Truth, deflationary theories of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N062-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2024, from

2. Problems with the Gratuity Thesis

The intense interest in the Deflationary Thesis in the later decades of the twentieth century should not give the impression that the Gratuity Thesis is itself beyond doubt. All existing theories of truth ascriptions face problems. In particular, at least two of the difficulties confronting the redundancy theory are worth mentioning. First, what are we to make of blind truth ascriptions such as ‘What the editor says is true’, which do not explicitly identify the proposition to which truth is being ascribed? Given that the speaker (and for that matter the audience) might not even know what proposition the editor has asserted, the idea that this truth ascription is just an alternative way of asserting that same proposition loses some plausibility. The two best redundancy theories, those of C.J.F. Williams (1976) and Paul Horwich (1990), handle this problem quite cleverly. But neither of them deals adequately with the fact that, as Horwich concedes, the redundancy theory cannot actually be stated. It can be described as the conjunction of all clauses of the form: ‘“p is true” is synonymous with “p”’. Obviously, one cannot state an infinitely long conjunction. Nor can one simply append the quantifier ‘For all p’ to the front of this schema. Such a quantifier cannot be objectual, on the one hand, because the first appearance of the ‘p’ in the schema stands in for a noun, while the second appearance stands in for a grammatically complete clause. On the other hand, such a quantifier cannot be substitutional, for then the redundancy theory would be saying ‘all substitution instances of the schema are true’ and thus the theory would be parasitic on some other antecedent notion of truth.

P. F. Strawson’s (1950) performative theory of truth (ascriptions) denies that apparent truth ascriptions say anything in any familiar sense of ‘say’ (see Strawson, P. §4). Such utterances are more doings than sayings. They are gestures of agreement, much like nodding one’s head. Hence, to utter ‘"Routledge editors are fine folks" is true’ is to signal agreement with the notion that Routledge editors are fine folks. Utterances which do something rather than say something are called illocutionary or performative utterances (see Performatives).

Strawson concedes that certain conditions in the non-linguistic world must obtain before one may properly signal one’s agreement, where the force of ‘properly’ is not ‘appropriate from the standpoint of honesty or accuracy’ but ‘appropriate from the standpoint of correct usage’. For example, one ought not utter the words ‘"The dam has collapsed" is true’ unless one believes it is a fact that the dam has collapsed. But if uttering an apparent truth ascription is just to signal agreement, why would the facts of the matter have any relevance? If ‘is true’ in no way asserts that these conditions are fulfilled, then how and why would these conditions be conditions for uttering ‘is true’? One can after all signal agreement, dishonestly, even when one does not in fact agree. A second reason for doubting that the performative theory can establish the Gratuity Thesis is that, as H. Price (1988) has pointed out, the theory makes it a mystery why ‘is true’ is only applicable to indicative sentences. Why can we not use it to endorse the appropriateness of some question (for example, ‘"Is snow white?" is true’) just as we can use it to endorse someone’s assertion? And why can we not say ‘"Shut the door!" is true’ to express our endorsement of the importance of obeying this command? It seems that any answer to these questions would have to concede that ‘is true’, ‘is a good question’, and ‘ought to be obeyed’ mean different things and this would imply that each of them says something.

Besides pronouns, English also contains pro-verbs, such as the ‘did’ in ‘Mary ran quickly, so Bill did too’, and pro-adjectives such as ‘such’ in ‘The happy man was no longer such’; and pro-adverbs such as the ‘so’ in ‘She twitched violently and, while so twitching, expired’. D. Grover, J. Camp and N. Belnap (1975), inventors of the prosentential theory of truth (ascriptions), suggest that there are also prosentences. ‘So’ is used this way in ‘I do not believe Rachel is sick, but if so, she should stay home’. More to the immediate point, they contend that the phrases ‘it is true’ and ‘that is true’, despite their subject–predicate structure, are really one-word prosentences. And they claim that every locution in which ‘is true’ appears can be replaced by a locution that uses one of these prosentences. Thus, they endorse a modified version of the Gratuity Thesis: ‘is true’, as a separable predicate, is a gratuitous feature of the language. For example, ‘Everything John says is true’ is ‘For every proposition, if John says that it is true, then it is true’, where neither the ‘it’ nor the ‘is true’ have any separate meaning whatsoever.

The most serious objection to the prosentential theory concerns modified uses of ‘is true’ such as ‘is not true’ or ‘will be true’. The prosentential theory postulates that the deep structure of English contains a number of sentential operators including ‘It-will-be-true-that’ and ‘It-is-not-true-that’, and that all modified uses of ‘is true’ involve one or the other of the two prosentences within the scope of one of these operators. Thus, the deep structure of ‘Everything John says will be true’ is ‘For all propositions, if John says that it is true, then it-will-be-true-that it is true’, where, again, the ‘it is true’ is a prosentence. To analyse apparent predications of falsehood, they postulate the operator ‘It-is-false-that’. Thus, the deep structure of ‘That is false’ is ‘It-is-false-that that is true’. But, then, how do we account for the ‘true’ that appears in the sentential operators? The operators cannot themselves be given a prosentential analysis: if they could, there would have been no need to postulate them in the first place. The use of hyphens to connect the words of the operators tempts us to think of them each as a single word, in which case the ‘true’ in them has no independent meaning. But it is not easy to see how we could explain the meanings of these one-word operators without using a substantive notion of truth, and even if we could, our explanations of such one-word operators would miss out entirely on the common element in the meanings of, say, ‘it-will-be-true-that’ and ‘it-was-true-that’.

Citing this article:
Kirkham, Richard L.. Problems with the Gratuity Thesis. Truth, deflationary theories of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N062-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

Related Articles