The value of minimalist truth


Since the publication of Truth, Paul Horwich’s ‘Minimalism’ has become the paradigm of what goes under the label ‘the deflationary conception of truth’. Despite the many theoretical virtues of Horwich’s minimalism, it is usually contended that it cannot fully account for the normative role that truth plays in enquiry. As I see it, this concern amounts to several challenges. One such challenge—call it the axiological challenge—is about whether deflationists have the theoretical resources to explain the value of truth. Some philosophers (e.g. Michael Lynch and Bernard Williams) have argued that they do not. The thought is that by being valuable in the way it is, truth plays a non-trivial explanatory role with respect to core phenomena of enquiry. In order to account for this aspect of truth, the challenge goes, we need to inflate truth’s nature to an extent incompatible with core tenets of the minimalist conception. In this paper, I first provide some clarifications of what we mean exactly when we say that truth is valuable. By borrowing important distinction from the current debate in axiology, I elaborate a framework within which to conduct investigations into the value of truth. With reference to Horwich’s discussion of the issue, I then discuss the link between questions concerning the explanatory role of truth and the issue of its metaphysical inflation. I conclude by briefly exploring a few strategies on behalf of minimalists to address the axiological challenge.

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  1. 1.

    To mention just a few: Michael Dummett, Michael Lynch, Huw Price, Bernard Williams and Crispin Wright.

  2. 2.

    See Dummett (1959). By enquiry I mean, roughly, the practice of gathering and weighing evidence aimed at forming, managing and relinquishing beliefs and sharing information.

  3. 3.

    See Wright (1992) Chap. 1; see Ferrari and Moruzzi (ms) for a comprehensive reply to Wright’s inflationary challenges.

  4. 4.

    See Gibbard (2005) and Horwich (2013).

  5. 5.

    See Lynch (2004, (2005, (2009a, (2009b). See also Wrenn (2015a, (2015b) and Williams (1995).

  6. 6.

    For a discussion of this point see Ferrari (2016) and Ferrari (ms).

  7. 7.

    See Horwich (2010, p. 57; 1998, p. 62).

  8. 8.

    This can be gathered from the response that Horwich generally gives to Wright’s so-called inflationary argument to the effect that truth and justification mark distinct norms of belief—see Wright (1992, Chap. 1). Whether this reply is sufficient to qualm the worries posed by Wright’s argument, and what is exactly the alleged inflationary significance of the argument, are issues I won’t discuss in this paper.

  9. 9.

    See Lynch (2004) and Williams (1995, p. 232).

  10. 10.

    The view is first presented and defended in full in the first edition of Truth (1990) and then refined in the second edition (1998).

  11. 11.

    Where ‘<...>’ is a device for referring to the proposition expressed by the sentence encapsulated, ‘p’ is a schematic letter for a sentence, and ‘if and only if’ is a device for expressing the material equivalence between the two sides of (ES).

  12. 12.

    Horwich (1998, p. 5).

  13. 13.

    Horwich (1998, p. 141).

  14. 14.

    Horwich (1998, p. 2).

  15. 15.

    See Wyatt (2016) for a survey of the various ways in which the notion of substantiality can be characterised.

  16. 16.

    Horwich (1998, p. 143).

  17. 17.

    See Edwards (2013) for a critical discussion of the notion of substantiality in terms of constitution theory.

  18. 18.

    As Wyatt points out, these two characterisations of substantiality are mutually non-entailing and thus codify two logically distinct ways in which the truth property can be said to be substantive. See Wyatt (2016).

  19. 19.

    If we take the distinction between concept and property on board, we can appreciate that there are two ways in which the axiological challenge can be run: at the conceptual level—by saying that the concept of truth is a normative concept—or at the property level—by saying that truth is a normative property. What the conceptual challenge amounts to is the thesis that the concept of truth is constitutively fraught with good—meaning that a proper application of the truth concept requires deployment of the concept of goodness, which is considered a paradigmatically normative concept. Although some of the things I will say might have some bearing on the conceptual challenge, the primary focus of this paper is on the axiological challenge at the property level.

  20. 20.

