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Posted by on Jun 16, 2008 in Pierce | 15 comments


[from The Great Philosophers]

Pierce, like William James, is not always consistent in his remarks about truth and reality. What I present here is the “consensus theory” of truth that Pierce does, in several places, appear to advance.

The consensus theory of truth

What do we mean by truth and reality? These questions lie close to the heart of philosophy. Peirce offers some very surprising answers.

Suppose several scientists are investigating the speed of light. They use different methods and experiments. But gradually, though their answers may diverge to begin with, they will gradually close in on the same answer. The more research they do, the closer to a consensus they come, until finally, agreement is reached.

Now Pierce defines truth in the following way – it is what those who investigate a matter will all eventually agree on.

The opinion which is fated to by all who investigate is what we mean by truth and the object represented by this opinion is the real.

Note that what Peirce is offering here is not just an optimistic claim about truth – that the truth happens to be what we all end up agreeing on. He is offering a definition of truth, of what “truth” means. To say that something is true just is to say that that is what we will all eventually agree.

A counter-example?

The suggestion that truth is, at root, whatever we agree it to be might seem open to a very obvious sort of counter-example. Suppose I manage to convince both myself and others that Earth is ruled by Lizard-people from outer space. If the truth is what ever we end up agreeing it to be, then it is true that the Earth is ruled by lizard people from outer space. But of course, this is ridiculous – we can’t just make a claim true by collectively agreeing to it, can we?

The role of scientific inquiry

Actually, Pierce’s view entails that, actually, if only we could all agree that world was ruled by alien lizards, then it would, indeed, be true. However, Pierce thinks that, as a matter of fact, the only way we will ever achieve consensus is by engaging in scientific inquiry. Why?
Well, Peirce believes that we will only agree if we collectively appeal to something independent of us. If we observe the external world, that world will impose the same kind of experiences on all of us. It forces certain experiences on us, and thereby, in the end, it forces us to agree. Without this appeal to scientific method and objective reality, no agreement will be reached.

A worry

But hasn’t Peirce now helped himself to a very different theory about truth – isn’t he saying, in effect, that beliefs are true just in case they correspond with how things stand in objective reality – the reality that forces us to agree about it over the long term? He’s not defining “truth” in terms of agreement or consensus after all, but in terms of correspondence with how things stand in this mind-independent reality.

The social theory of reality

Actually, this would be a misunderstanding. Yes, Peirce does want to say that there are “real” things and an “objective” external reality, but it turns out to be “objective” only in the sense that Pierce supposed it to independent of what any individual might take it to be. If I think the world is ruled by lizard people but no one else does, I am mistaken. For the “objective” fact is that the world is not ruled by lizard people from outer space. But if everyone were agreed that the world is ruled by alien lizards, then it would be true. Indeed, it would be an “objective fact.” Pierce offers a “social theory” of truth and reality, on which truth and reality is whatever the community ultimately agrees on. As Pierce puts it:

My social theory of reality, namely, that the real is the idea in which the community settles down.

A worry about Pierce’s theory of truth and reality

One of the tensions in Peirce’s thinking is that, once Pierce has acknowledged that objective reality is essentially social – it is whatever we finally agree it to be, it is no longer clear how it can force us to agree about it. How can it force us to agree, if its not there to force us until we agree?


