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Dummett, Michael. Truth and the Past.

DUMMETT, Michael. Truth and the Past. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. x + 122 pp. Cloth, $29.50--Michael Dummett was, until his retirement in 1992, Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford, and he remains an important figure in analytical philosophy, tie is best known as a proponent of antirealism. The present book combines his three John Dewey Lectures delivered at Columbia University in 2002--"The Concept of Truth," "Statements About the Past," and the "Metaphysics of Time," revised and expanded--with two new essays, "Truth Deniers and Defenders" and "The Indispensability of Truth."

As the title indicates, Dummett here focuses on events of the past which are, as he acknowledges, philosophically troubling and are crucial tests of the antirealist position. These essays do additionally present the reader with a fine comprehensive, thorough, condensed review of some of Dummett's key positions on the philosophy of language, with his most recent reconsiderations, corrections, and engagements with other noted philosophers such as Richard Rorty and the late Donald Davidson and Bernard Williams. This book reflects the virtue of Dummett's work, that is, that his essays or books are renewed attempts to get his ideas right. The present essays, for example, take a position greatly at variance with the position he had taken in his yet unpublished Gifford Lectures of a few years ago.

In the "Concept of Truth" Dummett focuses on the truth-conditional theories of the meaning of statements as is associated with realism. The realist holds the idea of truth as subject to the principle of bivalence, that is, that reality renders statements either true or false independently of whether anyone can make that determination. Dummett contends that the proponent of a truth-conditional theory of meaning is "aiming to explain what meaning consists in" (p. 26). On the contrary, what one needs to know in order to engage in the communal practice of speaking and writing a particular language is, for Dummett, "the use that is made, by those who know it, of its expressions and sentences ... and the criterion fox' his knowing the language is that he manifests such knowledge" (p. 26). Hence, "anyone who has mastered the use of expressions of a language must have acquired an implicit grasp of the concept of truth and an implicit conception of the conditions for the truth of its statements" (p. 27); and this entails an integrated picture of the world.

Dummett proposes that an implication of the truth-conditional theory--due to the idea that truth is in no way constrained by a person's ability to recognize it--is that there are sentences whose truth-conditions transcend a person's capacity to recognize whether the conditions are satisfied. Examples of such sentences are those about the past, the subject of the essays "Statements about the Past" and "The Semantics of the Past Tense." It is here that Dummett acknowledges that some previous positions he had taken on antirealism and the past are unsatisfactory and that the matter remains for him perplexing. The present reflections thus draw Dummett "a certain distance in the direction of realism" (p. 55), fox "antirealism about the past does not faithfully represent the manner in which we in fact understand the past tense" (p. 69). Therefore, a purely justificationist account of the past is untenable. The account he now proposes "is still justificationist in character, but the theory has been revised in a realist direction" (p. 70). This does not, however, demand a repudiation of the justificationist's general principles. "He will still hold that a statement about the past can be true only in virtue of an actual or possible direct observation of it. But he will take a more realist attitude to whether such a direct verification was or could have been carried out" (p. 70).

"The Metaphysics of Time" offers a stimulating discussion of the four possible metaphysical positions regarding the present, past, and future: (1) only the present is real; (2) the future is real, but the past is not; (3) the past is part of reality, the future is not; (4) the past and future are both real. Dummett offers trenchant objections to the arguments of the first three positions and then defends the reality of past and future as "regions of reality determined, at any given moment by our temporal perspective, as it is at that moment" (p. 86). While God apprehends things as they really are in themselves, we humans cannot attain a description of reality as wholly independent of our temporal, changing experience. In view of these new reflections, Dummett's brief discussion of the metaphysical implications for theistic belief does not (nor can it in this short essay) engage the issues raised by Dummett's philosophical critics on these theistic questions. And he acknowledges that the theologians may well "spurn" his speculations. This writer believes, rather, that more theologians (and historians) ought to be engaged by Dummett's reflections on the past and future, for he offers much that could stimulate and challenge their thinking.--James C. Livingston, The College of William and Mary.
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Author:Livingston, James C.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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