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Lies, truth, and meaning

Words have meaning. We use them to communicate to one another, and what we communicate depends, in part, on which words we use. What words mean varies from language to language. In many cases, we can communicate the same thing in different languages, but require different words to do so. And conversely, sometimes the very same words communicate different things in different languages. In Estonian, I am told, a zealous germophobe would enjoin us to join her in cleaning the rooms by saying ‘Koristame ruumit!’ But she should take care in expressing this enthusiasm in Finland, for in Finnish this very same sentence means ‘let’s decorate the corpses!’.

One of the most important consequences of differences in meaning, is a difference in truth. It is because ‘tall’ and ‘friendly’ mean different things, that what we say with the sentence ‘Maria is tall’ can be true even though what we say with the sentence ‘Maria is friendly’ is not, or conversely. If we know when what we say with a sentence is true, we therefore know a lot about what it means. Much of our contemporary understanding of linguistic meaning in both philosophy and linguistic semantics exploits this fact, by trying to characterize the meanings of words in terms of their contribution to what would make sentences involving them true.

One of the most ancient puzzles in philosophy, the paradox of the liar, reputedly due to Epimenides of Crete circa 600 BC, yields a surprising lesson about the limits of this strategy for understanding meaning. In the version I’ll consider here, Epimenides speaks as follows:

Epimenides: What I am saying right now is not true.

What Epimenides says is that what he says is not true. So if what he says is true, then it is true that what he says is not true, and hence what he says is not true. But if what he says is not true, that is precisely what he says! So it is true. So either assumption about the truth of what he says leads to a contradiction. This is the paradox.

“The moral, these philosophers say, is that a consistent language cannot contain its own semantic vocabulary.”

We can avoid accepting a contradiction, if we deny that Epimenides says anything, when he speaks as above. It turns out that other, harder, versions of the paradox make it difficult to accept this as the solution. But even if we grant that this resolves the paradox, the liar still challenges the idea that meaning can be explained in terms of truth. This is because the sentence uttered by Epimenides is clearly meaningful. Even if we deny that, strictly speaking, there is anything that Epimenides can say by uttering it, it is precisely because the words mean what they do, that nothing can be said with it. But there is no consistent answer to what it would take for what this sentence says to be true.

One common moral drawn by many philosophers and logicians, generalizing on ideas from Alfred Tarski, is that this problem arises because the language whose words we are trying to understand includes the very word – true – that we are using to cast light on meaning. In jargon, it includes its own semantic vocabulary. The moral, these philosophers say, is that a consistent language cannot contain its own semantic vocabulary. This conclusion is drastic. It appears to rule out the possibility of monolingual speakers understanding the meanings of words in their own language.

A more promising conclusion is that though truth carries information about meaning, it is the wrong place to look for the nature of meaning. One striking clue to how to think differently about meaning comes from expressivism, the contemporary heir to the emotivist theory of ethics. In the 1930’s, emotivists like A.J. Ayer and Charles Stevenson claimed that the meaning of moral words like ‘wrong’ cannot consist in a contribution to what makes sentences involving them true, but must lie in some other feature of what they are used to do. Contemporary metaethical expressivism takes this thought seriously and proposes that what makes declarative sentences meaningful is what it takes to believe what we can say with them, rather than what it takes for it to be true.

Expressivists don’t eschew the word ‘true’, but it isn’t part of their semantic vocabulary. That is, they don’t use it to explain meanings. They can make sense of how Socrates’ and Epimenides’ sentences could both be meaningful, because what makes a sentence meaningful is just that there is a condition that you must satisfy in order to believe what it says. But there is no inconsistency in accepting that there is such a condition. Indeed, we know something about it – in the case of what Socrates says, we know that it is rationally inconsistent with knowledge of what Socrates and Epimenides actually said.

Expressivism therefore allows us to make sense of how Socrates’ and Epimenides’ sentences could be meaningful, because it doesn’t require that there be any conditions under which they would be true. It may seem surprising to get insight into the liar paradox from a skeptical view about the role of moral language. But philosophy is full of surprises.

Featured image credit: “I’m not a liar!”, by Tristan Schmurr. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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