Many people talk about truth – it is one of the central and largest topics in philosophy. Truth has been one of the subjects of discussion in its own right for thousands of years. Many faiths claim exclusivity of (revealed) Truth and have modified their language with time so as to take account of absurd inconsistencies in their beliefs. A huge variety of issues in philosophy relate to truth, either by relying on theses about truth, or implying theses about truth.
This article concentrates on the main themes in the study of truth in the contemporary philosophical literature. It attempts to survey the key problems and theories of current interest, and show how they relate to one-another. A number of other entries investigate many of these topics in greater depth. Generally, discussion of the principal arguments is left to them. The goal of this article is only to provide an overview of the current theories.
The problem of truth is in a way easy to state: what truths are, and what (if anything) makes them true. But this simple statement masks a great deal of controversy. Whether there is a metaphysical problem of truth at all, and if there is, what kind of theory might address it, are all standing issues in the theory of truth.
Some anecdotes and attributes about truth:
The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.
Materialism coarsens and petrifies everything, making everything vulgar, and every truth false.
Henri Frederic Amiel
An epigram is a flashlight of a truth; a witticism, truth laughing at itself.
Truth sits upon the lips of dying men.
Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
Not being known doesn’t stop the truth from being true.
There is no original truth, only original error.
Truth is a good dog; but always beware of barking too close to the heels of an error, lest you get your brains kicked out.
Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.
Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion.
Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.
What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.
You never find yourself until you face the truth.
Falsehood is cowardice, the truth courage.
Man can certainly keep on lying… but he cannot make truth falsehood. He can certainly rebel… but he can accomplish nothing which abolishes the choice of God.
Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterward.
As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.
When you want to fool the world, tell the truth.
Otto von Bismarck
A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.
Truth never penetrates an unwilling mind.
J. L. Borges
Truth, though it has many disadvantages, is at least changeless. You can always find it where you left it.
The truth is always exciting. Speak it, then. Life is dull without it.
Pearl S. Buck
Truth is always strange, stranger than fiction.
A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.
Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.
Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction; for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.
G. K. Chesterton
The truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end; there it is.
This is the truth: as from a fire aflame thousands of sparks come forth, even so from the Creator an infinity of beings have life and to him return again.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Truth is so rare that it is delightful to tell it.
God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please – you can never have both.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Truth hurts – not the searching after; the running from!
There is no truth. There is only perception.
God is, even though the whole world deny him. Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self-sustained.
I worship God as Truth only. I have not yet found Him, but I am seeking after Him. I am prepared to sacrifice the things dearest to me in pursuit of this quest. Even if the sacrifice demanded my very life, I hope I may be prepared to give it.
Wisdom is found only in truth.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
First and last, what is demanded of genius is love of truth.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.
Truth, like a torch, the more it’s shook it shines.
Truth is the torch that gleams through the fog without dispelling it.
To attempt seeing Truth without knowing Falsehood. It is the attempt to see the Light without knowing the Darkness. It cannot be.
The truth has a million faces, but there is only one truth.
Live truth instead of professing it.
Proverbs are always platitudes until you have personally experienced the truth of them.
Truth consists of having the same idea about something that God has.
Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.
James Russell Lowell
All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses.
There is no such thing as a harmless truth.
The truth knocks on the door and you say, go away, I’m looking for the truth, and it goes away. Puzzling.
Robert M. Pirsig
Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.
One fool will deny more truth in half an hour than a wise man can prove in seven years.
Truth is polymorphic, multi-functional, multi-layered and with many abstractions.
The absolute truth is the thing that makes people laugh.
People say they love truth, but in reality they want to believe that which they love is true.
Robert J. Ringer
The absolute truth is the thing that makes people laugh.People say they love truth, but in reality they want to believe that which they love is true.Truth does not do as much good in the world as the semblance of truth does evil.
Duc de La Rochefoucauld
The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and must therefore be treated with great caution.
J. K. Rowling
Search for the truth is the noblest occupation of man; its publication is a duty.
Madame de Stael
The truth will set you free. But first, it will p*ss you off.
If you shut the door to all errors truth will be shut out.
It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
The words of truth are always paradoxical.
