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There is No Truth in Language (Truth is in the Doing)

[NB: this post, more than many I write, is an exercise in thinking aloud.]
It is probable that most of us have been taught to assume that truth is something that is expressed in language or in sentence (I reckon a good many of us began identifying ‘true/false’ statements in quizzes at a fairly young age).  At worst, this assumption is incorrect.  At best, it is deceptive.  Such an assumption makes the fatal mistake of assigning truth to the disembodied realms of semiotics and linguistics, thereby creating a disconnect between truth and being or truth and doing.  It is this disconnect that we must overcome.
In order to do this, we must begin by realizing that language is nothing more than the manipulation of sounds (when it is verbalized) or signs (when it is written) within the framework of previously established rules and limits.  That is to say, any truth value found within language is one that we a priori and arbitrarily assign to it.  In and of itself, language has no meaning and expresses no truth.  Even if we find it convenient to pretend that it is meaningful or truthful, all language is actually tautological.
So, for example, let us imagine the following.  Let us create a language game wherein all objects possessing a certain characteristic (let’s call it ‘X’) also possess a certain other characteristic (let’s call it ‘Y’).  Let us now examine an object (let’s call it object ‘A’).  Let us assume that object A possesses characteristic X.  We can then conclude that object A also possesses characteristic Y.  Within this scenario, we might be tempted to say that our conclusion is ‘true’.  However, this type of truth is then something we have arbitrarily created — based upon the rules of our language game and our manipulation of signs — and this truth consequently has no connection to any reality external to our game.  Truth, in this case, is not stranger than fiction — it is fiction.
Or, to take another example, let us take the statement that ‘1 + 1 = 2’.  Once again, what we have are signs that we have arbitrarily manipulated and slotted into a particular language game (mathematics).  Within that language games those signs have a particular meaning, leading to a statement that produces a supposed truth — but, once again, that truth only has value within the boundaries of that language game and it tells us nothing (true or false) about the world outside of that game.  This truth is also fiction.
Now, I take the time to dwell on these (somewhat dull) examples because we need to understand that a great deal of what goes on in scholarship — in theology, philosophy, social theory, and our so-called quest for truth — is little more than this manipulation of signs and language games in order to create systems that are, perhaps, logically rigorous or aesthetically pleasing, but whose truth values have no relationship to any reality external to the games being played by the scholars.
This is why we must not judge scholars and their scholarly proposals on the logical force or aesthetical appeal of the arguments that they produce.  Instead, we must judge scholars on the basis of how they live their lives.  Therefore, I entirely disagree with Seth who commented on my last post and stated:

If the essay has truth in it but doesn’t necessarily translate to the truth in the author’s life I would not discount the truth of the essay.

The point is that no essay has truth in it.  All essayists are doing is manipulating signs.  Therefore, what matters is not the essay but what the essayist actually does with his or her life.  Unfortunately, Seth’s argument is used to justify the ongoing existence of academicswith high status and comfortable lifestyles who say a lot of things they don’t actually mean or understand (otherwise we would see that meaning genuinely reflected in their lives and actions).  Thus, contemporary structures of power and privilege are perpetuated, regardless of the ‘radicality’ of the argument constructed by these scholars.
Consequently, truth, if it is to be something concrete, or a-thing-that-is, must be sought in being and in doing.  It is the truth that is found in these things that possesses significance and meaning.  The truth that is found in language is ever only fictional — truth that is sought in being and doing is historical and material.

