Truth in the Culture War

One claim that I have seen crop up lately is the idea that somehow the present culture war turns upon what one thinks of the correspondence theory of truth. Now, I think the nature of truth is a deep and fascinating topic of philosophical inquiry, so I absolutely welcome more interest in it, and encourage people to delve deeper into what I think is an important topic. However, as is always the way, truth has been a casualty of war. In this case in particular the claims being made on behalf of truth's role in the culture war seem to me simply confused. So I am going to try and spell out what is being said, what I take to be wrong with this, and instead indicate some more productive lines of inquiry re philosophy in general, theory of truth in particular, and our present cultural moment.

(I think the whole discussion goes back to an argument Rachel McKinney had on twitter, so blame her! In all seriousness also thanks to her for doing much serious thinking on this and being willing to talk with me, and to Yuzi Nakamura and Katie Creel for discussing drafts of this blog post with me.)

First, a sample of the sort of claims I have in mind. This is from Peter Boghossian (whose work I have previously discussed), and in it he is trying to describe the axis around which the present culture war rotates. He identifies one of these core disagreements as being about the correspondence theory of truth, and so devotes some discussion to saying what it is and why it is important. Here is what he says it is:
The correspondence theory of truth basically states that objective truth exists and we can know something about it through evidence and reason. That is, there are objective truths to be known, and we gain reliable knowledge about them when our beliefs align with reality. It’s termed “the correspondence theory of truth” because a statement is considered true when it corresponds with reality and false when it does not.
As to why it matters, he thinks that disagreements about this thing underlie political disagreements:
In Culture War 2.0 the correspondence theory of truth—with its commitment to the idea that there are better and worse ways to come to knowledge about an objectively knowable world—is no longer common ground. For those on one side of this latest fight, the correspondence theory of truth has been replaced with more subjective ways of knowing.  
That is to say, one side (not the side he agrees with) no longer believes in correspondence theory of truth, and instead thinks that what is true/knowable  depends on what sort of person you are demographically - with it being purported that cis white men are not able to access some truths that non cis non white non men are able to access, for instance. And these disagreements over truth are then part of a realignment that shifts which political coalitions are natural:
As a point of contact, I am a non-intersectional, liberal atheist. If a conservative Christian believes Jesus walked on water—and believes this either is or is not true for everyone regardless of race or gender—and if she values discourse and adheres to basic rules of engagement, then she is closer to my worldview than an atheist who believes race and gender play a role in determining objective truth and that her opponents should not be allowed to air what she considers harmful views. 
So where once agreement upon the correspondence theory of truth grounded a sense that shared acquisition of the truth was possible even if we presently disagree, now some people do not believe as much, and this disagreement is so dramatic that all those who hold to the correspondence theory are now natural allies in the struggle against this dangerous innovation.  (Note that this is not the only place you will find this sort of thing being said. James Lindsay strikes a similar note here, and it's also something they have said at conferences.)

All of this is wrong.

So first a terminological point, perhaps not intrinsically all that important but which is nonetheless worth being clear about. The thing Boghossian identifies as the correspondence theory of truth is not that which philosophers typically discuss under that name. To understand why not, it will be worth having to hand a distinction. We may separate out claims about what it means for something to be true (we'll call questions about what it means to be true "alethic claims") from claims about how we could know something is true ("epistemic claims"). Suppose I say "there are 9 rocks in this bucket", pointing to a bucket in front of me. What it means for this to be true presumably has something to do with buckets, numbers of rocks, and the relationship of being inside of. How I would know it is true, what sort of observations I would make or whether I can in fact come to know as much, are quite distinct from this. To see that, one could suppose that our bucket with (perhaps) 9 rocks in it were located on some far away exoplanet - now what I would have to do to come to know the truth of my claim, and indeed whether I can know it at all, are very difficult questions, whose answers may well be different from when I said that of a bucket in front of me. Yet, what would make the claim true (or false) does not seem to have changed: the bucket and the number of rocks therein being the only thing that matters for that. This is a general distinction that some philosophers find useful, and we shall return to it often - alethic and epistemic claims can be distinguished.

