Michael Dummett’s ‘Truth’

Buddy asked:

Hi there, do you have any advice in understanding Michael Dummett’s “truth” from 1959?  I’m struggling to understand it in a class I have.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Dummett’s ‘Truth’ is a seminal article in analytic philosophy. There’s a revised version in his collection Truth and Other Enigmas (1978) plus lots more on his view about the realism/ anti-realism debate.

Most students come across this article in George Pitcher’s collection Truth (Prentice Hall 1964). This is from a time when the standard way of discussing truth was in terms of ‘correspondence theory of truth’ versus ‘coherence theory of truth’ versus… whatever. Back in 1959, Dummett was way ahead of the game. He saw that the traditional disputes were not the most illuminating way to approach the question of truth. The problem is that instructors still routinely use this book leaving students totally unprepared for Dummett’s contribution.

I would be prepared to lay a bet that a significant proportion of those same instructors would struggle to give a coherent synopsis of Dummett’s argument. At the time when it was written, not many professional philosophers did ‘get’ what Dummett was on about. His argument could easily be expanded into a book. (As well as Truth and Other Enigmas you can look at his Frege Philosophy of Language which appeared in 1973.)

You’re not going to be able to follow the article unless you have already looked at and have some grasp of the Strawson-Russell debate over the analysis of definite descriptions. (It wasn’t really a ‘debate’, Strawson wrote his article 50 years after Russell’s ‘On Denoting’ appeared. I’ve reviewed more than one student essay where the writer was blissfully unaware of that fact.)

It will also help if you understand what the clash between Intuitionist versus Classical mathematics was (or still is) all about. Mathematical Intuitionism is Dummett’s model for his ‘anti-realist’ account of truth and meaning. (Wrongly, in my view: see my Amazon eBook, originally my D.Phil thesis, ‘The Metaphysics of Meaning’ https://amazon.com/dp/B01JUS7G68.)

Here’s a very brief sketch:

Dummett’s ultimate purpose is to raise a question about our notion of truths that lie beyond the range of human knowledge. To do that he first has to combat the idea that truth value gaps, as proposed by P.F. Strawson in ‘On Referring’, are acceptable in semantics. It is part of the concept of truth that truth is something we aim at. Hence, he argues, reference failure should be seen — as in Bertrand Russell’s theory of descriptions — as a way of being false rather than ‘neither true nor false’.

However, there are other truth value gaps that are more problematic, e.g. ‘Either Jones (who never saw combat) was brave or not.’ Is there a  truth (maybe a truth about the structure of Jones’s brain, or a truth about other possible worlds) that we can never know? All Dummett does in the article is raise the question. He ends with a description of an alternative anti-realist way of viewing reality as ‘something that comes into existence as we probe’.

In his later writings, Dummett developed an alternative account to the realist view of truth and meaning, developed from the later Wittgenstein’s views about language. Propositions are not ‘arrows’ which we aim at reality (at a target which might be so far away that we will never know whether we actually scored a hit or not) but rather instruments that we use according to rules. One can still talk of ‘truth’ provided one doesn’t lapse into a realist (arrow and target) view. We make moves in the language game, some of which are ‘correct’ and some of which are ‘incorrect’ according to rules that we are able to apply to any given case. There’s no ‘recording angel’ up in heaven keeping the score.

— I spent years of my life pondering this question. If you want to know more read my book The Metaphysics of Meaning.


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