The Polka Dotted Philosophy Hippo


Jennifer Leslie Torgerson
Spring 1995 for Dr. Shosky

First published online in 1997

Edited 19 July 2015

(1) Types of Truth:
What counts as “the truth” depends on the type of theory of knowledge and theory of truth that is being appealed to.  There is a nature of truth, and a way of coming to know the truth, or its criterion.  It is possible to hold a mixed view about the nature and criterion of truth, with coherence providing the criterion of truth, while the nature of truth is still a type of correspondence.  This mixed position is not as desirable as a position regarding the theory of truth which appeals to coherence to explain the nature and the criterion of truth.  The coherence theory of truth and how it differs from the correspondence theory of truth will provide insight as to why coherence is more desirable than correspondence.  A twentieth century philosopher who held a mixed theory of truth is W. V. Quine.  But Quine is not able to take into account indeterminate statements.  Are statements merely bivalent, or can there be a coherent theory of truth which is able to accommodate indeterminate theoretical beliefs?

A theory of truth in which truth is coherence is a view in which statements are said to be true or false depending on whether or not they cohere to a system of beliefs which are consistent with one another.  A statement’s truth or falsity is not determined by a correspondence to the external realm of sensible things or facts.  A statement is true because it coheres to the realm of other coherent statements.  This unified body of knowledge may or may not be ultimately coherent in a metaphysical sense (some other more complete system may exist), but it may be only in an epistemological sense that we can say that statements cohere with one another.  Other types of theories about truth are based on either correspondence or pragmatism.

A correspondence theory of truth is based on an empirical claim that statements which are true correspond to or match reality.  Truth corresponds to the facts. Facts are determined as such because they can be verified by sense experience.  This is based on metaphysical realism. Facts can be found by observation of the world because the true nature of things in themselves is to be found in the material world.  This is a reality that we can come to know independent of any subjective viewpoint.  We come to know the world objectively. In contrast, a pragmatic theory of truth would claim that statements which “work” or function effectively are true beliefs.  It would seem that a pragmatic theory of truth and a coherence theory of truth would be epistemologically relativistic and subject to criticism by those skeptical about the possibility of knowledge.  Although a correspondence theory of truth is based in objectivity, it will be unreliable as the sole means for the verification of truth.  It is also important to note that a coherence theory of truth is not incompatible with a correspondence to the realm of external facts.  It is that the nature of truth is not to be found in this correspondence, it is in the fact that the statement in question coheres with one’s set of accepted beliefs.  It is in this way that the coherence of truth is relative; a statement’s truth is determined relative to the set of other beliefs known to be true.

Other pragmatic thinkers also have rejected realism.  Richard Rorty, a pragmatist, dismisses realism and radical skepticism in his “Solidarity or Objectivity?”:
“For the pragmatist is not holding a positive theory which says something is relative to something else.  He is, instead, making the purely negative point that we should drop the traditional distinction between knowledge and opinion, construed as the distinction between truth as correspondence to reality and truth as a commendatory term for well-justified beliefs.  The reason why the realist calls this negative claim “relativistic” is that he cannot believe that anybody would seriously deny that truth has an intrinsic nature.” [1]

Correspondence of knowledge or ideas to the external world is an epistemological dualism which causes difficulty for the realist.  Because reality is independent of any subjective viewpoint and all knowledge is dependent on the sensations of a subject, no one can come to know the world as it really truly is.  It is will always be beyond appearance, or noumenal. In some sense the world is our beliefs about it, regardless of whether our beliefs match reality or not.  This is not even verifiable if reality is completely detached from subjects.  This type of epistemological dualism of the knower (concept) and the thing known (object), combined with correspondence theory of truth, leads to solipsism- the view that all that one can know is one’s mind and its ideas and never know if their ideas resemble or correspond to reality.

Skepticism is also a problem for the correspondence theorist.  Skepticism is the view that all human knowledge is beyond reasonable proof.  An example of such doubt is given by Descartes in his “First Meditation” in Meditations On First Philosophy.  If all truth is a product of sensation, then an evil demon may trick us in to thinking that our ideas actually do correspond to the world when actually they do not.  If truth is to be found in the correspondence between our beliefs and the external world, we may never come to know any truth at all.  But if the criterion of truth, as well as the nature of truth is a coherence to the realm of known true statements, we have overcome the evil genius hypothesis that Descartes had proposed.

