Is there such thing as truth of sentences?

When I claim that I had eggs for breakfast this morning, there are two possibilities regarding the truth of what I am claiming. It might be true that I had eggs for breakfast this morning, or it might not be true that I had eggs for breakfast this morning.

We can say of course that what I am claiming is true or false. (BTW, I’m focusing on the act of claiming here, but analogous reasoning can be given with other speech-acts like those of wondering-aloud or asking)

Given that what I am claiming IS that I had eggs for breakfast this morning, to claim that what I am claiming is true, is to claim nothing else but that I did have eggs for breakfast this morning. Or, alternatively to claim that what I claimed is false, is to claim nothing else, but that I didn’t have eggs for breakfast this morning.

There are two ways to approach sentences here – we can speak of sentences as they appear as part of a claim, or we can speak of them in abstract manner, where we abstract from the speech act. The issue is – do sentences have truth values taken in this abstract manner, separated from the speech act?

It seems to me that the answer is – NO. I can pronounce the sentence “I had eggs for breakfast this morning”, but if by pronouncing it, I’m not claiming that I had eggs for breakfast this morning, but just, well… pronouncing the sentence for the sake of pronouncing a random sentence, there is no sense in which the sentence can be true or false. Someone might ask me – are you claiming that you had eggs for breakfast this morning, and I will say – no, I’m just pronouncing this sentence. He can’t say then that the sentence is right or wrong, as really nothing is claimed by the sentence.

Of course, one might speak of the truth or falsity of the claim that would be done and in part of which (claim) there would be an act of pronouncing of that certain sentence. That is, given the sentence “I had eggs for breakfast this morning”, I can imagine a person claiming that he had eggs for breakfast this morning, and how as an aspect of that claim (of that speech-act) he is pronouncing the given sentence. But again, there is no reason to speak of the truth value of the sentence alone, if we can’t make sense of it being right or wrong separated from the speech-act of claiming.

If this is so – it points to the answer of how are we able to understand a sentence, even in its abstract form, separated from any speech-act. I think it relates to what I said –  to understand a sentence, IS to understand what one would claim, if in that speech act of claiming that sentence appears. So, to understand what “I had eggs for breakfast” means, is to understand that the sentence will appear, in the case where one will claim that he had eggs for breakfast that morning (or maybe in some other claim).

Because of this, I think we can say that truth or falsity has nothing to do with language. Sure, I use language to claim that I had eggs for breakfast this morning, but given that language gives me ability to claim that I had eggs for breakfast this morning, it gets out of the picture – it has nothing with the truth or falsity of what I claimed. This might be more obvious in the case of wondering-aloud. When I’m wondering aloud if John had eggs for breakfast this morning, I do pronounce the sentence “I wonder if John had eggs for breakfast this morning”, but I can wonder if John had eggs for breakfast this morning even without pronouncing that sentence. I’m not wondering if the sentence “John had eggs for breakfast this morning” is true.

I guess it is interesting to point that the apparent problem of the truth-value of the sentence “This sentence is false” also disappears if we deny that there are truth values of sentences at all. If we don’t allow that sentences can have truth-values taken in this abstract way, the closest thing we can come to is claiming that the claim is false. That is, one can claim that what he is claiming is false. But seems to me the normal response to such claim would be – And what exactly ARE YOU claiming?  You are not claiming anything! And as you are not claiming anything, there is no sense in which your claim can be true or false.  Of course, from this point, the claim that what one is claiming is true, is not better – nothing is actually claimed.

29 thoughts on “Is there such thing as truth of sentences?

  1. Hey Richard. Thanks!

    When we are claiming, we are claiming something. Like, I might claim that I had eggs for breakfast this morning. It seems that there is no sense in claiming, if we can’t specify what is claimed.

    Further, if I claim that it is true that I had eggs for breakfast, it seems that I’m not claiming anything but that I had eggs for breakfast. So, to claim that X is true, is to claim X. So we can make the same claim without using the word “true”.

    However, if I claim that what I’m claiming is true, what is X there? How do I remove the word “true”. What is that which I’m claiming actually? If I try to transform it to “I’m claiming that I’m claiming”, still the second claiming doesn’t specify what is it that it is claiming. We might add – I’m claiming that I’m claiming that I’m claiming, but then, as much times we do that, there is something lacking – in the end, actually nothing is claimed.