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  1. Hi Dan your concise and trenchant analysis is appreciated and i hope will spark some good discussion.
    But, could you offer some definition(s) of ‘truth’ so we all know the delimitations of the game? (can one ever ask ‘what is truth’ and not sound like Pontius Pilate?) I reckon I am floundering somewhere betwixt you and Seth (as well as between Nietzche/Foucault and Pope Benedict XVI) and have been wrestling with these issues for awhile and wonder if i will ever be able to come to some resting point, have you? Using the yardstick of the lived lives of scholars, philosophers, theologians, etc. is as alluring as it is problematic, and rather than settling the issue it only seems to expand and deepen the questions. Back in the early 90’s there was a big kerfuffle over Heidegger’s Nazism, then DeMann came into question, then some articles that Adorno wrote that seemed sympathetic to national socialism came to light. And who decides which aspect of someone’s life calls their truth claims into question? Perhaps, for some, Wittgenstein’s homosexuality calls into question the truth of his propositions on ‘language games.’ I like your post here on this subject but if i accept your propositions as true and then i find out you drive a hummer, cheat on your wife, eat veal, and live off your investments in Halliburton inc. does it make them untrue, even within the useful limits of this discourse? On the other hand if someone lives out their political philosophy faithfully and consistently (say Himmler and Nazism, oh how the goose-steppers loved their Hegel and his dialectical triplicity) does it validate their truth claims (or Hegel’s?). I am also wondering about the assertions about the ‘arbitraryness’ of language and that language bears “no relationship to any reality external to the games being played by the scholars.” Does the materiality of language allow it to share some affinity with the world? Or, maybe as Heidegger said ‘language worlds the world,’ or is it the other way around? (and did he say that before or after the Rector’s Address?). And is their a sacramental aspect to language that should be taken into consideration here (water/wine, bread/body). I would like to stop with an important quote from the Talmud but i have run on a bit, sorry. obliged, daniel

  2. I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but there’s a lot of irony in the fact that you’re arguing your point through supposedly fictional language.
    Now, it is true that the symbols, signs, and phonemes languages use are ultimately arbitrary. But that’s not of huge philosophical consequence. The color of stop signs is arbitrary – but it’s a darn good thing that all stop signs are red. When you take a proposition like “1 + 1 = 2,” you’re dealing with arbitrary symbols – but those symbols are connected in your mind and in my mind to some fundamental concepts which we both understand. So you’re communicating something that really can’t be denied. (Try convincing yourself that 1 + 1 = 2.)
    Now, it’s true (no pun intended) that language is ultimately self-referential – any philosophical treatment of language must employ language – but, in practice, I don’t think that ends up being too much of a problem. We still have essentially the same idea of what “red” is. We still understand what “1 + 1 = 2” is. Language is the most powerful tool mankind has.
    And I don’t know how to make sense of your conclusion that we judge essays by the lives of the essayists. What if two essayists argue opposing points but live equally exemplary lives?

  3. St. Anselm said truth is something in which both actions and statements participate, to the extent that they succeed in doing what actions and statements are supposed to do. I tend to like that.
    And I think the point of much language, the intention, is not simply to create an internally coherent system, but to create a coherent system that also has some contact or correlation with the external, already-existing-world. So our statement that 1+1=2 is not only tautological, it (hopefully) accurately correlates to something we come into contact with.
    And, I think, this is the only way possible to make sense of even praxis-oriented critiques. Because at some point, you have to admit that even the praxis-based critique has to use language, has to assume that there is some “good” or “bad” kind life that can be perceived and that correlates to your judgment of a good or bad life, and that a person’s arguments can be critiqued on that basis. I don’t think you can extricate that idea from the language in which its expressed, and from the assumption that the language correlates with something about reality accurately.
    And then, I would say, it’s not enough to merely critique the life of an essayist and then discount the essay. It’s rather more important to ask whether the assumption involved in such a critique holds up to scrutiny in reality. We would need to show some *link* between the ideas in the essay and the “bad” life of the author. My own experience suggests it’s at least worth considering that ideas are not often correlated with deeds in this way; one can find exemplary lives among people with all sorts of ideas, and for every kind of idea you can find people who (at least explicitly) believe, argue, articulate it, and live bad lives.
    I’d rather say we need to take the words seriously (as you so obviously do in your reviews and comments on other people’s work) and in many cases let the words themselves critique actions. Point out the contradictions.
    If, on the other hand, there is a clear connection between an idea and certain actions, that is, if there is a reason they lead to bad actions, then I think it is reasonable to critique ideas on that basis.

  4. Two brief points from a long lost reader:
    1. Linguists in semantics would say that language isn’t truth, but can reference truth. The reference of any proposition is generally take to be its truth value (whether or not the proposition is true in the real world or some possible world). The statement ‘the sky is blue’ has a truth value of 1 (as opposed to zero) because in the real world the sky is actually blue. That doesn’t mean the sentence contains truth, but that it references truth.
    2. You cannot say that natural language is a language game since were it not for natural language, you could not construct a language game. Natural language was not created artificially like your game. It is a biological system that arose like all biological systems do: millions of years of trial and error evolutionary development. It therefore has strong limits imposed upon it by its biological nature. If these limits were to line up perfectly with the philosophical limits you describe for artificial languages, this would be pretty surprising.

