Summary of the Theories of Truth

test/ March 13, 2012/ Enlightenment, Modern Philosophy, Philosophy, to be moved

What is truth?

I thought it would be good to take a step back and review what truth is in the most general sense. Welcome to philosophy! As simple as that sounds, believe it or not, many people disagree, and there are at least five different views on what truth is. Since every decision we make is affected by what we consider to be true, obviously this is going to dramatically impact how one goes about living.


These are important to understand because they will enable you to ensure (the all important) common ground in a discussion. These are very general principles and foundational to any knowledge we do (or don't) have. It's better to find out that you disagree with someone on “what the proper basis is for determining whether certains words, symbols or ideas are true” before a discussion, rather than waste your time discussing what will remain as inevitable disagreement…because of a more fundamental problem. Get to the root of the problem. The Theory of:

  1. CORRESPONDENCE
    1. States that true beliefs and true statements correspond to the actual state of affairs in the world. (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol.2, “Correspondence Theory of Truth”, auth: Arthur N. Prior, p223 (Macmillan, 1969) 
    2. This is the general idea that our words, sentences equations and anything else we use to describe our experience/world around us actually really apply to something out there. Our descriptions are usually in the form of a proposition, 
    3. For example, the ball is round or 2+2=5. There are correct propositions, as in the first example, and incorrect propositions as in the second case–one corresponds to the world the second doesn't. 
    4. Of course there is much more detail to this theory and many questions arise but this is intended to be a summary and not about whether “purple elephants exist” corresponds…
    5. You might say to yourself, well, everyone believes that. Or do they? Wait until you consider the theories that follow and then return to this first idea. 
  2. COHERENCE
    1. States that truth is based on logical consistency as a primary requirement since we may or may not be actually able to know the world around us. This is the view that the ideas or propositions which conflict with the least number of other propositions which we hold to be true are the ones that are the most true. The less a proposition logically conflicts with others the more true it is. 
    2. An example of this is would be that if a person believes firmly that “Fido is a dog” then also it must be true that “Fido is not a cat”
    3. However, notice the difference of how the truth is arrived at. It is obviously true for both the correspondence theory and the coherence theory, but in the second case it is true because it does not contradict with a more fundamental belief, rather than because has actually been discovered to apply to reality. Of  course correspondence theorists use this method as well, but the difference is that they do not believe that the belief system which has the least number of internal contradictions must be the one that it most true. 
  3. CONSTRUCTIVIST
    1. This viewpoint holds that truth is created or constructed by social and historical factors and is largely affected by who has had the power to make it so. In this case truth is willed rather than discovered. 
    2. For example, if 100 people believe that “Fido is a cat” and there is only one person in the world that believes that “Fido is a dog”, then the constructivist truth is that “Fido is a cat,” because truth is contingent on what we determine it to be. 
    3. This differs from the others in that truth itself has little to do with what is actually out there because the whole concept of truth is something dependent upon us and our minds, and what we make it. 
    4. This theory has many problems though because it is internally inconsistent.
  4. CONSENSUS
    1. This theory holds that truth is whatever is agreed upon, or in some versions, might come to be agreed upon, by some specified group. This theory is different from the constructivist view because it does not take into account any other influcence other than an individual person's opinion. Cultural currents and economic wealth do not help determine truth, only the individual minds.
      1. This usuaully also implies that if there is a small group of people who disagree, the with the overall opinion, then their disagreement can be granted and their belief can remain true for them but not for the others. 
    2. For example, can you imagine if everyone in the world got together and re-wrote all of the history books to state that John Kennedy was actually the first president of the United States, and then everyone subsequently believed this to be the case. Then, it would be true for these people. 
      1. A group of people continues to believe that Kennedy was president in the 1900's rather than the 1700's…then this view is true for these people and it doesn't matter that it “contradicts” the view of the others because coherence nor correspondence are what matters. Only the opinion. 
    3. I know I am over simplifying my rebuttal of these ideas but would this make the proposition “Kennedy was the first president of the United States” true? Of course not…  The coherence theory of truth makes more sense than this idea because it at least recognizes that millions and millions of other propositions no longer make sense…truth no longer coheres: for example, what should we make of the proposition “Kennedy lead the United States in the Cold War.”?
  5. PRAGMATIC
  6. Or rather, I've discovered truth by pragmatically testing it!
    1. This view holds that truth is verified or confirmed by the results of putting one's beliefs or concepts into practice (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol.5, “Pragmatic Theory of Truth”, 427 (Macmillan, 1969). The beliefs and concepts that “function” the best when tested in the real world are the most true. This theory is very closely associated with a scientific triumphalism, a view that science is the ultimate arbiter of truth. This is the view that we talk about so much on this blog
    2. For example, a person cannot know whether the proposition “Joe can do a 6 minute mile” is true or not until the proposition is put into practice and tested. The proposition above becomes true only when it is verified, and not before. 
    3. The problem with this view however, as has been stated many times before, is that there are a number of things, including the theory above which cannot actually be put into practice or tested for pragmatism. How do you know that pragmatism is what determines what is true? Is it just a gut feeling? If you assert that “Truth is what is pragmatic and what can be tested,” then you are making a statement which in itself cannot be tested and is therefore worthless to say. 
Now, take another look at the first view.

So you see there are many different views on what it means to say something is “true.” Most people would consider the first view common sense, however, it is not that simple for many people. What view do you hold? Do you throw up your hands and say what's true for you is true for you and what is true for me is true for me? Many people do and this is how they appear to me: