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In light of Donald Trump's many statements (and then retractions of said statements) it is very difficult to decide whether what he is saying is true or false. Many attempts at fact-checking often lie in the middle. Let's address one tiny part of that:

Can sarcastic statements be reasoned about logically?
What is the truth value of a sarcastic statement?

  • Trump is a poor example here - he apparently does not know what "sarcastic" means. Perhaps he was confusing it with "snarky". – user22773 Aug 15 '16 at 13:08
  • To further add to the confusion, Pence said today that Trump was absolutely serious about the Obama comment. So Trump was being serious, but he was actually being sarcastic, but he was actually being serious. – SGR Aug 15 '16 at 13:31
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    both you and Mr. Trump should look up the meaning of sarcasm in the dictionary before using. – Swami Vishwananda Aug 15 '16 at 13:34
  • Would this conversation be more at home on linguistics.stackexchange.com? – TRiG Aug 15 '16 at 14:28
  • Is it really necessary for basic questions on Philosophy.SE to be framed in terms of Trump? Did philosophical inquiry not exist prior to 8 Nov 2016? – Ben Oct 24 '18 at 5:23
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Sarcasm is one of the troublesome linguistic phenomena living in a contested no man's land between semantics (the study of language-internal meaning) and pragmatics (the study of meaning in context). It's thus debated whether the sarcasm in an utterance affects its logical form, and consequently whatever truth tables it has, or whether sarcasm triggers something "extra"-logical, a process of reasoning that extends beyond the logical structure of the sentence. That's the short answer: it could go either way depending on who you believe.

For a longer answer, I'll take a detour to introduce where all this "pragmatics" stuff comes from. The classic quotation often used to introduce the subject in classes goes:

When a diplomat says yes, he means ‘perhaps’;

When he says perhaps, he means ‘no’;

When he says no, he is not a diplomat.

(Voltaire)

The idea, of course, being that sometimes people mean things that they don't literally say. Another canonical example is indirect requests: "can you pass the salt, please?". Anyone who says this is quite likely not literally asking whether you're physically capable of passing the salt; they're much more likely asking you to pass the salt, politely. For yet another example, suppose you ask me how a friend of mine is doing at their new job. I might reply, "well, they haven't gotten themselves arrested yet..." What could I possibly mean by this? I obviously intend for you to pick up on something I'm not saying: perhaps that my friend tends toward unscrupulous activities, or that the job is itself of questionable legal status, and so forth.

My last example is borrowed from H.P. Grice, probably the first dude to try and formalize pragmatics. He suggested that our linguistic exchanges are crucially cooperative and operate on the following four "maxims":

  1. The Maxim of Quantity: give as much information as is required, and no more

  2. The Maxim of Quality: don't say anything you believe is false, or for which you lack adequate evidence

  3. The Maxim of Relation: be relevant in what you say (nice weather, eh?)

  4. The Maxim of Manner: speak clearly

Pragmatics often happens when somebody "flouts" the above maxims, i.e. disobeys them obviously. A common example illustrating this is a recommendation letter consisting entirely of "this person has nice handwriting". As someone reading such a letter, I'd be perplexed by the paucity of information... until I realize the author is trying to draw my attention to the fact that they have nothing more they can truthfully say about the person - and so, the recommendation letter is actually a warning.

Getting back to sarcasm, this gives us a nice way out: someone who's being sarcastic, in the strict "saying one thing when they mean the opposite" sense, is usually flouting the Maxim of Quality; they're obviously lying. Since we know that our conversational partners are cooperative, we'd be puzzled by this, until we use some psychological acrobatics (the details are hazy, alas) to deduce that the person in fact meant the opposite of what they said, and was merely trying to be amusing/facetious/cynical/whatever. Under this account, sarcasm isn't reflected in the logical interpretation of an utterance, but rather in the post-logical "processing".

