PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday March 25, 2015




[4.3.2.] Against the Correspondence Theory.


Dewey characterizes the correspondence theory as follows: “truth is the agreement, by way of proportion, of the constitutive parts of the proposition with the constitutive parts of the objects that furnish its subject matter.” (342) In other words, it says that the parts of a true proposition—the words that make up that proposition—“agree” with or correspond to the parts of the “objects” that the proposition is about, i.e., the parts of the fact or the situation that the proposition describes.


I’ll explain this using the proposition “The rock is on the table”…


On this way of understanding the correspondence theory, proposition (A)…


(A)  “The rock is on the table.”


… is true when …

·         the words “the rock” correspond with a rock;

·         the words “the table” correspond with a table;

·         and the words “is on” correspond with the spatial relationship of one thing being on top of another.


Says Dewey, the problem with this theory is that “it assumes … that we have already got truth, or that some propositions do surely agree.” (342) In other words, it assumes without argument that these relationships of correspondence are sometimes really there.


But how can we compare the proposition and the world to see whether the parts of the proposition really do correspond with the relevant parts of the world?


At this point a dilemma[1] arises. Either…


Horn 1: The way we compare the proposition to the world is through another proposition.


To tell whether (A), the proposition that the rock is on the table, corresponds to the world, we have to consider (B):


(B)   “The proposition (A) corresponds to the world.”


So now the task is to tell whether (B) is true. But to do that, we will have to consider yet another proposition:


(C)   “The proposition (B) corresponds to the world.”


But to see whether (C) is true, we will need to consider a fourth proposition...


(D) “The proposition (C) corresponds to the world.”


and so on, without end. This is an infinite regress. If this is what it takes to tell whether a proposition is true, we will never be able to tell whether a proposition is true.[2]





Horn 2: The way we can tell whether a proposition corresponds to the world is not through another proposition but through... something else. But no matter what this something else is, truth will be a characteristic of it rather than a characteristic of the original proposition. “If it is not a proposition, then what is it? If it be some kind of an object, what kind? And whatever the kind of object, truth or agreement is no longer a trait of a proposition but of this object.” (343)


So on this horn, we have to give up the correspondence theory—because it requires that we say that truth is not a relationship of correspondence between a proposition and the world, but that it is... well, something else.



[4.3.3.] Three Steps toward a Pragmatist Theory of Truth.


Dewey takes a number of “steps” away from the two traditional accounts of truth toward a new, pragmatist theory:


1. True judgments do not imply their own truth.


2. True judgments are forward-looking, not backward-looking.


3. True judgments make a desired goal a part of the means for attaining that goal.


[Dewey seems to use the terms “judgment,” “statement,” “meaning,” and “proposition” interchangeably. In trying to understand this material, it might be useful for you to think in terms of truth-bearers, things capable of having a truth value, i.e., things capable of being either true or false. Judgments, statements, propositions, etc., are all candidates for being truth-bearers. From what I can tell, nothing important turns on the differences among them in so far as Dewey’s treatment of truth is concerned.]


Let’s consider each of these three steps, one-by-one...



[] Step One: True Judgments Do Not Imply Their Own Truth.


Both correspondence and coherence theories mistakenly assume that “a statement by its own nature implies an assertion of its own truth.” (345)


In other words, both theories have mistakenly assumed the following: when someone judges that the rock is on the table, not only is she judging that the rock is on the table, she is also judging that it is true that the rock is on the table. Put more generally, the point is this: both correspondence and coherence theories have mistakenly assumed that “p” implies “It is true that p.”


This is a very common-sensical notion about truth.[3]


But on Dewey’s view, a judgment that assumes its own truth lacks what he calls an intellectual quality (or, as he sometimes says, a logical quality).


In explaining this point, he distinguishes between judgments that lack, and judgments that have, “an intellectual quality”:


A. judgments that LACK an intellectual quality


These do imply their own truth. There are two types:


1. truisms (345). Such judgments “have been so completely and repeatedly verified in the past they have no longer intellectual or logical quality at all. They are truisms, tautologies, trivialities, intellectually considered, however momentous they may be as stimuli to further direct action.” (345)

·         E.g., “When I tell my neighbor his house is afire, or when the mathematician uses the formula for the value of π in his further calculations, there may once have been a genuinely logical proposition involved, but what we have at this time is just a way of directing further action.” (345)

·         E.g., I judge that my friend is in Constantinople when “I am already sure that he is there, in which case the ‘judgment’ is no judgment, but a mere putting in words of an established fact...” (345)


2. dogmas: “dogmatic prejudices”, “sheer prejudice[s], … congealed dogmatism[s]” (346).[4]

·         E.g., I judge that my friend is in Constantinople when “I do not know that he is there, and hence to assert as a truth that he is there, is a piece of presumption on my part, indicative not of ‘truth,’ but of my dogmatic attitude toward truth.” (345)



B. judgments that HAVE an intellectual quality


Genuinely intellectual judgments do not imply their own truth.


