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Disquotationalism, Truth and Justification: The Pragmatist's Wrong Turn

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 36, Number 3, September 2006
pp. 371-386 | 10.1353/cjp.2006.0016

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I Introduction


A view of truth that gained prominence among early logical positivists, what A.J. Ayer called the 'redundancy theory of truth,’ has had a renaissance over the last few decades. The fundamental thought behind this theory is that the truth predicate is a device of disquotation. Redundancy, or disquotationalism, is seen by its advocates as providing a definitive answer to the perennial question 'what is the nature of truth?’ The answer, says the disquotationalist, is to reject the idea that truth has some underlying nature. The terms true and false, as Ayer put it, connote nothing (Ayer, 1936/1946, 88). They do not correspond or refer to some elusive ingredient of reality. Truth, he argued, must be deflated from its exalted metaphysical status — but the notion should not be dispensed with altogether. Disquotationalists like Ayer think that the truth predicate has an essential role to play in logic. Indeed, disquotationalism, in its purest form, sees the sole function of the truth predicate as fulfilling this logical need, that is, as a device that aids generalization by permitting infinite conjunction and disjunction. Its two most prominent contemporary defenders, Hartry Field and Paul Horwich, are both advocates of this form of disquotationalism. Although they disagree on certain details over the proper shape disquotationalism should take, for both Field and Horwich 'truth’ can be entirely captured by the triviality of (some version of) the equivalence schema: 'p’ is true if and only if p.


Disquotationalism is Cheryl Misak’s main target in her 'Deflating Truth: Pragmatism vs. Minimalism.’ Misak puts forth a pragmatist theory of truth that is deflationary in spirit but goes beyond the triviality of the equivalence schema (hereafter ES). Her argument in favor of her Peircean view of truth has two key premises. First, she argues that a pragmatist theory of truth can preserve the anti-metaphysical insights of disquotationalism. Second, she notes that since, for the disquotationalist, truth is entirely captured by the ES and the ES holds across the board for all declarative sentences, disquotationalism lacks the tools to discriminate between different sorts of declarative sentences in various realms of discourse. Consequently, she argues, the disquotationalist cannot make sense of what seem like very sensible debates, e.g. debates about whether moral judgments 'aspire to truth,’ and is thus forced into a kind of quietism about these debates (Misak, 1998, 420). The pragmatist, on the other hand, in moving beyond the triviality of the ES, gains the resources to participate in these debates. Since in one crucial respect the pragmatist does no worse than the disquotationalist and in another one the pragmatist does one better, Misak concludes that pragmatism offers the superior account of truth.


I disagree, and in what follows I argue that there are some serious problems with Misak’s pragmatist theory of truth. To start with, as she sets it up, it is unmotivated; the problem it is meant to resolve, i.e. how to make sense of disciplined discourse in the moral realm, is simply not a concern for the disquotationalist. The argument that a deflated notion of truth cannot capture our justificatory practices has no purchase with someone who has no such aspirations for the truth predicate and gets off the ground only if we have in mind a more robust notion of truth than the disquotationalist need allow. So while Misak is right that the disquotationalist, restricted as she is to the ES, has trouble 'engaging in the long-standing debate over whether statements about what is just or unjust, odious or acceptable, are such that they are either true or false, as opposed to up to the standards of some local discourse or other’ (Misak, 1998, 420), she is wrong to think that this is a problem for disquotationalism. That is not to say that these live debates are not perfectly good ones, of course they are, but they are not debates about truth. And this leads to the real problem with Misak’s pragmatist theory of truth — not that it is unmotivated (although it is), but that she uses truth to explicate moral debates. Misak goes from the perfectly good notion that when we disagree over moral matters...



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