Performative Theory of Truth

Performative Theory of Truth

1. Introduction

When we look at theories of truth, we frequently find that discussions quickly become mired in disputes about the properties of sentences and propositions that are said to be true or the attitudes and conventions that are taken to be necessary for their truth. Let us call theories that adopt this general method of approach “static” theories of truth. The paradigm static theory is the Correspondence Theory, according to which ‘P’ is true if it corresponds to a fact. Static theories ask: ‘What is truth?’ And their strategies for answering that question typically involve identifying some form of correspondence, coherence, or constructivism about the relationship between thoughts or propositions and the reality that is to be the measure of their truth. That kind of question may well be pressing enough but, as it stands, it makes certain unempirical assumptions about the nature and context of practice in which claims to truth are made. There is no guarantee that it is the most useful way of asking about the nature of truth and it provides little guidance as to how one is to recognize or warrant truth. The Performative Theory of Truth grows out of a dissatisfaction with both traditional correspondence theories and the various forms of anti-realism that have become increasingly influential in philosophical circles since Quine criticised the notion of truth as a ‘dogma’ of empiricist philosophies. This disenchantment emerges as a sense of being caught in the crossfire of disputes that are generated by unempirical philosophical assumptions as to the nature and statuses of truth bearers and are conducted at a level of abstraction from concrete ways of managing issues about truth in the context of various practices. Practice is here understood as various ways of ‘meaning something to someone’ and is contrasted with a more or less theoretical activity of representing how things are in themselves or showing how one set of representations is related to another.

2. Key Concepts

Austin titles his first lectures on this topic “Truth”. He begins that in these lectures he shall be questioning into the nature of what we say, when we say is true or false. What makes it true? Or could anything make it false? He asks us to consider the sentence “it’s raining” when one says this at 5pm and it is in fact raining outside. This sentence is true. But if this same sentence is said at 5am when it is not in fact raining outside, and the person saying it believes it is raining, yet it is not, is the sentence now false? If so what aspect of reality makes it false when compared with the same sentence said at 5pm in the original context? What he is trying to say is that the raining is an occurrence which makes this sentence true or false, depending upon the circumstances. But when something is the case or not, is that always a matter of truth and falsity for a statement? His second question asks whether something can be true without its being stated or without it being stated in the indicative mood. For example, someone is visiting a foreign country and sees a bar of particular English chocolate and says “Ah that’s the stuff!” – this could be called an expression of a true/false statement, but the visitor hasn’t said “it is” or “that was” which also suggests a third question as to whether the truth and falsity of a sentence is dependent upon the context and force with which it is said. But Austin decides that these two questions are not fundamental to his examination of truth, and avoids deciding upon them.

3. Application of Performative Theory

a. Truth as upholding a statement. A conditional statement can be upheld by commitment of its antecedent and/or by the making of an inference whose conclusion it is. Some performative theories hold that to establish a state of affairs S is just to perform those speech acts which commit one to the truth of S. A familiar view in the philosophy of action says that to try to obtain X is just to carry out those acts which one believes to be steps towards getting X. Now these beliefs or commitments can themselves be regarded as implicit claims, and the performative theory of them is a particularly simple and elegant one. The claim that a belief is implicit in assertion of a conditional is just the conditional with the belief as antecedent; so assertion of the belief is realizing the antecedent and upholding it with itself. Similarly, trying to carry out acts A in order to establish S is the performing of acts A to establish the same conclusion; so this is a special case of inferring with the acts A as antecedent. Both belief and commitment come out as attempts to establish what is being claimed, but they are attempts with no separate existence from the thing to be established. So the performative view of belief and commitment of an antecedent is that they are attempts to uphold with those very same belief or commitment the thing which is believed or the act whose commission is the obtaining of it.

We should remember that one of the goals of performative theories of truth is to make sense of how certain moves (in language or in the world) can succeed in establishing states of affairs. It is to explain, for example, how saying something can make it the case, or (for normative claims) how trying to do something can count as doing it. Often, it is sought to explain this in a way that makes the thing to be explained come out as a special case of a statement’s being true. For it can seem odd to say that someone has succeeded in asserting something by saying something that didn’t succeed in being true; and similarly, it can seem odd to say that trying to do something has counted as doing it if the thing that was tried did not come to be. Now when we are seeking an explanation of this sort, we can proceed by considering in turn the various different forms of statement or claim. But we can also proceed by considering those different ways in which statements or claims are upheld or undermined. Both of these methods are in fact employed by the various different performative theories.

4. Criticisms and Limitations

Finally, I highly agree with Austin that the correspondence rule of ascertaining whether a sentence is true or false, or whether to provide a truth value to a sentence which is not ascertainable by a yes or no answer, is detrimental and thus should be abandoned. The correspondence rule suggests that to ascertain the truth value of a sentence, one should compare it to reality. If it maps onto a fact then it is true, if not then it is false. Things are only onto something else if they are the same, if a copy of something will be exact in every detail, then it is that thing. The correspondence rule then takes this way of one thing being onto another, and applies it to sentence meaning. A sentence is only true if it corresponds to a fact, that is, if it is true it says something which is the case. If it is false then it says something which is not the case. But, there are many types of sentences which are neither true nor false, and are meaningful. Although these failure to factualize all language is noted by Strawson and other later Oxford philosophers, it has taken until very recent philosophy, that is postmodernism, to seriously address and challenge the correspondence rule. Austin has made a very early attack on the correspondence rule, thus theory of truth or otherwise searching for a truth value for all sentences, is something that the later Wittgenstein’s everyday language philosophy has a kinship with Austin’s work.

5. Conclusion

It is remarkable that so little attention has been given by professional philosophers to the nature of the correspondence relation and the conditions which have to be fulfilled if a proposition is to correspond with reality. We have been inclined to assume that any statement can be true or false, without it being clear what the ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ of the statement consists in. There is surely some connection between a true empirical proposition and the fact which makes it true. We have been asking what this connection is. And the answer is that the proposition is true if a corresponding fact exists, and is false if no corresponding fact exists: i.e. the truth of the proposition consists in its correspondence with a fact. This answer, however, strengthens the view that there must be an absolutely specific fact with which a true proposition corresponds, and it brings us back to the difficulty over the correspondence theory discovered by Moore. I am haunted by the hope that this difficulty may be due to mistaking complexity for ambiguity, and that persistent analytic attempts to explain the simple and familiar fact of truth may end by dispelling the mist. Our search has convinced us that the concepts of truth and falsity are to be understood only in connection with the verification and falsification of propositions. A proposition in a context detached from its verification or falsification is no more capable of truth or falsity than a sign unattached to a proposition. A proposition is capable of being true if, for certain combinations of objects, there is a way in which the proposition is capable of being put which makes it capable of having a corresponding true or false answer, i.e. if it is possible to find an answer to a question directly raised by the proposition. Truth is the aim of inquiry, and inquiry is possible only where there is structure or logical type. Thus a proposition is capable of truth or falsity only where a way of representing it at a determinate logical type can be construed as a method of asserting something about objects of the same logical type.

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