Rather, they imply doubt concerning their own truth ... they imply “a search for truth, an inquiry for it.” (345) They are “hypothetical and tentative.” (347)

·         An intellectual judgment “is a hypothesis concerning some state of affairs; . . . it is of its nature to be doubtful, not assured, of truth; and . . . its assertion of its own truth is only conditional: . . . it is a means of setting on foot activities of inquiry which will test the worth of its claim.” (346)

·          It is “an anticipation of becoming true through the search which its own doubtfulness exacts.” (351)

·         E.g., I judge that my friend is in Constantinople when “I do not know that he is there.” (345) If this is really an intellectual judgment, then “I have reason to infer that he is there, and . . . I believe that that inference would be borne out if certain further inquiries were undertaken, there being legitimate doubt pending their execution.” (346)

·         Dewey suggests that an intellectual judgment is necessarily part of a “problematic affair.” (353)


It is only with regard to intellectual judgments that the question of truth arises.


Dewey concludes: Truth, then, can exist only in the testing of the claim, in making good through the subsequent acts it prescribes.” (346)


In other words, it makes no sense to talk about truth apart from the testing of hypotheses and the situations in which we are led to act by those hypotheses.[5]



[] Step Two: True judgments look forward, not backward.


The second step that the pragmatist takes away from traditional theories of truth follows directly from the first:


Our second step is to recognize that with this change propositions get a future outlook and reference, while the orthodox notion makes them refer to antecedent conditions. (347)


On both the coherence and correspondence views, truth is “ready made” in a true belief:


·         According to the correspondence theory, a belief’s truth is an abstract relationship between that belief and the world. Whether there is such a relationship does not depend on what the believer does with that belief. That relationship stands completely apart from the role that the belief plays in anyone’s life, apart from whether we confirm it or have experiences that are relevant to it.


·         According to the coherence theory, a belief’s truth is its membership in a coherent, maximally complete system of beliefs. Whether a belief is a member of that system does not depend on what anyone does with that belief or on what sorts of effect it can have in our lives.


Both theories make the truth of a belief depend on “antecedent conditions”—conditions that exist before anyone actually has that belief. On either theory, truth is independent of what we actually do when we test beliefs and interact with our environment in ways that are relevant to what the belief tells us. “What is done with the proposition, what happens from its use, the differences it makes in future experience—these are all irrelevant” to whether or not it is true. (347)


Dewey does not base truth on “antecedent” (past, pre-existing) conditions. On his view, truth looks forward, to the future:


The pragmatist says that since every proposition is a hypothesis referring to an inquiry still to be undertaken (a proposal in short) its truth is a matter of its career, of its history [i.e., its future history]: that it becomes or is made true (or false) in process of fulfilling or frustrating in use its own proposal. (347)


“[T]he point of a proposition is to take something past, something done, in its bearings upon the future consequences which making the proposition helps us to reach.” (348)


Dewey illustrates this point with his example of the compass and the ship:


Because the further course of a ship depends upon the way the compass-needle points, its direction is no mere brute fact, indifferent to a distinction of truth and falsity. The needle may be right or wrong, because something depends upon the particular way it is used, how it is employed as a means to an end. Antecedent conditions equally account for its pointing north, whether the pointing is due to magnetic attraction or to a defect in its own mechanism. But since the way the ship goes—and all the consequences that flow from this—is influenced by the needle’s record, its [the needle’s] position gets an entirely new type of value [namely, it is capable of being right or wrong]. It is no longer a mere effect of its past, but the effect [i.e., the needle’s position] is a sign of a possible future belonging to something else beside and beyond itself, namely: the ship. It is the sign of the progress of events toward their termination, their fulfilment, their consequences. (348-49, emphasis added)


·         Thinking of the compass needle as being correct or incorrect makes sense only because of the way the ship’s captain uses the compass in navigation. The needle isn’t right or wrong in itself, apart from how anyone uses the compass. It is right or wrong only relative to a given use.

·         analogue: A judgment is true or false only because of the way that the judgment is used by the person who makes it. It is not true or false because of any property it had (correspondence, coherence) before it was used. It is true or false only relative to a given use.


·         The needle pointing in a given direction does depend on past events (either the immediate past, in the case in which the needle is affected by the earth’s magnetism, or the more remote past, in the case in which the compass was broken and is now malfunctioning). But the rightness or wrongness of the needle’s direction does not depend on these earlier conditions.

·         analogue: We make the judgments we do because of how things have been in the past, including our own past experiences. But whether a judgment is true or false does not depend on those past experiences or any other earlier conditions.


·         Instead, whether the compass is right depends on what the captain uses the needle to do and on the consequences of that use.

·         analogue: Whether a judgment is true depends only on what the person making it uses it to do and on the consequences of that use.[I]ts truth or falsity is a matter of failure or success in performing its mission.” (350)



[] Step Three: True judgments make a desired goal a part of the means for attaining that goal.


A true judgment, as an instrument that helps us achieve a given goal, makes that goal, x, a part of the means by which we can reach x.


