Truth Is Established by Correspondence
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 5 - Knowledge
Bertrand Russell, from The Problems of Philosophy
Kem Stone - 2 November 2007
If knowledge is to be considered as warranted, true belief, the question of the nature of “truth” naturally arises.
There are three main theories of truth: correspondence, coherence, and pragmatism, and this text deals with the
first and most widely accepted. Bertrand Russell explains the correspondence theory, critiques the coherence
theory, and offers a framework for how to determine whether a given statement is true. Russell’s arguments are
strengthened by their common-sense nature, but they still leave the door open to scepticism.
Russell begins by drawing the distinction between acquaintance knowledge, which does not admit of falsehood or
error, and propositional knowledge which does. We may make a mistaken inference in our knowledge of things,
but we can never be wrong about knowing a person or object in the way we can be wrong about knowing a
particular proposition. Whether a given proposition is true or false is a very difficult question in itself, but Russell
begins by merely asking what is meant by truth or falsehood.
Russell asserts that there are three requisites that any theory of truth must contain. First, it must admit of
falsehood, which stands in contrast to some theories of truth in which all of our thinking must be true. Second, it
must acknowledge that truth and falsehood are properties of beliefs and statements and are not in any way built
into the material world. Finally, the truth or falsehood of a belief must depend on something outside of the belief
itself: “although truth and falsehood are properties of beliefs, they are properties dependent upon the relations of
the beliefs to other things, not upon any internal quality of the beliefs” (284). It is this last requisite that leads to
correspondence theory: that truth consists in a correspondence between belief and fact.
Although this is the most widely held definition of truth among philosophers, some object to it on the grounds that
it leaves us without any means for determining whether something is actually true. “If truth consists in a
correspondence of thought with something outside thought, thought can never know when truth has been attained”
(284). Because we have no direct knowledge of the outside world, the critics of correspondence claim, we can
never know whether anything is actually true. This has led many to adopt the coherence theory of truth, which
states that falsehood is the failure to cohere in an existing body of beliefs which is “The Truth.”
But as Russell points out, the coherence theory suffers from even greater problems than correspondence. First of
all, it is entirely possible for there to be more than one existing coherent body of beliefs. We run into this problem
all the time in the natural sciences, when more than one hypothesis works to explain the same phenomenon.
Coherence also allows for a great many metaphysical schemas, such as one in which life itself is merely a dream
and external objects are mere illusions. There is nothing to indicate which truths are closer to “The Truth” which
remains as illusive as ever.
Even more damning is that the coherence theory presupposes the truths of the laws of logic, such as the law of
contradiction. A statement is false, the theory asserts, if one statement contradicts a statement that is known to be
true. But the law itself must be put to the same test. “If the law of contradiction itself were subjected to the test of
coherence, we should find that, if we choose to suppose it false, nothing will any longer be incoherent with
anything else. Thus, the laws of logic supply the skeleton or framework within which the test of coherence
applies, and they themselves cannot be established by this test” (285). Russell admits that coherence serves as an
important test of truth (if two statements are contradictory we can be sure that one of them is false) but maintains
that it cannot give us the meaning of truth.
Returning to the three requisites stipulated earlier, Russell turns to an examination of the correspondence theory
and what it means for a statement to be true in this framework. First of all, a belief can not be thought of as a
relation of the mind to a single object. “If belief were so regarded, we should find that, like acquaintance, it would
not admit of the opposition of truth and falsehood, and would have to always be true” (285). Russell introduces
as an example the proposition, “Othello believes that Desdemona loves Cassio,” which if regarded as a relation to
a single object would require that “Desdemona’s love for Cassio” be that object, and therefore the proposition
takes the form of acquaintance knowledge and does not admit of falsehood. If belief was a matter of the relation
of the mind to a single object, in order to admit of falsehood we would also have to stipulate that objective
falsehoods exist independently of any minds, which fails to meet the second requisite. Instead, we must recognise
that the proposition is actually a relation of four terms: Othello, Desdemona, loving, and Cassio.
Russell here brings in several definitions to clarify his break-down of propositional statements. The mind which
believes is the subject, which in the example is Othello. The remaining terms are the objects, in this case
Desdemona, loving, and Cassio. The subject and the objects together are the constituents of the judgment. And
most importantly, the order in which the terms are arranged is the sense or direction. Whether a proposition is
true or false will depend not only on the constituents but also on the sense of the statement.
In all relations between two or more terms, the terms are united into a complex whole, such as “Othello’s love for
Desdemona.” In the act of belief, the subject and objects are arranged according to the sense of the relation,
while “believing” serves as the uniting relation. “When the belief is true, there is another complex unity, in which
the relation which was one of the objects of the belief relates the other objects. Thus, for example, if Othello
believes truly that Desdemona loves Cassio, then there is a complex unity, ‘Desdemona’s love for Cassio’….On
the other hand, when a belief is false, there is no such complex unity” (287). Needless to say, if the sense of the
statement is altered and “Cassio’s love for Desdemona” becomes the complex unity, the truth value of the
statement is subject to alteration. But essentially, a belief is true when it corresponds to an associated complex
which does exist.
Russell concludes with one important point to remain in consideration: that the condition of truth does not involve
belief itself but only the objects of belief. A mind only believes truly when the belief corresponds to a complex
which does not involve the mind. Beliefs depend on minds for their existence, but not for their truth. The only
case in which a mind plays a role in making a belief true or false is when it plays an active role, like in a
proposition such as “I am going to catch the 8 o’clock train” wherein the belief will be rendered true or false
depending on my own actions. Otherwise, “What makes a belief true is a fact, and this fact does not…in any way
involve the mind of the person who has the belief” (288).
It is this aspect of truth which remains the biggest problem for the correspondence theory, as it stipulates that truth
must lie outside the mind, while our experience of the world is hopelessly contained within the mind. I may
understand that my proposition is true if the complex unity x exists, but I can only believe that x exists (even if it is
right before my eyes) without ever knowing for certain.
Nevertheless, correspondence theory is indeed the most common-sense view of truth, and is almost always the un-
stated assumption when we casually refer to something as being true or false. If I say that I believe my door is
closed, what I mean is that in the physical world of corporeal objects, there really is a door and it really is in the
closed position. I do not mean that in order for my entire epistemological scheme to be coherent, my door must
be closed. My belief presupposes the existence of the real world, which unfortunately is something that can never
be proven. Yet I believe when we speak of truth it is acceptable to make such a presupposition if only to serve
our purposes, as the only way my belief that my door is closed could be false is if I am being deceived by an evil
demon or that I am actually dreaming and if I were to wake up I would see that my door is actually open, but in
most cases in which we are concerned with truth we need not entertain such doubts, nor arrive at absolute
These sentiments are probably closer in spirit to the pragmatic theory of truth, but my point is that we need not
require absolute certainty in order to stipulate that something is true, or else we should never arrive at it. The
question of whether “The Truth” actually exists—one objective, fundamental reality to which all beliefs either do or
do not correspond—is a question that the mind is incapable of answering. But this should not leave us stuck with
nothing and force us to withhold our assent from any proposition whatsoever. We should be able to say with a
strong degree of certainty that something is either true or false, though I would still hold that we must recognise
that this certainty can never be absolute, and we must always recognise that no matter how sure we are that a
given proposition is true, there is always a chance that we could be mistaken.