The notion of truth is probably one of the most central notions in science and philosophy, if not in humanity’s engagement with the world in general, but it is also a somewhat problematic notion that is prone to confusion. And consequently, not all talk about “truth” is really about truth.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a paper titled “Recognizing ‘Truth’ in Chinese Philosophy” on the difficulty of recognizing concepts of “truth” and philosophical theories about truth in non-Western philosophy, focusing on ancient Chinese philosophy.1 I argued there and elsewhere2 that the ancient Chinese didn’t have theories of truth, but had theories of justification that – due to terminological obscurities – may look like theories of truth to an insufficiently careful observer. There is no single unambiguous equivalent of the English word “truth” in Classical Chinese (although 然 ran comes close), and partially because of that it isn’t always immediately clear what exactly a philosopher is theorizing about.

However, the situation isn’t really that different in Western philosophy, or even in philosophy written in English. That two philosophers are both writing about “truth” doesn’t necessarily imply that they are writing about the same thing. Moreover, the most common confusion about “truth” in Western thought is also the most common confusion in interpretations of Chinese philosophy about truth and adjacent notions. Alexus McLeod’s otherwise excellent book about “theories of truth” in Chinese philosophy isn’t really about theories of truth,3 but (mostly) about theories of justification, and while justification is very close to truth, the two notions are not the same. Perhaps, the most obvious example of the same mistake in Western thought is the oversimplified characterization of Pragmatist theories of truth as whatever works, or whatever scientist agree about, or something similar.4 But even a closer look at what Pragmatists like Pearce, James, and Dewey actually held suggests – as Bertrand Russell already pointed out in 1910 – that they confused truth with criteria for assigning “truth” status, or in other words, with justification.5

The previous paragraph calls for an explanation, of course. So let’s start with the notion of truth. What does it mean – and what does it not mean – to say that some statement or belief is true? The answer to that question may seem ridiculously obvious, but sometimes it is worth stating the obvious. According to Tarski’s famous t schema a sentence or proposition p (or belief described as p) is true if and only if whatever p describes is the case: “p” is true ↔ p. Importantly, this really is all that “true” means. There are philosophical debates about what if anything makes a statement (etc.) true, but that debates is about theories of truth, not about what “truth” and “true” mean. To say that something is true is just to say that it is the case.

So, to say that something is true is not to say (or even imply) that someone actually believes it, or that there is evidence for it, or that many people believe it, or that it is generally accepted, and so forth. All of those things may be important, but they are not “truth”. Truth is just being the case, and something may be true even if no one believes it and there is no evidence for it.

Justification, on the other hand, has to do with evidence and arguments. A statement or belief p is justified if it follows from solid evidence or an irrefutable argument (or something close enough). Or in other words, a statement or belief is justified if it passes the (accepted) criteria to be accepted as truth (i.e. the criteria for assigning “truth” status). Justification doesn’t guarantee truth, however. A statement may be true and not justified, but the reverse can also happen. Given all the evidence we had, our beliefs in classical (Newtonian) mechanics were entirely justified until we found contrary evidence that proved those beliefs unjustified and the content of those beliefs (probably) false.

Truth and justification are often considered to be properties of beliefs. Traditionally, beliefs that were both true and justified were considered knowledge, but Edmund Gettier showed in the 1960s that there are cases in which beliefs are true and justified without being knowledge.6 Since then, much of epistemology has been an attempt to find a new definition of “knowledge”. We’ll ignore this problem here, however, and will assume that knowledge is something very similar to justified true belief. Two of the three terms in that definition have been roughly defined above, but I haven’t said anything yet about “belief”.

To believe something is to hold it true. Believing that p is to hold true that p. To believe that p is to believe that whatever p describes is the case. So, if p is a true belief, then the believer holds p true and is right in doing so because p actually is true. And, if p is a justified belief, then the believer holds p true and is justified to do so because she has solid evidence or an irrefutable argument for p (or something else enough to qualify as justification).

It is this latter notion especially, that can be a source of confusion. To have a justified belief that p is to be justified to believe that p, which is to be justified to hold p true (because that is what believing means). But if one is justified to hold something true, then one is justified to call that thing true. In other words, justification entitles one to say that p is true. And because some justified beliefs turn out to be false, this implies that we are sometimes entitled to call things true that are actually false.

The key point here is not that this implies that truth really is like justification, but that we sometimes use words like “true” or “truth” when we are really talking about justification (and not out of sloppiness, but because of what those words mean). And consequently, when one encounters writings or sayings about “truth” the first question should be: Is this really about truth? Or is it about justification?