Let us go back to the ship’s compass and needle. The voyage is uncertain as to its issue or termination. The ship is not expected just to go anywhere at random; one landing place is not as good as any other; no landing at all is not as good as a port. But it being uncertain whether the desired haven will be reached, improved control of the means of assuring the end is a desideratum [i.e., is a thing to be desired]. In such a condition any device that brings the desired end into the means and enables it thereby to function as one of the means of its own attainment is an extraordinary gain. This is precisely what the needle does. What it “presents” is not its own antecedents; what it “presents” is the port that is to be attained. And it presents this in terms of the existing movement of the ship, thereby making the end a present factor in facilitating the gaining of the desired haven. (350, emphasis added)


The captain of the ship has a goal: to reach a specific port.


At any time during the voyage, there is no guarantee that the ship will actually reach that port.


Anything that increases the likelihood that the ship will reach the right port is desirable.


The needle does this (i.e., it increases the likelihood that the ship will reach the right port) by “presenting” the port to the captain. This is how the needle makes the port “one of the means of its own attainment,” i.e., one of the means by which the captain gets to the port.


But the compass story is only an analogy. The needle may be true, but it is not a true judgment or proposition:


But the compass is itself a manufactured article; it has been shaped by a long series of past uses with the tests and rectifications they involved for precisely the sake of helping in this sort of a situation. It is an outcome, a deposit of intellectual propositions; it has no longer, as a direct means of or stimulus to action, an intellectual quality. Imagine the steersman trying to read the compass in order that he may make the response calculated to attain the desired consequences, and you have precisely the situation in which occur propositions (statements, reports, judgments) having a vital intellectual quality. (351)


It is the judgments made by the steersman in his use of the compass that are capable of being true or false. It is when, for example, the steersman judges that the compass needle is pointing north and adjusts the course of the ship accordingly that an intellectual judgment is being made.


It is this sort of judgment that makes the desired port a part of the means of getting to that port (i.e., it makes the port a part of the means of reaching the port).



[4.3.5.] Dewey’s Definition of Truth.


At this point Dewey comes close to giving a straightforward definition of truth. He translates the correspondence theorist’s description of truths as “present[ing] things as they really are” as follows:


Truth is “the way of presenting things which is actually, not merely potentially, effective in securing the consequences with reference to which the things are causes.” (354)


So a true judgment is one that presents things in a way that actually helps the person making the judgment attain consequences of those things.




S makes a true judgment about x =

S makes a judgment about x, and

that judgment presents x to S in a way that actually helps S attain consequences of x .


For example, suppose I judge that The drawer handle on a chest of drawers will open a bottle of beer. This judgment is true if and only if it presents the drawer handle to me in such a way that it enables me to “secure the consequences” caused by the drawer handle, e.g., the consequence that my beer bottle gets opened.


But it is not only judgments that can be true on this definition. Any number of other things can be true: “the pragmatist has no occasion to blush when he meets a true poem, a true man, plants that breed true, a true formula of algebra or of physics.” (354) And: a compass!




Stopping point for Wednesday March 25. For next time, begin reading Rorty’s “Pragmatism, Relativism, Irrationalism” (read pp.635-43).



[1] dilemma (df.): a situation in which you are required to accept one of two choices, but neither choice seems acceptable.  The two choices are called horns. There are three ways to respond to a dilemma: (1) “grasp” the first horn; (2) “grasp” the other horn; (3) “go between the horns” by finding a third alternative that hasn’t been considered yet (this is not always possible).


[2] This is very similar to one of Gottlob Frege’s arguments against the correspondence theory: “Can it not be laid down that truth exists when there is correspondence in a certain respect? But in which? For what would we then have to do to decide whether something were true? We should have to inquire whether it were true that an idea and a reality, perhaps, corresponded in the laid-down respect. And then we should be confronted by a question of the same kind and the game could begin again. So the attempt to explain truth as correspondence collapses.” (Frege, “The Thought: A Logical Inquiry” [1918], in Stephen Hales, ed., Analytic Philosophy: Classic Readings, p.94) For more on this argument, see my lecture notes for Analytic Philosophy, URL = < >.

[3] We saw Peirce say nearly this exact thing in “The Fixation of Belief”: “[W]e think each one of our beliefs to be true, and, indeed, it is mere tautology to say so.” (125) Peirce says the exact same thing in another article: “every proposition asserts its own truth.” (212) This is a sign that Peirce’s and Dewey’s respective accounts of truth are very, very different.


[4] Dewey is unclear as to whether dogmatic prejudices are or are not a type of intellectual judgment. On the one hand, he writes: “The proposition which asserts or assumes its own truth is either a sheer prejudice, a congealed dogmatism; or else it is not an intellectual or logical proposition at all, but simply a linguistic memorandum...” (345) This suggests that a “dogmatic prejudice” is an intellectual judgment. But, on the other hand, pragmatism maintains “that every proposition (so far as genuinely intellectual in quality, not mere dogmatic prejudice or memorandum for further guidance) is a hypothesis concerning some state of affairs...” (346), which implies that “dogmatic prejudices” are not intellectual judgments.


[5] Here Dewey sounds very much like James in “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth”: it makes just as much sense to say that truth can exist apart from verification as it does to say that wealth can exist apart from people having money, or that health can exist apart from healthy bodily processes, or that strength can exist apart from what people can do with their muscles.


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