Philosophical theorizing about truth manifests a desire to conform to the ordinary or folk notion of truth. This practice often involves attempts to accommodate some form of correspondence. We discuss this accommodation project in light of two empirical projects intended to describe the content of the ordinary conception of truth. One, due to Arne Naess, claims that the ordinary conception of truth is not correspondence. Our more recent study is consistent with Naess’ result. Our findings suggest that contextual factors and respondent gender affect whether the folk accept that correspondence is sufficient for truth. These findings seem to show that the project of accommodating the ordinary notion of truth is more difficult than philosophers had anticipated because it is fragmentary.
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Throughout we will use locutions such as ‘the ordinary notion’ or the ‘folk conception’ interchangeably as mere stylistic variants. The key idea in each case is the supposed conception of truth had by ordinary people.
“To avoid suggestion due to preconceived opinions on truth-discussion, we deferred the task of systematic interviews to a person without any knowledge about the questions involved” (Naess 1938a, 20).
As we mentioned above, there are other formulations besides the two most prevalent A- and B-formulations. Included among them are D-formulations, or those “that substitute the word “true” for the word “right” or vice versa,” e.g., “what people with authority say is true” or “that it fulfills the requirements we ourselves make of that which we think is right,” G-formulations, or those that definitions of truth “by opposites,” e.g., “erroneous is what is not right,” M-formulations, or those that are “concerned with moral standards,” e.g., “that conscience does not protest against it” or that it’s “the opposite of a lie,” and T-formulations, or those that are “tautological formulations,” e.g., “that is true,” “that it is right,” or “that it is certain.” (Naess 1938a, 40, 57 –60)
Naess used very specific definitions for “frequency candidate” and “frequency points.” “Frequency candidate” describes the distribution among respondents of all ages, gender, and socio-economic status, while “frequency points” characterizes the distribution among respondents who offered more than one characterization of truth in comparison to those participants who offered only one definition (Naess 1938a, 11).
We found the study design employed by Naess to be far too unwieldy and impractical for replication. We opted instead for a more limited survey based approach. The various conditions were designed to prime the thinking of our respondents so that they would be thinking about truth relative to contexts involving ordinary empirical truths, mathematical truths, cases involving authority, independence of truth from evidence or warrant, etc.
It has been suggested by some commentators that the probe statement ST would have yielded more useful information had it actually employed the term ‘corresponds’ or a cognate term in place of ‘report’. This is, we think, at root a philosophers’ worry. The purpose of the study as we conceived it was to track the ordinary conception of truth, not any particular philosophical theory about truth. And we did not specifically aim to describe the ordinary understanding of correspondence. We opted for simple non-technical phrasing of the truth theories we looked at whenever possible to allay triggering latent philosophical training or mathematical training (mapping relations that define functions) and to not confuse correspondence with, say, the exchange of notes, emails, and letters. Future projects might include the term “corresponds” for respondents to consider. Since the data we collected revealed statistically significant results, we believe that the non-technical language we employed is sufficient to report.
Naess’ highly provocative suggestion: “feminine persons have a greater tendency to believe in absolutes than masculine” (Naess 1938a, 124). This remark is offered in a short stand alone section of his monograph, with no substantive explanation.
An empirical statement, like “the cat is on the mat” or “the cake is navy blue,” reports something about the way the world is. The ‘fact’ that makes them true would be obvious to someone in such a context. By comparison, a proposition with mathematical content, such as “π is an irrational number” or “the sum of one and six is seven,” does not obviously report how the world is. The truth-making fact seems to be of a distinct sort. Because of the differences between the two contexts, we should expect that responses to ST will vary according to the particular contexts.
Because we employed a 5-point Likert scale in each of our experiments, we took the mid-line to be 3.
This result is, for example, suggested by work such as Benacerraf (1973), which argues that treating mathematical truth in correspondence terms is epistemically impractical.
One referee has pointed out that there are claims made by the thought experiments’ protagonist in the Anna and Bruno conditions, while in the Donna condition the protagonist does not claim anything. Respondents are told merely that “Donna believes x”. While we are sympathetic with this concern, these vignettes were developed to prime participants to respond to the various statements exemplifying alternative conceptions of truth. The prompts, like ST, were not tailored to the conditions; instead, they were general statements about truth.
We also ran a variant of the Donna condition where the words “only English” replaced “no German.” We developed the “only English” alternative of the Donna condition in the hope of uncovering a word-framing effect. 39 respondents, 19 male and 20 female, were given this modified Donna condition. The mean male response was 3.53 and 3.05 for females (t (37) = 1.258, ns). Interestingly, regarding ST, the data failed to yield a statistically significant difference between male and female responses, and there were no word framing effects detected, either. It should be noted that not all is lost on the “only English” alternative. Just as in the “no German” variant, more men agree with ST than women.
Further empirical research might find differences according to age, race, philosophical training, political or religious affiliation, and income level. This suggestion is not merely rhetorical. Naess 1938a chapter IV contains several basic analyses of the variability of truth theories relative to factors such as gender, age, and educational attainment. Given that Machery et al. (2004), as well as Weinberg et al. (2001) have shown that there is evidence of cross-cultural variability in philosophically significant concepts, we believe that our study does not rule out finding such cross-cultural variability in the ordinary conception of truth.
We would like to thank James Woodbridge for alerting us to this potential objection.
One attempt to employ experimental approaches to enlighten these alternative motivations, especially with respect to the liar paradox is Barnard et al. (In preparation).
For example, these results will no doubt provide fodder for discussions of the sort found in Buckwalter and Stich (forthcoming).
This paper has benefited from interactions with Ken Aizawa, Dave Beisecker, Wesley Buckwalter, Christopher Ciocchetti, Jordan Davis, Heath Hamilton, Michael Lynch, Ron Mallon, Kaija Mortensen, Tom Nadelhoffer, Elijah Millgram, Shaun Nichols, Mark Phelan, Bill Ramsey, Dave Ripley, Steve Stich, Chris Weigel, Jonathan Weinberg, Chase Wrenn, Cory Wright, participants of the 2012 NEH Summer Institute on Experimental Philosophy, and audience members at Centenary College of Louisiana, Weber State University, the 2010 MidSouth Philosophy Conference, 2011 Mississippi Philosophical Association Meeting, the 2011 American Philosophical Association-Eastern Division. We would especially like to thank Yale University Cognitive Science and the American Philosophical Association for sponsoring Experiment Month without whose financial and technical support our data could not be collected.
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Barnard, R., Ulatowski, J. Truth, Correspondence, and Gender. Rev.Phil.Psych. 4, 621–638 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-013-0155-2
- Semantic Conception
- Truth Theory
- Knowledge Attribution
- Anna Condition
- Correspondence Theory