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  2. I think the Consensus Theory of Truth and the Correspondence Theory of truth are reconcilable. The reconciliation depends on what is taken to be corresponded to and the problems only creep in with justificationism.Take Person A and Person B. One has seen a terrible football match, the other has seen a brilliant football match. As it happens Person B is an Evertonian, the other supports Liverpool and Everton have just won 3:0. The fact that Everton have beaten Liverpool 3:0 is an objective fact, a fact to which the statement “Everton have stuffed the RS 3:0” corresponds and is thus true under the correspondence theory. And what does “Everton have beaten Liverpool 3:0” mean? Well part of what it means is “something that makes Person B happy and Person A sad”. A good deal of what any objective fact means is the effects that it has on the observer. We characterise these effects in terms of their commonality. Subjectively Person A and Person B will not agree on “Everton have beaten Liverpool 3:0”, what is objective about it is what they are capable of agreeing upon.“(I)t turns out to be “objective” only in the sense that Pierce supposed it to independent of what any individual might take it to be. If I think the world is ruled by lizard people but no one else does, I am mistaken. For the “objective” fact is that the world is not ruled by lizard people from outer space. But if everyone were agreed that the world is ruled by alien lizards, then it would be true.”Or could it not be “ ‘the world is ruled be alien lizards’ will not be agreed upon if false”? This solves the objectivity problem, things do not “become” objectively true merely because we agree. However this just means that we can tell when things are not true, it gives us a method of falsification but not verification. If we want verification then we have to bring the subjectivism (all-be-it collective subjectivism) into play.

  3. “How can it force us to agree, if its not there to force us until we agree?”I think the idea of convergence saves this.Initially there may be several competing possible “truths”. With debate and social pressure one view will tend to prevail. Perhaps once a critical point is reached dissent withers away under the weight of the majority view. If anyone could be persuaded to change their mind or disbelieves an idea then by his definition it could not have been truth.Pierce offers a backward looking view – what was successful became truth.

  4. Is Pierce’s theory an account of how truth is actually formed? If so, does it really offer instruction about how we should go about finding the truth, or of what ought to constitute the truth? Has he made a leap across the is-ought divide?I thought this leap happened with Kuhn’s work as well. As far as I can tell, Kuhn offered a historical analysis of actual scientific practice, not a blueprint of what we should be doing.Can Pierce’s theory be applied to itself? That is, if everyone agrees it is false then would that make it false? If it does not disappear in a puff of logic, then is there an interaction between accepting his theory as true and the nature of the stuff he is trying to explain? That is, does the truth change if we accept Pierce’s understanding of it?

  5. I’m going to admit I’ve more of an awareness of Richard Rorty on this, but he seems to be making a similar case (correct me if I’mwrong.)I’ve always thought these kinds of arguments aren’t actually about truth, but rather justification and warrant and by lumping them all together we kind of miss the target a bit, and incidentally find ourselves some handy realist forms that burn quite cheerily. I make this assertion because let’s say I’m on my own and I decide I want biscuits. Remembering I left some in the cupboard I go and fish them out. No discussion at all even breaks wind in the vecinity of this, but my belief that there were biscuits is true. I’m not sure many realists or state of the worldists would balk to say truth is nothing more complicated than that; it’s reasons that is the interesting bit.

  6. Pierce talks about the end of enquiry a lot, so I assume he would say, the truth is not what we all do agree on, but it is what will be agreed on by all.You can’t say that just because everyone in England believes that we are being ruled by lizard people that it is true in England, but false in Scotland. There is only one truth because it is the future consensus that we will settle on, if there is one.Tony Lloyd – it cannot be reconciled with the correspondence theory. Take for example, ‘Churchill sneezed 315 times in 1940’. Perhaps, that is true, and most of us believe that there is a truth about the number of times that Churchill snezzed in 1940. However, we will never reach a consensus on it, not unless you are reaslly confident in the future abilities of science.