  2. So, if I say ‘this sentence has five words’ I am not claiming anything? Sure I am! I am claiming that the sentence has five words same with ‘this sentence is false’ I am claiming that the sentene is false.

  3. If I claim that the sentence I’m currently pronouncing has five words, I don’t see anything wrong with that. There is something that I’m claiming. But I can’t see anything actually claimed when we pronounce “this sentence is false” or “this sentence is true”. Given that in other cases we can remove the word true, and still express the claim – can you do this in this case?

  4. I think the real interesting thing is to ask what a sentence is independent of a presentation of it. That is what is a sentence? Clearly what we mean by it is more than a particular representation (either of glyphs or sound waves). So isn’t a sentence a potential utterance or use of some sort? Further the sorts of things one can do with sentences (assert, question, declare, etc.) seem perhaps more fundamental than the sentence itself with the sentence being what these acts or potential acts have in common.

  5. Hi Clark,

    True, sentence is more just the glyphs. However, as you say, it seems that the speech-acts are more fundamental, and that sentences are just something those might have in common. That is related to the idea that we can speak of a meaning of sentence only related to claims in speech acts in which it will appear, and that we can’t speak of a truth of a sentence unrelated to the specific act of claiming something.

    As for what is a sentence, I might be wrong, but it seems to me that the story about it will go somewhat parallel to the story of meaning and truth – in which story what is pronounced is abstracted from the specific speech-acts, and where one puts more attention to the form of that which is pronounced (probably as sequence of words, or something :-/). Historically it might also has to do with moving to writing, and trying to capture that form into signs.

  6. Given that in other cases we can remove the word true, and still express the claim – can you do this in this case?

    Of course you can,

    “it is true that this sentence is false”

    remove the claim about truth and you get what the person is claiming; that the sentence is false. Easy breezy

  7. Richard,

    But you are taking a sentence with one true and one false, and removing only the word ‘true’. What I meant is to take the claim – this claim is true, and remove the word ‘true’. Or alternatively take the claim – this claim is false, and remove the word ‘false’.

  8. I take sentences to be the only possible realizers of truth-values. And actually only a very limited range of sentences – namely propositions. The world is what it is (or at least that’s how I take it to be). When someone makes a claim about the world, then that claim is true if it describes or depicts a state of affairs as it actually is or was (and possible ‘will be’). If someone says ‘I ate eggs for breakfast this morning’ That is a sentence. It’s also a proposition – it can either be true or false. It is true if I actually ate eggs for breakfast. False if not. If I ate eggs for breakfast, then the state of the world at the time was such that I actually ate eggs..that’s the way the world stands (or stood) whether it is ever expressed or not. When the particular sentence is expressed…then the sentence is true or false according to whether the state of affairs it describes is / was actually the case.

    Sentences themselves, I take it, don’t hold truth value. Of course, there are many kinds of sentences. And even some for example, such as ‘I ate eggs for breakfast this morning’ but is not about eggs or breakfast or time frames consisting of morning – is not the sort of sentence that is true or false (assuming they are speaking English). It’s more like poetry. Perhaps they just like the way those words sound when rolling off of their tongue…or perhaps they are thinking about a line in a play or a book.

    Thus the importance for philosophers to be wary of language. Even when sentences may appear to be the sort that are either true or false (like self-reference paradoxes) we must look into the semantics and possible truth makers for the sentence, to see if its really something about the world…or something else entirely.

  9. Hi Trey,

    I wanted to point to something which I think we can all agree – that is- that *what is claimed* (vs. the categories of sentence, claim, statement, etc…) can be true or false. That is, if I claim that I had eggs for breakfast, and I did, what I claim (and I claim that I had eggs for breakfast) is true. I think this will be accepted by anyone.

    Now, the question is – can we approach this speech act of claiming something, and extract something as a “sentence” (or really “claim”, “statement”, “proposition” and so on), and talk about truth or falsity of THAT?

    To put it otherwise, in the first case, we are talking about truth or falsity of what is claimed, and in doing that we are talking about the world. It is in this sense, that I said – this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with language – as far language gives us possibility to claim something, after that it falls outside of the picture. To say that it is true that I had eggs for breakfast, is to say nothing but that I had eggs for breakfast. We are merely speaking of how the world is or isn’t. (again, the example of wondering-aloud might be more intuitive)

    But again now, can we from the speech-act where we are claiming something, extract (or abstract) something as sentence, claim, statement, etc…, and talk about that thing being true or false?

