An Introduction to Explanatory Theories of Truth

In a previous section, I stated that there can be no general theory that can tell us whether or not an individual description is truthful, in the sense of being accurate. Nevertheless, there have been many attempts over a very long period to provide more general explanations of ‘truth’, including the minimalist view that there really is not a lot to explain. 

Explanatory Theories of Truth are often taken to be alternatives to one another, which is rather unfortunate. For me, it is better to ask whether or not these explanations are complementary in some way and so can be taken together to form a more meaningful and more comprehensive view. If you want to think of that as a hybrid theory so be it. In what follows, I am only arguing that we can develop a perspective that can be informed by more than one set of considerations and that often they need not be mutually exclusive or inconsistent. 

For example, you might adopt the metaphysical stance that your thought-based interpretations of the world can be thought of as exhibiting some form of correspondence relationship to what is happening outside of your head. However, it would also seem to help our understanding if these ideas inductively and deductively cohere together. If, in addition, even our more abstract ideas are pragmatically useful in some practical or intellectual sense, so much the better. At the same time, you might also adopt a particular semantic explanation of the truthfulness of particular assertions. These theoretical features of an idealised or abstract concept of truth need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed it would seem intuitively obvious that for the purposes of reasoning and understanding all of the characteristics mentioned so far might be regarded as desirable.

Whilst acknowledging these possibilities, some might simultaneously hold the view that the label ‘true’ that we can attach to a statement does not itself confer additional meaning to a statement. The proposition that ‘something is the case‘ might legitimately seem identical to an assertion that ‘(it is true that) something is the case’. From a semantic perspective, the use of the word ‘true’ might also be a rhetorical device providing emphasis or an affirmation of agreement or disagreement.

Our view will to some extent be determined by whether or not we wish to place linguistic (semantic) and logical emphases on our understanding or develop a more pragmatic and empirical epistemic approach. It also depends on what type of logic we also wish to apply. Epistemic logics, for example, deal directly with the concept of belief.

It sometimes seems to me that those expounding particular views about the nature of truth are resistant to the notion of synthesis and often seek to emphasise what they regard as flaws in the views of others rather than deliberately seek ways to integrate the novelty of their personal perspective within a wider and richer narrative. Discarding ideas is a long-established practice in Western thinking. Sadly I see little prospect in this situation changing, perhaps because it an integrative approach more intellectually demanding. Nevertheless, there are philosophers who now recognise that explanatory theories of truth (and related concepts such as meaning) are best not viewed in isolation but are perhaps better viewed as mutually supportive.

There now follows a very brief introduction to the scope of theories of truth, in which I ask you to determine for yourself whether or not the theories introduced below contradict or are complementary and compatible with each other. I assert that we can have a richer and more expansive view if one can simultaneously hold different explanations of truth and find a way to integrate them. 

a) Metaphysical Correspondence Theories

The cat sat on the mat‘ is often used in philosophical accounts, written in English, as a prototype expression to assert that there is a relationship between our sensory perceptions, our linguistic assertions and the external world. We tend to take it for granted that the cat sitting on the mat is observable, comprehensible, is a state of affairs in a real world, and can be meaningfully expressed in a natural language, such as English.

In order to make philosophical sense of this prototype sentence most of us agree on the metaphysical or ontological necessity that a ‘real’ world exists outside of our heads. We have access to that world through our senses, although perhaps in an arbitrary fashion created by biological evolution in our species. [The general reason we have perceptions, at least in biological terms, is to maximise our survival and reproductive fitness. It is now clear that our optical perceptions, for example, are definitely not like a light measuring device.]

Nevertheless, we do need to ask how can a human thought possibly correspond to states of affairs in the external world. Or more simply, what is the nature of the apparent correspondence relationship? For me, it reduces in analytic epistemic terms to a form of representational ‘mapping‘, in the mathematical sense, albeit one that is dynamic. This means that there is simply a ‘pairing’ of our thoughts about the external world with what exists (and much more besides).

There are many legitimate debates about the way our sensory apparatus works and our ability to develop perceptual experiences that map onto the world. When we also take into consideration the central idea of biology that ‘life evolves’ and is shaped by the environment through genetic mutation, heritability and natural selection, our view of correspondence takes on additional complexity. It is sadly tempting, for example, to treat our ‘internal’ neurological states as an arbitrary biological process designed to produce an adaptive behavioural output given an accumulation of sensory inputs. Our internal mental life is of course so much richer!

There are said to be also non-metaphysical versions of correspondence theory including a version that is based on the philosophical description of ‘facts‘. I am not an advocate of those approaches as they result either in circularity or are just disguised deflationary theories that have a linguistic emphasis (see below). This is not to say that I disapprove of a deflationary outlook. However, I am ill at ease that merely invoking ‘facts’ as the substantive basis of what can be said in epistemology. On the contrary, it is the job of epistemology to explain why we can claim to know certain facts, not to begin by assuming their existence.

b) Pragmatic Theories of Truth

The pragmatist asserts that if our views are true they have to be useful or exploitable or have consequences in an explanatory or practical sense. 

An idealised form of pragmatic truth would be the collection of views that we might develop after very extensive investigation, in which we have ruled out less favourable alternative ideas. More simply, truth, for all practical purposes, might represent the current limits of human enquiry. Pragmatism, almost by definition, does not hanker after absolute certainty.

Of course, a pragmatic approach to truth does not rule out the possibility of a correspondence of our ideas with what exists in the world since it is not a theory that is explicitly metaphysically based*. In any highly idealised view of truth, ideas could be expressed in a way that bears some kind of correspondence with the world, and also be useful by a chosen criterion or criteria, and also have some practical or explanatory value, without involving any contradiction.

