is the very thing this game is supposed to explain.  So Brandom says that we start following the rules implicitly, without an explicit understanding of what they are.  These implicit rules just are the norms of the social practices that emerged through conformist behavior that I described in the previously section (Well . . . Brandom is actually rather picky about how he wants to think about social norms, and he’d have a few issues with the way I’ve described them, but we can leave that aside for now).  Within the context of these norms, speech acts are able to be socially significant.

Employing the terminology of Rebecca Kukla and Mark Lance (students of Haugeland and Brandom respectively), we can say that each speech act has a specific output and input.   The output is what the speech act does to those to hear it (what I’ve been calling the pragmatic force), and the input is what enables us to perform it.  Brandom claims that the output and the input of a speech act entirely accounts for the meaning of the speech act.  What makes this claim interesting for Brandom is that he insists that these outputs and inputs be construed in purely pragmatic terms, in terms of the outputs and inputs of other actions.  This means, for example, the input for the assertion “There’s a cat!” can’t include actual cats as an irreducible component.  Meaning is accounted for from entirely within the playing of the game, not from any things external to the game like cats.

Of course, Brandom does think that cats have something to do with the meaning of the sentence “There’s a cat!”  The cat is of course, causally responsible for my utterance of this sentence, and I’m disposed to make utterances of this sort only if cats are present.  Furthermore, gameplayers are able to keep track of my reporting abilities such that they can infer from my claiming that something is a cat, that it’s a cat.  My own authority in making non-inferential claims like this is derived from others granting me such authority.  On this account, even though what entitles me to the claim “There’s a cat!” it has everything to do with cats, it’s not the cat itself that entitles me to this claim.  I am entitled to the assertion that there’s a cat not because of the cat itself, but because I’m a member of a community that recognizes me as a reliable reporter of cats, and, accordingly grants me the authority to make such claims.

Why does Brandom work things out in this fashion?  One of the main reasons comes from Wilfrid Sellars, a philosopher who hugely influenced Brandom and Rorty before him.   Sellars argued that we can’t count something as serving as a reason for a belief if we consider it in complete independence of all our other beliefs.  This is because, in order for something to count as a reason for a belief, we must already possess an understanding of the significance that thing has in informing other beliefs.  In other words, we must understand that thing, having a concept of it, of the role it plays in the game of giving and asking for reasons.  Only once something has already been conceptualized within this game, can it serve as the basis for belief; unconceptualized things themselves cannot.  Now of course, once we already have the concept of something, and we understand how it factors inferentially with other beliefs, we can count the thing itself as entitling us to a belief.  But note that this isn’t really the thing itself; it’s the thing as we understand it.  If we want to explain the basis of all of this understanding, as Brandom does, we can’t rely on unconceptualized things themselves to do the heavy lifting.

These considerations motivate Brandom’s theory of meaning.  Rather than thinking about the meaning of a speech act in terms of what it refers to, Brandom thinks about the meaning of speech acts in inferential terms, in terms of how it factors into the premises and conclusions of the various inferences that we might make.  That is, the significance of a move is to be understood entirely in terms of how it affects other moves in the game, without relying on anything external to the game.  Commitment to some claims will commit me to others, entitlement to some claims will entitle me to others, and, most importantly, commitment to some claims will preclude entitlement to others.  So, for example, if I’m committed to the claim, “That’s a cat!” I can’t also be entitled to the claim “That’s a dog!”  This latter notion pragmatically explains the sense in which the claims “That’s a cat!” and “That’s a dog!” are incompatible.  Saying what claims a specific claim is incompatible with, Brandom thinks, allows us to account for its semantic content.

So far, I’ve mainly been talking about claims as a whole.  But what about words, the things that make up those claims?  Brandom wants to accommodate words within his inferential framework, by thinking of how the inferences which license a claim and which that claim licenses will change if parts of that claims are substituted out.  According to Brandom, two words have the same meaning if you can substitute them in for each other in a claim and preserve the same inferences.  So, “cat” and “feline” have the same meaning, just in case claims including the word “cat” will have the same inferential significance if we substitute the word “cat” with the word “feline.”  However, “cat” and “dog” have different meanings.  While, “That’s a Manx,” licenses an inference to “That’s a cat,” it does not license an inference to “That’s a dog.”  Quite the contrary, it precludes an inference to “That’s a dog.”

