• Joe

Journal entry from 2005 on folk theories of truth

Recently, I was looking back at old journals I had kept when I was in graduate school. As I leafed through the entries, I found one about theories of truth. It's likely the first time I wrote on the nature of truth debate. Nothing sophisticated, of course, but it was the first time I began thinking about ways to gather evidence about non-philosophers' views of truth.

I reproduce the journal entry in full:

A prevailing assumption of theories of truth is that anyone will agree that their truth theory captures exactly what truth is. Yet, almost no theorist asks an average person what they think truth is. Is this an accurate way of arguing about truth?

The question I asked isn't quite right. It's not about the accuracy of the theory of truth so much as whether the theory of truth gets at what the folk understanding is or what the folk use of 'truth' is. Since this time, I have come to realise that much of the experimental work isn't going to monumentally change the philosophic landscape. Non-philosopher's intuitions are not going to replace philosophical theories. They are going to supplement it and gauge how well attuned it is to what is in the non-philosopher's mind or in how they talk. However, I have many reservations about whether experimental studies get at the psychological concepts in people's minds at all. I am very sceptical of that project, despite that many experimental philosophers believe that the simple experiments we devise gets us information about people's concepts.

My hypothesis is that if we ask ordinary people (the "folk," if you will) what they think truth is, then a theory of truth will present itself. Truth will turn out to be objective. I want to contend that testing ordinary intuitions about truth will enable us to understand the nature of truth.

Again, my thoughts have changed a tad here, but not too far off from where I was. First, we cannot just ask non-philosophers what is truth? That would get us nowhere because the non-philosopher is rightfully baffled by the question. They cannot process the question like processing the question where are my keys? or what do you want eat? Granted, the question looks similar to the ones that we deal with regularly.

One objection that I must consider is whether people are attuned to truth. Do ordinary people understand what philosophers mean by truth? I will want to respond by insisting that we interpret people's intuitions charitably. Ordinary people have an understanding of truth. They are able to detect errors. If they can detect errors, particularly with respect to false information, then they have a fairly clear understanding of truth. Thus, folk intuitions about truth are informative, and truth theorists ought to consider seriously what people have to say about truth.

Here again, I believe my thought was that people had to be prompted differently than just asking them what truth is. At the time, I thought we would have to come up with vignettes like Knobe's side-effect effect questions to discover what people's views on truth were. Unfortunately, when I scoured the literature and contacted several people working on the nature of truth debate, I came to discover no one had devised a handy little thought experiment that was able to get at our views on truth. It wasn't like Gettier or Knobe.

I largely agree with my earlier self about the reservations pertaining to the non-philosopher's use of truth-talk and whether the use of truth-talk entails anything about how people conceive of truth. I also largely agree with my earlier self that we should look upon data as a means of supporting our theories of truth. I don't believe I have ever thought that such experiments would replace or supplant our discussions of theories of truth.

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