The confusion of truth and justification is expressed in many forms, but there also is a closely related confusion that is worth mentioning here – namely, the distinction between “truth” with a small t and “Truth” with a capital T. Supposedly, “Truth” is being the case (and thus “truth” indeed), while “truth” with a small t is something like “socially accepted as true” or “commonly believed to be true”. Closely related is the distinction between “knowledge” and “Knowledge” – the latter is “justified True belief” with capital T (i.e. knowledge in a strict sense of that term) and “knowledge” with a small k is something like “socially accepted as knowledge”. All of this is horribly confusing. If the confusion of truth and justification wasn’t bad enough, this adds a whole new collection of truth-like notions to be confused with “truth”. Truth is being the case – nothing more, nothing less. Being socially accepted, being called “true”, being generally believed, and so forth – and thus this notion of “truth” with a small t – is not “truth”. Calling it such is confused nonsense.

Nevertheless, confusions like these are quite understandable given how we use words like “truth” and “true”. If justification entitles us to call something true, and if social acceptance of some idea counts as sufficient justification, then social acceptance is sufficient to call that idea true. And consequently, when we say that something is true we almost always mean that it is justified and that we, therefore, believe that it is true. What must be realized, however, is that this doesn’t imply that that statement, belief, or idea is true. Again, justification to assign “truth” status (and thus, to call something “true”) is justification, not truth.

What probably makes the problem worse is that while we are often entitled to call something “true” (because we have justification) we can never do more than that. It can, perhaps, be argued that such “calling true” is a mere rhetorical use of “true”, but that would imply that all attribution of “truth” is rhetorical in exactly this sense. This point was made most emphatically – albeit not in these terms – by Donald Davidson in a reply to Pascal Engel. Davidson wrote that “There are times when we are certain that something is the case; we have excellent, even overwhelming, evidence, subsequent events bear us out, and everyone comes to agree with us. I have no doubt that very often what we believe in such cases is true.”7 But even then, strictly speaking, we do not know with absolute certainty, and cannot know with absolute certainty that what we believe is true – all we have is justification, not truth.

When we say we want our beliefs to be true we could as well say we want to be certain that they are, that the evidence for them is overwhelming, that all subsequent (observed) events will bear them out, that everyone will come to agree with us. It makes no sense to ask for more. Of course, if we have beliefs, we know under what conditions they are true. But I do not think it adds anything to say that truth is a goal, of science or anything else. We do not aim at truth but at honest justification. Truth is not, in my opinion, a norm.8

So when we say that we want our beliefs or theories to be true, that may very well be what we really want, but all that we actually can aim for is justification. I think this matters in at least two ways. Firstly, it should instill a kind of humility. We can aim for the best evidence, the best arguments, and so forth, but the fact that we can never achieve more than that – more than justification, that is – implies that we can always turn out to be wrong. Truth is fixed, but justification isn’t. A belief that is justified today may become unjustified tomorrow (and the other way around).

Secondly, there may be areas of thought where aiming for truth seems impossible for entirely different reasons, or where aiming for truth and aiming for justification would suggest different approaches. If justification is all we can aim for anyway, then this would greatly matter in those areas. One such area would be ethics. (I’m not sure whether there are other examples.) Aiming for moral truth raises many more troubling questions than aiming for moral justification, and if the latter is all we can do anyway, then we can (and should) avoid those troubling questions.

One may wonder whether “truth” and “true” are more than rhetorical devices if we often mean something else when we use those terms, and if we cannot really aim for truth, moreover. Perhaps, it can be said that in daily use they are mere rhetorical devices indeed, but this is certainly not the case in a more philosophical context. As an abstract, philosophical notion “truth” is a very precise, and clearly defined notion. To say that p is true is to say that whatever p describes is the case. And even if we cannot really aim for truth (i.e. for particular truths), we certainly can talk and think about this abstract notion (i.e. about the idea, or concept, or phenomenon of truth). Furthermore, we can also talk and think about justification, and when we do so, we are talking and thinking about something else. Truth is not justification, but very often (perhaps, even most of the time) when we are talking about “truth”, we are really talking about justification. Within philosophy, this is a kind of conceptual confusion that should (and can!) be avoided, however.


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Notes

  1. Lajos Brons (2016). “Recognizing ‘truth’ in Chinese philosophy”, Logos & Episteme 7.3: 273-286.
  2. Lajos Brons (2018). “Postscript: Reply to McLeod”, in: Bo Mou (ed.), Philosophy of Language, Chinese Language, Chinese Philosophy: Constructive Engagement (Leiden: Brill): 364-370.
  3. Alexus McLeod (2015). Theories of Truth in Chinese Philosophy (London: Rowman & Littlefield).
  4. These are really beyond oversimplification and are, perhaps, better qualified as parodies, but that’s besides the point here.
  5. Bertrand Russell (1910). “William James’s Conception of Truth”, in: Philosophical Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  6. Edmund Gettier (1963). “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, Analysis 23: 121-23.
  7. Donald Davidson (1999). “Reply to Pascal Engel”, in: L.E. Hahn (ed.), The philosophy of Donald Davidson (Chicago: Open Court): 460-1, p. 461.
  8. Idem.