Lying, Language and Intention: reflections on Swift

Brean Hammond, Gregory Paul Currie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article, a literary and philosophical dialogue on lying in the eighteenth century and beyond, uses the writings of Jonathan Swift as a springboard for an interdisciplinary conversation on the truth conditions of human (and Houyhnhnm) communication. In the first two sections, Brean Hammond examines the cultural and political conditions that produced Swift’s anxiety over a polity he considered to be riddled with untruth, leading to his imagining, in Gulliver’s Travels, a species incapable of lying. In the final section, Gregory Currie considers Swift’s conception of creatures only able to tell truth – the Houyhnhnms – from a modern philosophical standpoint. Lying is deceptive wrongness and is as universally deplored as it is practised. The Houyhnhnms in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, who have no inclination to lie and find it hard even to understand mendacity in the abstract, are a literary rebuke to human shortcomings in this regard. What do they tell us about Swift’s attitude to truth and falsity in the context of early eighteenth-century politics and imaginative writing? What role does intention play in the unfailing linguistic truthfulness of the Houyhnhnms? And what would a language be like in which one could not lie?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)220-233
Number of pages14
JournalEuropean Journal of English Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Cite this