  7. Hi anonymousI ran off and did some truth tables, I got my reworking the wrong way round and we need to introduce “possibility”. It should be “if it’s true then it is possible for us to agree upon it”. We need three variables:Tx – x is true (strict correspondence theory)Kx – x is knownAx – we all to agree on xThe two concepts to be reconciled would be:1. Kx→Tx (if it is known it is true, factivity of knowledge)2. Tx→◊Ax (if it is true then it is possible for us to agree on it, my buggering about of Peirce)The second follows from the concept of “reality” and subjective/objective split. The objective being interpersonal (that Everton stuffed the RS) the subjective being that which changes with the observer (whether it was a good game or not). There is a problem with “agree”. I think Peirce was talking about, or would have been better off wording it as, “things which do not change with the observer, and we can find those by seeing whether, ultimately, everyone agrees”.Thinking about it now “Tx→◊Ax” is, more or less, a definition of “objective”.Now there is no contradiction caused by the above and ‘Churchill sneezed 315 times in 1940’. It can be true (let’s say it is), from “2.” we can say that it is possible for us to agree but we can’t infer anything from “1” about it, it can be true but we don’t know it. The problem is that we do not have direct access to either antecedent. What we have is direct access (sometimes) to “A”. For knowledge to be possible we have to decide that we will rely on A (and if A then ◊A) as a measure of knowledge. We are saying:3. Ax→Kx “if we all agree then we know”. This is where the problems start:“We all agree that lizards run the country”. From “3” we know that we know that lizards run the country” and from “1” we know that “lizards run the country” is true. 1, 2, and 3 entail “if we all agree on x then x is true”.

  8. Tony Lloyd – I don’t think Pierce is saying if it is true it is possible for us to agree, that would be a very mild claim. Instead he is saying that agreement is truth.This shouldn’t be confused with what some relativists about truth have said. It is not that agreement makes it true, but that they are the same thing. For example, if I think about what I had for breakfast then I make it true that there exists a thought, however, it is not true that my thinking about breakfast and there existing a thought are the same thing.Pierce is saying that if something is true, then there WILL be agreement. This is not agreement now, but agreement at some future point.Pierce was not looking for a way of checking whether something was ‘true’ he was seeking to define it.I do not think that your (2) reflects what Pierce is saying.Also, I don’t think that (3) is correct either, since it is possible for us to agree about things we do not know, even if they are true.

  9. I’ve just re-read your post. Isn’t ‘It’s possible to agree on x’ true for all x?This would make (2) trivially true, in the same way that ‘if the sky is blue then it is possible to agree on x’ is also true.

  10. Isn’t that just obviously NOT how we use the word “truth”? Maybe I’m being too simplistic, but if we say something is true, don’t we mean that it states that the world has certain features that the world does indeed have? Or something along similar lines. How does everyone agreeing that the world is square make the world square? The only way that might be true (that I can understand) is if we are talking about the-world-as-we-perceive-it, rather than the world itself. Then, fine, truth is clearly what we perceive to be true which would lead to Pierce’s theory also being correct. But how does Pierce actually justify his use of the word “truth”? Most people would agree that everyone in the world can be wrong (e.g. flat earth/ earth run by lizards), or at least that some of us might always be wrong. Why do our opinions create truths? We’re fallible individually, so we can be fallible en mass too. Is Pierce’s a more epistemological (is that a word?!) or linguistic justification?Sorry if I’m just showing my ignorance here, but I just don’t get it!Ooo or is he using a linguistic argument that says that if we all believe a certain position, then that position becomes almost tautologically true- THAT’s how we use those words correctly. And square doesn’t mean square as we use it to day when we all believe the earth is square. it probably means spherical. I don’t know, that still sounds like nonsense to me, as regardless of the words we use, if the conceptions behind them don’t correlate with the world they’re describing, the person is just wrong!

  11. Pierce is NOT saying ‘If everyone agrees about something then it is true’.His theory is born out of his confidence in science. He is saying the truth is the thing that we all WILL agree upon. At the end of enquiry, when we have collected all the evidence then the truth is what everyone agrees.We can never actually say that ‘this is tue because everyone agrees’ because we are never at the end of enquiry, there could be more evidence that causes disagreement.I don’t think the lizard men objection is much of a challenge to Pierce’s position because he will say ‘if it is not true then there will be no agreement on it.Although, perhaps there is a way to motivate this objection:Suppose we were really cruel and we decided to manipulate the genes of all babies born tomorrow or later so that they believed that we were ruled by lizard men even in the face of any contradictory evidence. There are also safeguards in place so that these genes always get passed on and can’t be tampered with.This would result in the entire population believing that we are ruled by lizard men forever. We could then say that at the end of enquiry there will be agreement over this obviously false belief.

