Sunday, June 12, 2011

Truth and the PWTP principle

In 'Bare Particulars' Ted Sider says that particulars, not properties, should wear the pants. In the context in which he says it, I think he’s right. He says that the proposition that you’re sitting is true because you’re sitting, and you instantiate the property of sitting because you’re sitting. Those cases seem pretty clear-cut. You could presumably have a coherent conception of reality according to which things were the other way round, but that isn’t the way we normally think.

Sometimes you want to say that the abstracta are wearing at least some of the pants. I’ve got a prime number of arms because two is a prime number and I’ve got two arms. The reason the number two gets to do some work here is that we’re talking about primeness, and primeness is a property of numbers. There’s a related property which my arms have, namely the property of being a prime number of arms, but this property is derivative from the property of primeness, which belongs in the realm of abstracta. This seems an unproblematic violation of the principle.

Now a lot of people seem to think that the property of truth, as applied to utterances, inscriptions and beliefs, is a derivative property, like the property of being a prime number of arms. Consider this sentence-token:

S          Snow is white.

It’s not obviously barmy to think that S is true because it expresses the proposition that snow is white and that proposition is true. On the other hand, it’s also not obviously barmy to think that S is true because it says that snow is white, and snow is white. But if ‘says’ means ‘expresses’, and ‘that snow is white’ names a proposition, and that proposition is true because snow is white, then these two views aren’t really in conflict. The second view has just used different words and followed the explanation a bit further.

However, I also don’t think it’s obviously barmy to think that S is true because the subject refers to snow and the predicate expresses the property of being white and snow is white. We haven’t talked about a proposition at all there, and I don’t think we need to. We’ve talked about a property, and I’m not sure how to avoid it, but I’m not too concerned about that. The important thing is that the proposition isn’t doing any work.

So there are two ways of looking at truth as applied to utterances and inscriptions. (I think similar considerations apply to beliefs, but I’ll stick to more obviously sentence-like things at the moment.) On one view, truth is primarily a property of abstracta, and utterances are only true derivatively. On the other view, utterance-truth isn’t derivative in this way: it’s a non-derivative property of concrete things down here in the world. I’m much more inclined towards the latter view, but I don’t know how to go about arguing for it, so I won't do that. The point is that these are two pretty different ways of thinking about truth and the role of propositions, and I don't know which is the right one.

*ADDED 11/02/2014*

Since I wrote this post, I've come across complaints elsewhere that the 'wearing the pants' metaphor might be sexist, or heteronormative, or cisnormative. I've used it here because Sider used it, and I've come across it used by philosophers in conversation a fair bit. But I do see the point, and if anyone's been offended by it here, then I'm sorry, and when I'm choosing metaphors in future I expect I'll try to avoid this one.

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