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Debates and Discussions

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Video: What is truth?
Duration: 00:24:24
Date: 04-04-1973
Handwritten notes by Peter Strawson for his discussion with Gareth Evans for Open University programme
Image : Peter Strawson handwritten notes
Date: 1973
Portrait photograph of Professor Huw Price, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Bonn and an Emeritus Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Image : Professor Huw Price
Date: 2021

Truth

 

I first discovered this fascinating conversation in the early 1980s. I was a postdoc at ANU, Canberra, and found it in the library catalogue – they held a copy on 16mm film. Fortunately, unlike many postdocs today, I knew how to use a 16mm projector. I organised a screening for colleagues and students, and was delighted to discover that Strawson and Evans’ discussion linked to my own interests in truth and factuality. 

Coming back to the conversation at intervals since then, I am always struck by how well it has aged. Strawson and Evans frame their discussion with the ‘thin’ notion of truth we have from F P Ramsey. Under names such as ‘minimalism’ and ‘deflationism’, this notion has been central to discussions of truth over recent decades, and this alone has kept the conversation relevant. But more than this, some of the questions Strawson and Evans raise seem as relevant (and difficult) now as they were 50 years ago. 

Ten minutes in, as Strawson finishes his cigarette, they connect Ramsey’s notion of truth to the intuitive distinction between factual and non-factual uses of language. On one side are genuine claims about the world – ‘statements in the strict sense’, as Strawson puts it. On the other side are utterances of other kinds – as Strawson says, utterances ‘which play a different role in our lives from that of stating or purporting to state how things are in the world’. They mention mathematical and moral claims, as well as questions and commands. 

It seems natural to draw this distinction in terms of truth. Genuinely factual utterances are ones the world makes genuinely true or false. At best, other utterances are entitled to some sort of derivative kind of truth. But as Strawson and Evans point out, Ramsey’s thin kind of truth doesn’t seem able to mark such a distinction – it doesn’t seem substantial enough, as Bernard Williams had put it a few years earlier. In ‘Consistency and Realism’ (1966) Williams notes that if in ‘saying “P is true” we merely confirm, re-assert, or express agreement with P’ – as Ramsey’s remarks suggest, and as Strawson himself had argued at one point –  then it could not ‘be more than an accident of language that “is true” signified agreement with assertions rather than agreement with anything else’. 

Strawson and Evans agree that Ramsey’s thin notion of truth can’t draw the factual/non-factual distinction. They close by asking where that leads us. Evans suggests that an appeal to belief might do the trick – genuine factual claims might be those that are ‘a proper object of belief’. Strawson replies that in his view, the same ‘obscurity’ about ‘the coverage of true or false’ may well ‘extend also to … the coverage of belief’. 

Remarkably, these issues are as salient today as they were 50 years ago. In the spirit of continuing an all-too-brief conversation from that era, more than twenty contemporary philosophers recently contributed to a series of short commentaries on the original discussion. As Amie Thomasson puts it there, it’s still the kind of conversation that makes you want to step into the room. 

Huw Price

Huw Price is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Bonn and an Emeritus Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

The second image on this page shows Peter Strawson's handwritten notes for his discussion with Gareth Evans. Courtesy of Professor Galen Strawson.

 

Related videos and essays (all links open in a new window):

  • Time: Bernard Williams and physicist Dennis Sciama discuss time from the perspectives of philosophy and physics.
    Accompanying essay by Craig Bourne and Emily Caddick Bourne.
    Accompanying video with Anna Alexandrova, Huw Price and Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees.
  • Wittgenstein and Universals: Stephan Körner and Renford Bambrough discuss Wittgenstein’s treatment of the problem of universals.
    Accompanying essay by Fraser Macbride.
  • Laws of Nature: R. B. Braithwaite and K. K. Baublys discuss scientific explanation and laws of nature.
    Accompanying essay by Anna Alexandrova.

Debates and Discussions (page 5 of 13)