Philosophy | Seminar in Contemporary Philosophy
P730 | 25454 | Ebbs

Topic: Semantics: Truth and Words

What is truth? This question lies at the heart of some of the most
interesting and fruitful developments in analytical philosophy. The
answers that analytical philosophers offer may seem empty or thin at
first, but when properly viewed, they shed light on a number of
important philosophical topics, including the nature of logic and
meaning, realism, and the intelligibility of a “God’s-eye” point of

This course will begin by examining some of the classic writings on
truth by William James, Bertrand Russell, Gottlob Frege, Frank
Ramsey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin, P.F. Strawson, Aflred
Tarski, and W. V. Quine.  The course will then focus on two
pragmatic questions: Do we need a truth predicate? If so, what sort
of truth predicate do we need?  There are two apparently conflicting
answers to these questions offered in the literature today, both of
them motivated by the desire to clarify and facilitate our rational
inquiries. According to the first answer, due to Tarski and Quine,
this desire leads us to formulate logical generalizations, such
as “Every regimented sentence of the form ‘S  ¬ S’ is true.” To
formulate such generalizations it is both necessary and sufficient
to define a predicate ‘true in L’ that entails every sentence of the

(T)	X is true in L if and only if S

where ‘X’ is replaced by a name of a regimented declarative sentence
of one’s own language L, and ‘S’ is replaced by the sentence
that ‘X’ names.  According to the second answer, due to Donald
Davidson and Hilary Putnam, among others, to clarify and facilitate
one’s rational inquiries it is not sufficient to define a
predicate ‘true in L’ that satisfies the formal conditions just
described, for such a truth predicate is only guaranteed to apply to
one’s own sentences as one now uses them. To apply logical
generalizations to clarify one's agreements or disagreements with
other speakers, one therefore needs, in addition, a truth predicate
that one is licensed to apply to other speakers’ sentences.

A main goal of the seminar is to understand the appeal of both of
these answers, and to see if they are compatible. I will argue that
the appearance of conflict between the answers can be traced back to
a deeply entrenched way of thinking about words. To reconcile the
two answers one must therefore articulate a different way of
thinking about words.  I shall describe a way of thinking about
words that is rooted in our actual practices of identifying and
distinguishing between words in contexts in which we want to
evaluate what someone has written or said. By combining this
alternative conception of words with our own disquotational
definitions of truth, we can reconcile the two answers.