Pragmatic theory of truth

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Pragmatic theory of truth refers to those accounts, definitions, and theories of the concept truth that distinguish the philosophies of pragmatism and pragmaticism. The conception of truth in question varies along lines that reflect the influence of several thinkers, initially and notably, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, but a number of common features can be identified. The most characteristic features are (1) a reliance on the pragmatic maxim as a means of clarifying the meanings of difficult concepts, truth in particular, and (2) an emphasis on the fact that the product variously branded as belief, certainty, knowledge, or truth is the result of a process, namely, inquiry.


Pragmatic theories of truth enter on a stage that was set by the philosophies of former ages, with special reference to the Golden Age, the Scholastics, and Immanuel Kant. Recalling a few elements of this background can provide invaluable insight into the play of ideas that developed into modern times. And because pragmatic ideas about truth are often confused with a number of quite distinct notions, it is useful say a few words about these other theories, and to highlight the points of significant contrast.

In one classical formulation, truth is defined as the good of logic, where logic is a normative science, that is, an inquiry into a good or a value that seeks knowledge of it and the means to achieve it. In this view, truth cannot be discussed to much effect outside the context of inquiry, knowledge, and logic, all very broadly considered.

Most inquiries into the character of truth begin with a notion of an informative, meaningful, or significant element, the truth of whose information, meaning, or significance may be put into question and needs to be evaluated. Depending on the context, this element might be called an artefact, expression, image, impression, lyric, mark, performance, picture, sentence, sign, string, symbol, text, thought, token, utterance, word, work, and so on. Whatever the case, one has the task of judging whether the bearers of information, meaning, or significance are indeed truth-bearers. This judgment is typically expressed in the form of a specific truth predicate, whose positive application to a sign, or so on, asserts that the sign is true.

Considered within the broadest horizon, there is little reason to imagine that the process of judging a work, that leads to a predication of false or true, is necessarily amenable to formalization, and it may always remain what is commonly called a judgment call. But there are indeed many well-circumscribed domains where it is useful to consider disciplined forms of evaluation, and the observation of these limits allows for the institution of what is called a method of judging truth and falsity.

One of the first questions that can be asked in this setting is about the relationship between the significant performance and its reflective critique. If one expresses oneself in a particular fashion, and someone says "that's true", is there anything useful at all that can be said in general terms about the relationship between these two acts? For instance, does the critique add value to the expression criticized, does it say something significant in its own right, or is it just an insubstantial echo of the original sign?

Theories of truth may be described according to several dimensions of description that affect the character of the predicate "true". The truth predicates that are used in different theories may be classified by the number of things that have to be mentioned in order to assess the truth of a sign, counting the sign itself as the first thing. In formal logic, this number is called the arity of the predicate. The kinds of truth predicates may then be subdivided according to any number of more specific characters that various theorists recognize as important.

  1. A monadic truth predicate is one that applies to its main subject — typically a concrete representation or its abstract content — independently of reference to anything else. In this case one can say that a truth bearer is true in and of itself.
  2. A dyadic truth predicate is one that applies to its main subject only in reference to something else, a second subject. Most commonly, the auxiliary subject is either an object, an interpreter, or a language to which the representation bears some relation.
  3. A triadic truth predicate is one that applies to its main subject only in reference to a second and a third subject. For example, in a pragmatic theory of truth, one has to specify both the object of the sign, and either its interpreter or another sign called the interpretant before one can say that the sign is true of its object to its interpreting agent or sign.

Several qualifications must be kept in mind with respect to any such radically simple scheme of classification, as real practice seldom presents any pure types, and there are settings in which it is useful to speak of a theory of truth that is "almost" k-adic, or that "would be" k-adic if certain details can be abstracted away and neglected in a particular context of discussion. That said, given the generic division of truth predicates according to their arity, further species can be differentiated within each genus according to a number of more refined features.

The truth predicate of interest in a typical correspondence theory of truth tells of a relation between representations and objective states of affairs, and is therefore expressed, for the most part, by a dyadic predicate. In general terms, one says that a representation is true of an objective situation, more briefly, that a sign is true of an object. The nature of the correspondence may vary from theory to theory in this family. The correspondence can be fairly arbitrary or it can take on the character of an analogy, an icon, or a morphism, whereby a representation is rendered true of its object by the existence of corresponding elements and a similar structure.


Main article: Charles Sanders Peirce

Very little in Peirce's thought can be understood in its proper light without understanding that he thinks all thoughts are signs, and thus, according to his theory of thought, no thought is understandable outside the context of a sign relation.  Sign relations taken collectively are the subject matter of a theory of signs.  So Peirce's semeiotic, his theory of sign relations, is key to understanding his entire philosophy of pragmatic thinking.

In his contribution to the article “Truth and Falsity and Error” for Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (1901), Peirce defines truth in the following way:

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.  (Peirce 1901, CP 5.565).

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 occasionally 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 follows long tradition in relegating to a lower status than real definitions.

That truth is the correspondence of a representation with its object is, as Kant says, merely the nominal definition of it.  Truth belongs exclusively to propositions.  A proposition has a subject (or set of subjects) and a predicate.  The subject is a sign;  the predicate is a sign;  and the proposition is a sign that the predicate is a sign of that of which the subject is a sign.  If it be so, it is true.  But what does this correspondence or reference of the sign, to its object, consist in?  (Peirce 1906, CP 5.553).

