My question is simple - can a true statement be a lie - that is, can the pragmatics of use of a true sentence (context, intension, effects, etc) make a true statement into a lie? Intuitively it seems possible, though it also seems to go against the definition of a lie as the assertion of a false statement knowing it is false. But perhaps what counts for lying is the intention to deceive, in which case the truth value of the sentence is largely irrelevant. Thanks!

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    to lie (intrans. verb): to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive. Jul 3 '20 at 9:05
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    The definition you quote is inadequate:"It is both too narrow, since it requires falsity, and too broad, since it allows for lying about something other than what is being stated", SEP, The Definition of Lying. They instead recommend Primoratz's definition:"making a statement believed to be false, with the intention of getting another to accept it as true". So yes, the actual truth/falsity of the statement is moot. If someone tells something they believe to be false to deceive they are lying, whether it happens to be true or not.
    – Conifold
    Jul 3 '20 at 9:20
  • @Conifold, arguably the criteria for lying is when a speaker provides information with a different regard to its truth or falsity than the listener, which can include a speaker who provides information without concern as to its truth or falsity when a listener would expect them to be concerned. Telling the truth is really about seeking to achieve a meeting of minds and mutual understanding of information, and lies are whenever a person is presenting information without seeking to achieve a mutual understanding of it.
    – Steve
    Jul 3 '20 at 14:10
  • @Steve Frankfurt has an interesting essay On Bullshit, where he argues, convincingly I think, that when one is unconcerned about truth or falsity their speech is distinct from lying. As you can guess from the title, he suggests that when they misrepresent their lack of concern in that speech, but stop short of lying, a more accurate description is bullshitting.
    – Conifold
    Jul 4 '20 at 5:45
  • @Conifold, I'm about to read that article through, but most people don't really consider bullshit to be distinct from lying. The distinction is really only made by bullshitters themselves, who want to distinguish their behaviour from that which carries the full force of moral opprobrium and legal sanctions. Essentially, the assertion of a categorical distinction where none exists is itself a form of bullshit.
    – Steve
    Jul 4 '20 at 14:12

Yes. A lie doesn't necessarily need to be a falsehood from the liar's perspective, but only needs for the victim to be lead to believe into a falsehood.

Two astronauts are floating in space oriented 180 degrees from each other so that each sees the other as upside down. Astronaut Alice asks for the wrench. Astronaut Bob says "the wrentch is floating above". It's technically true, but a lie since Alice reaches away from the wrench.

A lie is listener dependent. A truth is speaker dependent.

  • +1: a valid example.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 6 '20 at 15:06
  • @Hierarchist Doesn't this claim contradict common usage?
    – J D
    Jul 8 '20 at 13:35

Can a true statement be a lie? Depends on the definition of a lie, but the intuitive answer is YES. As a definition, let us use:

Any communication with the intent to deceive.

In this case, an obvious example of lying while making a true statement is called a 'lie of omission' to contrast it with lies of 'lies of commission'. There's an entire aspect of logic devoted to discovering true statements which lead to bad conclusions: fallacies. Thus, one need only intend to use fallacies to deceive.


Plato: (Distracted) Is Socrates in the kitchen right now?
Diogenes: (Knowning full well Socrates is in the basement wrapping Plato's birthday gift) -smiles- I am certain he's in the house.
Plato: Thanks, I'll go find him there.

Here, Diogenes' true statement is conveyed in such a way that it is a lie, because it intentionally omits additional information that would convey the more accurate representation, and is being done so with the intention to deceive to give Socrates more time to wrap the gift.

  • +1 : nice, fresh angle.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 6 '20 at 15:07
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    The question would become far less interesting if any deception was defined as a lie. Also fallacies are untrue reasonings, thus they can be lies, they include true statement, but they include also untrue statements (which would constitute the lie). But nice link to "lie by omission".
    – tkruse
    Jul 7 '20 at 7:55
  • @tkruse Interesting or not, it's the overwhelmingly common definition. However, if your intent is to contort language to tie Gordian knots to amuse yourself and generate deepities, then I agree. I sit with the ordinary language philosophers and do not value obscurim per obscurious personally. As for fallacies, the implication only was that the intentional use of fallacies to commit deception is a reliable path to deception.
    – J D
    Jul 8 '20 at 13:27
  • @GeoffreyThomas As always, I value your contributions to model the language of contemporary philosophers. Your position was an inspiration for mine, though, the qualification 'per se' might be handy to accentuate the integral notion of context which you invoke to disambiguate intention and intension.
    – J D
    Jul 8 '20 at 13:49
  • Being a most common definition does not imply it is the definition to be applied to this specific question for best results. The question not being phrased very specific, we can think about how the question could be improved by giving the definitions it currently lacks, and choosing the definitions that best match the asker's question instead of the most common definitions would seem reasonable to me. That is not necessarily contorting language, words can have multiple valid definitions legitimately.
    – tkruse
    Jul 8 '20 at 20:41

