Chapter 5 :Epistemology


NOTE:  You must read only those linked materials that are preceded by the capitalized word READ.)

There are several different theories of what truth is.  It turns out that as with most questions in Philosophy, the question “What is Truth?” does not have a simple answer.  

truth {Gk. alhqeia [alętheia]; Lat. veritas; Ger. Wahrheit}

The conformity of a proposition to the way things are. Precise analysis of the nature of truth is the subject of the correspondence, coherence, pragmatic, redundancy, and semantic theories of truth.

Theories of Truth

Several theories are explained including the Pragmatic Theory and Correspondence theory

READ: Dallas Roark When Can We Say We Know?

On Truth




 I. CORRESPONDENCE THEORY  -    Bertrand Russell 

This is the theory most people are brought up to believe but it has too many problems with it to be the complete answer.  A claim is made about the universe.  We go and check out the claim with observations and physical measuring devices.  Is that so for all claims?

The theory is based on the belief that a proposition is true when it conforms with some fact or state of affairs. While this theory properly emphasizes the notion that propositions are true when they correspond to reality, its proponents often have difficulty explaining what facts are and how propositions are related to them.

There exists an independent realm of facts: reality

Truth is the correspondence of belief with fact

BELIEF  corresponds to Facts   = truth

BELIEF does not correspond to Facts   = false


Verification involves subjective experiences as to both observations and require interpretations.

Example 1

Claims are made about things that are very large such as galaxies and the entire universe, as to its shape and size and duration that are beyond the ability of any human to have a direct experience of it.

Example 2.

Claims are made about things that are very small such as sub atomic particle and small quanta of energy, bosons, gluons, neutrinos, charm particles and the like which no human can have a direct experience of.

Example 3:

A simple claim:

There is a container of milk in the refrigerator. 

To determine whether or not this is true all one needs to do is to go to the refrigerator and check.  Would the claim be true if:

  1. There is a bottle of milk there?
  2. There is a wax container of milk there.
  3. There is a wax container of powdered milk there?
  4. There is a wax container of Parmalat there?

 Some answer yes it would be true in all 4 cases .  Some think it is only true in case b.  It all depends on what you mean by "container" !    For some it means a wax container. For others it may mean any object that holds any sort of contents.

Example 4

 Is the following claim true or not?

 Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinski.”

It all depends on what you mean by "sex".  For some it means any act involving the sexual organs being stimulated to the point of orgasm.  For others it might mean only the penetration of the penis into a vagina and only for beings of the same species.  

II. COHERENCE THEORY        Bland Blanshard

This explains how scientists can make claims about the very large and small objects using a system of claims already accepted to be true.

The theory is the belief that a proposition is true to the extent that it agrees with other true propositions. In contrast with the correspondence theory's emphasis on an independent reality, this view supposes that reliable beliefs constitute an inter-related system, each element of which entails every other. Thus, such idealists as Bradley, Bosanquet, and Blanshard all defended versions the coherence theory.

READ: Theory, its variations and criticisms of it.

 TRUTH is a property of a related group of consistent statements

e.g., Mathematics  Science

Truth is systemic coherence of propositions interconnectedness of beliefs


1.what if other judgments (statements) are false? Consistent error is possible?

2.coherence theory in the last analysis seems to involve a correspondence for the first judgments must be verified directly. How?

III. PRAGMATIC THEORY -  C.S. Peirce   James  Dewey 

Read and focus on the pragmatic test for truth:   Dallas Roark When Can We Say We Know?

Further on PRAGMATISM by Dallas Roark

The theory is the belief that a proposition is true when acting upon it yields satisfactory practical results. As formulated by William James, the pragmatic theory promises (in the long term) a convergence of human opinions upon a stable body of scientific propositions that have been shown in experience to be successful principles for human action. 

Examines how beliefs work in practice, the practical difference.

Truth of a belief is determined by evaluating how well the belief satisfies the whole of human nature over a long period of time: how well does it WORK?

What are its consequences?

This makes TRUTH  something  that is PSYCHOLOGICAL.

What difference do the beliefs make if they are true?

TRUTH is whatever has met a society's criteria for justification.

For pragmatists like Richard Rorty there is no objective truth at all.  All claims need only satisfy the group’s expectations for verification.  Science is just one of many groups with its own rules and criteria.  As there are multiple groups with different criteria there can be multiple truths.  

Rorty 's neopragmatism, ( antifoundationalism), argues against any quest for ultimate reality or Platonic absolutes such as "Truth," "Goodness," .    Rorty advocates turning away from these impossible standards, instead embracing a pragmatic and contingent view of truth in all human endeavors". Thus he's called an antifoundationalist because he rejects the existence of any real or objective foundations for human knowledge, i.e., the Western philosophical attempt to build theory from "the ground up," on firm foundational "first principles". (See Rorty's book, Consequences of Pragmatism.)

Rorty thus is emphasizing the nature of all human knowledge as "made" rather than "found."  Rorty is mostly content to point out the fallacy of trying to pursue objective reality.

 READ: Richard Rorty the Public Philosopher by Michael Albert

On Rorty:  and

Conversational Constraints: Richard Rorty and Contemporary Critical Theory" Prepared for the Midwinter Meeting of the English and American Literature Section, ACRL, January 1996 By Richard Fyffe, Humanities Bibliographer, University of Connecticut Libraries, Storrs

Consequences of Pragmatism


    1. What is justified for one community to believe may not be true!!!!

    2. How to explain errors?  Falsehoods?

     3. It makes truth RELATIVE. 




      4. Self Refuting basic Claims:

The pragmatic theory makes the claims that :

a. there is no objective knowledge

b. there is no absolute knowledge

c. there is no objective truth

d. there is no absolute truth

If these claims are true then they would refute themselves.  If all claims are true only within a community that accepts them as true then the claims above (a to d) are only true within the communities that accept them as being true by whatever criteria they use and think has been satisfied.  So within the community of pragmatists  the claims would be true but for others they would not be true and thus there is being affirmed a series of contradictions.

