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Philosophy of Language

Brad A-G

Freges argument for the undefinability of truth. Frege provides a few arguments for the undefinability of truth. Well consider the one that is most interesting (where he concludes that the content of the word true is unique and undefinable). This argument, if successful, works against any definition of truth at all. Argument 1) Suppose (for reductio ad absurdum) that truth is definable and that the definition goes like this: For any propositions p, p is true iff p is T (where T is the definiens. In a definition, the term to be defined is the definiendum and the word(s) or phrase(s) that defines it is the definens.) 2) If (1)that is, if, for any propositions p, p is true iff p is Tthen to inquire (or establish), in any particular case, whether a proposition p is true, one must inquire (or establish) whether p is T. 3) Therefore, to inquire (establish) whether p is true, one must inquire (establish) whether p is T. 4) To inquire (establish) whether S is to inquire (establish) whether it is true that S, which is to inquire (establish) whether the proposition that S is true. 5) Therefore, to inquire (establish) whether a proposition is true, one must inquire (establish) whether the proposition that p is T is true, which in turn requires one to inquire (establish) whether the proposition that the proposition that the proposition that p is T is itself T is true, and so on ad infinitum. Before moving on, a few points: 1st, we are assuming that truth is definable for RAA. In RAA, we assume a claim, show that, given the assumption, a contradiction follows and conclude that, therefore, the negation of the claim is correct. 2nd, does everyone see why premise (2) is correct? Why is it correct? A: Because whats assumed is a biconditional, it follows that to inquire whether the LHS, one must inquire whether the RHS. Ex. Given that water is H2O that something is water iff it is it H2O, it seems to follow that to inquire whether something is water, one must inquire whether its H2O. (1) (5) is the first stage in the argument. There are actually 2 arguments latent in Freges work herean emphasis on circularity and an emphasis on regress. Well look at 2 ways of extending the argument.

Way #1:

Circularity:

6) Since deciding whether a proposition p is true involves deciding whether the proposition that p is T is true, the definition (1) of truth is circular. 7) Since adequate definitions cant be circular, truth is indefinable. Question: Why cant adequate definitions be circular? (We will not try to answer this question, though its answer seems obvious (viz., given the point of providing a definition)) Way #2: Regress:

6) If truth is definable then deciding whether a proposition p is true requires completing the impossible task of deciding the truth values of infinitely many distinct propositions. 7) Since we sometimes can decide whether a proposition is true, it follows that truth is, therefore, indefinable. Q: What form of argument is being employed, in this mini argument?

A: Modus tollens I think that this regress argument is quite important, so lets try to understand it a bit better. To start, lets revise (4) a bit, relying, instead on 4) To establish whether S is to establish whether it is true that S, which is to establish that the proposition that S is true. (4) seems plausible enough: If you have established that, say, snow is white then, given Freges insight and common sense, it does not seem as if we must go on to establish that its true that snow is whitethat comes, in a certain sense, for free. Differently put: If you understand the concept of truthif you grasp that notionthen you are in a position to conclude, a priori, that if S then it is true that S. So, whatever enables you to establish that S, when combined with trivial a priori knowledge that if S, then it is true that S, is sufficient to establish that it is true that S. Now, (4) seems to be correct. If it is, then it seems that Freges argument goes through. Nonetheless, I dont really think that Freges argument works. Heres why. Even if (4) is true, a problem arises wrt the regress argument. Q: Whats the problem?

The problem: Suppose that we understand (4), as above, as (4). In that case, the claim (6), that theres a regress, does not follow from the premises. What (6) tells us, in effect, is that we cant establish whether S until we have first established T(S), and we cant do that until we have established T(T(S)), ad infinitum. Notice that this really doesnt follow from the premises. In order for it to follow, wed have to understand (4) as saying that we cannot establish S without first establishing T(S). Understood in this way, (4) is clearly false. So, we have noticed the problem with the argument: If (4) is understood as above, as (4), then theres no regress; if, alternatively, (4) is reinterpreted as claiming that we cannot establish S without first establishing T(S), then its clearly false. Thus, in either case, the conclusion doesnt followthe regress argument doesnt work. Thus, we have not yet seen that truth is indefinable.