PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday March 26, 2013


[4.3.] “Truth and Consequences.”


This reading is taken from a 1911 article entitled “The Problem of Truth.” In it, Dewey considers two traditional theories of truth and rejects them in favor of his own, pragmatic theory of truth.


A quick review...


·         Peirce’s pragmatic account of truth results from his applying the pragmatic maxim to the concept true, with the following result: “It is true that p” = “If inquiry is pushed as far as it can possibly go, then we will believe that p.” This is supposed to be compatible with the correspondence theory of truth, which is part of (what I have been calling) “the Traditional View.”


·         James’s pragmatism about truth results from his applying his pragmatic method to the claim that a belief is true, with the following result: to say that a belief is true is to say that it leads us agreeably from one experience to the next; it is “the expedient in the way of our thinking ...  expedient in the long run and on the whole.” This is not supposed to be compatible with the correspondence theory of truth; James explicitly rejects that theory. (But remember that James does think that many truths are directly verified and that this involves their “copying” reality.)


Dewey will offer us a third pragmatic account of truth, one that differs significantly from both Peirce’s and James’s.


In so doing, he will be deviating from the traditional view of truth—truth-as-correspondence—just as much as he has deviated from the traditional view of knowledge-as-justified-true-belief.


But he will also criticize a traditional competitor to the correspondence theory of truth: the coherence theory.



[4.3.1] Against the Coherence Theory of Truth.


The reading begins with Dewey’s rejection of two traditional types of truth theory: correspondence (“realist”) theories and coherence (“consistency” or “idealist”) theories.


We are already familiar with the correspondence theory of truth, according to which the truth of a belief is its correspondence with the world. Dewey also refers to this as the “realist” theory of truth.


We are also familiar with coherence theories of truth.[1] A reminder:


the coherence theory of truth (df.): a true belief/proposition is one that belongs to a system of beliefs/propositions that is (a) consistent/coherent and (b) maximally complete.[2]

·         “Consistent” and “coherent” mean that the system of beliefs/propositions contains no contradictions.

·          “Maximally complete” means that the system is as large as possible; it is not limited to, e.g., beliefs/propositions about physics and chemistry, but instead covers as much subject matter as it possibly can. [3]

·         On this account of truth, the truth of a belief or proposition has nothing to do with whether it corresponds to, or accurately represents, a mind-independent world; truth is nothing but a relation among beliefs or propositions. This is very different than the correspondence theory, according to which truth is nothing but a relationship between a belief/proposition and the world. In fact, the correspondence theory and the coherence theory are rivals.


Dewey rejects the coherence theory because it ignores the connection with the world that a belief or proposition has to have in order to be true.

·         Even if a belief (proposition) belongs to a huge set of beliefs (propositions) that touches on every possible subject matter, and even if that set is completely coherent (there are no contradictions in it), this is still not enough to make that belief (proposition) true.[4]

·         What the coherence theory omits is any connection with something apart from that set of beliefs (propositions):


The difficulty with the consistency notion stands out in its very statement. A cognitive presentation [for example, a belief] means that the presentation is concerned with something beyond itself; the proposition is about something, not about itself. This something which it states is accordingly the measure of its truth. It is, of course, desirable that propositions should be self-consistent; that they should be general in scope and should be systematized. But even maximum internal coherence and universalization is at most but a sine qua non [an essential element; a prerequisite; literally “without which not”] of truth: its formal mark. [In other words, any set of true beliefs must be free of contradictions, and a set of all true beliefs will be very, very large; but mere freedom from contradiction and breadth of scope does not mean that a set of beliefs is true.] Material truth means that the consistent idea or judgment states something existing, outside its own existence, in the way that thing actually is. Dreams are none the less dreams if they happen to be self-agreeing; the crucial thing is whether they agree with hard facts.[5] The most hopeless form of insanity is that in which the various factors of the delusion are most systematically rationalized with reference to one another. When every new and seemingly opposed fact is brought into logical consistency with the other factors there is no leverage by which to convict the insane man of his delusion. This is precisely the sort of situation that exists when truth is equated to a self-enclosed property of the idea or meaning. Enlarge the mental factor as you will; give it the utmost self-consistency of which it is capable; you have increased, doubtless, the chances of its being true, but to say that truth itself lies that way is to make fancy [i.e., imagination] the measure of reality. (342)


In sum, Dewey’s objection to coherence theories is this… A set of beliefs (propositions) can be completely coherent (contain no contradictions) and touch on every conceivable subject matter and yet still have no connection to anything other than itself. But for a belief (proposition) to be true requires that it be connected to (“agree with”) something outside itself, something that “exists” apart from the belief (proposition) itself.



Stopping point for Tuesday March 12. For next time, finish reading “Truth and Consequences” (pp.355-61).



[1] Recall that James integrates something like a coherence element into his account of truth, when he describes true beliefs as those that solve “the problem of maxima and minima.”


[2] This approach to explaining truth is associated with absolute idealists such as Georg Hegel (1770-1831) and F. H. Bradley (1846-1924). The coherence theory still has a few defenders today. For more about it, see James O. Young, “The Coherence Theory of Truth,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >.


[3] Different versions of this theory will understand “maximally complete” in different ways. “At one extreme, coherence theorists can hold that the specified set of propositions is the largest consistent set of propositions currently believed by actual people. … According to a moderate position, the specified set consists of those propositions which will be believed when people like us (with finite cognitive capacities) have reached some limit of inquiry. ... At the other extreme, coherence theorists can maintain that the specified set contains the propositions which would be believed by an omniscient being. Some idealists seem to accept this account of the specified set.” (Young, “The Coherence Theory of Truth”)


[4] This is somewhat similar to what Susan Haack calls the drunken sailors argument against coherence theories (not of truth but) of justification. She attributes the argument to C. I. Lewis: “the coherentist’s claim that empirical beliefs can be justified by nothing but relations of mutual support is as absurd as suggesting that two drunken sailors could support each other by leaning back to back—when neither was standing on anything!” (Evidence and Inquiry, expanded ed., 2009, pp.65-66).

[5] Here Dewey sounds very much like James, who was prone to say that true beliefs “agree with concrete reality”… but then cashed out that idea in terms of “agreeable leading.”

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