As I said at the beginning, Brandom promises to pull out a notion of representation out of this pragmatist framework.  To see how he thinks he can do this, consider a case in which you and I are both out in the park.  An animal is off in the distance and you say “There’s a dog! I think it’s a German Shepard.”   I, however, have better eyesight than you and I conclude that it’s a cat.  In this case, I might laugh and say, “You believe a cat is a German Shepard!”  Here now, I’ve acknowledged that both of our beliefs are about the same thing, however, the thing your belief is about is not the thing you think it is.  We can account for this effect of my speech act in pragmatic terms by showing how I’ve substitute my own commitments into your speech act in order to say what I take you to be committed to.  This ability to substitute different commitments into claims across different perspectives is what allows us to see our claims as being about things in the world.

Though I have left out several details, this is the basic way in which Brandom attempts to explain the meaning and representational aspect of speech acts purely in terms of their pragmatic properties.  If this theory is successful, Brandom can have his pragmatist cake and eat it too.

Why Pragmatism?

Brandom’s inferentialist framework is a way of explaining language in pragmatist terms, but why would we embrace pragmatism in the first place?  I’ve hinted at some of the reasons throughout this article, but I haven’t explicitly stated the upside of adopting a pragmatist theory of meaning and representation.  So, now I’ll take a moment to do so.  I believe there are two main upsides to this sort of pragmatism: an explanatory one and an epistemological one.

Let’s start with the explanatory upside of pragmatism.  To explain this upside, we have to consider what the point of all this philosophical theorizing is in the first place.  Here, I’ll draw again from Wilfrid Sellars.  The point of philosophy, Sellars says, is to “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”  He elaborates this claim by articulating to ways in which we might think about the world.  The first is the manifest image.   This is, roughly, the world as it pre-theoretically appears to us.  The manifest image includes things like tables and chairs, stop signs (and the fact that we should stop at them), claims and arguments, and so on.  On the other hand, there is the scientific image, the image that we come to know through rigorous scientific investigation.  It includes things like quarks and electrons, organic molecules, cells and circulatory systems, and so on.  One of the fundamental goals of philosophy, then, in the quest of explaining how things “hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term,” is to show how the manifest image and the scientific connect.  Among the main challenges in connecting these two images is explaining how we have things like claims that are about things in the world, in a world that, as far as we know, is made up of things like atoms and molecules.

So, here’s the explanatory challenge: How do we get things like claims that are about things, if such claims are ultimately just part of a world made up of atoms and molecules which aren’t about anything at all?  Pragmatism gives us a route to answering this question.  The two main raw materials we need to account for representational language, on the pragmatist story I’ve offered, are social practices and reliable dispositions to respond differentially to things in one’s environment.  Presumably, we can give a socio-biological explanation of social conformity that is able to account for the former, and we can give a neuro-biological explanation for the latter.  Both of these explanations will ultimately be rooted in evolutionary terms.  The great thing about explanations that appeal to evolution, from a naturalistic standpoint, is that they always bottom out in natural selection, a non-rational, non-intentional, purely causal mechanism.

So, when it comes to explaining meaning and representation on pragmatism, we have a way of connecting the dots from the scientific image to the manifest image.   If we take representation as primitive, however, no such explanation seems possible.  Social practices and dispositions to respond to environmental stimuli are both unproblematic from the standpoint of the scientific image, but representation itself is not.  Now, of course, representationalists have attempted to explain representation in naturalistic terms.  Most of these attempts have been regarded as problematic in various ways, and I don’t have the space to go over all of them here.  The point is this: if we can get a notion of representation out of social practices and reliable dispositions, as the pragmatist thinks we can, then there’s an explanatory path in sight, and we ought to follow it.

