A "privative" has been defined as a word expressing the absence of something. As such, a privative word signifies a non-existing thing; for example, cold is (arguably) not a thing, but is rather the absence of a real, existing thing (heat).

It seems to me that the truth is merely the absence of all lies, and as such can be considered a privative. Is this the case?

This question is inspired by this answer about a single noun for an honest person.

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    This is, if anything, a philosophical question, not something for EL&U.
    – JSBᾶngs
    Apr 5, 2011 at 15:43
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    I'm not 100% convinced it's correct to say cold is a privative indicating absence of heat. Why shouldn't heat (or more likely warmth) be a privative denoting absence of cold. I know that the former reflects current science, but surely we can't keep switching the status of words to reflect technical issues that most of us don't fully understand. Apr 5, 2011 at 15:54
  • Added to which, I'm unfamiliar with the use of privative as a technical term denoting words whose meaning is intrinsically bound to an absence of some other attribute. I've only know it as a way of identifying the role of prefixes like un, non, anti etc. Apr 5, 2011 at 15:59
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    @all ok i guess we're done here. maybe philosophers.stackexchange.com will catch on Apr 5, 2011 at 22:16
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    I think your statement would perhaps be valid if and only if you meant all truth is the absence of all lies. But I'm not sure it's a useful conception because you could just as easily say that all lies is the absence of all truth. I suppose the relevant question here is, what are you trying to gain from this kind of comparison? Maybe that might help us provide a better, more targeted answer.
    – stoicfury
    Oct 31, 2011 at 2:40

10 Answers 10


It seems to me that truth is merely the absence of all lies, and as such can be considered a privative. Is this the case?

An absence of lies may be sufficient for truth, but does not necessarily mean that a rational assessment of "non-lying" statements will be true. The question is a bit like comparing horses and buggies.

Truth is a condition of propositions (statements, sentences, etc.) which is satisfied when utterance corresponds to (matches, fits...) what is the case. The absence of truth can be falsehood, or the absence of truth can be a statement which is not rationally assessed a truth value, such as an opinion or an order.

A lie is an intentionally false or intentionally misleading statement. The conditions of satisfaction requisite for a lie to be identified are different (intentionalistic, agentive). Now if someone intentionally misleads with true statements, the absence of the lie is not truth.

Imagine you work in an office with no windows. The weather forecast called for possible rain and you are wondering if you should bring your umbrella with you when you go to lunch. A coworker who has a corner office with windows happens by your office door and you ask them to tell you what the weather is like outside. Unbeknownst to you your coworker suffers a delusional mental disorder such that when in fact the sun is shining, they think it is raining. Furthermore, your coworker decides to play a trick on you and tell you that the weather is other than it appears to them. When they return to your office and tell you the truth that it is sunny, did they lie?


No, it's not. You can take a body of information, eliminate all lies and be left with nothing, rather than truth.

You seem to be engaging in an obscure usage of privative, further. I've only encountered it being used in reference to prefixes like in- and un-.

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    Obscure and subjective, especially when dealing with the imprecision of the word truth.
    – Sam
    Apr 5, 2011 at 16:00
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    well, when you take all heat out of an object you are left with the object itself, in the same way that when you eliminate the lie "the earth is triangular" you still have the earth. In neither case are you left with "nothing." To put it another way: there must be something to tell a lie about. I cannot think of a lie about nothing.
    – Pete Wilson
    Apr 5, 2011 at 16:21
  • @Sam, I'm betting my continuing life on the precision of "truth" and even on the precision of the WORD "truth." :-)
    – Pete Wilson
    Apr 5, 2011 at 16:23
  • @PeteWilson: Nothing is something.
    – chaos
    Apr 4, 2012 at 17:40

Heidegger famously argued for precisely this. He points out that the Greek word for truth, ἀλήθεια (Aletheia), grammatically relies upon the use of a privative; it literally means unconcealedness (with the privative use of "un-".)