Pragmatists would by their principles and theories accept that claims above  (a to d)  are true and not true at the same time!

Pragmatists overlook a number of things.

There are different types of claims and it is only the empirical, aesthetic and ethical claims that appear to be troublesome. 

The empirical claims can be resolved as to their accuracy.  This is so because  there is a difference between truth and justified belief which pragmatism overlooks. 

C.S. Peirce’s solution was to postulate an ideal community of inquirers who would come to agreement concerning what is known and what is true in the infinite long run of time. C. S. Peirce held that there was but one reality.

Truth= what an ideal community would believe in the long run of time  

This is particularly true for empirical claims.

However there are many post modernist pragmatists who have abandoned the idea of an objective truth and objective knowledge.

Logical Empiricism

For the logical empiricist movement the truth of a proposition rests on how well it is verified.  For them what makes a proposition true or false would be how well it checks out through a process of verification. 

As Dallas Roark puts it:

" Or, "in other words, it is a way of asking how propositions are validated."34 How is this done? Ayer answers:

The answer is that we test the validity of an empirical hypothesis by seeing whether it actually fulfills the function which it is designed to fulfill. And we have seen that the function of an empirical hypothesis is to enable us to anticipate experience. Accordingly, if an observation to which a given proposition is relevant conforms to our expectations, the truth of that proposition is confirmed.--A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, New York: Dover Publications, 1936,

Ayer admits that there is no certainty in this operation. If the experiment comes off according to expectations then creditability has been enhanced. There is no question that it will be repeated. If it does not, then questions about the experiment may be raised; if it is successful again, greater probability of being true is attached to the statement.--Dallas Roark, Introduction to Philosophy, Chapter 4.

Thus the best that is offered is that at the present time a proposition would have a certain amount of support and of verification.


 If objectivity is rejected, every groups claims would be equal !!   So the claims of the following ideologies would be true: racism, sexism, Nazism, etc...  According to this post modern theory of truth all claims are ideologies.   Must all claims be accepted as true at once?  

With empirical claims how can it be that there would not be some basis for truth that would rule out inconsistent and contradictory claims from all being true at once?  How could it be true that the earth would be flat and spherical at the same time?  

Even with claims about non-physical entities, how could it be that there are more than one truth as when :

Group A thinks it is true that people have souls

Group B thinks that there are no souls

How can the claims to truth for both group A and group B be true at the same time?

For some material on WHY TRUTH MATTERS just read here.WHY TRUTH MATTERS


Must we tolerate and respect all groups even those with conflicting claims?  How is it to be resolved when there are conflicts?  For the pragmatists all the criteria for resolution are criteria that groups have developed.  It will then always come down to which group has the most power.

 Instead of    KNOWLEDGE is POWER. 

For pragmatists and postmodern thinkers:   POWER IS KNOWLEDGE

There is a cynicism with pragmatists such as Rorty and other post modernists who would deny that thee is "truth" as objective.  They claim that truth is only and whatever those in power have persuaded people to believe.  They accept that truth is whatever experts happen to agree upon but not that it relates to anything that is "objective".  They make truth something based on the consent or agreement of the folks who wish to claim that truth.  Such cynics make truth depend on nothing "objective" and deny that there is anything that is "objective".  The resolution of conflicting claims concerning what is true  lies not in any reference to an objective reality or to an objective truth but to whatever criteria the group holds for the resolution of claims.  If two groups have two different sets of criteria then the group with the most power will determine what truth is by its criteria and impose it upon the others who will go on thinking that their original ideas were true anyway.  There will be two truths at once over the same situation.  This will apply to claims as to what is real as well as to what is true.

One group may use scientific method and hold to the criteria of science and another group may use consultation with a shaman and the shaman mystical experiences as the basis for truth and the results of each approach are thought to be the truth by each group and for the pragmatists both are correct at the same time.  A large rock in the American Museum of Natural History can be a meteorite for the group using science and a messenger from the sky god for the original peoples at the same time.

It can be true for one group that (Jews, Blacks, Women...) are inferior to (Christians, Whites, Men) and for another group the opposite can be true at the same time according to this theory.  One of the values that pragmatists attempt to promote is tolerance and in the name of tolerance and for the sake of tolerance people are asked to respect the right of others to hold their own views.  yet if a person holds the view that the truth is that tolerance is wrong then they can be right and tolerance can be both good and bad at the same time.  This theory results in applications of political power to resolve conflicts and has not lead to a more tolerant set of societies in this world.

V. redundancy theory of truth

Belief that it is always logically superfluous to claim that a proposition is true, since this claim adds nothing further to a simple affirmation of the proposition itself. "It is true that I am bald." means the same thing as "I am bald."

VI. semantic theory of truth

Belief that any claim that a proposition is true can be made only as a formal requirement regarding the language in which the proposition itself is expressed. Thus, according to Tarski, "It rained today" is true if and only if it rained today. The distinction between different levels of language employed by this theory is presumed to offer a convenient evasion of otherwise troublesome semantic paradoxes.


Can you put the theories together??? Are they complementary ? e.g. could you attempt these matches and consolidations?

1. empirical claims > correspondence theory

2. semantic claims  > coherence theory

3. ethical claims   > pragmatic theory

Not really, for such an amalgamation of theories can't account for differences, can't resolve disagreements, conflicts, particularly, social and ethical issues. 

What is to be done then?  How are we to learn what is true?

For some material on WHY TRUTH MATTERS just read here.WHY TRUTH MATTERS

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2000. All Rights reserved.  Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.

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