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2.2: Is Truth Relative to Meaning?

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  • There is a further potential source of confusion about truth that might be worth addressing at this point. Words and sentences can be used in lots of different ways. Even if we are not being inventive with language, there is lots of vagueness and ambiguity built into natural language. A tempting pitfall in thinking about truth is to think that truth is somehow relative to meaning or open to interpretation.

    We’d all agree that it’s true that dogs are canines. But suppose we used the word “dog” to refer to housecats instead. A word is just a sound or a string of letters. We can, in principle, attach any meaning we like to the word “dog”. If we used the word “dog” to refer to housecats, then the sentence “Dogs are canines” would be false. Doesn’t this make truth relative to meaning or interpretation? Well, in a way yes, but not really.

    The truth of sentences, bits of language, is relative to meaning. But the relativity at issue here is entirely linguistic. It’s simply the result of the meaning of words and sentences being relative to linguistic convention. But our everyday notion of truth is not about linguistic convention any more than it is about knowledge or belief. Our notion of truth is fundamentally about the correspondence between what is meant by a sentence and the way the world is. Philosophers often refer to what is meant or expressed by a sentence as a proposition. While a sentence is a piece of language that has a meaning, the proposition it expresses is not itself a piece of language. Consider “Schnei ist wies” and “Snow is white”. The first sentence is German for snow is white. These are distinct sentences and this is clear because they belong to different languages. But they say the same thing. They both express the proposition that snow is white (we are stuck with using English to refer to the proposition. But that doesn’t mean the proposition is linguistic. We use English to refer to lots of things that aren’t themselves part of language; dogs and cats for instance).

    So the proposition expressed by a sentence is not itself a linguistic thing. Being a non-linguistic thing, the proposition does not have a meaning. Rather the proposition is what is meant. For a bit of language to be open to interpretation is for us to be able to attach different meanings to it. But the meanings themselves are not open to further interpretation. And it is the proposition, what is meant by the sentence, that is the fundamental bearer of truth or falsity. A proposition is true when it represents things the way they are. So when I speak of arguments consisting of claims you might bear in mind that its propositions, not sentences I’m talking about. If we misinterpret the sentence, then we haven’t yet gotten on to the claim being made and hence probably don’t fully understand the argument. Getting clear on just what an argument says is critical to the dialectical process.

    Even if you are exceptionally bright, you probably found the last couple paragraphs rather challenging. That’s OK. You might work through them again more carefully and come back to it in a day or two if it’s still a struggle. The path to becoming a better critical thinker is more like mountain climbing than a walk in the park, but with this crucial difference: no bones get broken when you fall off an intellectual cliff. So you are always free to try to scale it again. We can sum up the key points of the last few paragraphs as follows:

    • We use sentences, bits of language, to express propositions.
    • The proposition, what is meant by the sentence, represents the world as being some way.
    • The proposition is true when it represents the world in a way that corresponds to how the world is.
    • Truth, understood as correspondence between a claim (a proposition) and the way the world is, is not relative to meaning, knowledge, belief, or opinion.

    Hopefully we now have a better grip on what it is for a claim to be true. A claim is true just when it represents things as they are. As is frequently the case in philosophy, the real work here was just getting clear on the issue. Once we clearly appreciate the question at hand, the answer seems pretty obvious. So now we can set aside the issue of what truth is and turn to the rather different issue of how to determine what’s true.

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