Truth is one, but error is manifold.
Truth provokes those whom it does not convert.
Bishop Thomas Wilson
The logic of the world is prior to all truth and falsehood.
The truth is at the beginning of anything and its end are alike touching.
The truth is on the march and nothing will stop it.
Correspondence theories claim that true beliefs and true statements correspond to the actual state of affairs. This type of theory attempts to posit a relationship between thoughts or statements on the one hand, and things or objects on the other. This class of theories holds that the truth or the falsity of a representation is determined in principle solely by how it relates to objective reality, by whether it accurately describes that reality. For example, there is a true distance to the moon when we humans attempt to go there, and this true distance is necessary to know so that the journey can be successfully made.
Correspondence theory traditionally operates on the assumption that truth is a matter of accurately copying “objective reality” and then representing it in thoughts, words and other symbols. More modern theorists have stated that this ideal cannot be achieved independently of some analysis of additional factors. For example, language plays a role in that all languages have words that are not easily translatable into another. The German word Zeitgeist is one such example: one who speaks or understands the language may “know” what it means, but any translation of the word fails to accurately capture its full meaning (this is a problem with many abstract words, especially those derived in agglutinative languages). Thus, the language itself adds an additional parameter to the construction of an accurate truth predicates.
Proponents of several of the theories below have gone farther to assert that there are yet other issues necessary to the analysis, such as interpersonal power struggles, community interactions, personal biases and other factors involved in deciding what is seen as truth.
For coherence theories in general, truth requires a proper fit of elements within a whole system. Very often, though, coherence is taken to imply something more than simple logical consistency; often there is a demand that the propositions in a coherent system lend mutual inferential support to each other. So, for example, the completeness and comprehensiveness of the underlying set of concepts is a critical factor in judging the validity and usefulness of a coherent system. A pervasive tenet of coherence theories is the idea that truth is primarily a property of whole systems of propositions, and can be ascribed to individual propositions only according to their coherence with the whole. Among the assortment of perspectives commonly regarded as coherence theory, theorists differ on the question of whether coherence entails many possible true systems of thought or only a single absolute system.
Some variants of coherence theory are claimed to characterize the essential and intrinsic properties of formal systems in logic and mathematics. However, formal reasoners are content to contemplate axiomatically independent and sometimes mutually contradictory systems side by side, for example, the various alternative geometries. On the whole, coherence theories have been criticized as lacking justification in their application to other areas of truth, especially with respect to assertions about the natural world, empirical data in general, assertions about practical matters of psychology and society, especially when used without support from the other major theories of truth.
Social constructivism holds that truth is constructed by social processes, is historically and culturally specific, and that it is in part shaped through the power struggles within a community. Constructivism views all of our knowledge as “constructed,” because it does not reflect any external “transcendent” realities (as a pure correspondence theory might hold). Rather, perceptions of truth are viewed as contingent on convention, human perception, and social experience. It is believed by constructivists that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender are socially constructed.
Consensus theory holds that truth is whatever is agreed upon, or in some versions, might come to be agreed upon, by some specified group. Such a group might include all human beings, or a subset thereof consisting of more than one person.
The three most influential forms of the pragmatic theory of truth were introduced around the turn of the 20th century by Charles S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Although there are wide differences in viewpoint among these and other proponents of pragmatic theory, they hold in common that truth is verified and confirmed by the results of putting one’s concepts into practice.
Peirce defines truth as follows: “Truth is that concordance of an abstract statement with the ideal limit towards which endless investigation would tend to bring scientific belief, which concordance the abstract statement may possess by virtue of the confession of its inaccuracy and one-sidedness, and this confession is an essential ingredient of truth.” This statement emphasizes Peirce’s view that ideas of approximation, incompleteness, and partiality, what he describes elsewhere as fallibilism and “reference to the future”, are essential to a proper conception of truth. Although Peirce uses words like concordance and correspondence to describe one aspect of the pragmatic sign relation, he is also quite explicit in saying that definitions of truth based on mere correspondence are no more than nominal definitions, which he accords a lower status than real definitions.
