Blog Moved

Friday, February 1, 2013

Ayer on Truth

On a more substantive note: Ayer's 1953 paper "Truth" is really under-rated, in my opinion. Did anyone make the now familiar points about the ineliminability of "true" before him? The paper is not often cited, and when it is it is almost always cited wrongly: Volume 25, 1953. It was in issue 25, but volume 7, which makes me kind of suspect that a lot of people who cite it haven't actually read it.
I'm all the more suspicious since Ayer is so often claimed for the deflationist side, when in fact his view is much more nuanced. The crucial remarks come at the transition between two very different parts of the paper:
Let it be granted then that we must forego any general definition of truth, and let it also be granted that there are certain contexts in which the words 'true' and 'false'...are ineliminable. It does not follow that there is any mystery about their meaning. On the contrary, their function is quite clear. ...To speak of a sentence, or a statement, as true is tantamount to asserting it, and to speak of it as false is tantamount to denying it. ...[I]t is hard to see what further explanation of [truth] is required.
Can we say then that we have solved the philosophical problem of truth? What is disturbing about our solution is its simplicity. If that is all there is to it, it is hard to see how anybody, even a philosopher, can ever have been supposed that the question 'What is truth?' presented any difficulty at all. ...All the same they must have known well enough how the word 'true' was actually used. Such information as that it is true that the sky is blue if and only if the sky is blue could hardly be expected to come upon them as a revelation. ...What they would that the provision of these partial definitions did not meet their problem. It remains, therefore, for us to see what this problem can have been and if possible to solve it.
Ayer then goes on to do exactly that. His understanding of what the problem is, of course, is shaped by his verificationism, but he does think there is another problem that goes by the name "the problem of truth", just as Strawson does.
Ayer's paper is pretty hard to find. Feel free to ask me for a copy if you need one. Oh, and beware! Ayer also published a paper titled "Truth" in 1963, in his collection The Concept of a Person and Other Essays. There is a fair bit of overlap between the two papers, but they are different papers.


  1. Quine is often cited as pointing out the usefulness of "is true" in cases like "Everything he said is true". But his earliest mention of this point seems to be 1970 in The Philosophy of Logic.

  2. It would be surprising if there weren't something earlier. Not a Quine scholar, though, and there actually isn't that much of Quine's that's earlier than 1953.


Comments welcome, but they are expected to be civil.
Please don't bother spamming me. I'm only going to delete it.