  5. What a great post! Very recently, I got exposed to the behind-the-scene behaviour of a massively respected Anglican figure (nobody connected with Durham though).
    I love the guy, he really ticks all the right boxes, on the front scene. But his controlling, insecure and bullyish ways backstage broke something in me. How easy it is to say the right things, even to inhabit the display of righteousness.
    It’s only a game, and it is so easy to learn. You repeat the same twenty tropes over and over again, until you end up claiming lots of credibility and derive your own self-respect from “proclaiming the truth”. I could not believe that it had taken me so long, (and also some access to this guy), for me to understand that very, very simple phenomenon.
    I would go as far as saying that the right Christian spoken narrative, decoupled from love, does a whole lot of tangible harm (c.f. in that situation:
    Please excuse me if I’ve de-philosophised the substance of your post by dragging it back to day-to-day life situations. At least that’s what I’ve gotten from it. And those two recent experiences have cured me from the excesses of spoken and written language.

  6. Dan,
    It’s just my $.02, but I think there might be a bit of an equivocation at the core of part of your argument here:
    “In order to do this, we must begin by realizing that language is nothing more than the manipulation of sounds (when it is verbalized) or signs (when it is written) within the framework of previously established rules and limits. That is to say, any truth value found within language is one that we a priori and arbitrarily assign to it. ”
    It is true that “language” qua words are arbitrarily assigned to concepts as signifiers by convention. But it doesn’t follow from that that “language” qua assertions (i.e. propositions or sentences) never corresponds to an external reality. Of course this is probably not important to your core issue, which is more about the integrity of people between what they believe and what they do. It’s hard to disagree with you when you say those things ought to match.

  7. This may be only a tangentially related issue, but perhaps you are risking underestimating the power of words. That is to say, what power does language actually have to shape our thinking? If we lack the the words to express certain concepts does that limit our attainment of said concepts?
    We tend to think of language as a neutral vessel, but it really isn’t. Language itself, before the words are ever translated into deeds, can itself constrict us.

  8. what nonsense.
    you can speak truth about God and yet live falsely. You can do this, but you should not.
    When something is true it is because it is congruent to some other standard.
    Language is true when it is congruent with the reality it intends to refer to.
    Living is true when it is congruent to the values and beliefs of that life.
    For those who proclaim a truth congruent with the revelation of God in Christ, but live in a way false to that, there words are no less true, even if they are a lie.
    Equally some people live uprightly and speak nonsense, judge a person’s words by their words and their deeds by their deeds, and as for judging the person, dont, look at the log in your own eye instead!

  9. I think the core of your argument is fantastic; it’s a wonderful cashing out of the underlying epistemology behind Titus 1:10-16 and other such passages.
    I have to agree with John Porter, however, that making this argument through this medium is at best ironic and at worst self-defeating. It also makes it difficult to understand the large place teaching and preaching have (in their various forms) both in Scripture and the history of the Church.
    What if, rather than adopting the posture you do, we talk about both words and actions as things that “point to” truth? That is, while both fail to perfectly communicate or embody truth, they evidence it enough for it to have an effect on the world.
    One could then talk about the special place actions have (as, perhaps, fuller and better demonstrations) while not undermining the place of words. We could then look into the different way words and actions work as communicators (maybe even impart-ers?) of truth.

  10. Daniel,
    Can you email me at hawchris at so that i can ask a question about using one of your posted essays in a class?
    Thanks, Chris

  11. Nope. Any cleverness is coincidental. If one assumes you are right, then in particular there is no truth in your post.

  12. If no essay has truth and language has no truth to it, then everything you just said must not have truth to it. You are writing a short essay here and making claims using language, but clearly there must be no truth to it since it is a text. You have contradicted yourself, sir. Fix your argument.

    • No one seems to be understanding the paradox. This truly made my morning! A response might be necessary somewhere in the near future. Good write.


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