  12. “I do not think that your (2) reflects what Pierce is saying.”I think it “sort of” does. There is a clear problem with “agreement”, and “possibility”. I agree that Peirce is saying that we will agree in some sort of idealised state of the end-of-inquiry. In reality there’s always going to be someone who disagrees and we’re never actually going to get to the end of enquiry, but in an idealised scenario we will. Maybe we need a new symbol, is there a mathematical one for “tends towards”?“Pierce is saying that if something is true, then there WILL be agreement.”Which is still T→A, which is the main thing. “I don’t think that (3) is correct either”I think its complete rubbish! But I think that people are continually forced to this by their desperate desire to overcome scepticism, to “know” and by their constant conflation of “know” and “is”. This always forces them to come up with some way of flipping that T→A expression into X→K. Moore’s X is “here is a hand” and thus the existence of “hands” is true. The P*st M*d*rn*sts, R*l*tivists and others (often encountered in everyday speech) argue that because you can’t know objective facts then facts are subjective/relative etc. The medical profession is quite appalling (at least I am appalled) in speaking as if a condition and the method of diagnosis were synonymous. (I remember hearing a doctor on the radio saying that someone isn’t infertile unless they’ve been trying to conceive for two years without success. Not “we don’t know if they’re infertile” but “they are not infertile”. On this basis all nuns are fertile.) I don’t think (2), even if we can manage to correctly summarise what Peirce is saying conflicts with normal notions of truth. As (2) seems pretty sensible then (2) would appear to be a good thing to accept. I think the problems start with adopting both (2) and (3), which other people seem jolly keen on doing.Mind you, Peirce might not be completely innocent. His thoughts on meaning laid the foundations for Logical Positivism and its “the meaning of a statement is its method of verification”. I have this sneaky feeling that Peirce’s views on meaning might loop back and force (3). But, at the moment, it’s just a vague feeling. (Mind you that “social theory of reality” crack is a bit of a giveaway).Sally: “Isn’t that just obviously NOT how we use the word “truth”? Maybe I’m being too simplistic, but if we say something is true, don’t we mean that it states that the world has certain features that the world does indeed have?”I don’t think that’s too simplistic. When we start talking of “meaning” what we mean is (using your example):If something is true then it states that the world has certain features that the world does indeed have and if it states that the world has certain features that the world does indeed have then it is trueThis would be saying that if X is the “meaning” of “Y” or “X is Y” then we would have:If X then Y and if Y then X (if he is an unmarried man then he is a batchelor and if he is a batchelor then he is an unmarried man)What Peirce says about agreement is only half of the above. So he’s stating a feature of truth rather than a definition of its meaning. (If he is a batchelor then he drinks beer does not, I can assure you, work the other way around. “Drinking beer” would be a feature of being a batchelor rather than part of its “meaning”). So that’s all fine. We don’t mean what Peirce said by “truth” and Peirce didn’t mean it by “truth”. It all goes pear-shaped when you start accepting agreement as truth. Then you are moving from agreement to truth as well as the other way round: and you will then mean agreement = truth. Which it patently does not!

  13. Actually Pierce does mean something like consensus=truth.Truth for Pierce is that ideal end point that enquiry is aimed at. If, when all the data has been collected everyone agrees that that thing is true. Likewise, if something is true, when all the data is collected everyone will agree.

  14. Anonymous said: “His theory is born out of his confidence in science. He is saying the truth is the thing that we all WILL agree upon. At the end of enquiry, when we have collected all the evidence then the truth is what everyone agrees.”This doesn’t sound like science to me. Isn’t science, according to its inductive methods, concerned with discovering probable (and therefore contingent) rather than absolute truth? There can be a high degree of certainty about the truth of any given proposition, according to current evidence, but the “end of enquiry” can only truly be the end…for the moment.

  15. Steelman,Pierce did not think we ever had or ever would reach the end of enquiry. It is an ideal point that we are (hopefully) moving towards.The truth is the thing that we would agree upon if we ever were at that point.

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