  10. What I meant is to take the claim – this claim is true, and remove the word ‘true’

    That like asking me to take the claim -I had eggs- and remove the words ‘eggs’

  11. Does the speech act itself has truth value independent of the claim?

    I would say no..although I am open to possible examples that would suggest otherwise. I guess I take it that there is a sense in which sentences do not have any truth value – it’s the claims that have truth value. Like that old example of ‘snow is white’ and then the same sentence in French. Both indicate the proposition and its the proposition that is either true or false, contingent on the conditions that actually hold in the world.

    But I may still be missing the details of your puzzle. Are you asking if truth value is something above and beyond both the sentence and the claim – like if ‘truth’ is a sort of property itself?

  12. Trey, right, it seems weird to say of an act that it is a true or false. I’m not claiming that.

    I’m saying that what is claimed can be true or false. That is, that properly speaking it is not the claim that I had eggs for breakfast which is true or false, but that it might be true or false that I had eggs for breakfast.

    And to say that it is true that I had eggs for breakfast is to say nothing but that I did had eggs for breakfast, and to say that it is false that I had eggs for breakfast is to say nothing but that I didn’t have eggs for breakfast.

    So, it seems to me that we are all the time talking about the world, that by saying that something is true or false, we are not talking about sentences or claims, but we are talking about the world.

    One might ask – but then why do we speak of what someone said as being true or false? I think it is a helpful shortcut. Instead after person A claims that he had eggs for breakfast, instead of me claiming that he had eggs for breakfast (and in that way not speak of any sentence, claim or whatever), I can just say that what he said is true, and saying that meaning the same thing – that is claiming that he did had eggs for breakfast. That he is speaking about the world, and that he can use “true” as shortcut just because somebody already claimed the same thing.

  13. Yeah, I think I see what you are saying. Like I said, I don’t take sentences to have truth value. So yeah, I agree there is a sort of misunderstanding (or shortcut) involved when someone says that one spoke a true sentence. What they are really saying is that someone spoke a sentence that intends a true proposition – that proposition being true because its truth-makers are actually the case.

    But also, that’s an account of sentences that are actually supposed to be about the world. It may be that there are sentences that are their own truth-makers. In which case these sentences would be true (or false). I don’t know..I can’t think of any right now, but my lack of imagination can be no indicator to what could be or is.

  14. On the other hand though..I believe in propositions. It would seem that someone who doesn’t would in fact say that it must be sentences that are true or false. Right?

  15. Sorry, way behind.

    That is related to the idea that we can speak of a meaning of sentence only related to claims in speech acts in which it will appear, and that we can’t speak of a truth of a sentence unrelated to the specific act of claiming something.

    This seems wrong somehow. Why not say the meaning of a sentence depends upon its interpretation and that speech acts are parasitic on interpretation? (Which I think is closer to the truth)

  16. Just to add, the reason I say that is what we utter (the speech act) has an odd relation to the glyphs. I can make typos or misstatements yet have the same speech act as a proper speech but with differing sentences. This means that tying sentences to intents seems incorrect. We use sentences but I think their meaning is tied to a public meaning of average interpretation and perhaps a range of meanings dependent upon what are acceptable interpretations.

    Put an other way I think that to use a sentence we have to have first interpreted it which means speech acts are always secondary. (Searle doesn’t quite go that far although he does accept what he calls corporate meaning and raises this huge overly complex method of getting at illocutionary force)

  17. To your last comment, when we say “what is claimed is true” I don’t think this gets us very far. What I think this ends up meaning (and here I follow Davidson) is merely that we can take any claim in a speech act and translate it into a sentence we call true. Put an other way that kind of statement tells us little unless we can unpack what we mean by “what is claimed.”

    This gets me back to the Peircean position that something is true when a community says it is true. Truth in the more normative rather than subjective sense is just some ideal future community that has accorded to nature all the force she has directing us towards facts. That is that future community translates things into their language and says it is true.

  18. If it were sentences that are true…then it would be the case that when a community says that a sentence is true, then it would in fact be true. After all, sentences are conventional.