With that in our pocket, we return to Boghossian. Here is the opening paragraph from the SEP article that Boghossian linked (and I reproduce the link in my quotation from him):
Narrowly speaking, the correspondence theory of truth is the view that truth is correspondence to, or with, a fact—a view that was advocated by Russell and Moore early in the 20th century. But the label is usually applied much more broadly to any view explicitly embracing the idea that truth consists in a relation to reality, i.e., that truth is a relational property involving a characteristic relation (to be specified) to some portion of reality (to be specified).  
Note that this says nothing about how we come to know the truth, or whether we can come to know the truth. Epistemic claims are not mentioned. And we can see why. Let us agree that to be true a claim must correspond with a fact, or relate to reality in the right kind of way. Suppose we all live in the Matrix, such that none of our day-to-day claims correspond to any facts but rather elaborate illusions which mask the facts from us. Then, per the correspondence theory, all of our claims are false, and plausibly (if you make some additional assumptions about knowledge) we cannot in this scenario know what the facts are and thus we cannot know what the truths are. Nonetheless, we have not contradicted our assumption that truth consists in correspondence with facts or relationship to reality - the correspondence theory is quite consistent with us being entirely deceived.

Or, to take a different kind of unlikely scenario, suppose there are clairvoyants who do not need to use reason and evidence to simply discern what the facts are (or which clams will stand in the right relationship to reality). Their sublime intuition always guides them right. Then they would be able to make true claims, according to the correspondence theory, even though they do not use reason and evidence - again, because the correspondence theory (as philosophers typically describe the idea) does not say anything about epistemic claims. In the first case truth is unknowable, in the second case truth is discerned by some extra-scientific means - yet in both cases this is consistent with truth consisting in correspondence to the facts or bearing the right kind of relationship to reality. The correspondence theory is an alethic claim, consistent with many different epistemic claims.

Now these scenarios might seem unlikely to you (they do to me!) and I want to be clear that I am not saying correspondence theorists are committed to these silly ideas. But only that there is a distinction one can draw between how one knows what is true, and what it means for a claim to be true, and correspondence theory is typically used to denote a theory about the latter sort of thing. Indeed, precisely because it draws this distinction people often worry that the correspondence theory is, if anything, unusually liable to induce scepticism, claims that we simply cannot know what is true at all, so seeing Boghossian associate the label with something that ties truth to scientific knowability is very liable to confuse.

Why worry about this?  Of course people may use terms as they wish, and Boghossian is quite clear about what he means by "correspondence theory of truth" (the only confusing note being that he himself linked the SEP article), so I do not think one will be confused about his meaning in particular. But I am in part motivated to still insist on this just because I take this blog to be an exercise in public philosophy, and I would love more people to be interested in theory of truth. I want people to know what they will be getting into if they follow this line of investigation, and if they go in expecting the correspondence theory to be the thing Boghossian describes they shall be confused or disappointed. So I in part simply mean to correct a misunderstanding that may arise.

But the point goes deeper than just the label. Because, I think, once some of these distinctions are clear in one's mind, some of Boghossian's other claims start to look suspect. Separate clearly the question of how one knows something to be true (epistemic considerations) from what it means for a claim to be true (alethic considerations), and look again at one of Boghossian's ways of illustrating his point:
Think about it like this: cis-hetero white males see the world in grayscale. Every oppression characteristic gives one access to an additional color. So cis-hetero black males see the world in grayscale and blue. Cis-lesbian black females see the world in grayscale, blue, and orange. Trans non-binary disabled uneducated black immigrants see the world in a panoply of colors and thus are positioned to have a more accurate view of reality. In Culture War 2.0, correspondence theories of truth aren’t just dead: truth itself is inaccessible to people who do not possess the right identity characteristics.
Let's grant that some people's claims may fairly be analogised in this fashion. Is such a person disagreeing with a correspondence theorist about alethic matters? Not really. It seems pretty clear that one could understand their claim as being: there are some facts or portions of reality which only some people have access to, and so their claims are much more likely to correspond to those facts - i.e. be true, and that's true for everyone, according to the correspondence theory of truth. When other people try to discuss these matters, since they lack proper access to the relevant portions of reality, the facts which decide whether or not their claims are true, they shall likely have to engage in guess work. Now, of course, one may disagree about the access claim (I have argued before that I think standpoint epistemology, which I take it is what Boghossian is referring to here, is reasonably understood as an expression of a fairly mundane sort of empiricism) but it does not really seem like alethic matters are coming into it at all. The appearance of disagreement on truth is only maintained because we are asked to focus on the epistemic bit of Boghossian's notion of correspondence theory - if we just look at the idea of correspondence itself, the alethic part of the claim,  there is not necessarily disagreement.

