Boghossian on the Sceptical Solution

I have been reading a couple of densely argued, complex and interesting papers by Paul Boghossian, “The Rule Following Considerations” (Mind 98 (1989): 507-49) and “The Status of Content” (Philosophical Review 99 (1990): 157-84). I thought it might help me to understand the intricacies of Boghossian’s arguments to blog about them and try to lay out the rich vein of argumentation. The main goal of the discussion is pretty clear. Boghossian contends that the sceptical solution leads to some kind of contradiction (on either of the two plausible ways of making sense of it). The sceptical solution replaces the realist truth-conditional picture of language with a sceptical assertion-conditional one. Boghossian argues that the assertion conditional account, considered as a form of nonfactualism about meaning, leads to contradiction in view of what one has to say about truth to maintain a nonfactualist stance about anything, and what one has to say about truth given nonfactualism about meaning in particular. He also argues that the sceptical solution leads to contradiction when considered as a form of error-theory. Thus he challenges the sceptic to put up or shut up: show there is some other way to understand the sceptical solution or withdraw.

The contradiction affecting the nonfactualist version of the sceptical solution is supposed to be that it entails that truth is not a robust property but it presupposes (so also entails?) that truth is a robust property (1989: §16, 1990: 175).

First let me summarise the argument that nonfactualism works only with robust accounts of truth. Nonfactualism about a discourse holds that the predicates of the discourse do not denote properties, nor do the sentences of the discourse express propositions or have genuine truth conditions (1990:160, 1989: §15). Boghossian claims that this much is inconsistent with minimalism about truth, which holds that simply being of the right syntactic sort is sufficient for a sentence to truth-evaluable. Sentences must be significant (‘disciplined by norms of correct usage’ and declarative in form (‘possess an appropriate syntax’) (1990: 163). Now Graham Oppy, Michael Smith and Frank Jackson have challenged this minimal definition of truth-aptness, but the criteria can stand for the present purposes. Given his assumptions about minimalism about truth and nonfactualism, Boghossian draws the obvious inference that nonfactualism is incompatible with minimalism because it is constitutive of nonfactualism that it denies that (some range of) significant declarative sentences have truth conditions. Nonfactualism is therefore committed to a nonminimal or ‘robust’ theory of truth (1990: 165, 1989: §16).

So far so good, but what of the argument that nonfactualism entails that truth is not a robust property? I am having a bit of trouble with this. I think I know what the steps are supposed to be but I can’t tie them to the text and the principles employed in the text even if they deliver the conclusion, look unacceptable to the sceptic to me. So there’s a petitio principi allegation lurking in the wings. I think it is supposed to go like this
1. Nonfactualism says predicates don’t express properties.
2. So it ought to say the predicate ‘true’ doesn’t express a property.
3. The claim that ‘true’ doesn’t express a property is a central commitment of minimalism about truth.
So, nonfactualism implies minimalism about truth.

In ‘the Status of Content’ to get from “the predicate ‘x has truth condition p’ does not express a property” to ” ‘x is true’ does not express a property”, he goes this way:

The truth value of a sentence is fully determined by its truth condition and the relevant worldly facts. There is no way, then, that a sentence’s possessing a truth value could be a thoroughly factual matter (“true” does express a property) if there is nonfactuality in one of its determinants (“has truth condition p” does not express a property (1990: 175)

Isn’t there a hint of use/mention looseness in this passage? Going by the first sentence of the passage it is the truth-condition that matters for the truth value, not the predicate ‘has a truth condition’, but ignore this. ( I suppose the implicit idea is that the predicate would fail to express the property only if the property didn’t exist…. but that is not scepticism. Kripke never denies that addition and quaddition and the other functions exist, only that we have words and concepts to express them)

My worry about this passage is that the first sentence seems to buy in to the truth-conditional picture that the sceptic rejects. The sceptic is supposed to reject the whole picture of sentences having truth conditions. If you reject talk of truth conditions, you likely reject the lore associated with them. If the sceptic says sentences don’t have truth values, where does the argument go from there? Why can’t the sceptic claim that truth is a property of other things besides sentences (propositions say)? For the sake of argument, assume the sceptic says the following about truth: Propositions are sets of possible worlds and a proposition is true if and only if the actual world is a member of the set of worlds that constitutes the proposition. So the truth of a proposition consists in having the actual world as a member. This doctrine seems open to the sceptic. It has nothing particular to do with language. There would still have been set of possible worlds even if intelligent life hadn’t evolved.

The equivalent passage in the Rule-Following Considerations paper is:

Since the truth condition of any sentence S is (in part, anyway) a function of its meaning, a non-factualism about meaning will enjoin a non-factualism about truth conditions: what truth conditions S possesses could hardly be a factual matter if that in virtue of which it has a particular truth-condition is not itself a factual matter (1989: §15).

It is the same move.

I think my argument above is more direct. Nonfactualism says predicates don’t express properties. ‘True’ is a predicate. So the nonfactualist is committed to the claim that ‘true’ doesn’t express a property. This is minimalism about truth.

My worry about this argument is the status of the definitional connection between minimalism about truth and the denial that ‘true’ expresses a property in the context of scepticism. With scepticism about meaning in the picture, we ought to separate out elements of the minimalist thesis. The core element is the denial that truth is a substantive property. This is set alongside a view about what the predicate ‘true’ does given that it doesn’t express a property. The second thesis in the absence of the first would not count as minimalism about truth. Nonfactualism about meaning, if combined with the toy theory of truth described earlier, accepts the second thesis but rejects the first (or at least accepts the denial that the predicate expresses the property without denying that there is a property (of having the actual world as a member)).

Boghossian seems much too quick in ‘the Status of Content’. He equates ”true’ does not refer to a property’ with the denial that truth is a genuine property (1990: 175). And the toy theory would appear to be a counter-example to that move.

(this was also posted over at the Dublin Philosophy Blog)


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