There are opposing accounts, however, which posit that something about sarcasm "triggers" our interpretation of a statement to logically negate it. In such accounts, as tale852150 says in their answer, any sarcastic sentence is logically represented as the opposite statement. The logical form of me sarcastically saying "Donald Trump is a pretty nice guy" would, by this account, be the logical form of me seriously saying "Donald Trump is not a nice guy".

tale852150's answer also points out, though, that the mere logical inversion leaves out some of the more "emotional" aspects of sarcasm, viz. their tendency to evoke humour and cynicism. For the person who advocates a semantic approach, the solution is simply to delegate the emotional work to pragmatics - this division of linguistic labour is not uncommon.

We've now more thoroughly arrived at the short answer: it could go either way depending on who you believe. For what it's worth, my studies of the contested semantics/pragmatics boundary has me mostly convinced that it's almost a disagreement of mere formalism: whatever one person explains using pragmatics, the opposing person is explaining using a functionally ~isomorphic semantic account, and there's little to adjudicate between the two. But that's just my opinion.

  • this is more what I am getting at. there is a long history of binary logic, but is it really a good model of they way people talk and argue outside of formal settings? and that's a huge question so I try to tackle a tiny part of it – john mangual Aug 14 '16 at 17:54
  • @johnmangual linguists are agreed that logic is insufficient for modelling conversation. Pragmatics is everywhere. We even use it, most linguists agree, to interpret colloquial "or": if I say "A or B" in casual conversation, that's generally interpreted to mean "either A or B but not both". This interpretation is cancellable, because I can add "in fact, A and B", but if I don't say that, the Maxim of Quantity tells us: if this person knew that A and B, they would have said so. Hence, they said A or B because they don't believe A and B, so their statement is implicitly exclusive. – commando Aug 14 '16 at 18:02
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    I come from hard sciences (in particuar mathematics) and we're on this futile attempt to model the world with statements in binary logic. so merely learning the terms "semantics" and "pragmatics" is a big and useful advance for me. thank you. – john mangual Aug 14 '16 at 18:05
  • @commando - Excellent explanation, enjoyed reading it. Since you referred to my answer, could I get an upvote from you, please? Thank you. – tale852150 Aug 15 '16 at 0:52
  • there could be many answers to this question. i found yours quite a helpful starting point. in mathematics we have no way to express irony or lying. statements that are not entirely true are considered false. and i hate that – john mangual Aug 15 '16 at 15:55
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According to Merriam-Webster, "sarcasm" is the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say, especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny. A key aspect of this is that the speaker of sarcasm makes it clear they are being sarcastic -- that is, generally speaking, there is no deception involved. That's what makes it sarcasm. When Trump is speaking, and it's "obvious" he's being sarcastic, all we need to do is judge the truth or falsity of what he says in reverse, so to speak. In many cases, however, it's not at all obvious he's being sarcastic, a dilemma exacerbated by the fact that almost any statement contains some element of truth. And so, it would seem that it's as least as hard to tell whether Trump is being sarcastic as it is to tell whether or not he's telling the truth.

  • Consider Mom: "Would you like to take the garbage out?" Son: "No" (followed by immediately taking out the garbage). It has the feel of sarcasm (at least to me), but involves an unexpected but truthful response. – David Thornley Oct 23 '18 at 17:12
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Sarcasm, in part, by definition, means "the use of remarks that clearly mean the opposite of what they say". That being said, a truth table that is the inverse of the truth table for the non-sarcastic version of the statement seems to be valid. However, as mentioned in the comments, there are other aspects to sarcasm that don't lend itself to a truth table, mainly that, by definition, sarcasm is "designed to cut or give pain" and is "bitter, caustic, and often ironic in language that is usually directed against an individual". This aspect of sarcasm does not lend itself to a truth table. In short, one can use sarcasm to convey the truth or to attack someone or both. It can also be used as a method of humor and in such cases , though the sarcasm may offend the person(s) that are targeted, the ultimate goal is more light-hearted and benign e.g, to illicit laughter.

