Saying true things about the world

by Neil Rickert

This continues my series of posts on truth.  Up to now, my discussion has mainly been technical.  But truth matters to us because we want to be able to say true things.  We use natural language statements about the world (where “world” is understood broadly) in order to say those true things.

Linguistics is not my area, but I cannot avoid it completely.  Chomsky’s linguistics is based on the idea that language is a syntactic structure.  Presumably the semantics are an add-on to that underlying syntactic structure, although Chomsky doesn’t say much about how semantics makes it into language.

I very much disagree with Chomsky’s view of language.  As I see it, language is primarily semantic.  I see the rules of syntax as mostly an ad hoc protocol used for disambiguation.  So today’s post will be mainly about semantics or meanings.  This has to do with how words can refer to things in the world, or how words can be about something.  This is related to the philosophical problem of intentionality (or aboutness) of language statements.  Here I will be presenting only a broad overview.  I expect to get into more details in future posts.

Carving up the world

I hinted at the idea when I presented my modest theory of truth.  There, I said:

Similarly, if I were to say “the cat is on the mat”, you would see that as true provided that I had followed the standards of the linguistic community in the way that I used the words “cat”, “on” and “mat”.

According to my theory of truth, we need standards for the use of words such as “cat”, “on” and “mat”, and we judge the truth of a statement based on whether it conforms to those standards.

As is often said, we carve up the world into parts.  We don’t only look at physical or geographical parts of the world.  We also look at relational parts, and “on” is an example of something relational.  We then give names to the parts into which we carve the world.  And we construct statements that express connections between those parts.  Our vocabulary comes from those names, and our meanings comes from how we carve up the world.

If we are going to be able to communicate with one another, then we need to all carve up the world in much the same way.  Our carving need not be exactly the same — we can cope with some give and take in our language use, as long as the ways we carve up the world are not too far apart.  It is not a problem if some people may carve up the world more finely than others.  For example, a botanist will carve up the plant world far more finely than I will.  The consequence is that the botanist can give details that I would have difficulty following unless I started studying botany.  Carving up more finely is not a problem.  It would be a problem if someone carved up the world in a way that was completely incommensurate with how I carve up the world.  For then we would have nothing in common that we could talk about.

The consequence, then, is that the way we carve up the world needs to be a matter of social convention.  And if it is a social convention, then it becomes, in effect, a community standard such as we can use in judging the truth of talk about the world.  I will use the expression “carving conventions” when talking about such conventions.

There is also a question of how it is possible to have such social conventions.  This is related to Wittgenstein’s argument on the impossibility of following a rule.  Wittgenstein argues that it is impossible to follow a rule because it is impossible to know what is the rule.  For carving conventions, that would seem to be a problem.  How can I know how others carve up the world?  I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.  For now, I’ll note that our following of carving conventions is imperfect.  We don’t always agree with one another.  But we manage to keep our disagreements small enough that communication is still possible.

I should be clear, at this point, that carving conventions are really behavioral convention.  They are not simply spoken rules.  Often, we are unable to even explain how we are carving up the world.  But what matters is that we all do it is roughly the same way, apart from the possibility that some folk may carve more finely than others.

It’s also important to note that our carving conventions need to be pragmatic.  If I carve up the world in a way that nobody else can emulate, then I cannot communicate about that.  One of the pragmatic requirements of a carving convention, is that it must be possible for others to follow closely enough.

Naming conventions

Having carved the world into parts, we also need to have names for those parts if we want to be able to talk to one another about them.  So how we name the parts also needs to be a social convention.

Naming conventions are a little easier to communicate, because the names occur directly in speech.  So we can see what names other people are using, and we can correct people when we think they are using them wrongly.

If two people have the same carving conventions, but different naming conventions, then it might be possible to translate between their naming conventions.  So, in some sense, naming conventions are not as fundamental as carving conventions.

Saying true things

Now we can get back to the title question.  In order to say things about the world, we carve the world into parts.  And then what we want to say has to be expressible in terms of those parts.  We use the names of those parts to form a statement.  And then the statement will be true if we properly followed our standards for carving (i.e. the carving conventions) and if we properly named those parts according to our naming standards (i.e. the naming conventions).  And if we are sometimes a bit sloppy in assessing the truth of a statement, it is mostly because there is some sloppiness in our carving conventions and perhaps some ambiguity in our naming conventions.

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6 Responses to “Saying true things about the world”

  1. “Similarly, if I were to say “the cat is on the mat”, you would see that as true provided that I had followed the standards of the linguistic community in the way that I used the words “cat”, “on” and “mat”.”
    …when you stated The cat is on the mat, there was no cat and no mat(my suspicion). And then you go ahead discussing the idea of truth of the fact when it’s not a fact at all but a lie! After all these posts you still don’t seem to grasp even a simple truth and then you abstract a non-truth to creat even more non truths and abstractions. You by doing this clarify nothing!


    • If you thought I was saying something about actual cats around here, then you have completely missed the point.

      If you thought that I was disagreeing with traditional philosophy — well, that’s why I’m a heretic.


      • You are missing the point. Truth as you know is tricky and if you are going to start off with an argument for it you should begin with a true statement and build your argument from there. You cannot reach a formula for truth based on a falsity.



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