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.

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