25 March 2012

Philosophy: Some Terminology Changes

By the late 19th century, philosophers had formulated three theories about the nature of truth.

Before I should say any more, I should add: they were all using the word "truth" in a way that contemporary philosophers would not. They all meant, not "truth" specifically, as a property of belief -- but KNOWLEDGE of truth, as the reason why we know truths, when we do.

The three classical theories were these: correspondence, coherence, pragmatism.

According to the correspondence theory, a belief is true when it accurately copies a fact in the world. As Wittgenstein said, in his usual straightforward style, "In order to tell whether a picture is
true or false we must compare it with reality."

The correspondence theory carried with it some pretty heavy metaphysical baggage. Suppose I'm looking at a painted portrait of John Smith. If I want to decide whether that's a "true" portrait of
John Smith, I can go up to John himself, get a good like at him, then decide whether the likeness is an accurate one.

But even then, we should say that the portrait is either realistic or not. A surrealistic portrait of John Smith, painted say by Salvador Dali, might be as "true" in its own way as anything that can come out
of a camera in the noontime sun, but it would be true in a non-copyist way.

Furthermore, that is a very bad metaphor for my efforts to know the world. After all, both the portrait and the man who sat for it are facts outside of my skull -- I have the same kind of access to the
one as to the other. An analogy to that sort of comparison gets us nowhere if what is in question is the nature of truth/knowledge about people and paintings both.

The coherence and pragmatic theories of knowledge were both efforts to get rid of the metaphysical baggage of correspondence, or the copy theory. They both said that there is something about some of my experiences, my ideas, my beliefs, etc. that makes them true -- and that something isn't a transcendence of the whole body of my experience by the way that it relates to itself, the way the parts of it relate to one another.

In the coherence view, error is inconsistency. If I could only get all my beliefs into a single coherent whole, I would know them as true -- or, strictly, I would know them as the whole single shining
body of Truth itself.

In the pragmatic view, error is failure. Beliefs guide me through experiences well or poorly, they are valuable when they lead me where I want to go, harmful when they get me lost. Truth, then, is success.

The tendency in Anglo-American philosophy since about the 1930s has been to distinguish sharply between the issue of truth and the issue of knowledge, then to render the notion of truth impoverished. To say "it is true that this computer is working" is just to say, with a little extra emphasis perhaps, that "this computer is working" -- the word "true" is the emphasis, but in terms of strict meaning its

I've said all this before, but what I'd like to emphasize today is that it isn't only pragmatism that needs restatement in order to become comprehensible within contemporary philosophical jargon. It is each
of the original three positions. They all turn out, in 21st century terms, to have been more about knowledge -- and even more specifically one's WARRANT for a true belief -- than about truth as

The correspondence theory looks backward for warrant, for evidence that the copy derives casually from the thing copied.

The coherence theory looks inward for warrant, and worries whether all parts of a world view cohere.

The pragmatic view would LIKE to look forward -- but since the success or failure of this moment's forward looks is necessarily still unsettled, it adapts by looking backward at earlier instances
of successful forward look, and imitating whatever made them succeed.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.