About a week ago, during my Evidence class, my professor (who tells us the best way to study for our final is “studying and discussing with your fellow students whatever you find genuinely interesting in the course”, so far a refreshingly diminutive set of materials) off-handedly mentioned the “Correspondence Theory of Truth” a couple of times. I must admit that I was unable to follow much of the discussion, or to make much sense of it, but I was inspired to recall my undergraduate course in Epistemology, and to reconsider the Correspondence “Theory” through the foggy lens of my more mature current state of thinking. I have since considered it at very great length, studying both its most vociferous supporters and its most ardent critics. I have traversed the depths of scholarship on the subject, and am prepared to say, without hesitation, that the Correspondence Theory of Truth is, in a word, total buncombe.

The theory begins with the daring question of what it means for a proposition to be true. Philosophers, of course, have never shied from the difficult questions (except, of course, that they almost always shy away from them—by refusing to acknowledge them as questions, or by answering slightly different questions, or by attacking the questioner’s integrity, or by offering asinine answers to them, in earnest, with straight and serious mien—see, e.g., Socrates’ definition of “justice” in Plato’s Republic). Many people trace the Correspondence Theory as far back as Aristotle, who brilliantly stated that stating what is, is, is “true”, and stating that what isn’t, is, isn’t. Metaphysics 1011b25 (my translation). Presumably, Aristotle would have stated that his statement is true, which would have been, if his theory were true, a true statement.

We would have to wait more than a thousand years for a more intelligible articulation of the theory. It was the indomitable and infallible Aquinas who wrote: “Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus” [truth is the equation of the thing and the intellect]. De Veritate Q.1, A.1&3. That is, a statement is true precisely when it corresponds to the fact of the matter. To put it still more bluntly, a statement is true if and only if it is not false. Aquinas’ accomplishment lay chiefly in shifting the discourse from the outré Greek to the far more civilized (and easier to translate) Latin tongue. Clearly we have made progress.

There was, however, still much progress to be made. In 1921, Wittgenstein published his groundbreaking Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which consists of a mere seven statements (with explanatory notes). The principal statements were as follows:

  1. The world is all that is the case.

  2. What is the case—a fact—is the existence of states of affairs.

  3. A logical picture of facts is a thought.

  4. A thought is a proposition with a sense.

  5. A proposition is a truth-function of elementary propositions.
    (An elementary proposition is a truth-function of itself.)

  6. The general form of a truth-function is [p, ξ, N(ξ)]. This is the general form of a proposition.

  7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (tr. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness). One might well wish that Wittgenstein had heeded his final statement, and passed over the Correspondence Theory with a more determined silence, but he advanced the field considerably, as one can see when one perceives how the constituent statements are related to each other. [I note in passing that Wittgenstein referred to the Necker cube in explaining his fifth statement, writing: “To perceive a complex means to perceive that its constituents are related to one another in such and such a way. This no doubt also explains why there are two possible ways of seeing [the Necker cube] as a cube; and all similar phenomena. For we really see two different facts.” Id. at 5.5423.] Taken as a complex, the Tractatus suggests that a truth-function with a sense is a logical picture of the world, or of a fact, or of a state of affairs. Propositions are true when they constitute a true picture of the world. We owe Wittgenstein a very great debt indeed for pointing out that only propositions with a sense may be deemed true or false; senseless propositions are merely publishable.

Modern philosophers, most recently led by David Armstrong, have refined Wittgenstein’s advancement still further. Now, rather than saying that propositions present a “picture” of the world, they talk about propositions “corresponding” to the world, or the facts, or the states of affairs. With this development, we were finally able to assign a name to the theory, an absolutely essential step for the fruitful continuation of a discourse. Unfortunately, it also highlighted the problem that propositions are not facts, facts are not propositions, and that it isn’t clear what it means for th’un to “correspond” to t’other. Armstrong saved us all from certain doom with the assertion of the almighty “truth-maker” (sadly, talk of “falsity-makers” is far less common). A “truth-maker” is whatever ensures that a certain proposition is true, i.e., that it corresponds to a certain fact or state of affairs. Thus, the new Correspondence Theory of Truth holds that a proposition (with a sense) is true precisely when there exists a “truth-maker” that makes it correspond to the fact of the matter. Obviously.

What is, perhaps, the most surprising development in all of this is that the Theory is not accepted by all who encounter its imponderable brilliance. The Theory has critics. Quite clearly, anyone who rejects the Theory on the idea that a proposition might be true even when it is false isn’t worth listening to (but, again, publication in Philosophy journals is hardly ruled out). Some philosophers have, however, begun to notice that facts and states of affairs may not be the same thing, and great battles are being fought over whether propositions are true when they correspond to facts, or whether correspondence to states of affairs is necessary. Many good people have died in the fight. Furthermore, Armstrong is not without his dissenters. While Armstrong suggests that truth and falsity are appropriate predicates only of propositions, for only propositions admit of internal truth-making relations, many philosophers believe that a theory of truth is also required, not just for propositions, but for assertions, beliefs, thoughts, ideas, judgments, statements, utterances, and sentences as well. It is doubtful whether anyone at all will survive if the fact/state battle is fought anew on each new battleground. It may simply be best for the species to abandon the Theory altogether.

NP: Screeching Weasel, My Brain Hurts