  • Grammatically, it's the prefix ἀ- to be a privative.
    – apaderno
    Oct 31, 2011 at 9:45
  • @kiamlaluno: Exactly. You can see the ἀ as the first letter in ἀλήθεια. I'll edit my answer to clarify the language. Oct 31, 2011 at 12:16
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    What in the world is that, argument from antiquity? I'll see that and raise you the Hebrew word for truth, אֱמֶת (emet), being entirely free of privative modifiers.
    – chaos
    Nov 1, 2011 at 9:20
  • There are many languages that don't use a privative prefix for truth. Does that mean truth is a privative, or not, basing on the language spoken? Also privative used for prefixes is a grammatical concept, which is different from the concept of privative used for actions or states.
    – apaderno
    Nov 1, 2011 at 9:27
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    The point is not an "argument from antiquity", nor does the fact that Hebrew (or English) constructs the word for truth from different linguistic sources change anything. Ancient Greek is not simply one language among others in the history of philosophy; the fact that truth was (linguistically) conceived in a particular way in the texts of Plato and Aristotle (and the pre-Socratics) bears a certain significance. This being said, the main point is, of course, larger: the derivation of the Greek word is merely an illustration of Heidegger's point, and is not intended to be probative. Nov 1, 2011 at 10:25

Interesting question :) but lies and concealment have to be lying about and concealing something, no? Once all the lying and concealing has being eradicated, there is still the object of the lying and concealing, viz. the truth.

For example, it is true that "Greek word for truth is ἀλήθεια". Is that truth defined merely by the absence of anyone lying about it or concealing it?

It seems that if truth is simply the absence of lying, kindness will be simply the absence of cruelty, love the absence of hatred, etc., and these are patently false. Just because something has an opposite doesn't necessitate its existence being defined by that opposition.

  • Interesting answer. I don't agree with your last paragraph. Love and kindness are actions and can be of differing amounts. While lies can have varying magnitudes, truth is only one thing and is not an action. I don't think you can compare truth with love or kindness in this way.
    – Matt Ellen
    Nov 1, 2011 at 13:03
  • @Matt: truth is a measure of knowledge, kindness a measure of action. I think you can compare them simply as measures.
    – Mitch
    Nov 1, 2011 at 13:07
  • @Mitch - I think the trouble I have is the question is based on the idea of absolute truth (I will update the question, when I've had time to think it over) there is no absolute love or absolute kindness. There are things that are not cruel but also not kind. There is no thing that is not a lie, but also not a truth.
    – Matt Ellen
    Nov 1, 2011 at 13:27
  • @Matt: Some examples of things that are neither true nor false: "This sentence is false" (the truth value cannot be decided), "That man is bald" ('bald' is vague and indeterminate in some instances), "You should brush your teeth" (a modal statement), "A pendulum's swing frequency is a function of its length" (by experiment, this is only a good approximation). Most real world statements have the possibility of a continuum of truthfulness.
    – Mitch
    Nov 1, 2011 at 13:44
  • @MattEllen if truth is the opposite of lying, then truth is an action as well... but if truth is a quality, then love and kindness are also qualities. I don't see the distinction you are trying to make; there are half-truths and there are whole truths, just as there is conditional love and unconditional love. Nov 2, 2011 at 5:57

There is a big jump from "is the absence of something" to "doesn't exist." I think most of the responses here, taken from the English stackexchange, were more focused on the language of it than the logic of it. For example, @chaos,

You can take a body of information, eliminate all lies and be left with nothing, rather than truth.

That is precisely what the question is asking. It is just restating it another way. Taking out all the lies, however, in the context or pure logic results in a tautology—something necessarily "true" by virtue or form.

I guess the philosophic answer depends largely on your definition of "truth". I lean towards the idea that lies are the twisting of truth, and not the other way around. A distinction I make with an analogy. Truth is like pure water. Lies are everything else in the same bottle trying to blend in.