    But its not consensus that makes sentences true…well, like I said first…the first step is noticing that its not sentences that are true or false, in any case. It’s the claims that are true or false. There will be different standards for different claims. And surely for some, there may be no epistemological standards by which one could discern truth…yet..the claim will have metaphysically grounded truth value. For example, the claim made by the sentence ‘God created the world’. I can’t think of any possible scenario in which one could determine whether this claim is actually true or not….but it is either true or false..and if its true there was something about the world that makes it true..and vice versa.’s no easy matter determining what in the world actually makes a claim true or not..but for the one’s that we are going to posit to be true — consensus is not even a good start. I do agree with Davidson that it doesn’t really make sense to think that we could be in radical error. But, accepting that – Actually for me, that’s where philosophy begins, with a general skepticism towards common sense ‘truths’ (which is another way of saying a skepticism concerning what is conventionally taken to be the way the world is).

    On another point,

    I don’t think ‘meaning’ constitutes truth. However, meaning must have a necessary relation between sentences and propositions if there is to be a true claim. When I say ‘Snow is white’…in order for that to be the claim that snow is white…I have to mean snow by ‘snow’ — but I take it that snow is white regardless.

  19. Hi Tanasije, I’d stopped checking your blog, so I’m entering this discussion rather late; but as it’s a very old topic that will run and run, that won’t matter. For what it’s worth, I also disagree with you.

    Truth is about the fit of our words to the world, and sentences are made of words. Similarly, a portrait, a a movie, a novel can be true to life, can be life-like. Words are weird, being the same when spoken or written, and often when carrying different meanings, but they are what language is made of. Those meanings are like “Bob” means Bob (sometimes), and Bob is part of the world. Truth cannot be about the fit of the world with the world. It has to be about a representation of the world with the world.

    The thing about asserting rather than saying is that in an assertion you say that the sentence is supposed to be about the world, that it is supposed to be true. Since we have language (sentences etc.) we also have the possibility of fiction. That is really the utility of language, that it is not the world, but something else that we can manipulate. Truth is all about sentences describing reality. Maybe a proposition is part of a world (fictional or actual) chopped up (perhaps fuzzily) in the manner of a sentence…

    I don’t really know the best way to define such things. It all gets very complicated, and will probably depend upon what we learn about how our brains operate (apparently the sentence is a very basic linguistic element), and becomes highly self-referential when philosophers consider how they are philosophising… which is why this topic will run and run I think…

  20. …incidentally, that sentences are neither true nor false would not resolve the Liar-style paradoxes, as you could still consider someone saying “I am not now asserting a true proposition.”

  21. Hi Clark, just so that I am clear, when I’m talking about speech-acts, I’m not talking about the physical aspect of it, nor of its grammatical and linguistic aspect. That is I’m taking a speech-act where one claims that he had eggs for breakfast, only on that level – as a claim that he had eggs for breakfast. Putting attention on certain aspects, we may notice that he was speaking English, Spanish or German, or that he said it quietly or loudly, that he stuttered or not.

    In all those cases, no matter the differences, the person will perform the same speech-act : the act of claiming that he had eggs for breakfast. I wouldn’t say even that properly he isn’t using a sentence. I would say that we can abstract a sentence from his speech-act. The person that claims something, I take it, doesn’t think – “I will now take this sentence, which has this meaning and those truth conditions, and by pronouncing it, I will hence make such and such claim about the world”. I think he simply knows how to claim that he had eggs for breakfast, and he does that – he claims. So, talking about the speech-acts, I think of them as proper illocutionary acts, and take those other things as aspects of that act.

    But yes, I can see how this relates to all kind of philosophical commitments and is related to other aspects of persons’ philosophy (re your remark of how you understand truth). Kind of make it hard to present a good argument (or hope for one), given those differing backgrounds, don’t you think? One may just hope that his position makes sense to other people :)

    BTW, you mention interpretation, and I don’t think that what I said about understanding meaning of a sentence goes against that. In the very idea that the meaning of a sentence is related to what would it be claimed in the specific speech-act of claiming when such sentence is pronounced, it is implicit that we can only speak about meaning of sentences through interpretation, because the same sentence, can appear in lot of different claims.

