What is truth?

by Neil Rickert

Pilate famously asked the title question (John 18:38).  I expect people have been asking that question for as long as they have been asking questions.  For a good discussion of theories of truth, check the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Truth is a central concept in philosophy.  But I am not at all satisfied with the way that it is used.  Hence this post.


If you ask about truth, you may be answered with the correspondence theory.  But the idea of “correspondence” is usually left unexplained.  I sometimes see statements similar to:

  • A sentence is true if it corresponds to the facts.
  • A sentence is true if it expresses what is the case.
  • A sentence is true if it expresses the state of affairs.

The trouble with all of these, is that they seem to be roundabout ways of saying “A sentence is true if it is true.”  And that does not say anything at all.

Another way of looking at correspondence is to take a sentence, and apply the meanings of the words to try to see what it says about the world.  But, in order to do that, you need to understand “meaning”.  And “meaning” is often defined as the truth conditions.  So we seem to be back at a circular definition.

The idea seems to be that if you make the circle large enough, people won’t notice that you are using a circular definition.  Or, if somebody does notice, maybe you can explain the problem away by saying that it is a virtuous circle rather than a vicious circle.


The idea of deflation is to say:  “Snow is white” is true if snow is white.  With of course similar assertions for other topics.  But, again, I don’t see this as saying anything other than that a sentence is true if it is true.

Tarski’s theory

I sometimes hear references to Tarski’s theory of truth.

I don’t have an issue with Tarski’s theory.  However, as I read Tarski, it was a theory of truth for a formal language.  Roughly, Tarski was explaining the requirements for using a natural language to define truth within a formal language.  So I do not see it as applying to truth within a natural language.

I guess some folk see a natural language as a special case of a formal language.  I completely disagree with that view.

The coherence theory

The idea of the coherence theory is that we must take all statements together, and  ensure that they use “true” in a coherent way.

I do not consider that a persuasive account of truth.

Pragmatic truth

I occasionally see references to the pragmatic theory of truth.  These sometime mention William James and his talk of the cash value of an idea.  But when I try to further investigate, accounts of pragmatic truth seem to be too vague to be useful.

Theistic truth

Theists tend to say that truth comes from God.  A sentence is true if God sees it as true.

The theistic theory does have the advantage that it tends to fit many uses of “true”.  But it also have a huge problem.  If we assume theistic truth, we should be expecting truth to come from monasteries rather than from scientific laboratories.  So theistic truth does not seem to fit the evidence.

The problem

Often, I see “true” being used in ways that only seem to fit theistic truth.  And this usage often comes from people who are not theists.  When I question what they mean by “true”, they usually mention the correspondence theory.  But they are unable to give a satisfactory explanation of what they mean by correspondence.

This is why I am not satisfied by the way philosophers use “true”.

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2 Responses to “What is truth?”

  1. Truth is not a concern most of the time until it is required for a forensic enquirery. As often happens the mind does not retain clear ideas of events and later when the attempt is necessary to reconstruct events we find just how tenuous our recollections are. We may attempt to discover truth with evidence; documentation,photographs, eye witness accounts, and artifacts. Since there is only one history, then discovery of truth should be possible. But it is limited by the attention quality, phenomenological belief system, and the intention/biases of the investigators.
    Truth is an adequate belief that accounts for a description of reality. I fed the fish this morning, and I recall it clearly. But ask me in a months time, then I may not know. My belief becomes weaker. The history a month from now will still be true, but my faith will become less strong in the truth.
    Universal claims to truth within the context of a philosophical system are much more abstract. If you have no faith in the system then the truths the system reveals are not true to you! And so truth is also an opinion on what your mind will accept. In this we have only a single history to describe as well, and it should be knowable…so a persons phenomenological ideas are again very important in determining truth.



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