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Saturday, November 02, 2013


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I'm not a linguist (nor the son of a linguist) and I don't play one on TV, but must I be one to disagree? If the man of the house says to the Nazis that he's not hiding any Jews in his home, but unbeknownst to him his wife has successfully transported the previously hidden Jews to safety out of the country, was it no longer the case that he was lying? Or suppose someone lies (in my sense) on the stand about some putative scientific fact in court for the sake of his preferred belief, and it turns out, centuries later and proved by means wholly unavailable to people of that time, that the witness's statement was actually true. Doesn't it seem that such cases are lies?

Another sort of argument: in court and elsewhere, speakers are enjoined to tell the truth. It is taken as obvious that what is meant here is for the person to tell the truth as he sees it, to tell what he believes to be the truth. We realize that people can get things wrong, despite their best intentions.

If we don't often assume the same implicit qualification in the case of lying, it's probably because we assume in the typical case the liar has a firm grip on what the truth is, so the need for qualification rarely arises. This may be true, but I don't see that as a philosophically interesting claim. If it is, then we should invent a new word to serve as a proper antonym to truth-telling.

Thanks for the excellent response, Dennis.

In your first example, the homeowner makes a statement that he believes to be false, but that is in fact true, with the intention of deceiving the Nazis as to the whereabouts of the Jews. So the homeowner makes a true statement with the intention to deceive. If you call this a lie, then there are true lies.

Now in ordinary English, 'true lie' is an oxymoron, and every lie is taken to be a falsehood. So I say your case is not a case of lying. I seem to recall writing about this topic years ago and I think I made a distinction between two senses of 'lie,' one narrow the other broad.

So here is an irenic solution. You are right on the broad understanding of 'lie.' I am right on the narrow understanding. I may further irenically concede that ordinary English is simply indeterminate with respect to the two precisifications.

I appreciate your solution, Bill, and think that may be the most useful way to handle and resolve the apparent disagreement.

On one point I'm not convinced, however, and it's with your (seeming) use of the oxymoronic nature of "true lie" as ordinary language evidence for the narrow sense of "lie". It's true that something seems amiss or at least paradoxical about the expression "true lies" - no objection here. On the other hand, no one speaks of false lies, either. The whole construction is awkward and ambiguous - is it true (or false) that it's a lie? Is the lie "true" in some higher sense (cf. Plato's "noble lie")? Or (per my original suggestion) is it a reference to the lie's objective truth value? It doesn't seem to me that this particular ordinary-language argument gets us very far.

you make a good point, Dennis. I have never heard anyone use the phrase 'false lie.'

For practical political purposes, however, we must hold fast to two points: a lie is not the same as a false statement; every lie involves an intention to deceive. We need hold no opinion on whether a statement that is in fact true, but believed by the utterer to be false, and made with an intention to deceiv,e is a lie or not. Ordinary language is messy and that question can be resolved only by erecting s partially stipulative definition.

I recall that Davidson somewhere proposed that a lie is a deliberate misrepresentation of one's beliefs with the intention to deceive. This formulation does not require that a lie involves a false statement.

Right, Peter, but then there are true lies.

This consequence shows that Davidson is regimenting the ordinary language sense of 'lie' rather than capturing it. Nothing wrong with that: it may be that there is no one sense to be captured.

I guess there are two strands of meaning woven into the ordinary concept of a 'lie'; the falsehood component and the deliberate deception component. At least one is necessary in order for there to be a lie and in some cases if one is present, then that suffices as well. This will indeed allow for true lies. The question is whether the ordinary concept is sufficiently malleable to allow for such cases. Of course, I agree with you that the paradigmatic case of a lie in ordinary discourse involves a falsehood.

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