Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Primitive truth

I just noticed the option of displaying a title field when posting. I'm going to try to have titles from now on.

One of the things that I find both interesting and frustrating about Davidson's work is how he treats the concept of truth as primitive. He takes it for granted in a great many things, saying that without a concept of truth one cannot have these other concepts. There is something right in that I think. For example, linking a notion of truth with a notion of objectivity, like he does, seems like the right order of explanation. I'm not sure you can get all the mileage out of truth that he tries to, but it is a good thing to keep primitive.

There are two things about it that I find frustrating. First, he never explains how we are supposed to learn the concept of truth. He could make it practically ineffable by saying that it is an innate concept that our we cannot do without rationally or biologically. This would be a bit extreme. It is really hard to see how one would teach it to a small child since it is pretty abstract, but small children do get a grasp on it. McDowell brought up a similar point with the concept of rationality. How does one learn that concept? They require a sort of meta position to observe them in behavior, and to see that you already have to know what to look for. They can be demonstrated in practice, to a point, but there are a whole lot of theoretical concepts that would equally well apply to these patterns. This leaves things somewhat mysterious.

The other reason I'm frustrated with the primitive concept of truth is one of the reasons given for saying that truth is undefinable or must be primitive. Davidson cites Tarski's theorem that truth for a language is undefinable within the language on pain of inconsistency. Tarski's result is perfectly clear. What isn't clear is by what right Davidson imports that result from FOL into English. English certainly contains its own semantical words. Even if we regiment English into a theoretical fragment for use in our truth theories, we still haven't shown any sort of translation or correspondence between it and FOL that would allow for theorems in one to be used in the other. Maybe Davidson is idealizing away a lot of things in English such that he is left with a pseudo-formal calculus in the spirit of FOL. This would be a big idealization if it were made, and it would still be in as much need of justification as the current use of Tarski's result in plain English.

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