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Anti-realism and the idea of truth as a 'target'


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anti-realism and the idea of truth as a 'target'
Date: 13 July 2006 08:25

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 25 June, with your third essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, Does anti-realism violate the reality principle in denying the existence of a verification independent 'target for our thoughts to aim at'?

The proponents of the 'verification principle' led by Rudolph Carnap in the USA and A.J. Ayer in Britain were looking for a criterion of meaningfulness which could be used, in Tractarian fashion, to separate genuine questions from meaningless speculation. As Ayer explains in the second edition of 'Language, Truth and Logic', it is not necessary that we should possess the means to verify, e.g. (my example) that there is life in other solar systems in order to understand how the statement, 'There is life in other solar systems' might, in principle, be verified. Understanding how an observer ideally placed could verify the proposition is sufficient for grasping its meaning.

On the other hand, 'There are empty times' (periods of time where no events happen) cannot be directly verified, although we 'seem' to understand what that proposition means. So is it meaningful or not?

By contrast, the anti-realist, as I have characterized this position, is not presenting a criterion of meaningfulness but rather raising a question about our grasp of the concept of truth. What role does the notion truth play in understanding a proposition? What does it mean to say that a proposition is, or might be, true?

While I accept that there is a wider sense in which 'realism and anti-realism are directions rather than positions' - so that, for example, you can be realist or anti-realist about specific areas of discourse, e.g. discourse about theoretical entities - we have been focusing on global realism and anti-realism, a general view about the nature of truth itself, rather than a view about any particular area of discourse.

The distinction between anti-realism as applied to a particular area of discourse and global anti-realism is Michael Dummett's, although I do not follow Dummett's characterization of the realist/ anti-realist debate.

Going back to Freud, we all engage in pleasurable fantasies with the knowledge that they are fantasies. This is in itself a remarkable fact about human nature. Yet most of us - most of the time - avoid the temptation to relapse into a way of thinking where one forgets the difference between reality and fantasy and 'acts out' one's fantasies.

My accusation against a certain kind of 'anti-realist' is of performing a kind of 'double think'. The anti-realist, in seeking to define a notion of 'truth' in contrast with the realist's conception of truth, only succeeds in undermining the very idea of an independent 'target for our thoughts to aim at'.

For this kind of anti-realist, a proposition becomes 'true' because we believe it - because we have performed the 'correct' verification procedures and satisfied ourselves that we may legitimately assert the proposition as 'true' - a complete reversal of the point of the reality principle, that belief should reflect how things are in the world. I want to say that it is not necessary to perform this double think in order to defend an anti-realist position. There is an alternative, namely, to refuse the invitation to 'define' truth in opposition to the realist's notion of 'correspondence with reality. In other words, the anti-realist avoids the clash with the reality principle by refusing to define truth.

The more reflective realist, meanwhile, sees that 'correspondence with reality' is an empty phrase, thus agreeing with the anti-realist about the indefinability of truth. This is the point where the dialectic moves forward, and we are able to get to the crux of the dispute between the realist and anti-realist.

My aim in these units has been to narrow the focus down to the precise point on which the realist/ anti-realist dialectic turns. It is not about 'definitions of truth', it is not about 'theories of meaning'. it is about that mysterious, uncanny feeling one has when one says, about some alleged fact which cannot ever be verified, 'That might have happened,' or, 'That might be true'.

What is going on here? What conception of the 'world' or 'reality' is implied by that statement?

The problem, ultimately, is about the fact that as subjects we are irretrievably situated at a place and a time - a perspective - yet the very form of the words that we use implies that thought itself is free from perspective. The question is how this tension is ultimately to be resolved.

All the best,