From Wittgenstein to Wright: An Early History of Alethic Pluralism

Krzysztof Czerniawski (University of Warsaw)

Although we can discern some kind of pluralist remarks in the writings of pre-war philosophers such as Harry Acton and Arne Næss, the real history of pluralism begins with Wittgenstein and his Philosophical Investigations. It is only from that moment that we can see an uninterrupted line of philosophers interested in alethic pluralism. Contrary to deflationist interpretations of later Wittgenstein, he never believed that his remarks, including his use of equivalence schema, say something exhaustive and ultimate about truth, mainly because he did not believe in definitions and exhaustive explanations of any concepts. As was demonstrated by Gerald Vision, in §136 of Investigations, Wittgenstein tried to show that the concept of truth is a part of a language game in the same way as the concept of proposition and other logical concepts (Vision 2005, p. 170). Therefore we can come to the conclusion that we have different concepts of truth in different language games or, as Sara Ellenbogen puts it, “the nuances in the meaning of «is true» are as various as the language games in which we use it” (Ellenbogen 2003, p. 72).

That is our conclusion, not Wittgenstein’s, who never explicitly endorsed a pluralist theory of truth. Probably first philosopher who did this was Friedrich Waismann, who inherited linguistic pluralism from Wittgenstein, but wrote about “language strata”, not “language games”. He thought that in different language strata we use different systems of logic or concepts of verifiability, and, what is most interesting from our point of view, different senses of truth. According to him: “a physical law cannot be true in the same sense in which, say, a description of this building is, and the latter description cannot be true in the same sense in which a statement like «I’ve got a headache» is” (Waismann 1968, p. 98). Ultimately, Waismann wrote that the word truth “is used on many different levels and in many different senses. It has a systematic ambiguity” (Waismann 1968, p. 99).

Waismann’s idea of “language strata” was not as popular as Wittgensteinian language games and consequently his pluralist theory of truth, connected with this idea, became forgotten. A similar fate was met by the alethic pluralism of Wilfrid Sellars, which was only part of his more general endeavor to analyse truth in terms of “semantic assertability”. That’s why the future development of pluralism about truth did not come from the line Wittgenstein – Waismann, or from Sellars, but from Michael Dummett. The British philosopher wanted to decide which concept of truth, realist or antirealist, should be applied to different classes of statements. The program of Dummett opens the possibility of the existence of different kinds of truths in different discourses. But in reality Dummett tried to argue generally in favour of his antirealism and it is only with his student, Crispin Wright, that we see a real endorsement of his original idea. At the same time Putnam rediscovered the alethic pluralism of later Wittgenstein. In Truth and Objectivity, Crispin Wright tried to develop new philosophical tools to discern between realism and antirealism in different domains, and it is with this book that a pluralist theory of truth becomes part of a philosophical mainstream.


Ellenbogen, Sara (2003). Wittgenstein’s Account of Truth. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Vision, Gerald (2005). ‘The Truth about Philosophical Investigations I §§ 134 – 137’, Philosophical Investigations 28 (2): 159–76.

Waismann, Friedrich (1968). How I See Philosophy. London: Macmillan.


Part of the UConn History of Analytic Philosophy Workshop.