Truth, Theories of

views updated

Truth, Theories of

The question of truth is inherent in human rationality. A core feature of rationality is self-reflection in the sense that we can critically reflect upon how we see the world. In the question of truth our relation to reality is called into question, and the pursuit of truth is therefore pivotal to both science and religion.

When we are asking for a theory of truth, we take a step back and focus on our conception of truth. The first thing to be noted is that we use the word true as an adjective for various things: A statement can be true, but so can a friend or an act of friendship, or a democracy. In the latter cases we may substitute real for true : A true friend is a real friend whom we can count on. But if the sentence "She is a true friend" is true, it is so in a sense where we cannot substitute real for true. This indicates that a theory of truth deals with mental acts (e.g., beliefs) or statements (judgments, propositions) as truth bearers. Mental acts or statements are about something. A theory of truth thus operates at the level where we relate to something, and relate in such way that we make truth claims about what we relate to (i.e., claims as to what it is and how it is). The key issue for a theory of truth is the relation between beliefs or statements that can be true or false, and that which these beliefs or statements are about. We can then distinguish between the following types of truth theories: the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, and pragmatic theories.

Correspondence theory of truth

According to a correspondence theory of truth, the truth relation is a correspondence between a statement and a fact. A theory of this kind reflects a commonsense idea of truth to the effect that a statement is true if it corresponds to how things actually are. This is captured in the classic formulation of the correspondence theory in Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.): "To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true" (Aristotle, 1011b26f). Thus, truth means agreement with reality. However, a statement cannot correspond to a thing or an event. In order to ascertain whether a statement is true or false we need to know what it is about, that is, what the thing or the event in question is. What makes a statement p (e.g., "He was late") true is the fact of p (i.e., that he actually was late). Correspondence is thus correlation between statements and facts. It need not be congruence, however, in the sense that the structure of the statement somehow reflects the structure of the fact.

But this does not solve the problem of explicating what it is that statements correspond to. We do not have two separate entities, statements, and facts. It might be argued that facts are what true statements state, not what they are about. And if we are going to determine what the fact is to which the statement correspondsin order to compare statement and factthen we must make another statement. Thus, the relation between statements and reality can only be determined by other statements.

Coherence theory of truth

A coherence theory of truth seeks to meet this problem by transforming correspondence between statement and fact into coherence between statements. A statement or belief is true to the degree it coheres with other accepted statements or beliefs related to it, or to be more precise, if it fits into the most coherent set or system of statements or beliefs. What is required for a set of statements or beliefs to be coherent is internal consistency, or even mutual entailment between the statements or beliefs in question. To this can be added the further requirement that the system not only is coherent, but also gives the most complete picture of the world. Thus, the argument for a coherence theory not only is that a statement can only be compared to other statements, but also that a statement or a belief never is without context: It presupposes other statements in order to be true, and it does so because a thing is what it is due to its relations to other things. Consequently, a coherence theory of truth often is linked to a metaphysics according to which reality basically is a coherent system. But the context can also be construed as a system of interpretations that we presuppose when making a statement. We can only compare interpretations with other interpretations. A coherence theory thus favors an antirealist ontology to the effect that there is no mind-independent or extralinguistic reality.

The coherence solution however engenders problems of its own. First, standard versions of the coherence theory confuse the meaning of truth (the definition) with the criterion of truth (the test). Second, it seems possible to have two internally coherent, but mutually inconsistent sets of beliefs concerning the same reality. The further requirement that a coherent system must also give the most complete picture of the world implies that we should be able to compare competing sets of beliefs as interpretations of the same world. Third, if a statement is true when it coheres with what we already accept to be true, how do we decide the truth of these other statements or beliefs, upon which the first statement depends? And how is our view of reality changed?

Pragmatic theories of truth

A pragmatic theory of truth takes a step further by focusing on the social context of understanding. One version is a consensus theory that translates the meaning of truth into the context of argumentation. It is not sufficient to say that a statement is true if it coheres with our accepted views. A stronger condition is that a statement is true if it is accepted by the most informed participants or by everyone with sufficient relevant experiences to judge it. But if truth amounts to what the most informed participants or everyone sufficiently experienced agree upon, the question is how to decide who are the most informed participants or when we are sufficiently experienced. In order to avoid this problem, the criterion of consensus can be made both stronger and more open-ended: If truth is what everybody will ultimately agree upon, a theory of consensus can place some stronger conditions on what is meant by ultimately.

Jürgen Habermas (1929) reformulates the consensus theory as a discourse theory: The meaning of truth is "warranted assertibility." Statements are true if their truth claims are warranted in a discourse in which we only enter by presupposing an ideal situation of communication where no participant is in a privileged position. Truth is thus defined in the context of argumentation in which we meet various or even conflicting truth claims that are open to discussion in a discourse. But if the meaning of truth is defined by the procedure of argumentation, this procedure cannot recur to the concept of truth. If truth is translated into the consensus to be reached, this consensus cannot in turn be measured by truth. The argumentation in a discourse about truth claims, however, is not about consensus but about truth. If it aims at consensus, it is a consensus concerning what the truth is. Consequently, there remains a normative dimension of truth, which in Habermas is translated into the ideal situation of communication.

A second version of a pragmatic theory of truth is an instrumentalist theory that measures the truth of beliefs or statements by their consequences: "That which guides us truly is truedemonstrated capacity for such guidance is precisely what is meant by truth. . . . The hypothesis that works is the true one; and truth is an abstract noun applied to the collection of cases, actual, foreseen and desired, that receive confirmation in their works and consequences" (Dewey, p. 156157). The problem here is how to decide what truly means. The reference to consequences is in need of qualification as to which consequences would meet the requirement of guiding us truly. In fact, an instrumentalist theory substitutes utility for truth.

