Paul Horwich – Realism and Truth


The Structure of the Realism Debate

Realism is common-sense: there really are facts about the world, these exist independently of our awareness of them and we can acquire knowledge in these domains.

Anti-realism is a critique of this naïve opinion deriving from conflict between the autonomy of facts and their accessibility necessitating some philosophical move to make these facts knowable. Anti-realist proposals about meaning, knowledge, truth and logic are alternative expressions of this basic dilemma.

Thus the conflict on a metaphilosophical level is between the Wittgensteinian view that philosophy leaves everything as it is and the more traditional view that philosophy can criticise and improve on existing conceptions.

In the philosophy of science, for example, this boils down to an anti-realist’s aversion to the realist’s naïve picture of facts that are both accessible and autonomous. Reactions to this dilemma range from denying that theoretical facts are autonomous i.e. that the theoretical facts are a subset of observational ones. Another reaction abandons accessibility, claiming that theoretical claims are not reducible to observation terms and consequently that they are not demonstrable on the basis of observable knowledge, resulting in scepticism and denial that truth is the proper aim of science. Another reaction still agrees that reductionism is false but that the sceptical response to this situation does not go far enough: the problem is not the knowledge of a theory but its intelligibility i.e. its truth or falsity, resulting in the same conclusion as the positivists that there is no distinct realm of theoretical facts. A fourth reaction would allow that there may be facts that go beyond what can be reduced to observational facts, but would deny that there can be facts that the canons of scientific verification would not enable us to discover.

In sum, the scientific realist believes in various distinctions that the anti-realist denies, in particular 1) the immediately observable facts, 2) the facts that are reducible by definition to observables, 3) the unobservable yet nonetheless verifiable theoretical facts, 4) the residue consisting of undiscoverable theoretical facts.

According to the anti-realist, these distinctions involve attributing to the theoretical facts an impossible combination of autonomy and accessibility. The sceptics resolve the tension by collapsing the distinction between the verifiable and the reducible; the reductionists and instrumentalists collapse, in different ways, the distinction between the totality of facts and the reducible facts; and the constructivists deny the distinction between the totality of facts and what is verifiable.

The Problem of Truth

What definition of truth are we using here? The two most popular competing answers are the correspondence theory and the verification theory. These are traditional inflated theories, yet there is no justification for preferring these above a deflationary account, in which we accept instances of the schema: ‘The proposition that p is true if and only if p’. The benefits of this account are: 1) it explains why we are so convinced that the proposition that snow is white is true if and only if snow is white; 2) it says why we have a concept of truth i.e. not to describe propositions but to enable a certain type of generalisation to be constructed (equivalence schema). Traditional theories identify truth with one or another analysible, complex property (such as correspondence with reality, coherence, pragmatic utility or provability), thus if the equivalence schema is right we can argue that such theories are mistaken. The schema is both necessary and sufficient for the truth predicate to perform its function, whilst providing an adequate definition of truth, a definition that needs no further characterisation in terms of an underlying nature.

Realism and Truth

Given the above, is it necessary for a realist or anti-realist to be persuaded of the deflationist account of truth and conversely for the deflationist to be either a realist or anti-realist? Horwich thinks no on both counts and concludes that the points at issue between the realist and anti-realists do not concern truth.

Moreover, other theories of truth as outlined above have no bearing on the debate. This might seem counterintuitive in the case of verificationism, since this theory would seem to bear on realism by promoting the accessibility of facts at the expense of their autonomy. But, Horwich argues, the arguments that might link the two are in fact instances of the equivalence schema. This is similar for the correspondence theory of truth. And yet, adopting the equivalence schema is no easier to establish than the realist or anti-realist theses it is being used to support. Thus, deflationism is neutral regarding realism.

We find ourselves in this position of confusing truth with realism because realists and anti-realists frequently employ the notion of truth, for example: ‘all truths are verifiable’, ‘theoretical hypotheses are truth-value-less’, ‘science aims at truth’, ‘no contingent statement about the future can be true’. These statements imply that they are about the property of truth and that one’s acceptance or rejection of them will be a reflection of what one thinks about that property. But, Horwich tells us that this reasoning is fallacious; the notion of truth appears in these theses as a device of generalisation (application of the equivalence schema). Even when the notion of truth is not deployed as a generalisation device, Horwich claims that the thesis in question could equally well have been articulated without the notion of truth; moreover, its reformulation in terms of truth is quite consistent with the deflationary position. For example, the instrumentalist thesis that theoretical knowledge is neither true nor false contains two implicit claims: 1) that theoretical sentences don’t express propositions and 2) that propositions are the bearers of truth and falsity. But the heart of the instrumentalists thesis clearly resides in the first claim and so has nothing to do with truth but moreover the assumption about truth in the second claim involves nothing that goes beyond deflationism.