Here Peirce makes a statement that is decisive for understanding the relationship between his pragmatic definition of truth and any theory of truth that leaves it solely and simply a matter of representations corresponding with their objects.  Peirce, like Kant before him, recognizes Aristotle's distinction between a nominal definition, a definition in name only, and a real definition, one that states the function of the concept, the vera causa or reason for conceiving it, and so indicates the essence, the underlying substance of its object.  This tells us the sense in which Peirce entertained a correspondence theory of truth, namely, a purely nominal sense.  To get beneath the superficiality of the nominal definition it is necessary to analyze the notion of correspondence in greater depth.

In preparing for this task, Peirce makes use of an allegorical story, omitted here, the moral of which is that there is no use seeking a conception of truth that we cannot conceive ourselves being able to capture in a humanly conceivable concept.  So we might as well proceed on the assumption that we have a real hope of comprehending the answer, of being able to “handle the truth” when the time comes.  Bearing that in mind, the problem of defining truth reduces to the following form:

Now thought is of the nature of a sign.  In that case, then, if we can find out the right method of thinking and can follow it out — the right method of transforming signs — then truth can be nothing more nor less than the last result to which the following out of this method would ultimately carry us.  In that case, that to which the representation should conform, is itself something in the nature of a representation, or sign — something noumenal, intelligible, conceivable, and utterly unlike a thing-in-itself.  (Peirce 1906, CP 5.553).

Peirce's theory of truth depends on two other, intimately related subject matters, his theory of sign relations and his theory of inquiry. Inquiry is special case of semiosis, a process that transforms signs into signs while maintaining a specific relationship to an object, which object may be located outside the trajectory of signs or else be found at the end of it. Inquiry includes all forms of belief revision and logical inference, including scientific method, what Peirce here means by "the right method of transforming signs". A sign-to-sign transaction relating to an object is a transaction that involves three parties, or a relation that involves three roles. This is called a ternary or triadic relation in logic. Consequently, pragmatic theories of truth are largely expressed in terms of triadic truth predicates.

The statement above tells us one more thing: Peirce, having started out in accord with Kant, is here giving notice that he is parting ways with the Kantian idea that the ultimate object of a representation is an unknowable thing-in-itself. Peirce would say that the object is knowable, in fact, it is known in the form of its representation, however imperfectly or partially.

Reality and truth are coordinate concepts in pragmatic thinking, each being defined in relation to the other, and both together as they particpate in the time evolution of inquiry. Inquiry is not a disembodied process, nor the occupation of a singular individual, but the common life of an unbounded community.

The real, then, is that which, sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me and you. Thus, the very origin of the conception of reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of a COMMUNITY, without definite limits, and capable of an indefinite increase of knowledge. (Peirce 1868, CP 5.311).

Different minds may set out with the most antagonistic views, but the progress of investigation carries them by a force outside of themselves to one and the same conclusion. This activity of thought by which we are carried, not where we wish, but to a foreordained goal, is like the operation of destiny. No modification of the point of view taken, no selection of other facts for study, no natural bent of mind even, can enable a man to escape the predestinate opinion. This great law is embodied in the conception of truth and reality. The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality. (Peirce 1878, CP 5.407).


Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their 'agreement', as falsity means their disagreement, with 'reality'. Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a matter of course. They begin to quarrel only after the question is raised as to what may precisely be meant by the term 'agreement', and what by the term 'reality', when reality is taken as something for our ideas to agree with. (James 1907, 198).

William James (1907) begins his chapter on "Pragmatism's Conception of Truth" in much the same letter and spirit as the above selection from Peirce (1906), noting the nominal definition of truth as a plausible point of departure, but immediately observing that the pragmatist's quest for the meaning of truth can only begin, not end there.

The popular notion is that a true idea must copy its reality. Like other popular views, this one follows the analogy of the most usual experience. Our true ideas of sensible things do indeed copy them. Shut your eyes and think of yonder clock on the wall, and you get just such a true picture or copy of its dial. But your idea of its 'works' (unless you are a clockmaker) is much less of a copy, yet it passes muster, for it in no way clashes with reality. Even though it should shrink to the mere word 'works', that word still serves you truly; and when you speak of the 'time-keeping function' of the clock, or of its spring's 'elasticity', it is hard to see exactly what your ideas can copy. (James 1907, 199).

James exhibits a knack for popular expression that Peirce seldom sought, and here his analysis of correspondence by way of a simple thought experiment cuts right to the quick of the first major question to ask about it, namely: To what extent is the notion of correspondence involved in truth covered by the ideas of analogues, copies, or iconic images of the thing represented? The answer is that the iconic aspect of correspondence can be taken literally only in regard to sensory experiences of the more precisely eidetic sort. When it comes to the kind of correspondence that might be said to exist between a symbol, a word like "works", and its object, the springs and catches of the clock on the wall, then the pragmatist recognizes that a more than nominal account of the matter still has a lot more explaining to do.


In his Logic : The Theory of Inquiry (1938), Dewey gave the following definition of inquiry:

Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole. (Dewey, p. 108).

The index of the same book has exactly one entry under the heading truth, and it refers to the following footnote:

The best definition of truth from the logical standpoint which is known to me is that by Peirce: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real” [CP 5.407]. (Dewey, 343n).

Dewey says more of what he understands by truth in terms of his preferred concept of warranted assertibility as the end-in-view and conclusion of inquiry (Dewey, 14–15).


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