Performative Theory of Truth

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Until relatively recently, it was taken for granted by all philosophers who wrote on the subject of truth, regardless of their differences on other matters, that words such as true and false were descriptive expressions. This presupposition has been challenged by P. F. Strawson, who developed the theory that "true" is primarily used as a performative expression. A performative utterance may be understood by considering a paradigm case: "I promise." To say "I promise" is not to make a statement about my promising but simply to promise. To use a performative expression is not to make a statement but to perform an action. Strawson, in his essay "Truth," holds that to say that a statement is true is not to make a statement about a statement but to perform the act of agreeing with, accepting, or endorsing a statement. When one says "It's true that it's raining," one asserts no more than "It's raining." The function of "It's true that" is to agree with, accept, or endorse the statement that it's raining.

Strawson's performative analysis of "true" was conceived as a supplement to F. P. Ramsey's assertive redundancy, or "No Truth," theory of truth. Ramsey claimed that to say that a proposition is true means no more than to assert the proposition itself. "It is true that Caesar was murdered" means no more than "Caesar was murdered." "It is false that Caesar was murdered" means no more than "Caesar was not murdered." According to this view, "true" has no independent assertive meaning, and the traditional notion of truth as a property or relation is misguided. Ramsey suggested that "true" is used for purposes of emphasis or style, or to indicate the position of a statement in an argument.

Criticism of Semantic Theory

Strawson set himself the positive task of explaining the use of "true" in ordinary language and criticizing the metalinguistic or semantic theory of truth, which has an affinity with Ramsey's view. Philosophers such as Rudolf Carnap, who hold the metalinguistic position, agree with Ramsey that to say that an assertion is true is not to make a further assertion. However, these philosophers claim that truth is a metalinguistic property of sentences, which means that to say that a statement is true is to make a statement about a sentence of a given language. According to this thesis, the statement that it's true that it's raining should, strictly speaking, be written: "'It's raining' is true in English."

Strawson argues that translation practice shows the metalinguistic thesis to be false. He points out that a translator would not handle a truth declaration as if it were a sentence description. Consider the manner in which a translator would handle a case where it is perfectly clear that one really is speaking about an English sentence:

  1. "It's raining" is a grammatical English sentence.

Suppose a translator wanted to translate (1) into a different language. He would retain the constituent "It's raining" in its original English, in order to show that (1) is a description of an English sentence. But consider

  • (2) It's true that it's raining.

There would be no hesitation in translating the whole statement, including the constituent "It's raining." This shows that (2) is not, as the metalinguistic thesis claims, a description of an English sentence. Hence, "true" is not a metalinguistic predicate.

Philosophers who maintain that "true" is a descriptive expression have been misled by grammatical form. "True" is a grammatical predicate, but it is not used to talk about anything. Strawson compares "true" with "Ditto." A makes an assertion. B says "Ditto." Insofar as B talks about or asserts anything, he talks about or asserts what A talked about or asserted. A 's assertion is the occasion for the use of "Ditto," but because "Ditto" is not composed of a grammatical subject and predicate, one is not tempted to think that in uttering "Ditto" B is making an additional statement.

The parallel with "Ditto" illuminates the tie between statements and "true." The making of a statement is the occasion for, but not the subject of, a truth declaration. "True" has no statement-making role. To say that a statement is true is to perform the act of agreeing with, accepting, endorsing, admitting, confirming, or granting that statement. Such expressions as "I grant ," "I confirm ," and "Yes" are perfectly capable of substituting for "The statement is true."

Expressive Use of "True"

While Strawson emphasizes the performative role of "true," he also calls attention to another kind of use, which he calls expressive. This use is often found in sentences beginning "So, it's true that ," "Is it true that ," and "If it's true that ." In these utterances, "true" functions like the adverb "really," to express surprise, doubt, astonishment, or disbelief. However, "true" has only an expressive function in these utterances. It does not contribute, in either its expressive or its performative role, to the assertive meaning of what is said. Thus Strawson's thesis remains compatible with Ramsey's view. "True" does not change the assertive meaning of a statement. It has no statement-making role.

Resolution of "Liar" Paradox

The performative analysis of a truth declaration enabled Strawson to offer an original resolution of a well-known paradox that arises when one says:

  • (3) What I am now saying is false.

If (3) is true, then it is false; and if it is false, then it is true. Hence, we arrive at a paradox whose resolution has been one of the achievements of the metalinguistic analysis of "true." According to this analysis, (3) is read in the following manner:

  • (3a ) The object-language statement I am making now is false.

Since (3a ) no longer refers to itself, the contradictory consequences disappear. Strawson dispenses with the metalinguistic solution and dissolves the paradox in a manner consistent with his own analysis of "true." To utter (3) is like saying "Ditto" when no one has spoken. It is not to make a statement but, rather, to produce a pointless utterance. Since (3) is not a statement, it is not a statement that implies its own denial. Hence, the paradox disappears without the necessity for metalinguistic machinery.

Objections to Strawson's Analysis

Strawson does not distinguish a truth declaration from such expressions as "I grant ," "I accept ," "I concede ," "I admit ," "I insist ," "Yes ," or "Ditto." It should be noted, however, that there are differences between using these expressions and saying that a statement is true. Expressions such as "I grant ," "I concede ," "I accept ," "I admit ," and "I insist " suggest a "me versus you" background. They underline the act performed as mine. This is not the role of "That's true." Moreover, one should distinguish between expressions like "Yes," which simply register bare assent, and "The statement is true." If asked whether I agree with Smith's statement, I may say, "Yes, but my opinion isn't worth very much; I haven't studied the evidence." However, to say "His statement is true, but my opinion isn't worth very much; I haven't studied the evidence" sounds unnatural. "True," unlike "Yes," has the force of adequate evidence.

geach's criticism

P. T. Geach offered the following criticism of Strawson's analysis of "true" ("Ascriptivism," p. 233). Consider arguments of this pattern.

