Bare Facts and Naked Truths: A New Correspondence Theory of Truth. By George Englebretsen


Pp. x, 194 , Aldershot/Burlington VT , Ashgate , 2006 , $110.00.

To introduce his ‘Conclusion’, the author cites one C. C. Colton to the effect that many books require no thought from those who read them, for the simple reason that they needed none from their writers. No-one could make such a complaint of this work, which demands considerable and unremitting mental effort from the reader, and fortunately rewards it.

The main difficulty faced by correspondence theories of truth is that it is so difficult to get one's account of what represents (in truth) or misrepresents (in falsehood), satisfactorily disentangled from whatever it is that is represented or misrepresented. J. L. Austin's gloriously lapidary ‘Facts are what true statements state' becomes less than enlightening, perhaps, when one begins to wonder what a true statement is other than what states a fact, a false statement other than one that fails to state one while purporting to do so. (As to ‘facts’, the observation that facts are factitious fictions, whether one agrees with it or not – I don't, and nor does the author –, is certainly vintage, sparkling Quine.) And the gap is apt to be filled, some would say to unhelpful or even vicious effect, by those queer entities ‘propositions’, which are at once nebulous and fustily redolent of the study. Those who are inclined to wield Occam's Razor Will also be troubled by the consequent proliferation of entities, with one or more propositions to represent every fact. Still worse, propositions may aspire to share the divine eternity; is not the proposition that I am here and now sitting at my computer attempting to write a review eternally true, the one to the effect that I am not eternally false? Engelbretsen gets round that one, I am glad to say, by claiming that a proposition exists only so soon as someone thinks of it. At this rate, the fact that the planet Neptune existed obtained well before 1844; the proposition that it existed did not come into being until some astronomer speculated that it might do so to account for apparent anomalies in the movement of Uranus.

The author shows us how Aristotle, who may fairly be called the originator of the correspondence theory of truth, would have it that written sentences are signs of spoken sentences, which are the signs of thoughts; these in turn are likenesses of things in the world, and so the primary bearers of truth and falsity. The medieval scholastic philosophers inherited from Aristotle a reasonably clear account of truth and an ambiguous and incomplete semantic theory to back it up. In his discussion of their work, Englebretsen gives pride of place ro ‘that Copi of the Middle Ages’, Peter of Spain (otherwise known as Pope John XXI), whose textbook on logic went through at least 166 editions in the next three hundred years; and to Gregory of Rimini. He suggests Peter's ontological distinctions and Gregory's semantic ones could be combined to provide insights worth preserving in a contemporary search for a theory of truth.

The most prominent philosophers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Russell, Moore, the early Wittgenstein, and J.L. Austin, all defended some version of the correspondence theory of truth; but later analysts declined to follow them in this. Thus P. F. Strawson declared that Austin had provided a purified version of the correspondence theory of truth; but what was needed was not purification, but elimination. Strawson saw no reason to accept that anything (e.g. a statement) is a truth-bearer, or that there is anything in the world (e.g. a fact) that could make a truth-bearer true; so there was no reason to think that there is any sensible way to articulate the so-called correspondence relation. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, correspondence had generally been attacked from one of two directions, British idealism and American pragmatism. Kant had made current the idea that the conscious subject constructs, builds, or makes knowledge; which pushed far enough, gives rise to the idea, which is properly anathematized by our author, that known objects are themselves constructed by the knowing subject. Idealists were inclined to favour a coherence theory of truth, and the notion that no ‘truth’ could be anything but partially known as such until the whole truth were known. (The author makes the point that idealist luminaries were often more interested in religion, art and morality than they were in science; and cites the redobtable Richard Dawkins to the effect that scientists generally espouse a robust theory of truth which makes them impatient with the hesitations and equivocations characteristic of philosophers.) Moore charged F. H. Bradley, who championed the idealist view, with being thereby in confict with millions of obvious facts. As to the pragmatist thesis, popularized by William James, that the true could be identified with what paid, what was instrumentally useful, some effective polemic by Bertrand Russell is dusted off by the author and usefully recycled. And indeed the father of pragmatism,C.S.Peirce, thought that James's conviction that truth depended upon us, and that this made it fluid and changeable, infected pragmatism with seeds of death. But Peirce's own account of truth, as idealized social consensus, seems to the author to dissolve into nonsense in the final analysis.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Alfred Tarski brought a fresh stimulation to philosophers' discussion of truth by his analysis of the function of thr notion in formalized languages, whereby, if ‘p’ is statable in a language, ‘p is true’ is so in a metalanguage. To keep language and metalanguage apart avoids self-referential paradoxes like that of the liar. Tarski himself took his account to be a refinement of the traditional correspondence view, though others have regarded it differently. Donald Davidson, who exploited Tarski's theory more thoroughly than any other writer, seems to have wanted to defend a correspondence view, but was impressed by the difficulties in the way of doing so. By the 1990s he had reduced theories of truth to three broad types; apart from redundancy and disquotational teatments, he held, contemporary authors tended either to promote some version of correspondence, or to ‘humanize truth by making it basically epistemic’ (61). Michael Dummett's ‘anti-realism’ and Hillary Putnam's ‘internal realism’ are of the latter kind.

After a chapter which briefly sets out and commends a system of formal logic which he calls ‘Terminism’, the author finally conceives himself in a position to ‘face the facts’, which he regards as ‘constitutive properties of the world’ rather than items to be found in the world.' (141). (I cannot make out why he sets such store by this particular distinction.) ‘The heart of the account of truth offered here is this: A statement is true if and only if it expresses a true proposition; a proposition is true if and only if there is a fact to which it corresponds’ (153). As though the book were not already quirky enough, the brief ‘Conclusion’ is set out in the manner and style, and with the overall structure, of Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

I myself would have preferred a more epistemological approach than that taken by the author, more stress on how we are able to achieve and preserve truth, and to avoid falsehood. (Connected with this omission, I believe, is his striking underestimation of the work of C. S. Peirce.) But I think he would regard preoccupation with such ‘subjective’ considerations as impugning the concern for ‘objectivity’ which is of primary importance to him; and what he has achieved is certainly impressive in its own terms. Unfortunately his book is disfigured by an unusually large number of misprints, though I found none that could be a reason or pretext for serious misunderstanding.