• QUILLIOT, Roland
  • QUINE , Willard
  • QUINTON, Anthony

  • QUILLIOT, Roland *

    (Contemporary  French philosopher)  

    The concept of truth in contemporary culture

         Contemporary culture is proud of its knowledge that never ceases to progress, but at the same time it shares a deep mistrust for the traditional idea of truth. There is a growing awareness of the fragmentary and revisable character of all cognitions and of the impossibility to form a synthetic vision of an ever growing disparate body of knowledge.

            Everything happens as if the truth which , in the past, was considered of easy access to people of good will, has become more problematic with the progressive decline of ignorance.  This new situation must be regarded  a positive discovery, namely, the growing awareness that reality is complex, that our understanding of reality is itself limited and partial and that, on account of the multiplicity of  perspectives, it is impossible to grasp a partial aspect of the real without masking other aspects.  

            There is a suspicion on the concept of “Truth” with a capital T, on the idea of an absolute Truth that would free the human mind from all doubts concerning the meaning of  existence in its totality. The modern mind turns away from this traditional concept of Truth, whether religious or philosophical.

            a) All great religions have had such a totalising project, particularly the religions of the “Book” founded on the assumption of a unique and transcendant God who has revealed himself in his Word which is the Truth. Contemporary culture is sensitive to the threats of intolerance and fanaticism that goes with these religious messages, as well as to the possible mystification on which they rest (for instance, that the “Word of God” may be nothing more than the expression of human conscience). Modern man has turned away from the concept of authoritatively imposed revealed truth. Even today John-Paul II in “Splendor Veritatis”, persists to affirm that “Truth is established by the divine law, the universal and objective norm of morality”. But such a religious discourse goes counter the contemporary sensitivities.

            b) In line with the revealed concept of Truth of religions, the Truth of Greek philosophy  is that which could be reached in transcending the appearances in order to reach reality in  depth. In modern times, for the philosophers of the “enlightnement”, reason  rather than revelation plays  the role of supreme intellectual authority to the Truth.  For positivism modern science takes the status of the official truth, the basis of the new catechism. But even this ideal of a global scientific truth is today abandoned. The idea of great globalising philosophical or scientific systems belong to the past.  

          It is the conviction today that the world and human existence are the objects of a plurality of rival interpretations and that philosophy must remain an open research that is never concluded. This philosophical pluralism is not to be deplored, in a way it is enriching even if it has destabilising consequences.

            All this is a mark of the decline of the “Truth” with a capital T to leave room for the “true”, which may not satisfy our need for a global rationality but has the merit to be more objective and compelling for all. It is the will not to cheat with the facts that rule contemporary society in all its aspects.  

          However the de-absolutisation of the truth does not pacify  some radical thinkers who want to go further: they contest even the existence of any truth ( not just the Truth but any truth). There are several  reasons they advance to justify the stand they take:  

            -  Some reduce the truth to the “verified”. This first relativisation of the truth implies a second, and so ad infinitum. Indeed what is verified is never completely verified. All empirical verifications are partial, provisory and open to possible revision. No verification is absolute.

            - Some consider that the very notion of truth itself is at stake. No harm is done in rejecting it. The common definition of truth as correspondence between thought and fact, language and reality is unacceptable. One must abandon the image of thought as the revealer of a reality outside it. Truth is a useless notion. Knowledge must no longer to be seen as the revealer of an external reality. Knowledge is a form of intellectual activity comparable to other forms of production and creativity like art.  

            - The division and opposition between true and false are superfluous, even harmful. It is more interesting to adopt a pluralist approach to culture, considering that each has its own values and rules and that none of these can be condemned as illegitimate. A good example of this view is found in the second Wittgenstein who abandoned his first conception of language as “image” of the world in favour of the notion of “language-game” which obeys to rules and criterie of its own and which is the expression of a particular form of life. The philosopher , for him, must stop judging and discriminating between true and false. His task is to describe the particular forms of life which are all  “true” for themselves,  

          In conclusion: what is definitely acquired by contemporary conscience is that no unveiling of truth in its totality is possible. That omniscience is impossible  should not be considered a failure but  an enrichment. The impossibility to close the door to knowledge is a never ending progress. The intelligibility of the real is infinite. This constant progress is accompanied with a parcelling out and a multiplication of perspectives  so that a unitive synthesis of all the views is a vain idea. It is evident that for the man of today “the whole is the non-true” (Adorno), and that he is aware of the limits of his representations. Futile and vain is the dream of an integral unveiling of the total truth, the ideal with which philosophical research began.  