That’s the explanatory upside of pragmatism.  What about the epistemological one?  In Rorty’s book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, he criticized representationalism on largely epistemological grounds.  If one thinks of thought, in the first and foremost instance, as an attempt to represent the world, the following question arises:  How will we ever know that we’re representing things as they actually are?  If you’re a representationalist, this question is of crucial importance, and the classical representationalists struggled mightily with it.  Descartes, quite famously, attempted to derive knowledge of the external world from the inner certainty of his own thought.  But he didn’t get much beyond this without invoking God.  Locke thought that we could inductively infer from the coherence of the impressions that we have to the external world.

These traditional responses to the skeptical worry are foundationalist ones.  They start with some set of indubitable inner impressions, and they infer outward to the things that those impressions are supposed to indicate.  However, if the argument from Sellars that I mentioned in the previous section is roughly correct, no such strategy can work.  A mere internal sensation can’t license an inference an external thing unless we already have the understanding that such a sensation is a reliable indicator of that thing.  But, if inner sensations are the only thing we have from which to draw our concepts, then there is no way that we could understand these sensations in such a way that they license beliefs about the external world.  In the previous section, I employed this argument with reference to external objects, but it works just the same for internal sensations as well.  In fact, this was Sellars’ initial target when giving this argument.

While the representationalist must struggle with this difficult epistemological problem, for pragmatist, no such problem arises.  If our concepts of objects arise within a social practice in which we are conditioned to respond appropriately to such objects, then the fact that there is a reliable connection between the concept of an object and the object itself is built right into the nature of the concept.  Our entitlement to employ the concept is not, in the first instance, derived from the thing itself, but from the authority we are granted by fellow gameplayers.  With this way of thinking about things, the worry of epistemological skepticism is avoided.

While these reasons certainly do not conclusively justify this pragmatist project, hopefully they are able to provoke enough interest to justify further exploration into how the details of the project might be worked out.  Further,  I hope I’ve elaborated the theory enough to show that this it is at least a plausible way of thinking about language, one that might be able to accommodate the complexities and peculiarities of human language.  If this project is on the right track, we may be well on our way to finally understanding the nature of understanding.

Further Reading

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations

Wilfrid Sellars: Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, and Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man

Richard Rorty:  Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Robert Brandom:  Making it Explicit and Articulating Reasons


Deflating Deflationism

Truth Deflated

The concept of truth is surprisingly tricky to get a grip on.  We all have a pre-theoretical understanding of it.  If you tell me a bit of gossip you heard about in the National Enquirer and I respond by telling you that it isn’t true, you know what I’m doing there.  I’m, in some way, rejecting the story I’ve just told you.  Now, you might disagree with my assessment of your claims, and we might debate about the issue, but all of this presumes that there is a certain sense in which we both already understand what it is for claims to be true or false.

But does it really mean for something to be true?  Answering this question isn’t so easy.  One seemingly intuitive starting point is Aristotle’s famous phrase,

“To say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”

While the grammar of this phrase may be somewhat confusing at first, giving an example will make it clear.   By Aristotle’s logic, if the cat is on the mat, then to say “The cat is on the mat” is to say something true.  On the other hand, if the cat is not on the mat, then to say “The cat is not on the mat” would be to say something true.  Combining these claims, we can say that the sentence, “The cat is on the mat,” is true if and only if the cat is on the mat.

Now, if we generalize from this example (using the variable “P” to stand for any sentence), we get what’s called the disquotation principle:

“P” is true if and only if P.

The disquotation principle clearly seems to capture something important about truth, but now we are faced with the question, what is the thing that it’s capturing?  One answer to this question would be to say that the disquotation principle captures the notion that P, the fact about the world, makes it the case that the statement “P” is true.  A statement is true if it correctly says what the facts are, and so, in the event that “P” is true, it is true because P.   Any theory of truth roughly along these lines would would be to a sort of correspondence theory of truth.