  • returning to the Donald Trump example "Obama is the father of ISIS" we could say there is a "grain of truth" to that statement? who do we reason about a grain of truth? – john mangual Aug 14 '16 at 16:03
  • True but my understanding of the OP's question and the way I'm addressing it would lead me to respond to your comment as 1. the statement is not sarcastic or If sarcastic then Obama is not the creator of ISIS and 2. the statement is not clear. Using the definition of sarcasm as I provided means the truth table would be applied to statements are "clear and clearly made sarcastically". I agrees firmly with you that there exist "degrees – tale852150 Aug 14 '16 at 18:10
  • (cont). or "grains" of truth. But couldn't we come pretty close to a truth table of some sort (not binary) which also represents "grains" of truth. Thanks you. – tale852150 Aug 14 '16 at 18:32
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Sarcastic statements can be reasoned about, but not generally via truth tables or logic; literary critics do this all the time when they look at texts to determine what the author or his characters are saying; determining that a statement in a text is sarcastic is already a step in reasoning - it's saying that this statement shouldn't be taken literally and other contextual information needs to be taken into account.

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To add... i have been and continue to read a ton of Seneca, who by no means is someone who deals with this type of discussion direclty, but indirectly he adresses many aspects of communication and his writing (to me at least) is somewhat sarcastic and comical. In the moral letters he talks about syllogisms and how most of that era (2000 years ago) could logically be discarded. How contradictions beget more contradictions. Also starting to be a fan of Jordan Peterson and Nasim Taleb.

In this discussion however I think there will always be underlying assumption of what was perceived to be heard... and honestly we dont know what anyone is saying unless we ask what they really mean. or simply ask why... and then shut up and let them answer. I assume a lot of things and feel I understand things that people say, until alas, I dont and I am completely wrong. Depending on my own logic, how I perceive things may be totally contrary to what is actually being said. sarcastic or not.

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Sarcasm has no truth-value since it serves purely to convey that one has a certain attitude. It might succeed or fail in conveying that attitude and that atttiude may or may not be suitable or appropriate to the situation but it cannot be true or false.

The standard view of sarcasm or verbal irony was articulated by Quintilian roughly two millennia ago, as speech in which "we understand something which is the opposite of what is actually said" (95/1920, 401). Indeed, sarcasm is often presented as "the textbook case," as Robyn Carston (2002, 15) says, of the fact that speaker's meaning can come apart from sentence meaning. (Elisabeth Camp, 'Sarcasm, Pretense, and The Semantics/Pragmatics Distinction', Noûs, Vol. 46, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 587-634 : 587.)

Here is an example from H.P. Grice :

A and B are walking down the street, and they both see a car with a shattered window. B says, Look, that car has all its windows intact. A is baffled. B says, You didn't catch on; I was in an ironical way drawing your attention to the broken window. The absurdity of this exchange is I think to be explained by the fact that irony [sarcasm] is intimately connected with the expression of a feeling, attitude, or evaluation. I cannot say something ironically [sarcastically] unless what I say is intended to reflect a hostile or derogatory judgment or a feeling such as indignation or contempt. (Quoted in Camp, 294.)

The sarcasm is in the expression of the judgement or feeling or attitude. It is what J.L. Austin called an 'illocutionary act' - something I do in uttering the relevant sentence. If I say, 'That's a marvellous idea', when I want to convey that I think it is a pretty awful idea, I am expressing my attitude of hostility or derogation in uttering that very sentence. The sentence retains its conventional meaning, its semantics don't change, and it can state something true or false (maybe it really is a marvellous idea), but my hostility or derogation can't be true or false and nor can their expression through my uttering the sentence. They can only occur and be expressed.

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I would think that the truth value of a statement, interpreted sarcastically, would be the opposite truth value of the one that the statement would have if interpreted literally.

For instance, I were to say to you, without a sarcastic tone, "This is such an interesting question," and we take the truth value of that standard statement to be true, then if I were to sarcastically say, "This is such an interesting question," I should be understood to be saying that your question is not interesting - hence, giving the sarcastic statement a truth value of "false."

