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Correspondence theory of truth
A correspondence theory of truth is a philosophical position holding that any element of conception or discourse is rendered true by virtue of a corresponding fact, that is, a real state of affairs, typically having corresponding elements and a similar structure. In particular, such a position maintains that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined by how it relates to an objective world, by whether and how accurately it describes that world.
Problems with the theory arise from consideration of precisely what is supposed to correspond with what. If a statement is just a sentence then it is merely a physical thing (for example, ink on a page, or sound waves in the air) with no intrinsic meaning. Therefore it is usually claimed that it is the proposition (or meaning) expressed by a statement that is supposed to correspond with the facts. Yet both these "entities", propositions and facts, may be unappealing to minimalists who refuse to admit such abstract entities to their ontology. Precisely defining what constitutes correspondence is another problem.
Immanuel Kant discussed the correspondence theory of truth in the following manner:
Truth is said to consist in the agreement of knowledge with the object. According to this mere verbal definition, then, my knowledge, in order to be true, must agree with the object. Now, I can only compare the object with my knowledge by this means, namely, by taking knowledge of it. My knowledge, then, is to be verified by itself, which is far from being sufficient for truth. For as the object is external to me, and the knowledge is in me, I can only judge whether my knowledge of the object agrees with my knowledge of the object. Such a circle in explanation was called by the ancients Diallelos. And the logicians were accused of this fallacy by the sceptics, who remarked that this account of truth was as if a man before a judicial tribunal should make a statement, and appeal in support of it to a witness whom no one knows, but who defends his own credibility by saying that the man who had called him as a witness is an honourable man. (Kant, 45).
According to Kant, the definition of truth as correspondence is a “mere verbal definition”, here making use of Aristotle's distinction between a nominal definition, a definition in name only, and a real definition, a definition that shows the true cause or essence of the thing whose term is being defined. From Kant's account of the history, the definition of truth as correspondence was already in dispute from classical times, the “skeptics” criticizing the “logicians” for a form of circular reasoning, though the extent to which the “logicians” actually held such a theory is not evaluated in this account.
A careful analysis of what Kant is saying here can help to explain why there are so many theories of truth on the contemporary scene. In other words, why would thinkers who examine the question of truth not be satisfied to rest with this very first theory that usually comes to mind?
The formulation of this thesis that is commonly taken up and debated within analytic philosophy and its successors is expressed in the form:
- The proposition that P is true if and only if P corresponds with the facts.
So truth means correspondence with the facts. This is the traditional formulation of the theory. For example, it is true that some dogs bark if the proposition "Some dogs bark" corresponds with the fact that some dogs bark. For another example, the proposition that God exists is true if and only if the existence of God corresponds with the facts.
The most commonly cited problem for the correspondence theory is defining the relation of correspondence, and when a proposition corresponds with the facts. Bertrand Russell, and shortly after, Ludwig Wittgenstein, suggested that proposition and fact "correspond" when their structure is isomorphic. See Richard Kirkham's book cited below for a discussion of this view.
To get around this problem, we can easily see that in order for a proposition to be true according to the correspondence theory, there must exist some fact to which it corresponds: the proposition P has to correspond with the fact that P, if the proposition P is true. So, we can say that it is true that P if, and only if, there exists a fact that P. In this case, it is true that some dogs bark if, and only if, there exists a fact that some dogs bark.
- The proposition that P is true iff it is a fact that P.
So the correspondence theory could be revised as:
- P is true when it is a fact that P.
- The proposition that dogs bark is true if it is a fact that some dogs bark.
- The proposition that God exists is true if it is a fact that God exists.
- The proposition that snow is white is true if it is a fact that snow is white.
This solves the problem of defining correspondence by stating that if there is a fact that P, then that fact corresponds with the proposition that P. Basically, "true proposition" means "factual proposition".
However, this reformulation of the theory faces now a different problem: what are facts, and what does it mean to say that facts exist, or that there is some alleged fact? The theory now has to give some definition of what facts are.
There are at least two different ways to reply to this objection. The first way is to offer a theory of what facts are, which philosophers in the twentieth century have attempted to do. For example, facts are basically combinations of objects together with their properties or relations; so the fact that Fido barks is the combination of an object (i.e., Fido) with one of Fido's properties (that he barks).
The second way to reply is to note that the fact that Fido barks is only one type of fact. There are other types of facts, which may be facts about all dogs, or about the relation of dogs and cats. More importantly, it is possible to specify and categorize all those different kinds of facts. Therefore, a fact exists if all of its component parts exist. For example, if Fido exists, and Fido's barking exists, then the fact that Fido barks exists.
- Armstrong, D.M. (1997), A World of States of Affairs, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
- Davidson, Donald (1984), Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
- Haack, Susan (1993), Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK.
- Habermas, Jürgen (2003), Truth and Justification, Barbara Fultner (trans.), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
- James, William (1907), Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Popular Lectures on Philosophy, Longmans, Green, and Company, New York, NY.
- James, William (1909), The Meaning of Truth, A Sequel to ‘Pragmatism’, Longmans, Green, and Company, New York, NY.
- Kant, Immanuel (1800), Introduction to Logic. Reprinted, Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (trans.), Dennis Sweet (intro.), Barnes and Noble, New York, NY, 2005.
- Kirkham, Richard L. (1992), Theories of Truth : A Critical Introduction, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Neale, Stephen (2001), Facing Facts, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
- Runes, Dagobert D. (ed., 1962), Dictionary of Philosophy, Littlefield, Adams, and Company, Totowa, NJ. Cited as DOP.
- Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged (1950), W.A. Neilson, T.A. Knott, P.W. Carhart (eds.), G. & C. Merriam Company, Springfield, MA. Cited as MWU.
- Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983), Frederick C. Mish (ed.), Merriam–Webster Inc., Springfield, MA. Cited as MWC.
Theories of truth
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