Paul Horwich – Defence of Minimalism


Minimalist Thesis:

1. Our underived endorsement of the equivalence schema is explanatorily fundamental with respect to the overall use of the truth predicate

2. That the meaning of any word is engendered by the fact about it that explains its overall use.

> Thus, the meaning of ‘true’ stems from the equivalence schema

What the Theory does not do:

1. It is not intended to provide an explicit definition of the word ‘true’, neither descriptive nor stipulative.

2. It does not amount to a substantive reductive theory of the property of being true which would tell us how truth is constituted at some underlying level.

3. It is not a ‘theory of truth’ in the sense of a set of fundamental theoretical postulates on the basis of which all other facts about truth can be explained.

The theory’s immediate concern is with the word ‘true’ rather than with truth itself. It purports to specify which of the non-semantic facts about that word is responsible for its meaning what it does; and the fact it so specifies is our underived allegiance to the equivalence schema.


Davidson: The minimalist proposal implies that one must already understand that-clauses (The proposition that snow is white is true if and only if snow is white) i.e. for the component expression ‘the propostion that’ to work, one must presuppose a standard understanding of it and thereby to acquire the concept of truth. But this surely gets things the wrong way round i.e. the notions of meaning and proposition must be analysed in terms of truth – otherwise we would not be able to account for the compositionality of meaning. Thus truth is conceptually prior tomeaning.

Response: Meanings of sentences depend on the meanings of their component words and on how those words are put together. If we take the Fregian route as opposed to the Davidsonian strategy, we can suppose that whenever a complex expression is formed by applying the meaning of the function-expression e.g. a predicate to a sequence of argument-expressions e.g. names the meaning of the complex is the result of applying the meaning of the function-expression to the meanings of its arguments. Thus, given the specifications of meanings of words in a language, it is possible to deduce characterisations of the meanings of every sentence and hence to interpret the entire language.

Davidson: Sentences like ‘The proposition that snow is white is true’, insofar as they are construed as predicating truth of the propositions to which that-clauses refer, are in fact unintelligible, since that-clauses cannot be regarded as referring terms. And this is so because there is no way of seeing how their referents would be determined by the referents of their words. But if such truth ascriptions are unintelligible, then the minimalist proposal cannot be correct.

Response: Why does Davidson stop short in his application of Frege to conclude that an expression within a that-clause does not have its standard referent, but instead refers to the meaning of that expression? We might deny that meaning determines reference, that in fact the referent of a term is fixed in part by the context in which it occurs i.e. the single meaning of ‘snow’ yields one referent for standard occurences of the word and a different referent (meaning of ‘snow’) for occurences within that-clauses. Alternatively, we can deny that the referent of a complex expression is determined by the referents of it grammatical parts and say instead that it is only for logically articulated expressions that their referents are determined by the referents of their parts. Though no longer Fregean, this nonetheless treats that-clauses as singular terms and thus conforms to Davidson’s requirement that their referents be determined by the referents of their logical parts, and that these parts have the same meanings inside that-clauses as they do outside.

Objection: What if someone denies that there is such a thing as truth (and so does not accept any instances of the equivalence schema) but can nonetheless understand our talk of truth and mean the same as we do when we use the word ‘true’?

Correct; this means that there must be some use of ‘true’ that a) is implicit in, but weaker than, an endorsement of the equivalence schema, b) is displayed by the sceptics and by ourselves, and c) constitutes what we both mean by that word. This conclusion also works if we allow (contrary to the initial proposal) that endorsement of the equivalence schema is not epistemologically fundamental. What we need then is the notion of conditional commitment which would allow someone to reject the antecendent of the conditional and yet agree with us about what the truth predicate means. The initial minimalist proposal must be revised. Meaning what we do by the truth-predicate is not constituted by an inclination to accept instances of the equivalence schema; but rather by the commitment to have that inclination, on condition that one is inclined, for some “f”, to endorse ‘ <p> is f <> p’.

Dummett: Truth is valuable: we ought to pursue it and we ought to avoid false belief. But these sentiments are not contained in (nor can they be extracted from) instances of ‘<p> is true <> p’, which are not entirely non-normative. Consequently, our concept of truth is not fully captured by the equivalence schema: so the minimalist proposal is false.