    * Quilliot, Roland, La Vérité, Paris, Ellipses, 1947, p. 5-30


    QUINE , Willard *

    (American philosopher, 1908-2000)

    The  purely functional role of truth: in disquotation and generalisation. No analytic statement is necessarily and a priori true.

     1. According to Quine the notion of truth is devoid of all content. The property “is true” is transparent and that makes it empty and redundant. One should not even consider it a property. X is true, Y is true, Z is true……what have these sentences in common? Nothing. There is nothing common to all what we say to “be true”. On the contrary all other ordinary predicates,  for instance the predicate “is blue”, point at something common to all blue objects. Everything that is blue satisfies the same condition; all objects that possess that quality have a “family resemblance”.  But this is not the case for the predicate “is true”. Truth is applied to each case, case by case. The use of the predicate “is true” does not suppose anything in common between all the cases where “is true “ is used. There is no “family resemblance”. To say that a sentence is true is simply to affirm it, to make it one’s own.  That implies that the notion of truth is empty of all content.

          This leads Quine to hold the view that “is true “ is nothing more than a predicate of disquotation.  By  disquotation he means that just like writing with quotation marks or without them comes to the same, so also whether or not the predicate “true”is added to the sentence, does not change anything in what we want to say. It it is therefore  useless, empty and redundant.

          However  Quine  adds that in certain cases it is useful  to have recourse to the predicate “is true”. Indeed there is a difference in stating: “’Socrates is mortal’, is true” and “’All men are mortal’, is true”. The second statement is general, the first is particular. In the case of general or universal statement  like “All men are mortal” , the notion of truth is useful because it serves to avoid an infinite series of singular sentences: “’this man, this man, etc. is mortal’, is true”. Here  the truth predicate plays a role unlike in “Socrates is mortal, is true” where the truth predicate is redundant. The more we generalize the more we need the truth-predicate. The truth-predicate has a generalizing function. Its limited usefulness is that it serves  to avoid the endless enumeration of singular statements, and nothing more than that. In any case the predicate “is true” is metaphysically empty. Quine reduces it to the purely functional role of disquotation and generalisation.  

     2. Quine is also known  for his rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction of truth. The traditional view had always been (see Kant and Leibniz) that  there are two concepts of truth: the analytical and the synthetic truths, the truth of reason, (a priori) and the truth of facts (a posteriori). A statement is analytic when it is true by virtue of meaning and independently of facts. A statement is synthetic when it is true by virtue of facts. It is a matter of either meaning or fact. Hence a fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, grounded in meanings and truths which are synthetic, grounded on facts.

              Quine disagrees with this traditional dichotomy. According to him no  statement can be analytic in terms of its own self-contained meaning, for no statement ever has fully self-contained meaning. It is always part of a system. It is impossible, he argues, to develop a viable definition of analycity. We cannot appeal to synonymy (identity of meaning), as this concept is ambiguous in natural language and in need of definition as much as analycity.

             All statements, even the most seemingly analytic, are subject to revision. None are necessarily true. Take the example of what for a long time was considered the certain supposedly analytical truths about motion, yielding the conclusion that the sun moves around the earth. Anyone could see that. But certain obvious facts gradually forced science to alter the concept of motion and to recognize that the earth moves.  What had been conceived as analytically true became contingently false.  The concept of motion has been further altered in the light of Einstein's work. All this shows that we need to revise our conceptual system so as better to fit the facts.

           Statements are true which fit optimally with experience and with our overall cognitive system. It is wrong to hold that in some statements the factual component in null and that there are pure analytical statements. In fact the boundary between analytic and synthetic statements cannot be drawn.  No statement  is  immune  to  revision. Most of the  pragmatist philosophers  still maintain the imagined boundary between the analytic and the synthetic. But Quine espouses a more thorough pragmatism in denying analycity.  

    * Quine, W.F.O. Two Dogmas of Empiricism, Classics of Analatyical Philosophy, Ed; by R. Ammerman, McGraw-Hill, N-Y , 1965, p. 196-213; Philosophy of Logic, Prentice-Hall, New Delhi, 110001, 1987, p.1-15; See also Johnson L. ,Focussing on Truth, Routledge, London, 1992, p.196-210.



