Language and the Pursuit of Truth

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John Wilson

Language and the Pursuit of Truth at Google Books


This book attempts something new: to introduce the general public to semantics, the study of linguistic communication. This study goes beyond grammar, literature, style and so on, to the study of the meanings and the logical classification of words and statements, and the means of verification of statements.

All the most important problems, the problems of religion, morals, politics and sociology, can only be solved via the use of words.

The discovery of truth and the attainment of knowledge necessarily depend on a good understanding of language: in particular, of the notions of meaning and verification.

The subject requires only the patience to master a particular technique.

Chapter I. WORDS


• Words are tools.

• A word acts as a sign - something which conveys meaning and can be interpreted.

• It is misleading to talk of words standing for things or 'having meanings': they have uses.


• Proper nouns name, or 'stand for', things; but class-nouns do not stand for anything.

• Adjectives, verbs and adverbs do not stand for things, but their shared use depends on regularities in experience.

• We are not tempted to think that prepositions, pronouns, interjections, conjunctions and articles refer directly to experience.

• The following are basic uses of words.

1. Descriptive words

• These give information about the world.

• They vary in concreteness: compare 'The cat is on the mat' and 'The Norman way of life began to establish itself in England in 1066'.

• Some describe tendencies or relationships, or the properties of other words.

• Words expressing scientific concepts are descriptive in a peculiar way. Their meanings are determined partly by experience, partly by the role they play in theory; therefore gravity and electrons are not things in the same sense that billiard-balls and falling bodies are things.

2. Evaluative words

• Evaluative words praise or blame, commend or criticize

• 'Good' and 'bad' are almost purely evaluative, but according to the context in which they're used, they will imply that certain criteria are satisfied: good coal burns well, a good horse runs well (in a conversation between jockeys) or pulls well (in a conversation between farmers).

• Other words such as 'murder' and 'theft' are mixed descriptive and evaluative.

• 'Merciful' and 'just' are both mixed; both commend, but they describe contrary types of action.

• 'Courageous' and 'rash' could describe the same action, but have contrary evaluations.

3. 'Pointer' words

• These are vitally important in sentences, but do not describe or evaluate; they include conjunctions, articles, pronouns.

4. Interjections

• These are expressions of feeling. They may also be descriptive, but don't have to be.

We must not judge utterances by the outward form of what is said but by the use to which it is put.


Most of our failures in communication caused by the abuse of single words (rather than of statements) result from inability to distinguish the proper uses of language. We must continually ask "What am I trying to do with these words? For what purpose am I using them? And is any of them out of place?"

1. Magic

• We often seem to treat words as if they had magical power: blasphemy can be illegal; obscene words are banned by law and convention.

• Words are used ritualistically: 'Communist', 'Fascist', 'bourgeois', etc. are used as ritual denunciations or praise-words, variously in various parts of the world.

• Perhaps the most important mistake is to take abstract nouns as naming things. Nouns used as slogans, such as 'Communism' and 'democracy', are misleading; but the worst offenders are terms such as 'will, 'conscience' and 'soul', whose meanings are very unclear.

• These words are dangerous not because they are abstract but because they have magical force.

• They have a use of some kind; but not to 'stand for' something.

2. Ambiguity

• Defining your terms is not enough: a slide in meaning can still occur. For example, someone might argue:

    Most people commit adultery, so it's natural.
    What's natural is right.
    Therefore adultery is right.

The arguer might define 'natural' as 'normal' and still maintain the argument. But both 'natural' and 'normal' have both evaluative and descriptive meaning. There is a slide in the argument from the descriptive to the evaluative use.

• We can only avoid such fallacies by detecting mixtures of descriptive and evaluative meaning.

• The use of such words is not to clarify meaning but to pronounce judgement.

• We need to keep description separate from evaluation.

Further examples:

'Aryan blood'

In the 1930s some American students challenged the Nazis to distinguish 'Aryan' from 'non-Aryan' blood in a number of samples that they provided. The Nazis were unable to do so, because there is in fact no special quality in the blood of Aryans which distinguishes it from the blood of other races.

Many people, perhaps including the American students, took the Nazis' assertions quite literally. But intelligent supporters of Hitler would probably have said that talking about the superiority of Aryan blood here was metaphorical, a way of talking about the superiority of Aryans. If this had been recognized, they would have had to face the question of what the actual use of 'blood' was, and to answer this before making any assertions about it. It was only by preserving the ambiguity of the word that they were able to make and believe in these curious assertions.

Animal intelligence and pain

Arguments about animal intelligence revolve primarily around what it is that descriptive words are supposed to describe: A thinks that "intelligence" describes certain types of actions, like barking to go out for a walk, bringing home the newspaper, etc.; B thinks that intelligence must describe the ability to talk and to understand.

Similarly, A says "Animals certainly feel pain - they squeal and writhe when they're hurt"; B answers that they can't feel, because they're not conscious at all.

A and B are arguing about the proper use of words: for they may be in perfect agreement about the observed facts. They evidently differ about what descriptive word to use. Until they realize the purely verbal nature of their argument, it is likely to be inconclusive.

But people think that there are 'things' labelled 'justice', 'intelligence' and so on, and that all they have to do is to get other people to see the thing and read the labels.

Once we see that it does not matter what words we use to describe what, provided that we agree about the uses, these arguments seem rather foolish.

But all fields of discussion are full of vague descriptive words:

instinct, heredity, discipline, sanity, complex
state, law, rights, freedom
will, soul, conscience, sin, grace, God, hell, heaven
universe, life, time, space

Definition of a word does not necessarily overcome magic and ambiguity: the words used in the definition may be as vague as the words defined. But people usually resent having their views subject to analysis.



1. Poetic communication

This is communication where the literal and prose sense of the words has either secondary importance or no importance at all. They are expressive. Communications are often mixed. Religious statements are often literal statements of faith, while also being poetic.

2. Prose communication

This is communication which we are supposed to understand with our reason, not appreciate with our feelings. It is the type we ought to use in arguing, discussing, solving problems and discovering truth. The best method of distinguishing one type of statement from another, and throwing light on each type, is the important verification principle.


The 'method of verification' is simply the way in which you find out whether something is true. Verification is a guide to meaning and a guide to truth. To find out whether a certain statement is true, we should have to go through the following process:

(i) Discover the meaning of the statement - i.e. its use and what sort of thing it is intended to communicate.
(ii) Agree about how to discover whether it is true.
(iii) Consider the evidence and decide.
Most arguments are fallacious or inconclusive because (i) and (ii) are overlooked.

Following not yet summarized:

1. Imperatives and attitude-statements
2. Empirical statements
3. Analytic statements
4. Value statements
5. Metaphysical statements
Chapter III. TRUTH