Written on November 9th, 2008 by Oliver Kim
Here I will explain the differences between the Correspondence Theory of truth, the Coherence Theory and the Pragmatic Theory.
What is truth? This is an interesting but also difficult question to answer. It is possible to distinguish several different definitions or approaches of truth. Here are three of them.
- Correspondence Theory of Truth: This theory states that a statement (a “proposition”) is true if it corresponds to (or reflects) reality. If somebody states “It is raining” (the proposition) then it is true only if it is really raining outside (reality). The interesting question is now: “What is reality”? We know that senses can deceive us. So how is reality really like? And of course we have to assume that something like reality really does exist and is not simply a product of our mind.
- Coherence Theory of Truth: This theory states that a statement (a proposition) is true if it is consistent with other things that are considered true (and do not contradict it). Whether the statement reflects reality or not is not of primary importance. A proposition is true if it “fits into the system”. For example, I hear a pencil falling to the ground. A second person in the room also hears it, and the pencil that I just saw on my table a moment ago is now gone. Three observations fit together: me hearing it, a second person hearing it and the missing pencil. According to the coherence theory, the proposition “the pencil hit the ground” is true. But did the pencil really fall to the ground or can something else explain these observations? This is of course a different question.
- The Pragmatic Theory of Truth: This theory states that something is true if it is useful. Whether or not it reflects reality is of minor importance. Somebody (person A) may, for example, believe that earning much money is the most important thing in one’s life. This belief is true for this person and it is indeed a very useful belief. The person’s actions will be guided by this belief. The statement “Earning much money is important” is true for this person. Person B has a different view. B thinks that money is of minor importance. B thinks that having many friends is the most important thing. And guess what! This belief too is very useful! It is true for person B. His or her actions will be guided by it.
Questions for Discussion:
- Maybe you have realized that some theories assume that truth is absolute (such as the Correspondence theory), others see truth more from a relative or subjective viewpoint (Pragmatic Theory). What is your view on this issue? Are you more an “absolutist” or more a “relativist”?
- Does the Coherence Theory view truth more from an absolute or more from a relative viewpoint?
- How are the “theories” of truth similar or different from scientific theories? To give you a hint, are the “truth theories” experimentally falsifyable? Why are they called “theories”? Do you consider this an appropriate term? Could this be a language issue?
- “Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.” (Andre Gide). What’s so good about seeking truth? What’s so bad about finding it? – An Ethics question!