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Where human beings are concerned, language gives an illusory appearance of precision; a man may be able to express his belief in a sentence, and it is then supposed that the sentence is what he believes. But as a rule this is not the case. If you say “look, there is Jones,” you are believing something, and expressing your belief in words, but what you are believing has to do with Jones, not with the name “Jones.” You may, on another occasion, have a belief which is concerned with words. “Who is that very distinguished man who has just come in? That is Sir Theophilus Thwackum.” In this case it is the name you want. But as a rule in ordinary speech the words are, so to speak, transparent; they are not what is believed, any more than a man is the name by which he is called.

When words merely express a belief which is about what the words mean, the belief indicated by the words is lacking in precision to the degree that the meaning of the words is lacking in precision. Outside logic and pure mathematics, there are no words of which the meaning is precise, not even such words as “centimetre” and “second.” Therefore even when a belief is expressed in words having the greatest degree of precision of which empirical words are capable, the question as to what it is that is believed is still more or less vague.

This vagueness does not cease when a belief is what may be called “purely verbal,” i.e. when what is believed is that a certain sentence is true. This is the sort of belief acquired by schoolboys whose education has been on old-fashioned lines. Consider the difference in the schoolboy’s attitude to “William the Conqueror, 1066” and “next Wednesday will be a whole holiday.” In the former case, he knows that that is the right form of words, and cares not a pin for their meaning; in the latter case, he acquires a belief about next Wednesday, and cares not a pin what words you use to generate his belief. The former belief, but not the latter, is “purely verbal.”

If I were to say that the schoolboy is believing that the sentence “William the Conqueror, 1066” is “true,” I should have to add that his definition of “truth” is purely pragmatic: a sentence is “true” if the consequences of uttering it in the presence of a master are pleasant; if they are unpleasant, it is “false.”

Forgetting the schoolboy, and resuming our proper character as philosophers, what do we mean when we say that a certain sentence is “true”? I am not yet asking what is meant by “true”; this will be our next topic. For the moment I am concerned to point out that, however “true” may be defined, the significance of “this sentence is true” must depend upon the significance of the sentence, and is therefore vague in exactly the degree in which there is vagueness in the sentence which is said to be true. We do not therefore escape from vagueness by concentrating attention on purely verbal beliefs.

Bertrand Russell (from Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, 1948)

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