PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday March 28, 2013


[4.3.2.] Against the Correspondence Theory.


Dewey now turns his attention to the Correspondence Theory, which he characterizes 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)


He understands the correspondence theory as requiring 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 example of “The rock is on the table,” even though Dewey himself does not use that example…)


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


(A)  “The rock is on the table.”


… is true when the following relations of correspondence hold:

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

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

·         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 all that there is at issue,” namely, “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 really do sometimes hold.


But let’s question this assumption. How can we tell that the proposition really is true? In other words, how can we tell, in the case of a given proposition, whether the parts of the proposition really do correspond with the parts of the fact that the proposition is about?


To tell whether “The rock is on the table” is true, we “require a third medium [in addition to (i) the proposition and (ii) the world] in which the original proposition and its object are surveyed together, are compared and their agreement or disagreement is seen.” (343) In other words, we need some way of comparing the proposition and the world to see whether the parts of the proposition really do correspond with the relevant parts of the world.


But at this point a dilemma[1] arises... Either…


Horn 1: The way we compare the proposition to the world is through another (potentially corresponding) proposition, namely proposition (B):


(B)   “The proposition ‘The rock is on the table’ corresponds with the way the world is.”


But this proposition “claims to be true or to agree with its object; this object is beyond itself, and hence another proposition is required for its comparison, and so on ad infinitum [to infinity].” (343) In other words, we will now need to tell whether (B) is true… but to do that, we will have to consider yet another proposition and see whether it is true:


(C)   “The proposition ‘The proposition “The rock is on the table” corresponds with the way the world is’ corresponds with the way the world is.”


But to see whether (C) is true, we will need to consider a fourth proposition... and so on, without end. This is an infinite regress. Dewey’s point is that, if this is what it takes to tell whether a given proposition is true, we will never be able to tell whether a given proposition is true.[2]




Horn 2: The way we compare the proposition to the world is not through another (potentially corresponding) 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 this amounts to giving 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. Intellectual judgments do not imply their own truth; they are tentative and provisional.


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


3. True judgments make a desired end, x, a part of the means for attaining x.


[Note that Dewey seems to be using 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: Intellectual Judgments Do Not Imply Their Own Truth.


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


In other words, both correspondence and coherence theorists 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, and it is a sign of just how radical Dewey’s view is that he rejects it.[3]


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 DO NOT HAVE an intellectual quality


Such a judgment does imply an assertion of its own truth. There are two types of judgment that do this:


1. “truisms” (345)

·         Such a judgment is “simply a linguistic memorandum to serve as a direct stimulus of further action” (345); they are “memoranda for further guidance” (346).

·         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. “dogmatic prejudices” (346) [4]

·         “a sheer prejudice, a congealed dogmatism

·         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


Genuine intellectual judgments do not imply assertions of 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)

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

·          “[N]o genuinely intellectual proposition implies an assertion of its own truth, but is only 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)

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


Based on his conception of an intellectual judgment, Dewey concludes the following about truth: 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]



Stopping point for Thursday March 28. The draft of your term paper is due at the beginning of the next class. Also for next time, finish reading “Truth and Consequences.” We will conclude our coverage of Dewey then.


[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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