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Truth-Conditions and Religious Language

Panel Chair: Mark Gardiner | Tuesday, August 25, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

To what extent do we need to consider the truth of what religious people say in order to understand them? In this panel discussion we consider an influential approach to meaning—“truth conditional semantics”—that ties meaning directly to truth. According to this view, grasping the conditions under which an utterance is true is central to successful interpretation, whether in religion or elsewhere. However, interpreting religious language poses some interesting challenges to truth-conditional semantics. The discussion will be led by scholars who take very different positions with respect to the relevance of truth-conditionality to religious phenomena.

Gabriel Levy

“Can Fictional Superhuman Agents have Mental States?”

According to Tollefsen, from an analytic perspective, there is a reasonable way in which groups can be said to have mental states. She bases her argument on the every-day use of language, where people speak as if groups have states such as intentions, desires and wishes. Such propositional attitudes form the basis of any account of truth-conditional semantics, the rules by which people grasp the conditions under which an utterance is true. If groups (abstract units of people) have mental states, perhaps superhuman agents have them too. One argument that may contradict this premise is one that says that groups exist, whereas superhuman agents do not. However, if groups exist on the basis of normative narratives about them and the institutionalized actions they carry out in the world, the same can be said for superhuman agents. Superhuman agents are thus fictional and real in a similar sense as groups.

Terry F. Godlove

“Interpretation without Truth?: A Circumstances and Consequences Approach”

In this paper I explore an alternative, or, perhaps, a complement to a truth-conditional approach to linguistic meaning, one along the lines of Robert Brandom’s “circumstances and consequences” model. I argue that it makes a natural fit with the study of religion. It takes its lead from a basic fact about linguistic communication, namely, that grasping the appropriate conditions for uttering a sentence and undertaking to react appropriately to its utterance are central to its success. If so, then clarifying the sense of appropriateness at stake here will be central to the philosophical project of giving an account of meaning. But, equally, our most influential theories of religion are also in the business of identifying circumstances and consequences of use—and therein lies the naturalness of fit.

Lars Albinus

The Varieties of Truth

In this paper I intend to focus on various conceptions of truth relevant for understanding religion. My question is: Should a philosophical notion of religion restrict itself to a concept of truth as a property of propositions irrespective of the specific contents of belief or should it take other concepts of truth into account as well? In suggesting possible outlines for a dialectics between a semantic and a pragmatic conception of truth, I shall claim that there are other vitally important aspects of religion available to our understanding than the propositional content of belief. Thus, the study of religion might benefit from a pragmatic view on meaning while realizing, at the same time, that this view already draws on semantic presuppositions of its own. The question is if it is possible to draw from both sides in a conceptually clarifying way.

G. Scott Davis

“Semantics and the Study of Religion”

Many years ago David Lewis distinguished between “abstract semantic systems” and language “in use,” warning that “only confusion comes of mixing these two topics.” More recently, John Burgess has suggested that “it is best just to avoid `semantics’ altogether.” In this paper I will argue students of religion need not worry about the details of semantic theory as long as they remain committed to the old Aristotelian tag that “to say of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, is true.”


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