3 December 2006

There’s a Fly in My Soup: True or False?

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 4:33 pm

Language evolved as a means of communication. For language to work, both the speaker and the listener have to share a more-or-less common understanding of what the sentences mean. Sentences have meaning within the language: word definitions, grammar, syntax, etc. Sentences also have external meaning: meaning with reference to the world outside of language. So if I were to tell you “There’s a fly in my soup,” I would assume you understood what I meant in both senses.

You’ve understood my meaning both linguistically and referentially – but what if there isn’t really a fly in my soup? I’m lying; I’m joking; it wasn’t true; I didn’t really mean it. The question is this: how does the truth of a phrase differ from its meaning? Here’s my proposition:

A phrase is true if it is meaningful with reference to a particular reality shared by the speaker and the listener.

Suppose you and I are staging a bit of theater. I pretend to be eating a bowl of soup. “There’s a fly in my soup,” I assert. You lean over, peek into the imaginary bowl, reach daintily in with your thumb and forefinger, pluck the imaginary fly from the bowl and flick it aside. We both know there is no “real” fly, but there is a fly in our shared imaginary reality. We’ve agreed that there “really is” a fly in that imagined bowl of soup – all the while agreeing that there “really isn’t” a fly in the particular corner of the material world that we’re jointly occupying.

When I said, “There’s a fly in my soup,” I was simultaneously speaking both a truth and an untruth. How can that be? I spoke the phrase only once; I didn’t tell the truth first and then tell an untruth. The truth or falsity of my fly-in-soup assertion isn’t part of the assertion itself; it is true or false relative to the particular reality or realities to which it refers. My statement isn’t both true and false at the same time; rather, it’s true in some realities and false in others. A statement is true in a particular reality if it has referential meaning in that reality; i.e., if it offers a valid description of some aspect of that reality.

Why is this important? I’m not sure, but here’s the context. Hermeneutics is the study of meaning; epistemology is the study of truth. Presumably a good hermeneutic is required before you can do proper epistemology: you need to know what something means before you can determine whether or not it’s true. What I’m suggesting here is that truth is a kind of meaning, a subcategory of meaning. A statement is true if it has referential meaning not to a hypothetical generic reality, not to all possible realities, but to a particular reality.

And if that’s true – if that’s a meaningful characterization of the relationship between statements and realities – then epistemology should be demoted to a subspecialty within hermeneutics. Rorty would certainly agree with subsuming epistemology under hermeneutics; I suspect that Gadamer and Derrida would too.

So, if truth is a kind of referential meaning, then what are the implications for, say, literal reading of Scripture? Or the truth of fiction? Tomorrow, or more likely Tuesday. Comments, as always, are welcome.




  1. I think there are incredible implications for the reading of Scripture. As you say, there must be a “common understanding.” Take your Gen.1 issue, for example, by laying out six days of creation did the author mean for these six days to be 24 hour periods? Did order matter to the author? Or were the days ordered based on a poetic notion of some sort.

    There are some people who would not understand you if you said “There is a fly in your soup” and they could not see a real fly in their soup. They would say you were lying. There would be no shared meaning. But if they were to look past the physical and material reality in front of them and enter into the world of imagination that you are creating, then they would reach into their soup and pluck out an imaginary fly. In this case the phrase “There is a fly in your soup” would embody a truth because it was a shared meaning and reality…all this you have duly noted..

    Applying this to the Gen. 1 debate leads us to question whose meaning is being shared? Is it fair to create a literal/allegorical dichotomy? Or is this a dichotomy forced upon the text?

    Maybe there are literary elements of poetry, allegory, as well as literal elements. Maybe Gen. 1 is describing God’s literal creation of the world in allegorical/poetic form.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 5 December 2006 @ 6:31 pm

  2. As one of our favorite bloggers would say, “scroll up, friend.” This line of inquiry will continue for awhile. Your questions are right on target; they will be addressed in due course, though perhaps to the satisfaction of neither of us.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 December 2006 @ 10:01 pm

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