Truth, Falsity, and Making Oneself Understood

In Rowan Williams’s The Edge of Words, he cites George Steiner to the effect that modern accounts of truth provide little insight into falsity (p 45). I’m open guard when I see scholars expressing themselves about language and truth and falsity for a variety of reasons (very greatly as I respect Williams, and much as I acknowledge Steiner to be respected by people wiser than I). Perhaps the most important such reason involves my scepticism that we can know enough about ‘truth’ to credential us to deploy it as an analytic implement, but that goes hand-in-hand with scepticism that ‘falsehood’ itself illuminates much about the workings of language.

But here’s another basis for doubting the usefulness of this line of reasoning: the vast preponderance of the ways we use language don’t engage the binary of ‘truth or falsity’ in any but the most angential ways, and studying the was that language typically works in the overwhelming majority of uses based on the ways it works in certain unusual puzzling cases gets the cart so far ahead of the horse that they’re barely connected. Moreover, and especially, foregrounding forced binaries such as ‘truth vs falsity’ distracts us from giving an account of the ways people use language to get on among one another, wherein ontological problems simply don’t (in the idiom) signify.

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