And, on the flip side, consider the claim that Jesus walked on water. Do believers typically adopt this belief because reason and evidence points them towards it? Well perhaps in some cases it is felt that some case can be made along these lines, but faith is surely often held up as a different sort of way of knowing than scientific knowledge generation. This is, at least, a common interpretation of John 20;29 and other religious traditions often have their own version of extolling faith or non-scientific methods as a mode of coming to know about the divine. Sometimes in Christian cases this is even paired with the idea that there are things which sin prevents us from knowing of our own accord, but which grace may see revealed to those in God's favour - something that certainly sounds a bit like Boghossian's colour spectrum case. So in this case, the appearance of agreement between Christian conservatives and "non-intersectional liberal atheists" is only preserved by leaning on the alethic aspects of what Boghossian pointed out, since all involved agree that "Jesus walked on water" is true just in case the facts bear out that Jesus actually walked on water. But if one focuses more on the epistemic aspect, the apparent philosophical unity melts away. (Just a shout out: it was Daniel Waweru on twitter who to me first pointed out this going back and forth between the epistemic and correspondence aspects.)

So it actually seems to me that the idiosyncratic terminology represents not just being unconventional, but a real confusion between claims about what it takes to be true, and claims about what it takes to know something is true. When distancing himself from those he characterises as intersectional theorists he stresses the epistemic claims about what it takes to know something is true. But when building alliances he stresses the alethic claims about what it takes for something to be true. But if one reverses the focus, the exact opposite alliance would seem justifiable for the same reasons as before - those he says are driven by intersectional theory could be allied on alethic matters, and those Christian conservatives he reaches out to could be arrayed against him on epistemic matters. The choice of political alliance, siding with Christian conservatives over those he calls intersectional leftists, thus seems arbitrary - or at least cannot really be driven by the disagreement he mentions, since that could justify either or neither alliance.

So far, I think, this is all internal critique - something which should bother someone who shares Boghossian's stated values. There is the minor matter of non-standard terminology, which might bother Boghossian as he himself is an educator who wishes to popularise philosophy. Then there is the fact that his claims about alliance building seem to rest on equivocation of some sort; eliding a distinction then selectively appealing to different sides of it in a fashion that seems arbitrary, or is at least not justified by anything he has said on the matter. I take it that if he wishes his philosophical-political sociology to be accurate this should bother him too, especially if he wants it to ground alliance building around a shared commitment to given alethic or epistemic principles. But before concluding a note of external critique, which I won't try and prove (since I am far from certain of this point and in any case this is already too long a post!) but just note as a counter-perspective.

Personally I think the correspondence theory of truth is a somewhat flimsy basis on which to build any sort of political alliance. Boghossian represents the situation as people adopting different stances on this theory and then drawing out the consequences, each according to their axiom. But I highly doubt the correspondence theory could ground any such inferences, I think it very ill suited to the task. This is not because I am hostile to correspondence theory in any deep way. I regularly teach Russell's wonderfully lucid exposition of the basic idea, which can be found for free online here. Charming and pedagogically valuable as that is, contemporary expositions of the basic idea are considerably more sophisticated - e.g. I am just setting out on this, well reviewed here,  and which self-identifies as broadly in the tradition of the correspondence theory. It is through such sophisticated expositions that the correspondence theory of truth remains the single most popular theory of truth among philosophers.  Anyone who wants to explore the idea beyond the SEP article can check out some of those links, and I encourage them to do so.