Rather than evaluating the correspondence theory of truth right now, let’s see if we have any other options.  I think we do, and I want to focus on an interesting one here.  What if we reject the question that might lead us to posit something like a correspondence theory of truth in the first place? What if we say that there really is no substantive property that the disquotation principle is essentially capturing?  That’s precisely what the deflationary theory of truth says.  According to deflationism, disquotation is all there is to truth.  Truth itself, on this view, isn’t a substantive property.  Rather, it’s just a device for disquotation, for endorsing things that people say.  On deflationism, if you say, “The cat is on the mat,” and I respond, “That’s true,” that’s just like me saying “the cat is on the mat,” as well.

To say that truth is just a device for disquotation isn’t to say that it’s not a useful device.  Quite the contrary, there are things we can do with language that are exclusively available to us via the truth predicate.  With mastery of the truth predicate, I can say, for example, “Everything Carl Sagan says in Cosmos is true,” without actually knowing everything he says.  In order to endorse everything Sagan says without the truth predicate, I’d have to literally say everything he said, but since I don’t know everything he says, I couldn’t do this.

Further, to say that no substantive explanation of truth should be given, is not to say that thinking of truth as disquotation does not help us explain anything.  Consider the example I started with about me telling you that a story in the National Enquier isn’t true.  We pretheoretically understand this as me somehow rejecting your claim.  Simply by noting that truth is a disquotation predicate, we can formally articulate this intuition.  If the statement “’P’ is not true” entails not-P, then if I tell you what you’ve said isn’t true, I’ve committed myself to the negation of what you’re saying.

Three Norms Concerning Truth

Deflationism is a popular view among philosophers nowadays.  Throughout history, this strange property of truth had remained utterly mysterious, but if deflationism is right there’s no mystery at all!  To say that something is true is just a way to endorse it.  Until relatively recently I figured that deflationism was probably the best way to think about truth, but an argument by Huw Price (in his paper, Three Norms of Assertability) has made me think twice about that.  After thinking about Price’s argument, I still think deflationism is basically right, but that it is a much less significant of a philosophical claim than it purports to be.

Price’s argument, of which I’ll give my own version here, centers on the fact that truth can be, and often is, normative for discourse.  To say something is normative is to say that it functions as a standard of correctness, something in regard to which you can succeed or fail.  Truth, it seems, can function normatively in an important sense.  For example, if I’m a witness in a trial, I ought to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (so help me, God!).  In giving my testimony, I must aim at the truth.   Deflationism, it is argued, can’t account for the norm that governs this aim.

Now, it would be too quick to say that deflationism cannot account for any norms regarding truth.  For one, if the disquotation schema is correct, then P will always entail that “P” is true, and so in that case, whenever we say that P we should believe that “P” is true.  Likewise, if “P” is true it will always entail P, and so we should only say “’P’ is true” whenever we believe that P. So, the deflationist can accommodate this first norm:

Norm #1:  Say that P only if you believe that ‘P’ is true.

Of course, we only have reason to operate under Norm #1 if we have reason to be sincere.  I might ask you if my haircut looks good and you might, quite reasonably, say something that you believe isn’t true so you don’t hurt my feelings.  But still, since this norm is always implicit when assert things, you would never have reason to explicitly violate it. Explicit violations of Norm #1 account for the apparent contradiction involved in Moorean Paradoxes, things like “’P’ is true, but I don’t believe it.”

So that’s at least one norm that the deflationist can accommodate.  The deflationist also has no problem accommodating a second norm:

Norm #2:  Say that P only if you have good reason to believe that ‘P’ is true.

This is simply the Norm#1 plus an epistemic norm regarding having good reasons to say and believe things.  Norm #2, however, is not really a norm about truth at all.  Rather, it’s a norm about assertability, and the deflationist will have no problem here, since they are not limited to saying that assertability isn’t a substantive property.

But it seems that truth must be normative in another, stronger sense.  Consider this third norm, what we might call the objective norm regarding truth:

Norm #3:  Say that P only if ‘P’ is true.

Unlike the other two, this norm is not indexed to my particular beliefs or reasons.  It is completely independent of them.  Now, attempting to follow this norm, from my epistemically limited first-person perspective, will place the same boundaries on my behavior as Norm #2, but there is a difference in what will actually count as success or failure with regard to the two different norms.  I might believe something with good reason, and yet, it might nevertheless be false.  If this happens, there’s a certain sense in which I’ve failed. I haven’t failed with regard to Norm #2, but I have failed with regard to Norm #3, the objective norm of truth.