    (Roman rhetorician, 35-100)


    Rhetoric, justice and truth


    Plato & Socrates were highly critical of rhetoric. They saw it as anti-rational. Since people can often be convinced most effectively through emotional rather than rational appeal, persuasion is not necessarily tied to truth. Rhetorical speech might not represent a pre-existing reality; it might create a state of affairs that audiences accept as reality. At its extreme, the rhetorical view can suggest there is no truth or reality except that which language creates. Hence there is a lot of anxiety over the intentions and impacts created by rhetoric and by orators. Some of Socrates’ rivals claimed that they could argue one side of an issue just as effectively as the other because they knew all the rhetorical tricks and so truth wasn’t really an issue. It’s the extreme opposite of Plato’s view of philosophy as true discourse.

    However Quintilian tries to address this anxiety—he stresses that the good orator is a good man who uses a proper style—his notion of “the proper” combines moral goodness with effective & appropriate language. He sides with Plato’s assertion in the Phaedrus that the rhetorician must be just: “In the Phaedrus, Plato makes it even clearer that the complete attainment of this art is even impossible without the knowledge of justice, an opinion in which I heartily concur". Plato’s and Quintilian’s views are further similar in their treatment of (1) the inseparability, in more respects than one, of wisdom, goodness, and eloquence; and (2) the morally ideological nature of rhetoric. For both, there are conceptual connections between rhetoric, truth and justice which rule out the possibility of amorally neutral conception of rhetoric. For both, rhetoric is ‘speaking well,’ and for both ‘speaking well’ means speaking justly.


    *See Clarke, M.L. Rhetoric at Rome: A Historical Survey. New York: Routledge, 1996.


    QUINTON, Anthony *

    (British philosopher,b.1925}  

    A priori analytic truths are conventional, a matter of human decision

           Quinton intends to refute Quine’s (see Quine)  critique of analycity in defending the fundamental difference of kind between the necessary and the contingent, the analytic and the synthetic truth.  

            According to the traditional view a priori  statements are established either directly by intuition or indirectly by deduction from those that have been established directly. If some of these a priori truths are to be demonstrated, some must be intuited as self-evident. Then  axioms (intuited a priori truths) confer truth on theorems (demonstrated a priori  truths)

            However it is also stated that a priori  statements are analytic. But then they are not intuitive. For what do we mean by these words “a priori”  and “analytic”? A priori means non-empirical. “Analytic” has the four following meanings: a) true in virtue of the terms it contains, b) tautological, c)true in virtue of the convention of language, d) logically true. The analytical is true  on account of meaning, identity, convention and logic. Quinton shows that all necessary a priori  truths are analytical in these four senses.

            Quinton rejects the intuitionist  thesis and defends the analytic  thesis. All a priori , that is, all non-empirical statements are true or false in virtue of their meaning. The difference between necessary and contingent statements is obvious, contrary to Quine’s contention of the opposite. A necessary truth is one that is true in itself, no matter what. A contingent truth is one that is true dependent on or because of something outside itself. Hence the division of the realm of truths in two is completely justified.  Only necessary truths are analytic, only contingent truths are empirical. If a statement is analytic it is in virtue of its meaning and if it is empirical, it is in virtue of experience.  

            A statement is a necessary truth on account of the meaning of the words of which it is composed. But the meaning that words have is assigned to them by convention. Therefore it is linguistic convention that makes a  form of words express a necessary truth.  Linguistic convention is a matter of human decision. The impossibility of falsification that is characteristic of necessary truths is not a brute ontological fact. Rather it is brought about by our refusal  from the start to let any falsification occur. Quinton concludes that necessity is conventional and the conventions actually in force could have been different from  what they are. Necessary truths are made  necessary by convention. The necessity of a statement reflects  the existence of a convention.

            Thus Quinton advocates the conventionalism  of a priori  necessary truths. That is enough for him to reject Quine’s view that the analytically true can become contingently false. The analytical being a matter of convention, that is, a matter of human decision, can never be false.

    * Quinton, Anthony, The A  Priori and the Analytic, in Philosophical Logic, Ed.by P.F. Strawson, Oxford University  Press, 1967 , p.107-128


    Jean Mercier