Humanist Conversations, August 4th, 2000

Pragmatism: The philosophy of meaning and truth

What is truth?

Extracted from: Hospers, John. An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997. 4th ed. p. 44-46.
1. Correspondence theory of truth: A statement is true if it corresponds to reality (or as is sometimes said, to a fact). [What does correspond mean?] If I match color charts to cans of paint, the colors on the chart resemble the colors of the paint in the cans; they correspond in being alike. There is no such resemblance between words and facts. But such correspondence doesn't require any such similarity.

We speak of a one-to-one correspondence between two things, for example, between the books in a library and the cards in the card catalog. Is there such a one-to-one correspondence between a sentence and a fact? Surely not, for the sentence can be translated into other languages and still express the same fact. It's the meaning that counts, not the sentence per se. The correspondence theory applies easily to empirical statements. ... A statement by itself corresponds to a fact only if the speaker intends it for that purpose.

2. Coherence theory of truth: Not correspondence but coherence, it has been suggested, is what decides whether a statement is true. Coherence with what? With other statements. Its truth consists in its coherence with a body, or system, of other statements.

What is meant by "coherence"? One meaning is, "A proposition is coherent with a body of other propositions if it is logically consistent with them; that is, if it doesn't contradict any of them." ... One could make the coherence requirements stronger by saying that the proposition must entail (logically imply) one another. ... Coherence among propositions has to do with a body, or system, of propositions that are not only consistent with each other but that mutually support one another; they don't logically entail one another, but the provide evidence for each other.

Coherence is of great importance in the sciences, where there is a large body of propositions that are mutually dependent on one another. In scientific theory, the only means available for choosing among competing theories is their degree of coherence with other propositions already accepted. But what of the statements on which the theory is based? ... Could coherence be defined without already presupposing--assuming--the concept of truth?

3. Pragmatic theory of truth: "The truth is what works." The first question to be asked is "What does it mean?" We know well enough what it is for a mechanical object to "work." ... But what does it mean for a belief to "work?" Can propositions be tested by whether they "work?" ... What has its "working" in a specific case to do with its truth? If it "works" for you but not for me, is it then true for you but not for me? What exactly is the relation between its being true and its "working?" Surely they aren't the same thing? ...

The contemporary philosopher Karl Popper has written, in defense of truth as correspondence, that

  there is no doubt that correspondence to the facts is what we usually call "truth"--that in ordinary language it is correspondence that we call "truth," rather than coherence or pragmatic usefulness. A judge who admonishes a witness to speak the truth and nothing but the truth does not admonish the witness to speak what he thinks is useful either for himself or for anybody else. The judge admonishes a witness to speak the truth and nothing but truth, but he does not say, "All we require of you is that you do not get involved in contradictions," which he would say were he a believer in the coherence theory. But this is not what he demands of the witness.  

Charles Peirce
From: "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" (1878) (p. 36 of Pragmatism : A Reader)
Consider what effects, which conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

William James
From: "The Meaning of Truth" (1909) (Pragmatism : A Reader)
The true is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving.

From: "Pragmatism's Conception of Truth" (p. 122 of Pragmatism : A Reader)
Our account of truth is an account of truths in the plural, or processes of leading, realized in rebus, and having only this quality in common, that they pay. They pay by guiding us into or toward some part of a system that dips at numerous points into sense-percepts, which we may copy mentally or not, but with which at any rate we are now in the kind of commerce vaguely designated at verification. Truth for us is simply a collective name for verification-processes, just as health, wealth, strength, etc., are names for other processes connected with life, and also pursued because it pays to pursue then. Truth is made, just as health, wealth and strength are made, in the course of experience.

Suggested readings for the Aug. 4 Humanist Conversation on Pragmatism:
From: Menand, Louis, ed. Pragmatism : A Reader. New York: Vintage Books, 1997. [Available at]

Menand, Louis, ed. "An Introduction to Pragmatism" p. xi-xxxiv
Charles Sanders Peirce "A Definition of Pragmatism" (ca. 1904)
"How to make our ideas clear" (1878)
p. 56-58
p. 26-48
William James "What Pragmatism Means" (1907)
"Pragmatism's Conception of the Truth" (1907)
p. 93-111
p. 112-131
John Dewey "The Development of American Pragmatism"*  

*From the Dewey Database, which David Schafer owns.