What should one expect of a philosophical theory of truth? One possible answer is that such a theory should shed light on what truth itself is, revealing to the inquirer what the truth of a thought or statement consists in. Another is that a theory of truth should be a theory of how truth can be arrived at or discovered, to the extent that this discovery is possible in any given case. Finally, we might want a theory of truth to account for why truth is valuable, a theory that explains why we should care about getting at the truth and disapprove of views that are false or merely conventional.
The best outcome, it seems, would be to have a theory that manages to do all three of these things at once, telling us what truth is while also explaining why it is something of value that in certain circumstances we are able to discover. Moreover, ideally the answers to our three original questions will inform and reinforce one another: for surely the questions of what truth is, how we are able to get at it, and what value there is in doing so, are not entirely independent of one another.
What makes it difficult to carry off this task is that the concept of truth is so fundamental in our thinking about the world that it can seem impossible to elucidate this concept in terms of any other concept that is better understood. If we want a theory of gold, then we can explain what it is by appeal to its chemical composition, explain how to identify it by noting which of its superficial properties are most revealing of its nature, and explain its value by appeal to the contingent human attraction to shiny things. Truth, by contrast, seems impossible to analyze along such lines. When we try to speak generally about what it is, we fall back on formulations—like the infamous slogan, “truth is correspondence with the facts”—whose meaning a person cannot really grasp except by reference to the very concept in question.
The philosopher Simon Blackburn’s recent book On Truth attempts to work around this dilemma by approaching his topic piecemeal. Blackburn considers several different domains, including ethics, aesthetics, religion, and the interpretation of legal documents and other written texts, in which we tend to care about the truth while also regarding it as difficult or even impossible to ascertain. The hope is that, by means of these focused investigations, we will get ourselves in a position to think more fruitfully about what is at stake in our concern with truth in general.