But to my mind the correspondence theory of truth is always precariously caught between two poles. On the one hand it can seem vacuous in some of its traditional formulations, only giving the appearance of explaining what truth amounts to without actually saying much at all - this is nicely argued in the piece referenced here. In these versions it is true but uninteresting. Whereas in more involved versions it becomes metaphysically very mysterious indeed, with things like negative facts or brute correspondence relations that may be instantaneously established across arbitrary distances coming to populate our theory of what exists in the world. In these versions it strikes me as false or maybe even senseless.

I am inclined to one of the more deflationary theories of truth that would do away with such mysteries, but also then do away with the prospect of building much politically on this rather thin notion. On these accounts of truth, it is more or less just a way of facilitating certain generalisations - being able to say things like "During negotiations nothing Hitler said about his plans for Czechoslovakia were true" without requiring me to know precisely what Hitler said. Where I do think people's concepts of truth might have some political significance, I think it is because of quirks of psychology that probably could not be rationally justified, and so will not be well explained by the sort of philosophical-political sociology that Boghossian engages in. This is a matter for cognitive psychology, as part of the general theory of bias or delusion. The theory of truth itself isn't doing much for us here.

Due to certain facts about how we communicate and infer, deflationary truth can be of great aid to us in being precise in our linguistic, mathematical, or logical reasonings. There is thus still reason for philosophers, mathematicians, and even scientists to be clear in their thinking about it. Those generalisations matter! As I mention below, I also think there is some reason for folk to care about the nature of truth even if it does not have the direct political upshot Boghossian mentions. And, what's more, even if I don't think they necessarily have to be connected to alethic questions, those epistemic differences Boghossian highlighted can matter politically, they're worth thinking about. That's a big part of why I work on and blog about them. But right now, always being open to the real possibility of being shown wrong in future of course, my guess is its probably just a red herring to see allegiance to the correspondence theory of truth as the sort of thing that might sensibly drive culture war politics.

So Boghossian introduces the correspondence theory of truth as a key axis upon which the culture war rotates - but then describes a quite different, more epistemic, theory from the one typically denoted by "correspondence theory". This running together of alethic and epistemic considerations then further seems to allow him to make apparently arbitrary selections of what he will focus on and thus makes the decision to ally with Christian conservatives rather than left wing social justice activists seem itself ungrounded in the philosophical considerations raised. And, finally, I am not sure the correspondence theory is such a good ground for our political endeavours in any case.

I don't want to end on such a negative note, however. As mentioned on my other recent philosophy post here, I hope that teaching philosophy can help induce wonder in people. In light of this it is, I am convinced, a good thing for people to think deeply about truth. It is a fundamental notion for much of our thought, yet filled with difficulties when one takes it seriously. As I argued previously, encountering and grappling with this sort of difficulty is in itself valuable. For those with more specialist interests, there is fascinating cross cultural work available that can help us understand one another through looking at how people reason about truth. For those with a logical or mathematical background, the precise study of truth has allowed us to learn fascinating things about even familiar mathematical structures, and is an interesting topic in its own right with good textbooks available. And reflection on this work has prompted new philosophical work, with accessible introductions and reflections on its social role available. And, focussing less on the alethic and more on the epistemic, there really are systematically anti-truth forces out there, which for the sakes of democracy we would do very well to understand. It will not serve the cause of truth to recruit it to our petty culture war squabbles, nor especially to do so in such an arbitrary and misleading fashion. But that does not mean there is not much we can learn here, and which can inform how we see the world and each other.


  1. why did i read this article? There's no real insight, it's deliberately (or immaturely) missing the forest for the trees. $100 on the author being on the opposite side of the culture war and dressing up his negative emotional reaction behind half a thesaurus.

    1. The question of why, ultimately, any of us do anything is an interesting one, comrade. I can tell you now you'd have lost that bet; but only because I used the whole thesaurus.

  2. Hey, I'm years late to this post but I really appreciated it. Thanks for parsing these terms; I tend to just get annoyed and handwave away guys like Lindsay and Boghossian, but I have plenty of folks in my circles who want to earnestly discuss their ideas and it helps to be able to nail down precisely where they're diverging from serious thinkers.

  3. Thanks for this Liam - some really interesting points arising from the disentanglement here that I would not have considered otherwise!


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