*[All theories of any kind, of course, have a metaphysical or ontological component.]

c) Coherence Theories of Truth and Justification

In Coherence Theories, reliance is placed on the interrelatedness and mutual support of ideas rather than individual propositions or foundational beliefs. Nevertheless, all belief systems have basic axioms which we often take for granted or are unarticulated.

In any complex domain of belief such as science, there is a very heavy reliance of the inter-relatedness or coherence of ideas. For example, the theories about the physical evolution of the world and biological evolution of species are dependent on a vast number of observations, explanatory theories and the interconnectedness of every branch of science.

In learning about the world, we rely very heavily on the logical process of induction and deduction to develop explanations. If we extended that analysis over the totality of all statements that we believe (to be true) then we would have an ideally coherent set or network of beliefs, provided that none were contradictory. In that circumstance, the coherence theorist would declare that the truth or justification of our beliefs rests on the interrelatedness of our ideas to one another. 

Strong forms of relatedness espoused by coherence theorists are primarily achieved by the use of logic. Logical connectives, soundly applied, bring together assertions into compound statements that preserve the truth (or warrant) of the starting assertions (as described in section 2.5 on logic). The more global view is that the interconnection of all truthful ideas that we formulate results in the formation of a logically defined network that is truth-bearing. 

However, it seems a ridiculously restrictive requirement that all ideas need to fit into one coherent whole. We could instead have distinct domains of thought or explanations at different levels of generality. An error in one domain need not impinge on the correctness of another. An error or contradiction in quantum mechanics need not have any implication for our understanding of reproductive behaviour in chimpanzees, for example.

d) Deflationary Linguistic (i.e.Semantic) Theories

Deflationary theories posit that the predicate ‘is true’ adds nothing to the meaning of a sentence in which it might be found. After one asserts that something ‘is’ or ‘is not’, the word ‘truth’ becomes superfluous. These theories hold that ‘truth’ is neither a thing nor is it a substantive property of a statement. In some forms of deflationary theory, the truth predicate is seen merely as an instrument of reference within sentences. 

The semantically recognised exception is when we refer to a collective of statements such as ‘Everything she said is true.’ The sentence ‘Everything she said’, is obviously incomplete and therefore does not make sense as we lack a predicate. So there appears to be a need for the word ‘true’ in such cases if the purpose of a sentence is to communicate the testimonial sincerity of descriptive accuracy of a collection of ideas.  

The insistence that concept of ‘truth’, and its negation ‘falsity’, is only a linguistic device seems to jar with our everyday experience. If we have a theory of meaning that is fulfilled by the existence of real or abstract objects, and properties or events, the scope of deflationary theory seems to have limited appeal. That, of course, does not mean we should ignore the relevance of deflationism when applied to explanatory theories of language and meaning.

f) Primitivism

Another alternative perspective is to consider ‘truth’ to be a primitive concept that has a fundamental epistemic value in its own right. The predicate ‘is true’ is taken as a substantive property of a statement,  although not of the ‘thing in itself’ that is the subject of this type of reference. Ask yourself, is this consistent with a deflationary outlook?

If the primitivist view is correct, when we use the predicate ‘is true’, it would then be a bit like saying, ‘The cover of a snooker table ‘is green’. No further explanation of green is required for the sentence to make sense or hold meaning to a person of normal colour vision who understands the meaning and appropriate use of the word for that colour. 

Green is a term used to describe a perception or a property of a thing. However, the predicate ‘Is true’ can only apply to assertive statements, not the things to which they refer. The notion that the ‘is true’ predicate has an equivalent epistemic basis that is analogous to our accounts of perception still has a few defenders. 

One very obvious advantage of primitivism is that it helps to provide a justification for our beliefs.

If ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ are indeed epistemically primitive they need to have, almost by definition, a linked status that is axiomatic.

g) Foundationalism About Truth

No matter how hard we try to eliminate static foundations for our beliefs, it seems that there are certain very basic assumptions we make when we construct ideas or look for inter-relationships between them.  The axioms of our belief systems (explained in previous sections) are the most fundamental assumptions that we make about all of our ideas. Although they are often very abstract and sometimes not even explicitly stated, we place reliance on them. It could be argued, from a network theory perspective, that these fundamental assumptions are no more than highly connected nodes within a coherent network.  (see the graphic on that  previous section cited above)

If you wish to preserve the idea of foundations for the belief, I invite you to consider them to be an emergent property of a coherent system of ideas. (Please see the section on epistemic emergence).

h) Pluralist Theories

Pluralism, in this context, means that the concept of ‘truth’ has different uses, properties, meanings or implications in different domains of discourse. Simply put, there are different ways for statements to be true. For example, the truth or falsity of the sentence, ‘The cat sat on the mat’ has a different use, meaning or implication from the way that ‘truth’ is used in logic when defining the nature of the logical connectives by the construction of ‘truth tables’ (referred to in section 2.5.4). If very different conditions have to be fulfilled to hold that propositions from different domains of thought are true, it seems pragmatically useful to at least consider the possibility of pluralism.

Pluralist theories have been developed in the 21st century. However, once the floodgates are opened and more than one type of truth is admitted the whole subject can be overwhelmed with a  with a fairly unproductive analysis of types and categories and the logical basis for combining truth types.

[Subsequent sections will outline some of these ideas in more detail and where appropriate deal with possible contradictions].

Further Reading

The Nature of Truth Classic and Contemporary Perspective, MIT Press. ed. Lynch, M (2001)

Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology by Susan Haack
Publisher Page

Online Articles


Correspondence Theory


Coherence Theory

Pluralist Theories of Truth

Primitivist Theory of Truth 
Tarski and Primitivism About Truth by Jamin Asay
Book preface on Semantic Scholar by Jamin Asay

Version 1.8.5

Steve Campbell
Glasgow, Scotland
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