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This article is primarily concerned with truth as it is used in the evaluation of propositions, sentences, and similar items. For example, the statement "3 is less than 4" is true is an evaluation of the sentence 3 is less than 4.

Science, law, and religion (and many other endeavours), seek to discover which propositions actually are true. The study of truth itself is part of philosophical logic, and within philosophy it is of special interest to metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language. See also objectivity.


Bearers of truth

Propositions, sentences, statements, ideas, beliefs, and judgements are said to be true, and are often called truth bearers by philosophers.

Some philosophers exclude one or more of these categories, or argue that some of them are true only in a derivative sense. These claims are most often made on the basis of theories dicussed below.

For example, propositions are often thought to be the only things that are literally true. A proposition is the abstract entity which is expressed by a sentence, held in a belief, affirmed in a statement or judgment. All these things (which are parts of a language) are called "true" only if they express, hold, or affirm true propositions. So sentences of different languages, such as (English) The sky is blue and (German) Der Himmel ist blau are both true, and, plausibly, for the same reason--because they express the same proposition

On the other hand, many philosophers have claimed that propositions and similar abstract entities are mysterious and provide little explanation; surely sentences, or even utterances of sentences, are a more clear-cut and fundamental truth bearer.

Theories about truth

Robust and deflationary kinds of theories

There are a number of broad theories about truth that philosophers and logicians have proposed. They can be grouped into two classes.

  1. The following all hold in common that truth is a robust concept--one that needs explanation and about which significant things can be said:
    • The correspondence theory of truth sees truth as correspondence with objective reality. Thus, a sentence is said to be true just in case it expresses a state of affairs in the world.
    • The coherence theory sees truth as coherence with some specified set of sentences or, more often, of beliefs). For example, one of a person's beliefs is true just in case it is coherent with all or most of her other beliefs. Usually, coherence is taken to imply something stronger than mere consistency: justification, evidence, and comprehensiveness of the belief set are common restrictions.
    • The consensus theory, invented by Charles Sanders Peirce holds that the truth is whatever is (or will come to be) agreed upon by some specified group, such as all competent investigators, or the best scientists of the future.
    • Pragmatism sees truth as the success of the practical consequences of an idea, i.e. its utility.
    • Social constructivism holds that truth is constructed by social processes, and it represents the power struggles within a community.

  2. Many philosophers reject the idea that truth is a robust concept in this sense. They claim that to say "2 + 2 = 4" is true is to say no more than that 2 + 2 = 4, and that there is no more to say about truth than this. These positions are broadly called "Deflationary" theories of truth (because the concept has been "deflated" of importance) or "disquotational" theories (to draw attention to the mere "disappearance" of the quotation marks in cases like the above example). The primary theoretical concern of these views is to explain away those special cases where it appears that the concept of truth does have peculiar and interesting properties. (See Semantic paradoxes , and below.) Some variations of the pragmatic theory are classed here, and even many correspondence theorists can be interpreted as (meaning to be) in this camp as well.

Specific theories

Each of these can be interpreted as either a definition of the fundamental nature of truth, or as a criterion for determining truth values. So, for instance, a realist might define truth as correspondence with the facts, and argue that the only valid way to determine the truth of a proposition is to see if it corresponds to the facts. A Coherentist might also define truth as correspondence with mind-independent reality, but also maintain that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined by its cohering with the body of accepted scientific knowledge. Pierce in his later writings thought that truth was defined as correspondence with reality, but held that the truth or falsity of a proposal was determined by the agreement of the relevant experts.

The semantic theory of truth has as its general case for a given language:

'P' is true if and only if P

where 'P' is a reference to the sentence (the sentence's name), and P is just the sentence itself. As its inventor, philosopher-logician Alfred Tarski, thought that the semantic theory could not be applied to any natural language, such as English, for a variety of reasons.

Tarski thought of his theory as a species of correspondence theory, in which the term on the right is assumed to correspond to the facts.

Deflationary theories, after Gottlob Frege and F. P. Ramsey, also allege that "truth" is not the name of some property of propositions — some thing about which one could have a theory. The belief that truth is a property is just an illusion caused by the fact that we have the predicate "is true" in our language. Since most predicates name properties, we naturally assume that "is true" does as well. But, deflationists say, statements that seem to predicate truth actually do nothing more than signal agreement with the statement. For example, the redundancy theory of truth holds that to assert that a statement is true is just to assert the statement itself. Thus, to say that "Snow is white" is true is to say nothing more nor less than that snow is white. A second example is the performative theory of truth which holds that to say "Snow is white" is true is to perform the speech act of signalling 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. A third type of deflationary theory is the disquotational theory which uses a variant form of Tarski's schema: To say that '"P" is true' is to say that P.

Subjective vs. objective

Subjective truths are those with which we are most intimately acquainted. That I like broccoli or that I have a pain in my foot are both subjectively true. Metaphysical subjectivism holds that all we have are such truths. That is, that all we can know about are, one way or another, our own subjective experiences. This view does not necessarily reject realism. But at the least it claims that we cannot have direct knowledge of the real world.