Because of a reliance upon a belief’s coherence to other beliefs as a definition of truth, the egocentric predicament of epistemological Rene Descartesdualism is overcome.  Descartes’ evil demon hypothesis may not be overcome because our ideas themselves may be deceptive, but the determination of truth is no longer undermined by the evil demon tricking us in to believing statements which do not correspond to reality.  The coherence theory of truth is also unable to overcome the evil demon hypothesis.  If it is considered contrary to coherent belief that an evil demon can create false ideas, then the evil demon is eliminated as a difficulty. [2]

According to Ralph Walker, the correspondence theory of truth is unable to account for the existence of anything prior to the existence of human intellect to have thoughts or beliefs about things.  Much like Berkeley’s “esse est percipi,” correspondence theorists are supposedly not able to explain the existence of dinosaurs or anything prior to their existence.  The coherence theory of truth, then is given as the only theory regarding truth that is able to explain such facts about the would because the set of beliefs is able to consistently include the belief we have about dinosaurs: that they lived prior to humans. [3]  Berkeley appealed to God to explain how ideas can be consistent while yet relative upon perceivers (but Berkeley rejected the physical world all together).  Walker is wrong about his criticism of the correspondence theory of truth.  The correspondence theory of truth as well as the coherence theory of truth both are able to account for statements about the past in which humans did not exist. Truth is a property of statements, and there is no reason why correspondence theorists can’t truthfully discuss the existence of dinosaurs in the past.

(2) Quine’s mixed view about the nature and criterion of truth:     
W. V. Quine is an American philosopher who has a view of truth which is of the mixed coherence type.  He is not a realist.  Most people who subscribe to the coherence theory of truth are usually idealists. He is open to the change and process of creativity and that truth may change to meet the needs of the future.  Quine explains this in his essay “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”:
“Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system.  Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws.  Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision.” [4]

Quine is still really an empiricist.  Quine attempts to free himself from W.V. Quinenaive empiricism by recognizing the problem of radical reductionism:
“Statement synonymy is said to be the likeness of method of empirical confirmation or information. […] This is radical reductionism.  Every meaningful statement is held to be translatable into a statement (true or false) about immediate experience.” [5]

But, Quine still has a view of metaphysics which reduces the psychical into the physical.  Can the true nature of objects be found in objects themselves?  Is the true nature of our experience idea, or psychical, and not physical as Quine contends?  Because Quine reduces all knowable qualities as existing in the objects themselves, he is not able to truly explain the nature of thought which is about objects but not identical to those objects.  Quine, by placing superiority upon the physical, instead of the psychical, can be criticized in much the same way that a realist would.
Quine does not believe in essential qualities, nor necessity, but insists on contingency.  He eliminates the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements. [6] Quine also attempts to eliminate the use of universals and reduce all aspects of reality to particulars. [7] Kripke tends to agree with Quine on this point :
“I don’t know if philosophers have not realized this; but rate it is very far from being true that his idea [that a property can meaningfully be held to be an essential or accidental to an object independently of its description] is a notion that has no intuitive content, which means nothing to the ordinary man.” [8]

Kripke mentions how Quine explains the problem of necessity with the example of the meaning of number 9.  It could have the meaning of a odd number, or it could represent the number of planets in our solar system, but is it true of number nine in every possible world that is it represents the number of planets?  It is not necessary (or a necessary truth of reason) in every possible world that the number of planets is nine. [9]

Quine has based his view of truth on a coherence with a “web of belief” of statements which…
“are felt to, therefore, to have a sharper empirical reference than highly theoretical statements of physics or logic or ontology […] [and] may be thought of as relatively centrally located with in the total network, meaning merely that little preferential connection with any particular sense datum obtrudes itself.” [10]

Although Quine wants to overcome the two dogmas of empiricism, he, too, has committed a radical reductionism.  But he does go so far as to say that the physical is too, just a myth.  “The myth of physical objects as epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.” [11] Quine does call empirical claims about physical objects just myths also.  No statement is free from revision.  But must statements be only true or false? What about indeterminate statements?  Quine also seems to rely a great deal upon the myth of physical objects to help to verify which statements ought to join the web of belief of statements which cohere to one another.  Observation will also play a role in reevaluation of statements.  Correspondence to a reality independent of our beliefs plays a large role in Quine’s view too, so his view is not one of pure coherence.  Quine has a mixed view about the truth:  the nature of truth is correspondence to an external physical reality, and the criterion of truth is a coherence to the web of belief. [12] Quine allows for what is to be considered to be true to change.   He also disallows any necessary truths.  This reliance upon change and sensation is going to enable the system of beliefs to change, but does the truth actually change? [13]  Are modified beliefs really only false beliefs being replaced by true belief?

(3) Pure Coherence 
A pure coherence theory about the nature of truth would not rely upon a correspondence with sensible or observable facts as a type of verification or reevaluation.  Quine does have a coherent criterion of truth.  There is a need to dissolve the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements.  Quine favors non-necessity. Are things what they are because of some intrinsic quality in them which is essential to their nature?  Or are things merely our beliefs about them?  Complete objectivity cannot be, or we could never know the objects our ideas were about.  Coherence has advantages over correspondence, although it is not perfect.  Explaining false belief is a difficulty.  How could error result if there was but one absolute necessary truth?  Perhaps this is why Quine goes the route he does, allowing for beliefs in the system to be reevaluated.  Realism is a reductionism, and with Quine, I agree.  But I would prefer the psychical side of the duality between the physical and the psychical.  A non-mixed system of truth is more consistent than a mixed system. The correspondence theory of truth is not incompatible with the coherent theory of truth. What makes statements true cannot be some essential, independent quality which exists in them externally and is completely separate from the perceiver.  We could not know anything at all if this were the case.

