Semantic theory of truth

From Academic Kids

The semantic theory of truth holds that any assertion that a proposition is true can be made only as a formal requirement regarding the language in which the proposition itself is expressed.

The semantic conception of truth, which is related in different ways to both the correspondence and deflationary conceptions, is due to work published by Polish logician Alfred Tarski in the 1930s. Tarski, in "On the concept of truth in Formal Languages," attempted to formulate a new theory of truth in order to resolve the Liar paradox. In the course of this he made several metamathematical discoveries, most notably Tarski's Indefinablity Theorem, which is similar to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. Roughly, this states that the concept of "truth" for the sentences of a given language cannot consistently be defined within that language.

To formulate theories about linguistic matters, it is generally necessary (in avoiding the semantic paradoxes such as the Liar Paradox) to set the language one is talking about (the "object language") apart from the language one is using (the "metalanguage" or, later, "use language") to talk about it. In the following, quoted sentences like "P" are always sentences of the object language. everything not in quotation is part of the use-language. Tarski's Material Adequacy Condition (sometimes called "Convention T") holds that any viable theory of truth must entail, for every sentence "P" of a language, that:

(1) "P" is true if, and only if, p.

(where p abbreviates, in the metalanguage, the proposition expressed by the sentence "P" of the object language.)

For example,

(2) "Snow is white" is true if and only if snow is white.

The first half of (2) is about the sentence, "Snow is white". The second half is about snow. These sentences (1 and 2, etc.) have come to be called the "T-sentences." The reason they look trivial is that the object-language and the use-language are both English. But this would also be a T-sentence:

(3) "Der Schnee ist weiss" is true (in German) if and only if snow is white.

(It is important to note that as Tarski originally formulated it, this theory applies only to formal languages. He felt that natural languages were too complex and irregular to be suited to such formal treatment. But Tarski's approach was extended by Davidson into an approach to theories of meaning for natural languages, which involves treating "truth" as a primitive, rather than a defined concept. (See truth-conditional semantics.)

Tarski developed the theory, to give an inductive definition of truth, as follows.

For a language L containing ~ ("not"), & ("and"), v ("or") and quantifiers ("for all" and "there exists"), Tarski's inductive definition of truth looks like this:

  • (i) A negation ~A is true iff A is not true.
  • (ii) A conjunction A&B is true iff A is true and B is true
  • (iii) A disjunction A v B is true iff A is true or B is true.
  • (iv) A universal statement "for all x A(x)" is true iff each object satisfies "A(x)".
  • (v) An existential statement "there exists x A(x)" is true iff there is an object which satisfies "A(x)".

These explain how the truth conditions of complex sentences (built up from connectives and quantifiers) can be reduced to the truth conditions of their constituents. The simplest constituents are atomic sentences. A contemporary semantic definition of truth would define truth for the atomic sentences as follows:

Tarski himself defined truth for atomic sentences in a variant way that does not use any technical terms from semantics, such as the "expressed by" above. This is because he wanted to define these semantic terms in terms of truth, so it would be circular were he to use one of them in the definition of truth itself. Tarski's semantic conception of truth plays an important role in modern logic and also in much contemporary philosophy of language. It is rather controversial matter whether Tarski's semantic theory should be counted as either a correspondence theory or as a deflationary theory. Tarski himself seems to have intended his account to be a refinement of the classical correspondence theory.

References

  • Blackburn, S and Simmons K. 1999. Truth. Oxford University Press. A good anthology of classic articles, including a paper by Tarski.
  • Kirkham, Richard 1992: Theories of Truth. Bradford Books. A very good reference book.
  • http://www.ditext.com/tarski/tarski.html Tarski's classic 1944 paper on the Semantic Conception of Truth online.
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