Truth and the Past
Dummett (Michael)
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BOOK ABSTRACT:

Inside Cover Blurb

  1. Michael Dummett's three John Dewey Lectures
    → "The Concept of Truth,"
    → "Statements About the Past," and
    → "The Metaphysics of Time"
    were delivered at Columbia University in the spring of 2002.
  2. Revised and expanded, the lectures are presented here along with two new essays by Dummett,
    → "Truth: Deniers and Defenders" and
    → "The Indispensability of the Concept of Truth."
  3. In Truth and the Past, Dummett clarifies his current positions on the metaphysical issue of realism and the philosophy of language. He is best known as a proponent of antirealism, which loosely characterizes truth as what we are capable of knowing. The events of the past and statements about them are critical tests of an antirealist position. These essays continue and significantly contribute to Dummett's work.

BOOK COMMENT:
  • Columbia University Press (5 Mar. 2004).
  • Foreword by Akeel Bilgrami, the introduction given when Dummett presented his John Dewey Lectures at Columbia in the spring of 2002.



"Dummett (Michael) - Truth and the Past: Preface"

Source: Dummett (Michael) - Truth and the Past, 2004


Full Text
  1. Chapters 1 to 5 of this book are based on the Dewey Lectures I gave at Columbia University in 2001. The original text of the lectures was published in the Journal of Philosophy vol. C, no. 1, January 2003.I have revised and expanded it, in the process making five chapters out of three lectures. Chapter 6 is separate. It was suggested to me that I add another essay to the text of the lectures, to make the book a more reasonable size. As I had already started writing "Dummett (Michael) - Truth: Deniers and Defenders", I used that for the purpose.
  2. As a philosophical topic, truth has been a preoccupation of mine since my earliest days in the subject: I wanted to set out my views, as they now stand, in a comprehensive form. The interpretation of statements about the past, on the other hand, and, more generally, of statements about the temporal, is a topic that has troubled me for several years past. What I have written here is an experiment, much as was my essay of long ago, "Dummett (Michael) - The Reality of the Past". I wanted to see if a plausible case could be made, on a justificationist basis, for repudiating antirealism about the past — the view that statements about the past, if true at all, must be true in virtue of the traces past events have left in the present. That view is repugnant, and, as I think I showed in that earlier article, it leads to consequences very hard to swallow. The position I have adopted in this book is greatly at variance with those I expressed in my not yet published Gifford Lectures of a few years ago. In those, I did not embrace antirealism about the past: but I did maintain that the body of true statements is cumulative. I have not published those lectures, which it is the normal practice to do, because I was troubled that this view was in error. Now that I am publishing a book expressing a different view, I think I will probably publish the Gifford Lectures as I gave them. I do not think anyone should interpret everything that a philosopher writes as if it was just one chapter in a book he is writing throughout his life. On the contrary, for me every article and essay is a separate attempt to arrive at the truth, to be judged on its own.
  3. I finished the essay which forms chapter 6 a considerable time before Bernard Williams died. His death greatly saddened me; he had been a friend of mine since we were both undergraduates. The essay is not intended to be an appraisal of his book "Williams (Bernard) - Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy" as a whole; it treats of his views on truth, but alludes to truthfulness only glancingly.
  4. I am grateful to Columbia University for having invited me to give the Dewey Lectures. I am especially grateful to Professor Akeel Bilgrami for so kindly looking after me and entertaining me while I was in New York. And I am grateful to my daughter Susanna for accompanying me and taking much trouble also to look after me.



"Shieh (Sanford) - The Anti-Realist's Past"

Source: History and Theory 47 (May 2008), 270-278


Author’s Introduction1
  1. Nowadays there are many contested views of the nature of history. But it is virtually uncontroversial that much of what we would recognize as history consists of texts that, as “the father of history” puts it, “preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the . . . achievements of . . . peoples . . . .” What a text is might be even more controversial than what history is. But, again, we can surely sidestep this controversy by holding that some texts — indeed, some historical texts — comprise sentences that serve to “put on record,” and so are about, past objects and events. Herodotus’s own sentences of course never escaped controversy. Probably less than fifty years after they were made public Thucydides rather obliquely suggested that some of them were written without “tak[ing] trouble in finding out the truth. . . .” Thucydides’ criticism might be that, since there are doubts about the truth of Herodotus’s statements about the past, they are not good history; alternatively the complaint might be that they are not history at all. Thus, prima facie, the two topics of Sir Michael Dummett’s book under review are relevant to the nature of (some of what counts as) (good) history.
  2. But how exactly are they relevant? We can approach this by considering a question that Orwell has O’Brien press on Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Is it your opinion . . . that the past has real existence2?” Does a negative answer not imply that there are no past objects or events? And if so, how could there be statements about such things? That is, if the past doesn’t exist, neither does history. Well, in response one might say that although O’Brien (thankfully) doesn’t really exist, Nineteen Eighty-Four does contain a number of sentences about him. But even if there are statements about the nonexistent, can such statements be true? Surely, in order for a statement to be true, the entities it is about have to be just as the statement describes them to be; how could this be so if there are no entities to be as the statement describes them to be? So if the past doesn’t exist, then there is no good history; in any event, history would be indistinguishable from fiction.
  3. Notice, however, that we’ve been thinking about the consequences of the past’s failure to exist at all, whereas O’Brien’s question is about the past’s “real existence.” He clarifies his question: “You are no metaphysician, Winston. . . . I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?” To this question he elicits from Winston and evidently approves the answer that “the past exists . . . [i]n records . . . [a]nd . . . [i]n human memories.” So O’Brien’s avowedly metaphysical question is about the kind of existence possessed by the past, specifically, whether the past’s existence depends on the existence of memories, and so of human minds, or of records, and so of the products of human activities. The contrasting possibility is that the past exists somewhere in space, presumably independently of being remembered or recorded. These are ontological positions — respectively, idealism and realism about the past. Their implications for history might seem clear. If historical texts are records of the past, and the past’s existence is partly constituted by these records, then does history not, at least in part, constitute the past? Such idealism about the past seems to be O’Brien’s view; for him, since the Party controls history and memory, it controls the past. Perhaps it is also the view of some contemporary theorists of history.
  4. Is O’Brien right? How does one figure out the ontological status of the past? …


COMMENT: Review of "Dummett (Michael) - Truth and the Past".




In-Page Footnotes ("Shieh (Sanford) - The Anti-Realist's Past")

Footnote 1: Truncated, maybe arbitrarily.

Footnote 2:
  • This fascinating passage was brought to my attention by Crispin Wright’s “Anti-realism, Timeless Truth and Nineteen Eighty-Four,” in C. Wright, Realism, Meaning, and Truth, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, 176-203).



"Dummett (Michael) - The Concept of Truth"

Source: Dummett (Michael) - Truth and the Past, 2004, Chapter 1



"Dummett (Michael) - The Indispensability of the Concept of Truth"

Source: Dummett (Michael) - Truth and the Past, 2004, Chapter 2



"Dummett (Michael) - Statements About the Past"

Source: Dummett (Michael) - Truth and the Past, 2004, Chapter 3



"Dummett (Michael) - The Semantics of the Past Tense"

Source: Dummett (Michael) - Truth and the Past, 2004, Chapter 4



"Dummett (Michael) - The Metaphysics of Time"

Source: Dummett (Michael) - Truth and the Past, 2004, Chapter 5



"Dummett (Michael) - Truth: Deniers and Defenders"

Source: Dummett (Michael) - Truth and the Past, 2004, Chapter 6



Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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