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.