Azzouni on Deflation

27 07 2005

Now that I’ve finished Maddy’s Naturalism in Mathematics, I’ve started reading Jody Azzouni’s recent book, Deflating Existential Consequence, which apparently tries to argue that although existential claims about mathematical entities (and many other entities) may be indispensable to our best scientific theories, this doesn’t mean we’re “ontologically committed” to them. I suppose I’ll get into that stuff later, but for now I’m reading his early chapters about truth.

He suggests that we must be deflationists about truth in order to use the truth predicate the way we do. One of the important uses, he suggests, is “blind ascription”, which is when I say something like “What Mary said is true”, rather than actually exhibiting a sentence in quotation marks followed by “is true”. It’s clear that we have a reason to engage in blind ascription of truth for a variety of reasons in our scientific theorizing, either when we talk about the consequences of an infinite theory (or at least an unwieldy and large one), or when we use a simplified version of a theory to make a calculation (like replacing “sin t” by “t” in calculating the period of oscillation of a pendulum) and suggest “something in the vicinity of this result is true”. In order for blind ascription to work, he suggests, we need to have a theory of truth that endorses every Tarski biconditional of the form “‘__’ is true iff__”. But he suggests that only the deflationist about truth can really do this.

The problem is that any supplementation of deflationist (Tarski-biconditional governed) truth faces a dilemma. Either it falsifies a Tarski biconditional (and so proves unfit for blind ascription), or it fails to be a genuine supplementation of the deflationist notion of truth.

As an example, he considers the requirement one might have that a certain type of compositionality holds. That is, “snow is white” is true just in case there is some object that “snow” refers to and a predicate referred to by “white” that applies to that object. If this requirement goes beyond the requirement of the biconditional, then such a compositional notion of truth will be unfit for blind ascription. But if it doesn’t, then he says that this requirement is “toothless”, and doesn’t get us a notion of truth any different from the deflationist.

This latter seems to me to be wrong though. Both Davidson (in “Truth and Meaning”) and Field (in “Tarski’s Theory of Truth”) apply such a requirement to the truth predicate. While Davidson seems to be happy to take a deflationist account of truth, and then use the compositionality requirement to explicate the notions of reference and meaning, Field seems to do something different. Field (at least at the time of that paper, and probably into the mid-80’s) wanted a physicalist explanation of the notions of reference and meaning for individual words, and then used the notion of compositionality to define truth. Then, using the Tarski biconditionals, we can understand just what our ordinary sentences commit us to, and we have used truth as a step in the understanding of language, rather than using understanding language as a step in explaining reference as Davidson wanted.

To see that Field’s notion of truth in this case isn’t just deflationary, I point out a usage I believe Field mentions in a much later paper (“Correspondence Truth, Disquotational Truth, and Deflationism”, from 1986). This is the example that convinced me not to be a deflationist about truth, though ironically I hear that Field became one very soon afterwards. But basically, for the deflationist, the Tarski biconditionals are constitutive of the meaning of the truth predicate, so “‘Grass is white’ is true” has just the same content as “Grass is white”. Similarly, “‘Grass is white’ might have been true” is the same as “Grass might have been white”. To see the problem, we note that as a result, “If we had used our words differently, “Grass is white” might have been true” comes out the same as “If we had used our words differently, grass might have been white”. But intuitively, the former is correct and the latter not, so the deflationist must be wrong. I think the compositional account of truth gets this right, and the biconditionals are then useful only to understand how language works and to establish the the practice of blind assertion.

So I think on this point, Azzouni is not quite right, and we can have a non-deflationary position that asserts all the same biconditionals, and is thus fit for blind assertion, and thus for science. In fact, I think there’s reason to believe that this is the right sort of truth theory, but of course that’s quite hard to argue. He has a footnote that points out what I take to be the Davidsonian position, but I think he might miss the Fieldian position. Unless I’m wrong about what this footnote is supposed to mean.