If x is true, then p ;

x is true;

Ergo p.

Strawson claims that the second premise, "x is true," should be analyzed as an agreeing performance. However, it cannot be claimed that in the hypothetical premise "If x is true, then p," the constituent "x is true" is an agreeing performance. If I say, "If x is true, then p," I am not agreeing with or accepting x. Hence, the explanation of "true" in the hypothetical premise must differ from its explanation in the second categorical premise. However, if the explanation of "true" changes from one premise to another, the argument would be invalid, since the fallacy of equivocation has been committed. However, the argument is clearly valid. Hence, Strawson's analysis of "true," which implies that a different explanation is required for occurrences of "true" in hypothetical and categorical statements, must be wrong.

Geach's criticism, however, appears to rest on a misunderstanding of the behavior of performatives in logical arguments. Take a clear case of a performative, "I promise to help you." Now consider the following argument.

If I promise to help you, then I'm a fool; I promise to help you; Ergo I'm a fool.

There is a performative occurrence of "I promise" in the second premise, but not in the first. When I say, "If I promise to help you, then I'm a fool," I am not promising to help you. Hence, the use of "I promise" in the first hypothetical premise requires an explanation that differs from the explanation of "I promise" in the second hypothetical premise, yet the argument remains perfectly valid. A fallacy of equivocation is not committed simply because an expression has a performative use in one premise of a logical argument and a nonperformative use in another.

Occurrences of "true" in hypotheticals do not fit a performative analysis, but it must be remembered that while Strawson emphasizes the performative use, he does not claim that this is the whole story. The nonperformative use of "true" in hypothetical statements may be considered to fall under what Strawson calls the expressive use. What is the difference between the following statements?

  • (4) If Khrushchev's statement is true, there are no missile bases in Cuba.
  • (5) Khrushchev's statement implies there are no missile bases in Cuba.

While (4) and (5) have the same assertive meaning, (4) suggests that Khrushchev's statement is in doubt. Hence "true" in (4) contributes only to the expressive quality of the statement. Since "true" in (4) has only an expressive function, but not a statement-making role, (4) does not constitute an exception to Strawson's analysis.

"blind" uses of "true"

An interesting challenge to Strawson's position is found in "blind" uses of "true." This use of "true" is exemplified when a person applies "true" to a statement without knowing what the statement is. For example, suppose a man says, "Everything the pope says is true." Presumably he does not know every statement the pope has made. It cannot, therefore, be claimed that he is making the statements made by the pope. One cannot substitute the pope's statements for "Everything the pope says is true" without a change in meaning. Hence, "Everything the pope says is true" does not, as Strawson claims, have the same assertive meaning as the pope's statements. The notion, which Strawson takes over from Ramsey, that a truth declaration has the same assertive meaning as the statement dubbed true, does not hold for blind uses of "true."

It may be argued that the speaker is blindly endorsing all the pope's statements. In that case, "Everything the pope says is true" would be analyzed as a performative use of "true" which falls outside the range of Ramsey's thesis. But this analysis could not be maintained for blind uses like "I hope that what Jones says will be true." The speaker is plainly not endorsing what Jones will say. Moreover, since "true" in this case does not function like the adverb "really," it cannot be maintained that "I hope that what Jones will say is true" exemplifies an expressive use of "true" either. Hence, neither Strawson's nor Ramsey's position seems to hold up for blind uses of "true."

Strawson, however, has analyzed blind uses of "true" in what he takes to be a Ramsey-like method. In his later paper, "A Problem about TruthA Reply to Mr. Warnock," Strawson shifts from his original position and grants that "at least part of what anyone does who says that a statement is true is to make a statement about a statement" (p. 69). This is a departure from his earlier view that "true" has no statement-making role. For the blind truth declaration "Everything the pope says is true," Strawson would offer the following Ramsey-like paraphrase: "Things are as the pope says they are." According to Strawson, this paraphrase is a statement about the pope's statements, but it also conforms to the spirit of Ramsey's view. Presumably, Strawson considers this analysis to be a Ramsey-like analysis because "true" is eliminated from the paraphrase. It must be remembered, however, that Ramsey held "true" to be eliminable because "true" is a "superfluous addition" to a statement ("Facts and Propositions," p. 17). Hence, one can always substitute P for "P is true" without loss of assertive meaning. While Strawson has eliminated "true" from "Everything the pope says is true" in the paraphrase "Things are as the pope says they are," he has not fulfilled Ramsey's claim that "true" is superfluous. A philosopher who holds the correspondence theory of truth can also eliminate "true" by substituting "Everything the pope says corresponds to the facts" for "Everything the pope says is true." However, this surely would not be a Ramsey-type elimination. Since "true" is not a superfluous addition to a blind truth declaration, it does not seem that blind uses can be paraphrased in the spirit of Ramsey.

See also Carnap, Rudolf; Paradigm-Case Argument; Performative Utterances; Pragmatism; Ramsey, Frank Plumpton; Semantics, History of; Strawson, Peter Frederick; Truth.


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