So, my view would be: Take the truth vale of a standard statement and flip it to its opposite truth value (assuming two-valued logic) to get the truth value of the sarcastic version of the original statement.

Without the assumption that we are dealing with two-valued logic though, it's hard to see how sarcastic statements could be reasoned about. Of course, we could just create a separate truth value just for sarcastic statements within some special, multi-valued logic, but this would not be very enlightening.

  • i don't think two-valued is nuanced enough to deal with these. why use a sacrastic statement when you can just say the negation? – john mangual Aug 14 '16 at 15:16
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    @johnmangual 1) Logic is not natural to humans. There's plenty of situations where we fail logic tests. 2) By using sarcasm you are saying more then the negation. It adds an emotional state to the statement which may be interpreted in various ways depending on the situation. For example if I sarcastically say Smartphones are the best thing since sliced bread depending on my inflection I may be saying "there are a lot of things better than smartphones" or "smartphones are completely useless". If you want to give a logic interpretation of that you have to include inflection too. – Bakuriu Aug 14 '16 at 19:46
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Can sarcastic statements be reasoned about logically?

As much as any other kind of statement. Which, in principle, means, if, and only if, you take context into account (which is a thing logicians rarely do, because they take their own context, ie, academic discussion of the truth value of purportedly de-contextualised sentences, for granted).

A huge part of sarcasm is the use of "inadequate" politeness formulae: if you call a kid of five "Sir" or "Madam", you are being sarcastic. This does not have any effect in the truth value of a sentence; if the kid misbehaved, calling her "Your Highness" doesn't change the truth value of a description of such misbehaviour:

Your Highness forgot to brush their teeth.

What it does is to change the pragmatic value of the sentence: what would be interpreted in a Logic class as a proposition about a fact is indeed a veiled command ("Go and brush your teeth now!"), and commands have no truth value (1).

Another ample use of sarcasm is a kind of shortened reduction ad absurdum:

  • Mr. Trump tells it as it is.
  • Yes, I am sure that is what a successful businessman does.

which can be analysed as:

  1. Mr. Trump is a succesful businessman;
  2. Succesful businessmen often misrepresent reality;
  3. Mr. Trump never, or seldom, misrepresents reality (= Mr. Trump tells it as it is.)

It should be obvious that 3. doesn't follow (or rather, that its negation follows) from 1. (which is, as far as I can see, a true statement) and 2. (which is more debatable, but is probably held as true by many people, and especially by many people who are attracted to Mr. Trump's kind of destructive rhetoric). That the reasoning implied is evidently invalid (not that its conclusion is false) is what makes such kind of retort "sarcastic".

So, are Mr. Trump's trumpisms sarcastic? Maybe, take this for instance:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

The last sentence could easily be interpreted as "sarcastic": "yes, that is what good people do, they bring crime and drugs, and are rapists; see how absurd that idea that Mexican immigrants are nice people is?" It is not like it sounds (it sounds more like a caveat, an attempt to say he has not said what he just said), but it isn't impossible. Even if it is actually sarcastic, though, I fail to see how it makes it any better.

What is the truth value of a sarcastic statement?

I would say that some forms of sarcasm that have the superficial structure of a statement are not actual statements, but commands, questions, fatic sentences, metalinguistic sentences, etc. Other kinds are mostly attempts to dispute the truth of some claims, based on what the consequences of that claims would be, if taken to their logical consequences.


(1) Having no "truth value" is probably the case for the vast majority utterances in commonly spoken (and perhaps even written) language. Old Wittgenstein has it nailed correctly, as much as young Wittgenstein was helplessly wrong on this subject.

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Literality and logic can often work as allies to guard against a repressed side of reality. When sarcasm, breaking into literality, represents a reaction against an abuse of logic (e.g., when logic is used in a prescriptive manner), sarcasm doesn't seek to be endorsed by logic, it seeks to be freed from it. In this case, sarcasm is quite happy to be assigned a false value, and wouldn't have achieved its objective assigned a true value.

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