What Is a Tarskian Definition of Truth?

Philosophical Studies 82 (2):113 - 144 (1996)
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Since the publication of Hartry Field’s influential paper “Tarski’s Theory of Truth” there has been an ongoing discussion about the philosophical import of Tarski’s definition. Most of the arguments have aimed to play down that import, starting with that of Field himself. He interpreted Tarski as trying to provide a physicalistic reduction of semantic concepts like truth, and concluded that Tarski had partially failed. Robert Stalnaker and Scott Soames claimed then that Field should have obtained a stronger conclusion, namely that Tarski’s failure in his allegedly intended physicalistic reduction was total. From another front, Hilary Putnam argued for an even more sweeping thesis: “[a]s a philosophical account of truth, Tarski’s theory fails as badly as it is possible for an account to fail.” Scott Soames followed suit also on this count, endorsing Putnam’s argument in section iii of the aforementioned paper; and John Etchemendy used a very similar argument to contend that “a Tarskian definition of truth [...] cannot possibly illuminate the semantic properties of the object language.” The paper argues that these contentions are based on several misunderstandings about the nature of a definition like Tarski’s. Regarding the Putnam-Soames-Etchemendy argument, we must apply a distinction Frege found natural to draw—and is natural to draw anyway—between what he called “constructive” definitions, definitions properly so called, which are mere stipulations, and what he described as “analytic” definitions, definitions which aim to make explicit the meaning of a term already in use. Regarding the Field-Soames-Stalnaker criticism, the paper contends that the true aims of a Tarskian truth definition are perfectly well fulfilled without Field’s amendments.
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