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The label consensus theory of truth is currently attached to a number of otherwise very diverse philosophical perspectives. This makes it reasonable to ask whether there is any such thing as the consensus theory of truth at all, in other words, whether there is any one single principle that the various approaches have in common, or whether the phrase is being used as a catch-all for a motley assortment of barely related positions. In short, when it comes to what a consensus theory of truth is, or ought to be, there is really not all that much consensus yet!

If any of the words in the phrase consensus theory of truth is being used equivocally, then the entire phrase is equivocal, all equivocations being independent in a first approximation, with an overall measure of equivocality in rough proportion to the product of the constituent measures. One way to count its senses, then, is to examine each word in turn and to sensus its senses by their categories of use. In particular, if we count among the various categories of use the sundry categories of user, this brings us to examine what each of the component concepts means to each of the major communities or traditions that use it.

Dimensions of consensus

The varieties of philosophical positions that fall, or get thrown, under the heading of a 'consensus theory of truth', can be classified in accord with the diversity of senses attached to the component terms, 'consensus', 'theory', and 'truth'.



One source of variation in the meaning of the phrase consensus theory of truth arises from variations in the meaning of the word theory.

Descriptive and normative accounts

Briefly if roughly put, a descriptive theory is one that tells how things are, while a normative theory tells how things ought to be. Expressed in practical terms, a normative theory, more properly called a policy, tells what we ought to do. A policy can be an absolute imperative, telling what we ought to do in any case, or it can be a relative directive, telling what we ought to do if we want to achieve a particular goal. A policy will often be stated in the form of a piece of advice called a heuristic, a maxim, a norm, a rule, a slogan, and so on. Other names are recommendation and regulative principle. There is never any shortage of advice, hence its name is legion.


Varieties of consensus


Main article: Charles Peirce

And what do we mean by the real? It is a conception which we must first have had when we discovered that there was an unreal, an illusion; that is, when we first corrected ourselves. Now the distinction for which alone this fact logically called, was between an ens relative to private inward determinations, to the negations belonging to idiosyncrasy, and an ens such as would stand in the long run. The real, then, is that which, sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me and you. Thus, the very origin of the conception of reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of a COMMUNITY, without definite limits, and capable of a definite increase of knowledge. (C.S. Peirce, "Consequences of Four Incapacities", Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 2, pp. 140-157 (1868), Collected Papers, CP 5.311).

The real is that which is not whatever we happen to think it, but is unaffected by what we may think of it. (C.S. Peirce, ["Review of Alexander Campbell Fraser's The Works of George Berkeley"], North American Review, vol. 113, pp. 449-472 (1871), Chronological Edition', CE 2, 467).

Thus we may define the real as that whose characters
are independent of what anybody may think them to be.
(C.S. Peirce, "How to Make Our Ideas Clear",
Popular Science Monthly, vol. 12, pp. 286-302 (1878),
Collected Papers, CP 5.405).

A consensus theory of truth is sometimes attributed to Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), though it's fairly certain that he never used the phrase to describe his own position in anything that should be confused with the bare sense of consensus alluded to above. This attribution is based on statements that he made roughly to the effect that a statement is true if and only if it would be agreed to by all those who investigate it, assuming that the inquiry were to be carried sufficiently far in that particular direction. For example, if the ultimate consensus would be that the sky is blue, then the claim "the sky is blue" is considered to be true.

This pragmatic variety of consensus theory is identified by some with the general philosophical approach that Peirce called 'pragmatism' and later 'pragmaticism'. Certainly there is an intimate relationship between his theory of inquiry and his pragmatic philosophy, but flat out asserting that the two are one would spoil the surprise of seeing exactly how and why they are related. One road between them passes by way of his ideas about a community of inquiry. As it happens, a variety of different communities of inquiry must be considered: finite, indefinite, infinite, and ultimate, to mention but a few.

One of the first questions that we'd need to ask before we attribute any variety of 'consensus theory of truth' to Peirce would have to be whether Peirce's own statements about the issue reflect a descriptive theory or a normative policy. In order to decide this question we'd need to consider the pertinent aspects of Peirce's brand of pragmatic philosophy, beginning at the beginning with the pragmatic maxim, which is like it says a 'maxim'. Next, it would be necessary to contemplate the complex of relationships that exists among any species of regulative principle, a certain 'principle of hope', and abductive hypothesis formation in general. Finally, completing the circuit, it would be incumbent on us to take up the key role of abductive reasoning, along with the constraints on it that render inquiry scientific, in pragmatic thinking as a whole.


Main article: Jürgen Habermas

The consensus theory of truth is currently advocated by Jürgen Habermas. In Habermas's version of the theory, truth is not dependent on actual consensus. Rather, it is what would be agreed to by all investigators who followed principles of equal, undistorted, unconstrained communication and adopted a discursive orientation, i.e. an attitude of stepping outside of beliefs taken for granted in everyday life and willing to investigate the validity of truth claims, which would include the criteria currently available to the scientific community for investigating a mind-independent reality. This is a situation of communication and investigation very different from most that prevail in everyday life. Thus in Habermas's consensus theory of truth, the pragmatic meaning of a truth claim is that it could be verified or made good in a discourse oriented toward rational consensus. Its validity is unaffected by any actual consensus about at arrived under conditions of distorted communication in everyday life. This theory has been strongly criticized by the philosopher Nicholas Rescher.

It should be noted that in contemporary philosophy, the notion of truth has sometimes been broadened to that of validity, on the grounds that different types of statements (e.g. descriptive, normative) have different kinds and conditions of validity, with truth applying only to descriptive statements or assertions about states of affairs in the world. This also can involve, as in the case of Habermas, an extention of the consensus theory of truth to other kinds of validity. For example, moral principles may be right or wrong rather than true or false, but the same sort of consensus validation may apply to their rightness or wrongness as would apply to the truth status of a descriptive statement. Thus Habermas's consensus theory of truth is really a consensus theory of validity, of which truth is just one case.


Note that, if we work from the view that there exist mind-independent realities, and that people are seeking to know these realities, then it is possible in principle for everyone to agree but be mistaken about the facts. Thus, on the assumption that there are mind-independent realities, a purely empirical form of the consensus theory of truth would imply that a statement can be true even if it fails to describe reality. For example, if all who investigate "The center of Venus is molten copper" are destined to accept it, then it is "true" on the consensus theory even if they are all wrong about the fact of the matter. Peirce would deny that if investigation were carried sufficiently far that all who investigate would agree upon this.


  • Objection: An objection to the theory is that it presupposes that for every possible statement, investigators are destined eventually to agree about it one way or the other. But this seems dubious: It has been argued, for example, that statements of beauty or morality do not lend themselves to such consensus.
  • Response: The above presupposition would only stand if it were assumed that all statements must have a truth value: Perhaps statements like "She is beautiful" are not necessarily truth-holding statements.
The consensus theory of truth, as defined, is in accord with such a response: We may never agree whether or not "she is beautiful", so the statement cannot be said to be true. But we cannot state that the counter-thesis ("she is not beautiful") is true either, otherwise we would agree on the first statement. Therefore, at least implicitly, Peirce states that according to the consensus theory of truth, not all statements can be assigned a truth value.

Not to be confused with ...

The consensus theory of truth should not be confused with either subjectivism — the claim that what is true is whatever one happens to believe, or relativism — the belief that what is true is whatever is accepted by one's culture or community.

Further reading

  • Kirkham, Richard, Theories of Truth, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1992.
  • Rescher, Nicholas, Pluralism: Against the Demand for Consensus, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1995.

See also

Theories of truth

Related topics

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