4 responses

27 07 2005
Greg Frost-Arnold

Hello again, Kenny, and thanks for sending a shout-out for my blog… I appreciate it.

I haven’t read the Azzouni book, but I just wanted to offer another reason that ‘Tarski-biconditional governed truth’ should not be equated with ‘deflationary truth,’ as Azzouni apparently thinks (looking at the first quotation of his you give).

The first generation of philosophers working on formal semantics thought that sentences like the following (when regimented within an appropriate formal language) were analytic — and therefore devoid of empirical content:
“‘Socrates’ refers to Socrates.”
“‘Snow is white’ is true iff snow is white.”
“‘Snow is white’ is a meaningful sentence.”
(I’m thinking of Carnap and Tarski primarily, but others held this view too.)

Quine, starting in the 40s and 50s, suggested that these sentences were not analytic. By Word and Object in 1960, he had developed a relatively thorough conceptual framework for analyzing language from an empirical point of view (so e.g. Carnapian synonymy is replaced by ‘Stimulus synonymy,’ etc.).

So in short, if you think reference (and the terms that can be defined from it and other logical machinery, e.g. ‘truth’) is an empirical notion, then you will not (necessarily) have a deflationist point of view. But if you think truth, reference, etc. are analytic (or perhaps ‘logical’) notions, then that’s conducive towards a deflationary view of truth, since these concepts would then be independent of empirical matters of fact. But regardless of whether one thinks reference should be thought of as an empirical matter or not, the derivability of the Tarski biconditionals can function as a condition of material adequacy for one’s theory of truth.

28 07 2005
Jonah Schupbach

Interesting post Kenny. I think that you are right in your evaluation of Azzouni’s argument – as I understand it. And it seems to me that Azzouni’s argument would only work generally for compositional accounts that – so to speak – begin with the T-schema. In Truth, Horwich writes of his own theory, “Minimalism involves a reversal of the explanatory direction…on the basis of the equivalence biconditionals it is easy to see why, and in what form, the traditional principles hold.” Whereas Davidson starts with the T-schema in forming his theory of truth, Field (as you note) starts with analyses of meaning and reference, only eventually using compositionality to show how the instances of the T-schema follow. I am writing a paper right now where I want to show that one can analyze the concept of correspondence in such a way that explains just why the (all) instances of the T-schema must follow. Of course, this is a bit of a different direction from where you go here, but thanks nonetheless for some helpful thoughts.

2 08 2005
Jonah Schupbach

I am reading through Field’s paper “The Deflationary Conception of Truth” published in the collection *Fact Science and Morality* (1986). This is a fantastic paper in which Field is defending a “radically deflationary” view of truth. I was surprised to come across the example that you give Kenny in this publication. It is worth noting I think that Field actually uses that example in this paper in support of disquotational truth. He basically says that any notion of truth that didn’t treat the two statements given in the example as equivalent wouldn’t be able to serve as a device for infinite conjunction or disjunction. Thus, Field suggests in this publication that it is rather beneficial for a concept of truth to imply this unintuitive result.

Field writes (where C1 and C2 are the two seemingly non-equivalent statements above): “I take it that a notion of correspondence truth is, among other things, a notion of truth which differs from disquotational truth in making C1 and C2 inequivalent; if so, then if I want to deny Euclidean geometry, I don’t want to express my denial by saying that not all axioms of Euclidean geometry are true in a correspondence sense. For what I want to say is something about the structure of space only; not involving the linguistic practices of English speakers.”

3 08 2005

Jonah – that sounds like the paper I was thinking of, though I encountered it in the Michael Lynch collection on truth. It’s been a while since I read it, and as you point out, I seem to have forgotten some of the arguments. I guess he was pointing out there that we need both conceptions of truth for different purposes. I had forgotten that bit about Euclidean geometry, which of course requires the deflationary type of truth, and is what Azzouni is focusing on here.

Greg – that’s a good point, linking deflationism with analyticity. I’ll have to think more about all this stuff.

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