Response: The equivalence schema does explain the normative force of truth. We can explain the specific norms of belief in terms of the statement ‘one should believe that p <> p’. The equivalence schema enables us to explain our attachment to every norm of this form via a commitment to the generalisation: (x) (One should believe x <> x is true) or ‘one should believe what is true and only what is true’.

Why Coherence? Why Epistemology?

From Linda Alcoff: Real Knowing

Alcoff positions herself contra philosophers such as Rorty and Foucault, who see no need for knowledge to be theorised in the abstract. She argues that knowledge is epistemic, not just sociological: ‘the dawning recognition that such elements as desire and power are always involved in the determination of validity conditions for knowledge does not entail that they are all that is involved’ (2). Epistemology, then, must find a way to account for all of these elements in the process of knowing. Thus the origin of the term social epistemology, characterised by questions such as ‘given a richer and more politically attuned analysis of the production of knowledge, how should we epistemically characterise a validity claim?’

Knowledge cannot be separated from truth and ontology for claims are ‘about’ ‘something’, and both terms need to be explored. Alcoff claims that ‘the validity conditions for any serious speech act will involve a presupposed commitment to specific metaphysical views’ (3). Continental and analytic philosophers must therefore work together to explore these terms on a semantic and social level. For Alcoff, epistemology is the theorising of knowledge, whilst metaphysics and ontology are the theorising of reality.


For Davidson, coherentism attempts to get past subject/object dualism with language posited in the middle like a bridge between the two.

For Bloom, the meaning of a poem is found in its relation to other poems.

For Popper, meaning and validation of scientific theories is found in their relationship to other theories.

Thus, the working definition of coherentism is: meaning, knowledge and truth are explicable by reference to the interrelationships between different epistemically salient elements e.g. those things that are not immediately at issue. In practice, a belief is justified to the extent to which the belief-set of which it is a member is coherent.

There are three strands of coherentism ranging from an extreme, the middle, to another extreme:

i) Coherentism is equal to consistency: under this extreme view, a huge number of beliefs would have to be accepted as true, because there is no way of critiquing a set of beliefs that cohere internally, even if they disagree with other belief-sets.

ii) Coherentism entails belief-sets are mutually explainable: the middle ground argues that there are symmetrical relations of support, rather than logical relations, such as inference, correlation, analogy and similarity.

iii) Coherentism is equal to mutual entailment: under this extreme view, nothing would count as justified as the primary relation is logical.

Thus, the coherentist epistemology that Alcoff pursues is one that aims at transforming the building blocks of knowledge. Truth is no longer what fills the void between nature and human construction (linguistic items, for instance). Alcoff links this account with neo-Hegelian transcendence of the binary between man and world.

Some Questions and Anti-Ontological Responses

Is it impossible to confirm theoretical claims in science? (Popper)

It’s not a reason to not accept the claims, but we do need to reconsider what their acceptability means.

What about their failure to lead us to a coherent ontology?

Quine: Coherence is the primary criterion for truth ‘since it is the coherence requirement that defines what can count as evidentiary support’ (7): the criterion is outside  historical, cultural and political influence.

Chisholm: New foundation for truth claims, based on self-presenting, incorrigible phenomenological states – but how do we move from the realm of the subjective to the output of claimed knowledge?

iii: Reduce epistemology to semantics and deny the necessity for an ontology of truth at all.

The problem with the above three responses to the question is that all of them negate the need for justification, and thus deny that truth has a participatory status i.e. truth is out there waiting to be discovered in an objective reality.

Does truth have to be stabile, based on sameness rather than difference?

For Derrida, ‘truth’ rests on a fundamentally ethnocentric and oppressive history of philosophical thought. His anti-ontological project is motivated by the rejection of political absolutism.

Alcoff characterises the anti-ontological accounts above as ‘epistemological nihilism’, the ‘rejection of normativity, which is based on a cynicism about the possibility of improving on the epistemic status of what passes for knowledge’ (9). These accounts fail precisely because they have given up hope on epistemology, but none of them are able to offer a credible alternative. So how do we move forward, given that traditional epistemologies have been so widely discredited themselves?

Why Coherentism?

Alcoff argues that coherentism is capable of overcoming three important objections that previous epistemologies – such as foundationalism – could not:

1. Coherentism can ‘provide a more realistic and feasible account of the way in which beliefs are justified than accounts that would require an uninterpreted, pretheoretical, self-presenting, experiential state of mode of cognition’ (10).

