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Direct Arguments for the Truth-Condition Theory of Meaning

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The truth-condition theory of meaning is, naturally, thought of an as explanatory theory whose explananda are the meaning facts. But there are at least two deductive arguments that purport to establish the truth of the theory irrespective of its explanatory virtues. This paper examines those arguments and concludes that they succeed.

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  1. 1.

    The Verificationist may protest that there is still a question of explanatory priority; is the verification condition the meaning only because it is also the truth-condition, as I have implied, or is the truth-condition the meaning only because it is the verification condition? I shall address this in Sect. 6.

  2. 2.

    Departing from Carnap (1947), whose sentence intensions were simply functions from worlds (or rather, their state-descriptions) to truth-values, Lewis follows Montague (1968) and Scott (1970) in treating his intensions as functions from “indices” to truth-values, an index being an n-tuple containing not only a world but a number of contextual features such as speaker and time, in addition. This practice is criticized, effectively in my view, by Stalnaker (1968), who urges the two-stage determination process now associated with Kaplan (1977): The contextual features determine a Carnapian intension, and the latter intension given a world determines a truth-value. Cresswell (1972, 1973) sides with Stalnaker in this. [Actually his way of representing the dependence of extension on context is elaborate and rigorous: “Contexts” are construed as propositions stating facts about particular uses of sentences, and functions are defined from such propositions to the extensions of the various sorts of indexical terms. For later and more subtle work on indexicality, see Cresswell (1990, 1996)].

  3. 3.

    For discussion of the ontology of possible worlds, see Lycan (1994).

  4. 4.

    Alternatively, just a set of worlds, corresponding to the traditional notion of a proposition. I here ignore issues of intensional isomorphism and hyperintensionality; on those, see Cresswell (1985).

  5. 5.

    This of course ignores wh-questions, but wh-questions have true or false answers depending on the singular term that gets plugged into their matrices. For example, “Who robbed the diaper service?” generates the answer-class {“Alice robbed the diaper service,” “Bob robbed the diaper service,”…}, and is correctly or incorrectly answered by a member of that class accordingly as that member is true or false. In like wise, “When is the meeting?” generates {“The meeting is at 1:00 p.m.,” “The meeting is at 1:01 p.m.,”…}. And intuitively, the meaning of a wh-question is parasitic on the meanings of its admissible answers.

  6. 6.

    Of course, the term “truth-condition” itself can also be used in a way corresponding to Kaplanian character, as in fact by Davidson (1967) and Lycan (1984, Ch. 3).

  7. 7.

    Though it must be conceded to inferentialists and some other “use” theorists that sentences containing indexicals have perfectly clear patterns of inferential relations, e.g., from “You gave me that book” to “You gave me a book,” “Someone gave me that book,” etc.

  8. 8.

    Remember that here it is sentence-meaning we are discussing; the plausibility of Grice’s (1969) analysis of speaker-meaning itself is beside the point. (For objections to the Gricean theory of sentence-meaning, see Lycan (1991), but for a possible Gricean version of the Truth-Condition theory, see Lycan (2000, pp. 145–146).)

  9. 9.

    The view, self-consciously formulated, originated with Sellars (1963, 1967, 1969), though it owes debts to the later Wittgenstein and to Carnap.

  10. 10.

    Notoriously, Lewis (1972:209) suggested that they do: he proposed to understand “Hooray for Porky” as “I cheer Porky.” (Perhaps “Hello” means “I greet you,” “Shame!” means “I castigate you” and “Damn!” means “I curse.”)

    Whether or not we are attracted to Lewis’s view of the brief ritual utterances, Jonathan Cohen (1964) raised an enduring problem about the truth-conditions of explicit performatives: Is “I state that I have never seen this man before” true iff the speaker has never seen the demonstrated man before, or iff the speaker does so state? There are powerful arguments on each side. Cresswell (1973, Ch. 14) defends the initially less plausible second view, but tries to make it palatable by adding that a speaker’s tokening the sentence in an appropriate context “conventionally counts as” asserting simply that s/he has never seen the man before; see also Sadock (1985). After resisting this view for some years, I have come to accept a version of it (Lycan (1984, pp. 142–154; 2000, p. 184)).

  11. 11.

    The taxonomic term “assertive” is Searle’s (1979). The illocutionary category of assertives includes “most of Austin’s expositives and many of his verdictives as well” (p. 13).

  12. 12.

    A quicker version of the following argument was given in Lycan (1984, pp. 244–46) and in Lycan (2000, pp. 95–97).

  13. 13.

    It would take scholarship and thought to place Brandom on one horn or the other.

    Horwich (1998, 2005) offers an interesting contrast, though his view is less well worked out. Unlike Brandom, he emphasizes that individual expressions have meanings: a given expression’s “meaning property” is “its use being governed by such-and-such regularity—or, more specifically, the property that every use of the word is explained in terms of the fact that we accept certain specified sentences containing it” (1998, p. 6, italics original). For each word, there is a “basic use regularity.” (Examples: We tend to accept “That’s red” (if it is actually uttered) in the presence of a red thing; we accept “p and q” iff we accept “p” and we accept “q.”) But, n.b., “accepting” a sentence is a psychological notion (pp. 94–96), rather than any form of actual social behavior; this is another departure from Wittgenstein and from Brandom. I suspect that Horwich’s view covertly introduces reference by way of the aboutness involved in the relevant mental contents; but as in Brandom’s case, for present purposes we need not decide this. My argument being a dilemma, it does not matter which horn is actually grasped by any of its targets.