In contrast, objective truths are supposed in some way to be independent of our subjective beliefs and tastes. Such truths would subsist not in the mind but in the external object.

Relative vs. absolute

Relative truths are statements or propositions that are true only relative to some standard or convention or point-of-view. Usually the standard cited is the tenets of one's own culture. Everyone agrees that the truth or falsity of some statements is relative: That the fork is to the left of the spoon depends on where one stands. But Relativism is the doctrine that all truths within a particular domain (say, morality or aesthetics) are of this form, and Relativism entails that what is true varies across cultures and eras. For example, Moral relativism is the view that moral truths are socially determined. Some logical issues about Relativism are taken up in the article on the relativist fallacy.

Relative truths can be contrasted with absolute truths. The latter are statements or propositions that are taken to be true for all cultures and all eras. For example, for Muslims God is great expresses an absolute truth; for the microeconomist, that the laws of supply and demand determine the value of any consumable in a market economy is true in all situations; for the Kantian, "act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" forms an absolute moral truth. They are statements that are often claimed to emanate from the very nature of the universe, God, or some other ultimate essence or transcendental signifier. But some absolutists claim that the doctines they regard as absolute arise from certain universal facts of human nature.

Absolutism in a particular domain of thought is the view that all statements in that domain are either absolutely true or absolutely false: none is true for some cultures or eras while false for other cultures or eras. For example, Moral absolutism is the view that moral claims such as "Abortion is wrong" or "Charity is good" are either true for all people in all times or false for all people in all times.

Double Truth

In thirteenth century Europe, the Roman Catholic Church denounced what it described as theories of "double truth," i.e. theories to the effect that although a truth may be established by reason, its contrary ought to be believed as true as a matter of faith.

The condemnation was aimed specifically at a "Latin Averroist," (see Averroës), Siger of Brabant, but it was more broadly an attempt to halt the spread of Aristotle's ideas, which the reconquest of Spain and, accordingly, access to the libraries of the Moors had re-introduced into the Latin literate world. At the time, much of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church was based upon neoplatonic ideas, and Aristoteleanism struck many as heresy. Siger and others seem to have conceded this, and to have used the sharp reason/faith distinction that came to be known as "double truth" as a way of legitimizing discussion of Aristotle despite that concession.

True testimony

Witnesses who swear under oath to testify truthfully in courts of law, are not expected to make infallibly true statements, but to make a good faith attempt to recount an observed event from their memory or provide expert testimony. That what one witness says may differ from true accounts of other witnesses is a commonplace occurrence in the practice of law. Triers-of-fact are then charged with the responsibility to determine the credibility or veracity of a witness' testimony.

Other uses of "true"

In addition to its use in reference to propositions, there are other uses of "truth" and "true" in the English language:

  1. most often applied to people, and is used as a commendation, synonymous with "loyal", as in she is true to her friends. This sense of truth should be contrasted with being fake, insincere, misleading and so on.
  2. true can mean "in accordance with a standard or archetype," which is how it is used in "He is a true Englishman."
  3. true in engineering and construction can be used as meaning "straight", not warped but in the same flat plane - as the spokes of a wheel.


  • "To say of what is, that it is, or of what is not, that it is not, is true." — Aristotle in Metaphysics (Book 4)
  • "Truth - Something somehow discreditable to someone." — H.L. Mencken
  • "Truth exists - only lies are invented." — Georges Braque
  • "To me, truth is not some vague, foggy notion. Truth is real. And, at the same time, unreal. Fiction and fact and everything in between, plus some things I can't remember, all rolled into one big 'thing'. This is truth, to me." — Jack Handey
  • "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." — Sherlock Holmes in "A Scandal in Bohemia" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • "What is truth?" — Pontius Pilate, the Gospel of John.
  • "What is truth? said jesting Pilate, but would not stay for an answer" — Francis Bacon, Essays 1: Of Truth
  • "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." — Jesus — John 14:6 (original Greek is αλ´ηθεια : truth, verity)
  • "One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may . . . We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons." — Joseph Smith, Jr.
  • "What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding." — Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense
  • "Your [God's] word is truth." Jesus Christ, as recorded in John 17:17

See also

Truth in logic

Major philosophers who have proposed theories of truth

External links


  • Blackburn, S and Simmons K. 1999. Truth. Oxford University Press. A good anthology of classic articles, including papers by James, Russell, Ramsey, Tarski and more recent work.
  • Field, H. 2001. Truth and the Absence of Fact, Oxford.
  • Horwich, P. Truth. Oxford.
  • Habermas, Jürgen. 2003. Truth and Justification. MIT Press.
  • Kirkham, Richard 1992: Theories of Truth. Bradford Books. A very good reference book.
  • Tarski's classic 1944 paper on the Semantic Conception of Truth online.

Last updated: 10-18-2005 21:30:55
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