William James’s version of pragmatic theory, while complex, is often summarized by his statement that “the ‘true’ is only the expedient in our way of thinking, just as the ‘right’ is only the expedient in our way of behaving.” By this, James meant that truth is a quality the value of which is confirmed by its effectiveness when applying concepts to actual practice (thus, “pragmatic”).
John Dewey, less broadly than James but more broadly than Peirce, held that inquiry, whether scientific, technical, sociological, philosophical or cultural, is self-corrective over time if openly submitted for testing by a community of inquirers in order to clarify, justify, refine and/or refute proposed truths
Minimalist (deflationary) theories
A number of philosophers reject the thesis that the concept or term truth refers to a real property of sentences or propositions. These philosophers are responding, in part, to the common use of truth predicates (e.g., that some particular thing “…is true”) which was particularly prevalent in philosophical discourse on truth in the first half of the 20th century. From this point of view, to assert the proposition “‘2 + 2 = 4’ is true” is logically equivalent to asserting the proposition “2 + 2 = 4”, and the phrase “is true” is completely dispensable in this and every other context. These positions are broadly described
as disquotational theories, to draw attention to the disappearance of the quotation marks in cases like the above example, or
as minimalist theories of truth.
In addition to highlighting such formal aspects of the predicate “is true”, some deflationists point out that the concept enables us to express things that might otherwise require infinitely long sentences. For example, one cannot express confidence in Michael’s accuracy by asserting the endless sentence:
Performative theory of truth
Attributed to P. F. Strawson is the performative theory of truth which holds that to say “‘Snow is white’ is true” is to perform the speech act of signaling one’s agreement with the claim that snow is white (much like nodding one’s head in agreement). The idea that some statements are more actions than communicative statements is not as odd as it may seem. Consider, for example, that when the bride says “I do” at the appropriate time in a wedding, she is performing the act of taking this man to be her lawful wedded husband. She is not describing herself as taking this man. In a similar way, Strawson holds: “To say a statement is true is not to make a statement about a statement, but rather to perform the act of agreeing with, accepting, or endorsing a statement. When one says ‘It’s true that it’s raining,’ one asserts no more than ‘It’s raining.’ The function of [the statement] ‘It’s true that…’ is to agree with, accept, or endorse the statement that ‘it’s raining.'”
Redundancy and related theories
According to the redundancy theory of truth, asserting that a statement is true is completely equivalent to asserting the statement itself. For example, making the assertion that ” ‘Snow is white’ is true” is equivalent to asserting “Snow is white”. Redundancy theorists infer from this premise that truth is a redundant concept; that is, it is merely a word that is traditionally used in conversation or writing, generally for emphasis, but not a word that actually equates to anything in reality. This theory is commonly attributed to Frank P. Ramsey, who held that the use of words like fact and truth was nothing but a roundabout way of asserting a proposition, and that treating these words as separate problems in isolation from judgment was merely a “linguistic muddle”.
A variant of redundancy theory is the disquotational theory which uses a modified form of Tarski’s schema: To say that ‘”P” is true’ is to say that P. Yet another version of deflationism is the prosentential theory of truth, first developed by Dorothy Grover, Joseph Camp, and Nuel Belnap as an elaboration of Ramsey’s claims. They argue that sentences like “That’s true”, when said in response to “It’s raining”, are prosentences, expressions that merely repeat the content of other expressions. In the same way that it means the same as my dog in the sentence My dog was hungry, so I fed it, That’s true is supposed to mean the same as It’s raining — if you say the latter and I then say the former. These variations do not necessarily follow Ramsey in asserting that truth is not a property, but rather can be understood to say that, for instance, the assertion “P” may well involve a substantial truth, and the theorists in this case are minimalizing only the redundancy or prosentence involved in the statement such as “that’s true.”
Deflationary principles do not apply to representations that are not analogous to sentences, and also do not apply to many other things that are commonly judged to be true or otherwise. Consider the analogy between the sentence “Snow is white” and the person Snow White, both of which can be true in a sense. To a minimalist, saying “Snow is white is true” is the same as saying “Snow is white”, but to say “Snow is white is true” is not the same as saying “Snow is white”.