To show that there really is a failure here, we only need to reflect on the case in which I’m a witness in a trial.  If I say something that I’m justified in believing, yet nevertheless is false, there’s quite clearly a sense in which I failed.  We might say that this failure isn’t my fault, but, even so, it still is a sort of failure.  It seems paramount to an understanding of what it means to assert something as true to realize that, whenever I do, Norm #3 is operative.  So, if the thing I’ve asserted isn’t true, I’ve failed in a certain way.

Truth and Schmuth

Now the question to ask is whether a deflationist view of truth can account for this third norm.  Remember, the deflationist thinks the disquotation principle (“P” is true if and only if P) is all that there is to truth.  So, one way to address this question is to ask whether there could be a community of language-speakers who possess a disquotation predicate but who don’t possess a truth predicate.

Let’s start out by imagining a community of aliens that have a primitive language that is only used to express subjective states and give commands.  So, for example, Blorg the alien might go up to food vendor and say, “Hunger!  Eggs!” thereby expressing his hunger and demanding eggs.  Let’s also suppose that they have a predicate, “schmuth” which functions as a disquotation predicate.  Using this predicate, Blorg’s friend Morg might hear Blorg say “Hunger!” Eggs!” and say, “Everything Blorg says is schmue!”  Since “schmue” is a disquotation predicate, this would have the function of expressing hunger and demanding eggs as well.  But Morg might also say “’Hunger’ is schmue, but ‘Eggs’ is not schmue!  Steak!”  This would be disquoting “Hunger,” thereby expressing hunger, but rejecting the disquotation of “Eggs,” and demanding steak instead.

Since schmuth is a disquotation predicate, it will imply Norm #1, Say “’P’ is Schmue” only if you believe that P, if its speakers are to be consistent.   So, if Morg said, “’Hunger’ is schmue!” and yet wasn’t hungry, he’d be in violation of this norm.  We can also see how Norm #2 might be operative here.  It’s likely there will be various cases in which one will not be warranted in saying that something is schmue.  For example, if Morg has just said “Full!” and he then says “’Eggs’ is Schmue!” he might be violating this norm on account of being inconsistent.

Still, even though it functions as a disquotation predicate, schmuth isn’t truth.  When I respond to something you say by claiming that it isn’t true, there’s an important sense in which I’m disagreeing with you.  But with the case of Blorg and Morg, there’s no disagreement here.  We can chalk this up to the fact that, although Norm #1 and #2 are operative, there’s no objective norm regarding schmuth, no equivalent of Norm#3, “Say that P only if ‘P’ is schmue.”

This, you might think, is to be expected.  Speech acts like “Hunger!” and “Eggs!” aren’t declarative assertions, and it’s only declarative assertions that may be true or false.  It seems that, in order to show that truth must be more than disquotation, I’d have to show that a community could possess a disquotation predicate for assertions that still isn’t a truth predicate.  While this seems straightforward enough, it’s a bit problematic.  If declarative assertions are essentially truth-governed and truth is something more than just disquotation, then to demand that one demonstrate an assertive practice could employ a disquotation predicate that isn’t a truth predicate is to beg the question.  After all, if that were the case, any such practice would presuppose the truth predicate.

What we can do, however, is equip our aliens with speech acts that function exactly like assertions without presupposing that they essentially aim at truth.  Then we can see if disquotation gives us Norm #3, or whether it’s something extra, unrelated to disquotation, that we need for genuine truth come into the picture.  With this in mind, we can extend the example to include “assertions” and see how it turns out.  Let’s call these “assertions” (since we’re not sure whether they’re actually assertions yet) “schmassertions.”

Since “schmue” still functions perfectly fine as a disquotation predicate, there’s nothing stopping this alien language from using it for their schmassertions as well.  Blorg says, “Cat!” to schmassert that there is a cat on the lawn.  In response, Morg might say “That’s schmue!”  If he does that he’d be functionally schmasserting “Cat!” as well.  On the other hand, he might respond “That’s not schmue!  Dog!”   In doing so, he’d be rejecting the disquotation of “Cat!” and instead schmasserting that there’s a dog on the lawn.