Let’s unpack this claim. Alcoff is claiming that there is no correspondence required between a belief and an extra-discursive, transparent reality. Beliefs are the products of interpretation and theoretical commitments. Experience and evidence too are recognised as beliefs. Coherentism takes account of our mechanisms for judging potential new beliefs, e.g. whether they fit within our current belief systems (plausbility) and our tendency to prefer to conserve beliefs rather than accept new paradigms. The knowing subject is always already in the world, thus her belief system(s) are the result of prior commitments, which in turn shape new experiences. Coherentism, moreover, can shift from an individualistic to collectivist account because our beliefs cohere and are based on the testimony of others, thus the interpersonal nature of belief-justification is embedded in the account.

2. Coherentism can ‘provide a way to show how and why apparently disparate elements are and even should be involved in theory-choice and belief-justification’ (11).

Here, Alcoff is claiming that coherentism is not a single, linear chain of inference (as with some traditional theories), but a complex, heterogenous web of beliefs. As such, it is far easier to account for the interaction of different spheres of life without having to attribute intentional bias. For instance, the impact of politics upon science has generated financial investment, but we would not attribute specific political belief-sets to scientists undertaking those funded research programmes.

3. Coherence is taken to involve ‘in some manner the definition of truth rather than…simply the means by which one can achieve truth in the sense of correspondence’ (12).

Here, Alcoff is driving towards an immanent account of coherentist epistemology. Truth is an emergent property, the result of immanent relationships between subjects and the world. Thus, the coherentist has no need to posit a first idea, or a God’s eye view, and she can thereby distance herself from transcendental theories of truth whilst accounting for historical and social embeddedness (a la Hegel).

I will finish this post with three immediate criticisms of coherentism, which I will return to in a later post:

1. The criterion of coherence itself as the test of knowledge would seem to have no necessary connection to truth; the fact that a truth claim coheres to a body of beliefs does not establish it as true or likely to be true unless that body of beliefs can be shown to be true.

2. (Analytic objection) Truth is to do with a network of statements rather than a field of practices.

3. (Poststructuralist objection) Coherence itself is a misguided goal because it is doomed to failure and motivated by totalitarian impulses.


Nietzsche’s History of Western Metaphysics

1. The true world — attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man;
he lives in it, he is it.
(The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, and persuasive.
A circumlocution for the sentence, “I, Plato, am the truth.”)

1. Platonic Origin of Western Metaphysics:

– Matter is opposition between the ‘apparent’ and the ‘true’ worlds

– Reason is the trace of the absolute that resides in us, even though we no longer inhabit the true world.

2. The true world — unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the
pious, the virtuous man (“for the sinner who repents”).
(Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, insidious,
incomprehensible — it becomes female, it becomes Christian. )

2. Plato Christianised

– Ascent to the true world is made more widely accessible, compared with in Plato where for the exceptionally gifted philosophers, to see the forms entailed year of study.

– Christianity de-intellectualises Plato, but the true world (heaven) is still a promise, open only to those who exercise slavish humility in the face of a god.

3. The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but
the very thought of it — a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.
(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea
has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian.)

3. Kant as Lapsed Christian

– Though not really pious, Kant continues the view that understanding of the true world requires an extraordinary vision

– The vision creates standards, sets imperatives and protects morality/reason.

4. The true world — unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being
unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating:
how could something unknown obligate us?
(Gray morning. The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism.)

4. Dawn Breaks

– The realisation that metaphysics is not needed, not even for this

– First turn from Plato

5. The “true” world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not
even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous —
consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it!
(Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato’s
embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)

5. Do Not Pity Us

– The Platonic contrast between the apparent and true is destroyed, for they live off each other

– We don’t care that we are living in the ‘superficial’ world, the very term is a hangover from previous distinctions

6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The
apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the
apparent one.
(Noon; moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)

6. Zarathustra Emerges

– We create and give our lives meaning

– We are human, all-too-human and commit to taking the high with the low

Another week of annual leave, another week in the library

So the plan has been approved, now I actually have to make a start on it! I have taken another week of annual leave (gotta love working in the public sector) so that I can crack on with the reading for my first chapter. I’m a bit nervous, but knowing that I have a solid plan has made things a little better… Does anyone have any tips that they are willing to share about ways they motivate themselves? Particularly if you are juggling more than one commitment!