    This principle is similar to that endorsed by Horwich (2010, p. 57; 2013, p. 17). However, Horwich intends the value principle to have both a prescriptive component—marked by ‘ought’—and an axiological component—marked by ‘valuable’. In fact, he endorses the following principle: (x) (One should positively desire [value], relative to y being true, S’s believing y, and should negatively desire [value], relative to y not being true, S’s believing y)—Horwich (2010, p. 57). However, since the prescriptive component adds some extra complications, in what follows I will abstract from it, focusing exclusively on the axiological component—on the value of true belief. Horwich provides no argument for showing that his principle should be preferred to the simpler one I discuss. Moreover, most part of the critical discussion in the literature focuses on the value part. I will thus set as the aim of this paper to show that minimalism is compatible with VT. That said, the general strategy adopted in this paper can be easily used to address the prescriptive concern as well.

  21. 21.

    See, for instance, Horwich (2006, p. 351). See also Lynch (2004, pp. 501–505), and Kvanvig (2008, pp. 199–212). In his 2010 paper, Chase Wrenn argues that truth is not instrumentally valuable on the grounds that it lacks causal relevance and in his 2015b he criticises the idea that we need to suppose truth has intrinsic value in order to explain why we pursue it when there is no pragmatic payoff in sight.

  22. 22.

    I use the term ‘pro tanto’ because it is standard in the literature. However, as Wrenn points out, ‘non-overriding value’ might be a more appropriate expression. See Wrenn (2015b, p. 3).

  23. 23.

    In his 2013 Horwich abandons the idea that the truth of a proposition gives the subject a sufficient condition to valuing believing it, because he does no longer believe that by weakening the principle adding a pro tanto qualification really solves the objection from trivial beliefs. See Horwich (2013, fn2). Since nothing important for this paper hinges on this point, I will stick to VT as stated above.

  24. 24.

    See Lynch (2004, p. 136; 2005, p. 290).

  25. 25.

    Lynch seems to suggest this when he claims that truth is a deeply normative property where: “A property F is deeply normative [...] when being F is essentially more than instrumentally good, and therefore worthy of caring about for its own sake. For such properties, the thought is that there is something about being F that makes being F good.” See Lynch (2004, p. 501).

  26. 26.

    Candidates for being value bearers include objects, events, state of affairs and actions. I will remain neutral about what the value bearers are and will simply speak of ’things’ possessing the property of being valuable.

  27. 27.

    Korsgaard (1983).

  28. 28.

    See in particular Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen (2000).

  29. 29.

    It has been argued that instrumental value is no value at all. The general shape of this common worry can be find in Zimmerman (2015).

  30. 30.

    Horwich (2006, p. 356). See also, Horwich (1998, pp. 44–46, 139–141).

  31. 31.

    See McGrath (2005, p. 309).

  32. 32.

    See Lynch (2004).

  33. 33.

    One might wonder whether Lynch’s epistemological point puts pressure on deflationists á la Horwich to say something more substantive concerning the concept of truth. If VT is epistemically prior to claims like (D*), then VT involves an application of the truth-concept that is not governed by our a priori acceptance of the minimal theory, and so the minimalist’s account of the truth concept is in trouble. This might well be the case, but since the focus of this paper is on the metaphysical issue of whether the truth property should be inflated on the ground of the axiological challenge, I won’t address the conceptual point. One way deflationists could go if the conceptual challenge is indeed a challenge is to weaken the transparency condition concerning the relation between the truth concept and the truth property, allowing for the possibility of a richer concept but still preserving metaphysical insubstantiality at the level of the property. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing this point.

  34. 34.

    Moore claims: “[t]o say that a kind of value is intrinsic means merely that the question of whether a thing possesses it, and the degree to which it possesses it, depends solely on the intrinsic nature of the thing in question.” See Moore (1922, p. 260).

  35. 35.

    This characterization of intrinsic property is due to Lewis (1986, pp. 61–62).

  36. 36.

    See Francescotti (2014) for a recent defence of the relational approach.

  37. 37.

    Cameron (2009, p. 265).

  38. 38.