  • Eliminating all lies doesn't mean replacing them with the truth. It is also true that eliminating all the lies doesn't mean to be left with nothing; that is true only if there are just lies. If I eliminate the lies from "I am Italian, and I am 5 feet and two inches tall," what is left is "I am Italian."
    – apaderno
    Oct 31, 2011 at 9:31
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    @kiamlaluno: You arrived at a true statement by eliminating a false element from a compound statement, but the true element didn't get there by elimination of falsity, it had to be proposed. That only supports truth being a privative if we imagine that we're generating true statements by eliminating the false statements from the set of all possible statements, which is the kind of absurdity I would expect to find Wittgenstein promoting in his early career and then disavowing shamefacedly later.
    – chaos
    Nov 1, 2011 at 9:14

The definition of privative given by the NOAD is the following:

  • (of an action or state) marked by the absence, removal, or loss of some quality or attribute that is normally present.
    • (of a statement or term) denoting the absence or loss of an attribute or quality:the wording of the privative clause.
    • Grammar (of a particle or affix) expressing absence or negation, for example, the a- (from the alpha privative in Greek), meaning "not," in atypical.

The definition defines as privative something that is normally present, and that has been removed or lost. Given this definition, you cannot say that truth is a privative, or that would imply that the falsity is normally present.

  • "cold" cannot be a state? As opposed to "warm," say? This seems a counterintuitive assertion.
    – Pete Wilson
    Apr 5, 2011 at 16:15
  • The definition of coldness is "the state or the quality of being cold."
    – kiamlaluno
    Apr 5, 2011 at 16:27
  • In ancient Greek, the word for "truth" is in fact a privative, using the a- prefix. Oct 31, 2011 at 7:41
  • @MichaelDorfman In English truth doesn't have the prefix a-; grammatically, it's then the prefix to be a privative, not the word using that prefix.
    – apaderno
    Oct 31, 2011 at 9:40
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    You're correct, I was a bit sloppy in my usage. I should have said that in ancient Greek, the word for "truth" does in fact have a privative, and that therefore the philosophical concept of truth can be interpreted (as Heidegger did) as "unconcealedness", i.e., as the privation of something (in this case, the state of being hidden.) Oct 31, 2011 at 12:19

Truth, according to some modern philosophers (such as Karl Popper), would indicate no more or less than the absence of error or inaccuracy of a statement as compared to the real world. Following a popular essay by Isaac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong, it follows that one may even speak of an idea A being more true than another idea B, without meaning to indicate that B is totally erroneous or false; just that A has less error or is a more accurate representation of the state of affairs than B.


According to scholastic ontology, truth is not a privative. In fact, truth is founded on being. It's said of something while tha something is.It's a transcendental, i.e., a property/feature of beings as such. (It's a bit difficult for me to write in English on this subject. It would be easier in a romance language...)

St. Thomas Aquinas distinguishes two senses.

The ontological truth: the adequation of the thing to God's Understanding.

The logical truth: the adequation of human intelect to the thing's being.


Like heat, a lie is applied by an agent external to the object itself.

In the case of the lie, though, the object cannot take on the lie - can't acquire the quality reported in/by the lie - in the same way that it acquires heat. In other words, heat is one of the characteristics of the object at an instant, whereas the lie by definition is not.

So the lie might not be a precise analog of heat.

But because the instantaneous truth is in its nature immutable, could it be that truth overshadows or subsumes the "privative?"


The Scientific definition of heat is the change of internal energy. Something doesn't possess heat. However, when you bring two objects into thermal contact energy spontaneously moves from the object with more thermal energy to the object with less thermal energy. The rate of transfer of this energy is what we dub 'heat'.

This explains why a wooden floor and a marble floor at the same temperature feel as though they contain differing amounts of "heat". They do not! What is different is that the marble floor whisks away thermal energy from your body faster than the wood. This is due to its internal structure.

So, it depends on whether we are viewing things from the floors point of view or our foots point of view. From the floor it seems as though heat flow is positive, from the foot it seems as though heat flow is negative. This is actually the case.

What a layman considers 'cold' is a negative heat flow. However, as heat is defined as the rate of change of internal energy and internal energy can range between zero and infinity (well technically not, but close enough...) then the change needs to be defined on the same scale.

For example - you don't say that speeding up and slowing down in your car are two different things. They are the same thing -- the change of speed, which may be positive, negative or zero. Same with heat.

Anyway, on to the PHILOSOPHY. If one concedes that there exists an infinite set of attributes then it should be quite clear that you cannot define something by the lack of one particular attribute. Of course, you may do so for a finite set. Example if you have {A,B,C}, B=~{A,C}. The negation of infinite is just finite; it is not some specific finite thing.

Hope that helps!

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