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ARE TRUTHS OBSCURED BY THE LANGUAGES IN WHICH WE EXPRESS THEM?
The words “truth” and “language” are the reason of many debates, discussions and controversies in the philosophical world. Many great minds yielded numerous different theories. Truths are obscured and influenced by the language they are expressed in; however, different truths are influenced to different extents. The main kinds of truths dealt with in this paper are the emotional, historical and scientific truth. When dealing with them, different theories of truth are considered.
There are four main theories of truth. The coherence theory of truth states that a statement is true or false if it coheres or fails to cohere with a system of other statements. This also means that each statement is a member of a system whose elements are related to each other by logical implication. Each member of the system implies every other member. Therefore, to test whether a statement is true implies testing it for coherence with the system (Edwards, p130). On the other hand, according to Bertrand Russell, “truth consists in some form of correspondence between belief and fact” (Edwards, p223). This statement represents the basis of the correspondence theory of truth which is against the theory of the absolute idealists, which is that “truth consists in coherence” (Edwards, p231). The performative theory of truth explains how “true” has no independent assertive meaning, being just a descriptive expression. F.P. Ramsey suggested that “true” is used for purposes of emphasis or style, or to indicate the position of a statement in an argument (Edwards, p88). Therefore, “true” does not change the assertive meaning of a statement, since it has no statement-making role. The last one of the truth theories, the pragmatic theory of truth, somehow resembles the first one. It supports the idea that what is meant by the truth is the opinion that is ultimately agreed on, by all those who investigate it.
Before further analyzing truths though, let’s take a look at the deeper meaning of language, since this is a main factor affecting the question being discussed. Something that is universally known is the fact that language is used for communication. However, it is important to notice that language is also used outside the context of interpersonal communication. It must be made clear that what is essential for language is that it can be used for communication, not that it is used for this purpose only (Edward, p480). Perhaps it is best to say that for the central cases of language, interpersonal communication is the main use and that other uses are derived from it (Edward, p 482). This last affirmation leads to the conclusion that when trying to study the nature of language, we are mainly looking at the nature of the units it is made of (ibid). Usually, the units that language is broken into are the sentences. In general, for a sentence to have a certain meaning is for it to be usable in expressing a certain something. A division in language into even smaller subdivisions will deal with words. To say that a word has a certain meaning is to say that when it is put into a certain slot in a sentence, it will partly determine the kind of communication for which that sentence is constructed. Here is where the bewitchment of language comes into play, because the interpretation of a single word can change the meaning of an entire sentence and therefore deliver a false message. The following example can be considered. I once asked a new colleague of mine how she did on a test. She replied that everything went well, so I assumed that she would get above eighty percent. However, a couple of days later I found out that my colleague got around sixty percent, which was indeed good for her. Nevertheless, my interpretation of her answer led me to a wrong assumption. In this case, language influenced the truth expressed greatly.
Many such situations occur in the case of the emotional truths. These truths are different for each and every person because the emotions involved in determining them are influenced by experiences. However, not even identical twins can be said to have had the exact same experiences. This statement is perfectly valid if the lives of only two people are considered. But what if, somewhere on this planet, two or more people actually went through the exact same situation. This can happen all the time. For example, two soldiers can fight side to side in a war or people can have the same disease at the same time. Even then though, someone would perceive an experience in a slightly different way than someone else, because people have different personalities, backgrounds or things that have happened to them. A sentence and therefore the truth it is delivering is said to be factually significant to any given person, if and only if that sentence can be verified; that is, if the person knows what observations would lead him to accept the proposition as being true, or false (Magill, p2127). However, what is true for one person, might not be true for another person. Ayer, for example, says the following about one’s self: “it is in fact a logical construction out of the sense-experiences which constitute the actual and possible sense-history of a self”(Magill, p2131). Since no two people are identical, verbal discussions are very sensitive to defects of language and therefore the emotional truth expressed by them, highly obscured by language. That’s why we often see people gesticulating in an attempt of putting their point through more clearly.
The coherence theory of truth mentioned earlier applies very well to historical truths. When dealing with the past, coherence is actually the only criterion that can be used successfully, in order to avoid being bewitched by language (Edwards, p130). It is impossible to verify the accuracy of a historical event at a present moment. For example, no one can now compare the statement that the battle at Plevna was fought in 1881 with any other statements other than those that occur in documents, history books and works of art. However, if the truth of any given statement is bound up with, and can only be considered together with the truth of all other statements, it could be said that individual statements are only partly true and therefore partly false (ibid). It could also be said that only the sum of all statements alone is wholly true. Even so, how can we be absolutely sure that all documents aren’t actually false? Especially in the case of events which happened a very long time ago, there are only a few records about that event left and the probability of all those documents being false increases greatly. All documents can be false, in the sense that only the winners or the few learned people of the time recorded the events. Therefore they could have put down what they wanted to be remembered by, not necessarily what was true. On the other hand, we can consider a battle fought by Caesar, about 2000 years ago, and a battle fought during the Second World War. The difference in the number of documents that exists, at the present moment, about these two events must be enormous. It is important to note, that in this paper, the historical truths are thought to be what we consider to be true about a specific event, in the present, based on the documents available. Consequently, the truth of historical events can still be obscured, since as we go back in time, the number of documents we can rely on and their diversity decreases drastically. However, this kind of truth can be obscured to a much smaller extent than the emotional truths.
The kind of truth, which still has to be discussed, is the scientific truth.
In this case the theory which Ayer calls “the strong theory’ can be used. If a sentence has no meaning it couldn’t be true; and a sentence has meaning, if it is verifiable empirically (Magill, p2128). Considering this, scientific truths should be impossible to obscure, theoretically speaking. Also, it has to be considered that language can play only a small role since lots of numbers are used and other a priori knowledge. In addition, areas where problems arise, such as the expression of feeling, are not dealt with in science. For example, there is nothing confusing about the quadratic formula, since no words are involved. However, some sentences are not practically verifiable because of the present state of science, that being the uncertainty related with those kinds of truth. We can consider the fact that a while ago people believed the Earth was flat. That used to be the truth at that time, but it isn’t the truth anymore. What we think of as being true now, will maybe prove to be false in the future. It also has to be considered that words are necessary, even in science. Therefore, it is not impossible to obscure a scientific truth, but due to the fact that the extent to which language can bewitch in this case is small, scientific truths are far less obscured than the other truths.
In conclusion, language can obscure what we think of as being true, in the present. However, depending on the extent to which language is necessary for each kind of truth, they will be affected to different extents.
Magill, N. Frank. World Philosophy - Essay Reviews of 225 Major Works, Volume 4. New York, Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1961.
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Edwards, Paul. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 3. New York: Macmill Publishing Co. Inc & The Free Press, 1972.
Edwards, Paul. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 5. New York: Macmill Publishing Co. Inc & The Free Press, 1972.
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- Dalmein, Jo (Autor), 2001, Are truths obscured by the language in which we express them?, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/102307