Thursday, 9 February 2012

An aspect of Travis’ ‘Meaning’s role in truth’

Travis summarises the main claim of ‘Meaning’s role in truth’ as follows:

What words mean imposes a condition on their saying, on a speaking, what is so. Different occasions impose different standards for satisfying that condition. Something about what truth is makes occasions matter to such standards. Deflationism cannot recognize such elements in truth. [Travis 1996: 461]

If I follow, the picture is something like this. Word meaning exerts a general constraint on what one can say in using them. So, for example, because of its meaning, the word ‘round’ means round and utterances made using it will speak of being round.

The words “is round”, in meaning what they do, speak of being round. In fact, I suggest, for them to speak of that is just for them to mean what they do. For English words to speak of being round comes to just this. If you use them as meaning what they do, you will thereby speak of being round. At least, on any occasion of your so speaking, that is something you would then be doing. So if you want to speak of being round, e.g., so as to call something round, or describe it as round, a way of achieving your aim in speaking normal English is to speak the words “is round” (in a suitable construction). [ibid: 455]

But that is only part of the story because of occasionalism. The constraint that meaning imposes does not itself determine the truth condition of an utterance in such a way as to connect to a bit of the world. (I wonder whether the constraint meaning imposes would be enough to state correct instances of the T-schema. But if so, such instances would still leave open how or when the conditions described on the right hand side were realised.)

Consider the sentence “The ball is round”, and two cases of its use. Case A: What shape do squash balls assume on rebound? Pia hits a decent stroke; Jones watches. “The ball is round”, she says at the crucial moment. Wrong. It has deformed into an ovoid. Jones did not say the ball to be as it was, so spoke falsely. Case B: Fiona has never seen squash played. From her present vantage point the ball seems a constant blur. “What shape is that ball?”, she asks. “The ball is round”, Alf replies; truly, since that it is the sort of ball a squash ball (and this one) is. It is not, e.g., like a very small rugby ball. [ibid: 454]

So whether the sentence is true of a particular ball at a particular time depends on something in addition to the meaning of the words. It depends on the occasion of its use. In the summary quote with which I began, Travis puts this point by saying that whilst the words uttered impose a condition on truth, different occasions impose different standards for satisfying that condition. That way of putting makes it seem that there is always the same condition (that fixed by essentially plastic meaning) and the occasion provides a different standard (though not merely weaker and stronger, of course) for it to count as met. This may be deliberate for a reason I’ll mention shortly.

Given occasionalism, it is not surprising that to know what the conditions are that are needed for an utterance to be true depend on the occasion of the utterance (recall the two squash ball cases). But Travis thinks that this undermines deflationism about truth and it is not immediately obvious why this might be so. The heart of deflationism is that instances of the T schema (or an equivalent with propositions) captures all there is to truth aside from issues of compendious endorsement and such like. So given occasionalism, one might think that the plasticity of meaning stops such instances being very helpful because the condition stated on the right hand side, is fixed only on an occasion-relative understanding. But then, one might modify the deployment of the T-schema to say that the sentence named on the left hand side, on a particular occasion-relative understanding, is true on the condition set out by a sentence used on the right hand side on the same occasion-relative understanding. That might still serve the purposes of deflationism. So we’d need more of an argument. But Travis offers more. He heads off this thought (connecting to a proposition-based deflationism) which perhaps is the reason for the way he approaches what is fixed and what varied mentioned above.

One might further think: which understanding words bear depends on the circumstances of their speaking; when things would be as said to be on a given understanding does not. Understandings, so conceived, extract content from circumstances. Circumstances play no further role in determining conditions for truth. Deflationism, and its use of “proposition”, depend on exactly that idea... [ibid: 460]

So the idea Travis rejects takes the work of occasions to be done once an understanding of a utterance has fixed the claim it makes about the world. Once that is fixed, nothing more is needed to fix how the world must be for it to be true, or not be for it to be false. That might support deflationism. But it is not Travis’ picture:

But here is another picture. Understanding requires sensitivity. Understanding words consists, in part, in sensitivity to how they fit with the circumstances of their speaking. Part of that is sensitivity to how they need to fit in order to be true. So adequate sensitivity requires grasping what truth is, and how that notion applies in particular cases. [ibid: 460]

This is where my understanding of the paper lapses. My hunch is that for occasionalism to undermine deflationism the following would have to be the case: fixing the understanding that words have on an occasion, and thus whether they are true of some circumstance, would itself have to presuppose truth, or some feature of truth. That seems to fit with Travis’ words here: ‘Part of that is sensitivity [underpinning an understanding] to how they need to fit in order to be true’. But I am not sure that I follow the crucial thought – if I am at all on the right track – that this sensitivity presupposes truth. The action must take place in section V.

But, there, the central example is of understanding the utterance that ‘the oven is hot’ in the context of pizza making. In that context it is reasonable to think that if the oven is merely 140C, then the utterance is false. The context enables a reasonable perception of what is being said when that phrase is used. But why does this presuppose a substantial notion of truth? He says:

These perceptions of occasions are perceptions of what it would be, on them, for a given description to describe truly, or for words which give it to state truth; to provide information which is correct. Their structure thus reveals some ingredients in truth, or what we are prepared to recognize about it. Part of the idea of truth is that a description (of something), to be true, must satisfy a general condition different in kind from conditions to the effect that what is described as thus must be  as thus described: it must serve all the purposes that must be served (for truth) on that occasion, by having all the uses it ought in serving them. Part of this idea is that, for a description, and an occasion (on which there are facts as to what that description would describe truly), there are definite purposes truth demands be served, and uses which truth demands the description have in serving them. [ibid: 462-3]

If I follow, the idea seems to be that the occasion-relative understanding must presuppose some notion of the description being used truly in that context (given one’s knowledge of the requirements of pizza cooking). But I am not sure that this changes anything from the general worry that one cannot combine truth conditional semantics with a deflationary approach to truth. There are two familiar approaches to that: deploy a non-truth conditional approach to meaning (like Horwich) or simply deny that either project is reductionst (like McDowell). Neither is simple, but I am not clear why occasionalism changes this.

Travis, C. (1996) ‘Meaning’s role in truth’ Mind 105: 451-66

See this entry on ‘A sense of occasion’, this on ‘Reason’s reach’, this on ‘The twilight of empiricism’, and this on the discussion of rule following in Thought’s Footing.