It seems that Norm #1 and Norm #2 will still be operative for the schmuth predicate as applied to schmassertions.  But, will Norm #3 now suddenly be operative?  I don’t think so, at least not necessarily.  There’s nothing inherent in the disquotation predicate “schmue” that prevents Blorg and Morg from treating their difference here any differently than when Blorg said “Eggs!” and Morg replied “That’s not schmue!  Steak!”  If schmuth was really a truth predicate, then it’s essential that Norm #3 would be in effect here, and so there really would be a disagreement between Blorg and Morg.  But schmue, even though it still seems to work just fine as device for disquotation, doesn’t appear to put Norm #3 into effect.

Given the preceding analysis, I think we can assert (more than merely schmassert!) that “schmue,” while it functions as disquotation predicate just fine, is not actually a truth predicate.  Norm #3 is essential for truth, and we need something other than mere disquotation, to bring it into effect.  What we need is a notion of objective correctness.  While truth may just be a disquotation predicate, a disquotation predicate isn’t truth unless it’s used to endorse things as objectively correct. Accordingly, the deflationist, who insists that disquotation principle entirely accounts for truth, is leaving out a crucial detail.

Deflating Deflationism

Now, how should we proceed?  We could conclude that we’ve just went down the wrong path, a dead end, and we should have just stuck with correspondence theory of truth from the start.  For reasons I won’t discuss in detail here, I don’t think this is a good idea.  Basically, my worry comes down to the thought that any correspondence theory will end up starting out with problematic raw materials that will remain unexplained, namely the concept of representation.  While I think there is an important sense in which true claims can be seen in terms of correct representation, I think the explanation of this should come at the end of our theory of language, not the beginning of it.  This is a contentious claim, however, and I won’t press it here.

Another option is adding whatever we need to deflationism to account for the gap between Norm #2 and Norm #3.   In his book Truth and Objectivity, Crispin Wright proposes that, rather than simply being assertable (conforming to Norm #2), something must be superassertable in order to be true.  Something is superassertable just in case that, no matter how much investigation we do, and no matter how much knowledge we gain, it will continue to be assertable.  He thinks that we must “inflate deflationism” and construe truth as, minimally, something like superassertability.

While Wright proposes that we “inflate deflationism,” I think we should do just the opposite and deflate deflationism.  This would be to say that deflationism is basically right about truth but doesn’t actually answer the important philosophical questions that have made philosophers care about it.  What we’ve really been concerned with isn’t truth per se, but the norm of objective correctness to which we hold assertions, what this norm is and why it’s operative when we assert things.  On this view, rather than making truth something more substantive to explain why “schmuth,” when applied to Blorg and Morg’s schmassertions, isn’t really truth, we should look closely at why schmassertions aren’t really assertions.  Assertions, somehow, have objective content, they can be evaluated as objectively correct or incorrect, and this precisely what Blorg and Morg’s schmassertions lacked.  If they had this sort of content, they’d be bound under Norm #3.

The goal here would be to explain the objectivity involved in assertive practice first, and then deflationist truth would come along after all the real work is done.  In other words, the disquotation predicate would just be the cherry on top of the assertive practice sundae.  Now, to do this properly, we’d have to do it in a way in a way that does not presuppose truth.  Further, we need to do it in a way that does not presuppose representation.  Otherwise, we might as well help ourselves to the correspondence theory of truth from the start, since representation gives us all we need to invoke the corresponded theory of truth in an informative way.

I think the most extensive and promising project of this sort has been conducted by Robert Brandom in his book Making it Explicit, in which he tries to derive objective content, ultimately, from the norms involved in social practices and the attitudes of those immersed in these practices.  Now, this is quite a daunting task since it seems that objective norms like Norm #3 would have to transcend any of our social norms or attitudes that we might have.  Brandom thinks there’s a way of accomplishing this task, but I’ll save explaining exactly what that is for a later post.