    On this point, see Dunn (1990).

  39. 39.

    See Edwards et al. (2015) for an elaboration of this point in connection with the question whether and to what extent deflationary truth is a natural property.

  40. 40.

    Fine (2012, p. 37).

  41. 41.

    Something along these lines seems to be endorsed by Field. See Field (2001, pp. 248, 383–385).

  42. 42.

    See Lynch (2009a, (2009c).

  43. 43.

    It’s an open question what exactly correctness amounts to—in a very minimal understanding of it, correctness is a sui generis normative property—sui generis in that it is not reducible nor explainable by either axiological or deontic terms. I sympathise with Conor McHugh’s understanding of correctness in terms of fittingness—see McHugh (2014).

  44. 44.

    Lynch attributes this reply to Field. See Lynch (2009c, pp. 90–91), and Field (2001, p. 385).

  45. 45.

    See, for instance Schaffer (2012) and Rodriguez-Pereyra (2015). Schaffer, in his 2012 paper, discusses three counterexamples to the transitivity of grounding, one of which goes as follows: consider the set S = {a, b, c}. Schaffer argues that (a) the fact that c is a member of S grounds the fact that S has exactly three members and (b) the fact that S has exactly three members grounds the fact that S has finitely many members, but (c) it is not the case that the fact that c is a member of S grounds the fact that S has finitely many members. See Schaffer (2012, pp. 127–128). For a critical discussion of Schaffer’s examples see Rodriguez-Pereyra (2015) and Litland (2013).

  46. 46.

    Berit Brogaard has recently defended the idea that it is intellectual flourishing, and not knowledge nor truth, which is the fundamental norm of enquiry—see Brogaard (2014).

  47. 47.

    As a last point, I would like to mention the fact that the extrinsicist strategy that I have just outlined is entirely compatible with another account of the value of truth, recently put forward by Chase Wrenn. According to Wrenn the value of truth is telic, meaning that it is entirely derived from the benefit we get from caring about truth—in other words, believing the truth is valuable because it helps us to flourish. In fact, I think that Wrenn’s picture could be implemented in the extrinsicist strategy presented here. Regardless of which particular way we decide to develop the extrinsicist picture, the crucial point is to appreciate that minimalists can account for the value of truth by claiming that it is extrinsic and non-instrumental, and this would be fully compatible with the insubstantiality thesis. See Wren (2015a, Chap. 3; 2015b).

  48. 48.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point. See Bradley (2002, p. 43)—especially footnote 33, Lemos (2001, p. 493) and Olson (2004, p. 35).

  49. 49.

    For instance, Bader (ms), Langton (2007), Orsi (2015).

  50. 50.

    Bader (ms, p. 4).


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This paper has quite a long history—so it would be impossible to list all the philosophers from whom I’ve benefited in the past few years. However, this paper couldn’t have been written without the invaluable help and feedback of Elke Brendel, Douglas Edwards, Patrick Greenough, Paul Horwich, Michael Lynch, Sebastiano Moruzzi, Nikolaj Pedersen, Joseph Ulatowski, Chase Wrenn and Cory Wright. Special thanks to Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins, Eva Picardi, and Crispin Wright for their extraordinary support and supervision. Thanks also to three anonymous referees from Synthese for their precious comments. A first version of this paper was written during my tenure of a Jacobsen full Scholarship and a second version was completed during my tenure of a postdoctoral fellowship in the Leverhulme Trust funded project, “Relativism and Rational Tolerance”—both fellowships were held at the former Northern Institute of Philosophy in Aberdeen—I would like to thank everybody at NIP for the many occasions in which they have helped me and supported my research. This final version has been carried out during my tenure of a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Bonn, within the project “Disagreement in Philosophy”, sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG—BR 1978/3–1). I gratefully acknowledge the support of these funding bodies.

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Ferrari, F. The value of minimalist truth. Synthese 195, 1103–1125 (2018).

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  • Truth
  • Minimalism
  • Horwich
  • Lynch
  • Intrinsic/extrinsic value
  • Finale/instrumental value
  • Conditional/unconditional value