The Four Theories of Truth as a Method for Critical Thinking

Written — Updated
  • Author: Cedric Chin
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  • Notes
    • There are four basic theories of truth. While the applicability of each one can be questioned and debated, we can still draw lessons from each.
    • The correspondence theory of truth is truth derived from observable reality.
      • We use this when evaluating a claim against our personal experience. Looking for counter examples or evaluating a claim based on our past experience with similar situations are examples of evaluating truth based on reality.
      • The obvious problem with relying solely on this is that our experience may not be representative of the entirety. But it is very useful for disproving or at least bringing into question the credibility of a claim.
    • The coherence theory is truth derived from logical axioms.
      • This is essentially evaluating truth against logical fallacies.
      • A skilled arguer can put together a claim that may seem coherent, but doesn’t actually survive contact with the real world. So this is another theory that is more useful for disproving something.
    • The consensus theory is that truth comes from large-scale consensus.
      • Consensus can be more important than it sounds prima facie. We actually use this all the time when trusting the consensus of experts on a subject to guide our actions, or evaluating a claim against what is already “known” on the topic.
    • The pragmatic theory is that truth is defined by what is useful and right for you.
      • This gets away from the idea of absolute truth and more toward a practical application. It’s mostly interested in what gets the right results. For moral reasons, we of course can not disregard the absolute truth in many situations, but there are still real uses for this.
      • It’s especially useful when the actual truth on a topic isn’t really known, and there isn’t even necessarily a wide scale consensus on it. Nutrition and fitness are a great example. For anything you try, there will be people who say it’s a great idea and others who decry it.
      • Part of this is because the opinions on the subject are often misguided or incomplete. They are informed by poorly-done studies or don’t account for the wide variety of responses to various regimens found in human biology. So if you find something that actually works for you in the long term, then it’s good enough to treat it as true.
      • Another common aspect is psychological tricks that happen to work for you to help improve habits and so on. They may not even be applicable to the public-at-large, but if it works for you, then that’s enough, even if there’s no logical reason for it.
      • When using this theory of truth to evaluate a claim, the test is simple. Does it work? Does it seem like the author actually tried it and had success? Can I find a way to test if it works for me?

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