Coherence cannot be adequately explained by an absolute, because our finite minds are not able to comprehend the absolute Mind to verify the coherence of statements. A pure system of coherence cannot withstand the criticism that it is in itself just belief.  This is also why some choose mixed positions, to insist that correspondence will then justify their beliefs.  Neither pure, nor mixed forms of coherence are able to cope with indeterminate statements.  They are all merely just beliefs.  Quine is not able to explain why statements which do not have a determinate truth value, can still exist as beliefs.  It must be determinant whether or not two statements really do cohere to the system, or not.

Neither coherence, nor correspondence are perfect positions, each has its own unique problems.  Coherence did at least save us from the evil demon, but relativism is still very much a problem.  Perhaps complete objectivity is not possible.

Some may not find the coherence theory of truth an idea they care to believe.  But since we really cannot compare our statements to the external world, might it be better to at least insist that true statements are those statements which are consistent with other judgments that are considered to be true?  We can at least accomplish this sort of verification.  Idealists and pragmatists are Qualiaunified in this doubt of sense data as a clear and accurate disclosure of the world as it truly is.  There are ideas which are only conceptual and do not have an outside reference in the world. In these cases, truth as correspondence cannot apply.

Coherence is more desirable because the criterion of truth of what counts as truth is within our control.  We can reevaluate the system when new facts present themselves, and we may be forced to revise many conceptions we had previously.

When we think critically or evaluate a claim, we do consider whether it is consistent with other relevant judgments known to be true.  Idealists want to enlarge this to include all of reality:  that reality too must cohere as a self-consistent whole.  This is the idealistic conception of consistency that truth is a “reciprocally consistent system of propositions,” each proposition getting its truth from the whole system. [14] It is this consistency with the whole that “makes true beliefs true when they are true.” [15] This is a coherence theory of truth which claims that the nature of truth is in the coherence. This is a metaphysical claim about reality, that truth is determined by the nature of statements, and not just by the criterion by which we judge propositions as true.  Because each statement is merely a part of the whole, when separated from the whole it is “one-sided” and relative or only possesses a degree of truth. [16] This is used to account for why some judgments are held to be true at one time and false at another.

Critics of the coherence theory of truth claim that we can construct false systems instead of true ones.  This can lead to a “dangerous circularity” if the accepted group of true statements are in fact false. [17] But such false statements should be inconsistent or non-orderly if they were compared to the truth.  Yet we may have a whole system of false statements.  This is why a reliance upon the correspondence theory of truth of reality to fact is appealed to by people like Quine as the true nature of truth.  This reliance upon correspondence is seen by some to be a weakness for the correspondence theory of truth.  The appeal to correspondence was just to overcome the circularity which could result from accepting a false system.  Statements may need to be revised and reexamined in a process of continual testing and verification.  To rely blindly on any theory is dangerous.  All ideas are subject to human limitations.  Being neither dogmatic or over critical about knowledge is best.  No one can claim to have the final say about the nature of knowledge and truth.


1.  Richard Rorty, “Solidarity or Objectivity?”, as in Introducing Philosophy, ed. by Robert C. Solomon, (Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1993), page 283.
2.  Ralph C. S. Walker, The Coherence Theory of Truth, (London: Routledge, 1989), page 221.
3.  Walker, page 29.
4.  W. V. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, as in a logical point of view, (New York: Harper, 1961), page 43. I will refer to this text as “Two Dogmas”.
5.  “Two Dogmas,” page 38.
6.  “Two Dogmas,” pages 45-46.
7.  Charles Hartshorne, Creativity in American Philosophy, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1984), page 247.
8.  Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), page 41. I will refer to this text as “Kripke”.
9.  Kripke, page 40. Original example from Quine’s “Reference and Modality” in from a logical point of view, (pages 144-145 esp.)
10.  “Two Dogmas, “ page 44.
11.  “Two Dogmas, “ page 44.
12.  W. V. Quine, “On What There Is”, as in a logical point of view, (New York: Harper, 1961), page 19: “The quality of myth, however, is relative; relative, in this case, to the epistemological point of view. This point is one among various, corresponding to one among our various interests and purposes.”
13.  “On What There Is,” (page 18) “Physical objects are postulated entities which round out and simplify our account of the flux of experience, just as the introduction of irrational numbers simplifies laws of arithmetic.” Quine knows that the phenomenal world is in a state of flux and change. This is why physical objects are just postulated and mere myth. It is just this sort of flux that also makes naming objects so difficult. To deny the existence of a being entails acknowledgment of its name, and hence some type of “existence”. Quine does not want to make such acknowledgments.
14.  Titus and Smith, Living Issues in Philosophy, (New York: D. Van Norstrand, 1964), p. 296. I will refer to this text as “Living Issues”.
15  Living Issues, page 270.
16.  Living Issues, page 270.
17.  Living Issues, page 269.


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