No sentence, true or false, can be a lie. A lie, or lying, involves mens rea, a guilty mind - i.e. in the case of a lie, intentionality by a person to deceive.

More specifically a lie is generally defined as any statement that is false, known to be false, and is intended to deceive - where a statement is the declarative use of an indicative sentence. There is nothing conceptually wrong with this definition but is the notion of a lie so clear-cut that it excludes another definition? This, for instance:

(1) I state that p to S

(2) I believe that p is false.

(3) By making this statement, I intend to deceive S in regard to p.

Moral terms, such as 'a lie', are seldom open to essentialist definition. If this variant definition is allowed, then p can be a true sentence by means of (the use of) which I lie to S.

  • @ tkruse. Hi ! Thanks for comment. I do not think 'intentionally false' is the best way of putting things. I have re-phrased. I like your answer btw. Best - Geoff
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 6 '20 at 14:24

The question is fairly ambiguous because it does not define key terms. But here are two examples. "I am in bed now" can be both a true statement (at night) and a lie (during the day).

Also a more meaningful example maybe: Persons Alex, Bobby and Charly are accused of a crime. In fact, Alex did it. Alex tells Bobby "I didn't do it", and Bobby believes it. But Bobby tells the Police "Alex did it", because Bobby wants to bear false witness against Alex. So now Bobby says the opposite of their beliefs (a lie), but at the same time says an objective truth.

There are other ways true statements can be used in deception, like omitting crucial information or using language ambiguity, but to me it feels that the meaning of "true statement" and "lie statement" would not apply for that.

As an example, in this dialogue "Are you at work or at home?" - "Of course I am not at home", the true answer might try to deceive the asker that the person is at work, while actually they are in a third place (e.h. with a lover in a hotel). Other examples would be found in advertising such as making true statements about food products, to convey an implied false statement about them being healthier than they actually are. As an example, the brand VitaminWater sells drinks containing lots of sugar on top of vitamins and water. There are court rulings every year about misleading advertisements, which could be seen as lies.

In stories sometimes artificial situations are created where a protagonist says a true statement, knowing that the receiver will believe the opposite. This could be a spy during interrogation, or somebody saying an outrageous truth like "I am planning to rob this bank", met with disbelief. Those could also be regarded as examples of lying with a true statement, though it depends on definitions because the literal statement is true.

It should be noted that in formal logic, no statement can be not false and also false at the same time (that would not be logical). Some logic allows statements to be both true and false, but this case seems to not fit the question.

So all valid examples of true statements that are also lies would need to use some flaw when applying logic to make statements about the/a world. So if the question is about flawless applications of logic, then the answer should be: No, a statement cannot be not false and false at the same time, lies are false statements, true statements are not false, so a true statement cannot be a lie.

  • +1. A nice contribution.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 6 '20 at 14:25
  • @tkruse It is a narrow scope of logic and an unnatural path of thought which rejects true contradictions. See SEP's dialetheism to get past logical sumpsimus.
    – J D
    Jul 8 '20 at 13:54
  • @tkruse I advocate for an analogy of an isthmus to an ocean rather than one ocean to another. First order predicate logic is to natural language and informal logic as the Isthmus of Panama is to the combined volumes of the Atlantic and Pacfic. A very important, but limited tool in thought as it expresses the barest outline of what it stands for. A spherical obloid and the earth are vastly different things.
    – J D
    Jul 9 '20 at 15:00
  • @tkruse The logic of language is better approached from this.
    – J D
    Jul 9 '20 at 15:02
  • Possibly your comments have ventured off-topic
    – tkruse
    Jul 10 '20 at 0:23

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