  22. Enigman , first – shame on you for not checking my blog! Just kidding of course – I’m not sure there are reasons for checking it even when I write something, much less so when I don’t! :)

    I wrote another post, where I hopefully explain my position in more sense contrasting it with that, I take it early-Wittgenstein position of how sentences relate to the world, and what makes them true or false. What I’m thinking is that we can’t approach the issues in that kind of abstract manner – be that we are approaching words and their meaning, or sentences and their meaning. It seems to me words and sentences have meaning only in the context of people using them to do something. And it seems to me that talk about true/false only in the context of people using sentences (again, as I said above in response to Clark, this “using” not taken in literal way) to claim, ask, etc… something about the world. I think – that only in this context of doing something we can make sense of meaning of words, sentences, and of saying something true or false.

    “I am not now asserting a true proposition.”, doesn’t seem as a problem also. The talk about “true proposition/sentence” would be according to my position, nonsense, so that the whole sentence won’t be actually claiming anything.

    Not sure I understand what did you point to with “why am I an angry green circle?”. That we can express things which are unrelated to the world. Sure… we can, as you pointed we can imagine things, write fiction, etc.., we can even play with the form of our speech, taking it in abstract way, disconnected from its use. It is all things we can do.

  23. It does initially seem that rejecting truth value for sentences still leaves us with the liar paradox. But I actually this it is this move that dissolves the paradox. Let me explain.

    I take only propositions to be true or false. Propositions are true or false contingent on their relation to actual states of affairs in the world. So, given that framework, lets look at a liar paradox:

    “This sentence is false”

    In order to determine if the sentence is denoting a true proposition we have to ask ourselves – what proposition is it claiming? We have to ask that question before we can even begin to think about how we are going to examine the relation between the proposition and the world. But it seems that this sentence is not denoting a proposition. It’s denoting a sentence. And sentences are neither true nor false. If we were to say that it’s denoting a proposition – that proposition being the same as the sentence, then I think we would have to say it’s denoting a mere syntactical structure…which also is neither true nor false. Therefore, I take it that the lair paradox is a sentence that denotes a pseudo-proposition. It looks like a real claim about the world, but it’s not. It’s a claim about itself and it’s self is a sentence. And it’s exactly because sentences are neither true nor false that the paradox doesn’t stand ground.

    This follows for any ‘self-referential’ sentence.

  24. The other solution Trey is Peirce’s which is to say something is true only if it is confirmed true by experience and only false if is is confirmed false by experience. If something is not confirmed then it is presumed true.

    The problem of things like the Liar’s paradox is that they include indexicals which means the sentence is judged true (I think saying it is true is misleading) in a certain context. But a sentence like “this sentence is false” will never be disconfirmed by experience and for Peirce is therefor true.

  25. Well, I definitely agree that it must be experience that guides us in determining what is true and what is not. That, at least to me, is not equivalent to truth by consensus. I take it that all true propositions have truth makers. That is, that there is something about the world that makes the proposition true. As I have said before, determining what this is and its relation to the proposition is complex and will not necessarily be the same in all circumstances. But, it will hold that in all true propositions that there is something actually about the world that makes them to be true. Furthermore, (in relation to the present blog topic) the way the world is…it actually is…whether any sentences are said or any true propositions confirmed.

    The confirmation part itself is an epistemological issue. I don’t think that is as clear cut as it might initially seem. Confirming that something is true is very different from something actually being true. It’s actually either true God created the world or its not true that God created the world. Confirming this is a very different project indeed!!!

    Well, Peirce is wrong. Just because a sentence cannot be proved false doesn’t mean that it is true…

    But in saying that you have side-stepped my point I think. The liars paradox doesn’t denote a proposition..and thus is not the sort of thing that can be true or false…or confirmed or disconfirmed…

  26. Peirce’s position isn’t exactly truth by consensus but rather the fact reality acts on inquirers so we can abstract out some ideal future community which reality has acted on. It ends up wrapped up in his notions of infinity and without getting into a discussion of Peirce it may be a normative sense (i.e. what we mean by truth rather than whether ever such community could exist)

    Without going down a tangent I’ll point to an old post of mine on Peirece and the Liar’s Paradox. Basically he is claiming that all sentences asserted claim their truth and that a contradictory sentence can’t assert its truth, therefore it is false. Just because the sentence appears self-referential doesn’t change that fact. (i.e. by saying “this sentence is neither true nor false” or “this sentence is false.”) Also see this followup post

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