  14. 14.

    Often when I have presented this placard-game argument to students, they have tried to find propositional meaning even in chess moves and tennis shots—suggesting; e.g., that a serve means (says!) “Hit this back to me if you can” and that its return means (asserts) “I’m as good as you, sucker.” I think this is fanciful at best, but more importantly it is beside the point, if what is in question is the necessity of truth-condition for linguistic meaning.

  15. 15.

    I take this premise to be true, indeed trivial, as it stands, not question-begging or even contentious, even though the “iff” is stronger than truth-functional. (C3) alone does not entail that what it is for the sentence to mean that P is for it to be true iff P.

  16. 16.

    I used to formulate this comparative virtue of the Verification theory by saying that it tells us, not just what meaning is tout court, but the particular meanings of particular sentences, which could then be specified using “that”-clauses (Lycan. (2000, p. 118). But that formulation was inaccurate. The Verification theory does not by itself tell us the meanings of particular sentences, any more than does a “Use” theory, because to get such a meaning one has to fill in one’s own opinion as to what a given sentence’s verification condition is. (I waive the Quinean point that particular sentences do not even have belief-independent verification conditions.) The point is rather that, no matter what one thinks is the verification condition of a given sentence, that condition will immediately deliver a “that”-clause.

  17. 17.

    Someone might further suggest that Verificationism explains entailment facts better than the Truth-Condition theory does. According to the latter, a sentence S1 entails another S2 because S2 is derivable (in Tarskian style or in possible-worlds semantics as the case may be) from S1 taken together with the two sentences’ containing truth-conditional semantics. But is it not a deeper and better explanation to connect entailment to epistemology, by saying that any set of observations that verifies S1 also verifies S2?

    I think not—because it seems to me that the reason any set of observations that verifies S1 also verifies S2 is that S1 entails S2, not the other way around.

  18. 18.

    Two are especially worth mentioning. First, the deflationist may say that although meaning and fact “jointly” determine a sentence’s truth-value, this is for a trivial and degenerate reason: that truth-value is already determined by fact alone; since the sentence’s meaning is not involved in doing the determining, then either the inference from (1) to (2) is fallacious, or (3) is disputable. To that we replied that even if deflationism holds, it simply does not follow that truth-value is determined by fact alone without regard to the sentence’s meaning.

    Second, the deflationist may contend that to establish the full-blooded Truth-Condition theory, one needs to show more than that all meaningful sentences have truth-conditions. One has to show that truth-conditions are what (partly) explain what it is for a sentence to have its meaning, which would require assigning truth an explanatory role, which in turn would be to abandon deflationism about truth. We replied without taking a stand on that last premise (that to assign truth any explanatory role is to abandon deflationism): Truth plays several explanatory roles in regard to meaning; whether that means we must reject deflationism is a disputed question.

    A third objection has been offered by Patterson (2007). It makes a subtle point about the nature of definitions; I shall not address that point here, because I think its target is a stronger claim than the one I, at least, meant to make in Bar-On et al. (2000). However, Patterson implies a more straightforward criticism of the Determination Argument, one which has also been put to me by Ted Parent and others: The move from (1) to (2) is not strictly valid. A brick taken together with a possible world determines the brick’s color (if any) at that world, but we should not conclude that a brick is at least a function from worlds to colors. (A brick is not any type of function, not even one with a concrete appendage.)—Right; I think I must swallow that. Rather, I should say, (2) is merely the obvious explanation of (1), given that the sentence meanings we are talking about are abstract entities in the first place.

  19. 19.

    Against received wisdom, which is incompatibilist on this point. Bar-On and Horisk are incompatibilists, while I am a compatibilist; see our respective Postscripts in Beall and Armour-Garb (2005).


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Correspondence to William G. Lycan.

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This paper was solicited and originally written for the Festschrift for M.J. Cresswell [Festschrift for Max Cresswell on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, Logique et Analyse, Vol. 46, No.181 (2003)]. The paper was duly submitted and accepted by the editors; but through some extraordinary screwup in press, it was omitted from the volume. I take the opportunity here to say what I would have said in my title footnote there: “Max Cresswell combines three great professional talents (I pass by his notable gifts as a stage actor): He is, of course, an accomplished logician; he has a linguist’s ear for data and for verbal nuances; and, most importantly to me, he is a fine and acute philosopher, in any area of philosophy, on any topic, at any time.”

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Lycan, W.G. Direct Arguments for the Truth-Condition Theory of Meaning. Topoi 29, 99–108 (2010).

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  • Character
  • Deflationary truth
  • Determination argument
  • Meaning
  • Truth conditions
  • Use
  • Verificationism