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#686 Language and Nonsense

June 14, 2020

Hello Dr. Craig,

We're going through Rorty and Nietzsche in my political philosophy class right now, and my professor is contending for a nominalist view of language (that it is a human invention). I agree that they don't exist, however, because of this he argues that there can be no truth since our human invention of language cannot correspond to an otherwise meaningless world. I definitely do not agree with this but have had a ton of trouble articulating how to respond and gone up and down your site trying to find an answer. Thank you.


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Dr. craig’s response


Hey, Ayo! I have no idea whether what students tell me their professors are saying is based on students’ misunderstanding or accurately reflects their professors’ real views. But I have to say that I am often scandalized by what my colleagues are apparently teaching people.

What you report this man as saying is just self-referentially incoherent. How can anyone argue with a straight face in a lecture (which is, of course, a linguistic product), that “there can be no truth” due to the conventionality of language? Isn’t that claim made in English, a language? So there can be no truth to it! His view is self-defeating. He may as well get up in front of the class and just blubber.

Of course, language is conventional. Different languages assign different meanings to the same words. For example, “pain” in French means bread, but in English it means something entirely different. But if I as an English speaker report, “I’m in pain,” my meaning is clear, given the conventions of the English language. I and the French speaker can say the same thing, even if how we say it differs. If I am in pain, then what I say is true. There’s just no argument here from the conventionality of language to absence of truth.

Now in one sense I agree that there is no such thing as truth. Truth is not a thing, like an electron or a person. The predicate “is true” is a device of sematic ascent, a way of talking about a statement rather than making the statement itself. For example, instead of saying, “Donald Trump is the President of the United States,” I can ascend semantically and say, “It’s true that Donald Trump is the President of the United States.” The predicate “is true” is useful primarily in so-called blind truth ascriptions, where we don’t know what was said or cannot repeat it all, as in “Everything in the classified documents is true” or “Everything the Pope has said is true.” But obviously this is of no help to your professor in rescuing his argument from incoherence and self-defeat.

In terms of resources, you might look at my talk “Are There Objective Truths about God?” and my article  “Propositional Truth—Who Needs It?

- William Lane Craig