As an alternative to an instrumentalist theory ("The truth is what works"), the central pragmatist idea can be reformulated in a performative theory of truth that focuses on what we are doing when we take something to be true. This is outlined by Robert B. Brandom (1950) in a model that emphasizes the act of calling something true rather than the descriptive content of truth statements. It further gives an account of that act in terms of a normative attitude: Taking some claim to be true is committing oneself to it. Endorsing a truth claim is understood as adopting it as a guide to action, and the correctness of adopting it can be measured by the success of the actions it guides (involving here what Brandom calls "stereotypical" pragmatism). Once we have understood acts of "taking-true" according to this model, we have "understood all there is to understand about truth." This means that truth "is treated, not as a property independent of our attitudes, to which they must eventually answer, but rather as a creature of taking-true or treating-as-true" (Brandom, p. 287). This performative analysis of truth talk in terms of a theory of "taking-true" can be combined with a redundancy theory of truth: When we state "It is true that p, " we only make explicit the claim implicit in stating p. In calling the statement p true, we are not describing a property of that statement. We are doing somethingwe are committing ourselves.

A pragmatic theory of truth takes as its point of departure that there is no absolute or universal truth at our disposal. Still, as we have seen, a pragmatic theory can maintain and seek to account for the normative dimension of truth. It here differs from a radical instrumentalist theory according to which truth is a fiction in the sense of human construction. According to Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), truth is not something to be found but something to be created. Although, in Nietzsche, truth is itself illusion, fiction, or construction, there still seems to be a normative dimension unaccounted for in his unmasking of illusions.

Truth in religion

Coherence and pragmatic theories of truth derive much of their plausibility from the ambition to avoid the problems facing a correspondence theory. However, the question is whether we can do without a strong normative concept of truth that reflects the experience of a reality not corresponding to our beliefs or interpretations. Truth as an open question implies a strong concept of truth in the sense that we ourselves have to experience whether our beliefs are true or not. The key issue in theories of truth can be reformulated as the relation between our cognitive attitudes and reality. The challenge facing us is to account both for the fact that we do not have access to a reality outside of our attitudes or our interpretations of reality, and for the normative dimension of truth. The line of argument has led from descriptive attitudes that consider the world from outside to cognitive attitudes embedded in social practices in which we partake in the reality we are talking about. Truth claims can be implicit in nondescriptive attitudes. When we are talking about the world we are not only describing how things are, but we are relating to the world in various ways.

That truth is a question of how we relate to the world is brought out in what can be called an existential conception of truth, which should not be confused with an existentialist or subjectivist reduction of truth. According to Søren Kierkegaard (18131855), "the truth is only for the individual in that he produces it in action," but in the same vein it is stated that "the truth makes a human being free" (1980, p. 138). The dictum that "subjectivity is truth" (Kierkegaard, 1992, p. 240) does not mean that each of us freely chooses what should count as the truth. The point is conversely that subjectivity itself is to be determined by the truth. Taking something to be true implies that it should determine the way we relate to ourselves and to others.

This leads to the issue of truth in religion. The truth question is basic not only to the rational inquiry into nature, but also to the understanding of religion. Indeed, the issue of rationality and religion turns on the question of truth. What happens when the question of truth is seen within the context of religion? First, the tension between uncertainty (implicit in asking the question) and certainty (in answering it) is intensified: What is meant by the truth in view of conflicting truth claims? Second, religion represents a double possibility. It can suspend the truth question by giving an answer to it that is not open for discussion, but it can also reopen the truth question by calling our attitudes and self-understanding into question. Third, in religion, the relation between cognitive attitudes, on the one hand, and volitional and affective attitudes on the other, and between attitudes and action, is complicated. To believe in the truth implies that we understand ourselves in the light of the truth, which means that it should form our life. Fourth, what religion can do is reverse the perspective: The truth question is not only a question for us to decide, but also calls into question how we relate to the world. When religion speaks of the truth, it is also implied that truth is not at our disposal, but conversely questions us: What is the truth about us? The truth question is also disturbing when it calls into question who we, the subjects of the question, are.

See also Idealism; Plato; Pragmatism; Realism


aristotle. metaphysics. in the works of aristotle, vol. 8, trans. w. d. ross. oxford: oxford university press, 1972.

blanshard, brand. the nature of thought. new york: macmillan, 1941.

brandom, robert b. making it explicit: reasoning, representing and discursive commitment. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1994.

dewey, john. reconstruction in philosophy boston: beacon press, 1985.

habermas, jürgen. "wahrheitstheorien." in vorstudien und ergänzungen zur theorie des kommunikativen handelns. frankfurt am main, germany: suhrkamp, 1984.

kierkegaard, søren. the concept of anxiety: a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin. in kierkegaard's writings, vol. 8, trans. and ed. howard v. hong and edna h. hong. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1980.

kierkegaard, søren. concluding unscientific postscript. in kierkegaard's writings, vol. 7.1, trans. and ed. howard v. hong, and edna h. hong. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1992.

kirkham, richard l. theories of truth: a critical introduction. cambridge, mass.: mit press, 1992.

peirce, charles s. collected papers of charles sanders peirce, ed. charles hartshorne and paul weiss. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 19311958.

skirbekk, gunnar. wahrheitstheorien. frankfurt am main, germany: suhrkamp, 1977.

arne grØn