Philosophical Dictionary (Classics)

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Yet coherentism too seems inadequate, since it suggests that human beings are trapped in the sealed compartment of their own beliefs, unable to know anything of the world beyond. Moreover, as the English philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell pointed out, nothing seems to prevent there being many equally coherent but incompatible belief systems.


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Yet at best only one of them can be true. Some theorists have suggested that belief systems can be compared in pragmatic or utilitarian terms. According to this idea, even if many different systems can be internally coherent, it is likely that some will be much more useful than others. Thus, one can expect that, in a process akin to Darwinian natural selection , the more useful systems will survive while the others gradually go extinct.

The replacement of Newtonian mechanics by relativity theory is an example of this process. It was in this spirit that the 19th-century American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said:. The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.

Although this approach may seem appealingly hard-headed, it has prompted worries about how a society, or humanity as a whole, could know at a given moment whether it is following the path toward such an ideal. In practice it has opened the door to varying degrees of skepticism about the notion of truth. In the late 20th century philosophers such as Richard Rorty advocated retiring the notion of truth in favour of a more open-minded and open-ended process of indefinite adjustment of beliefs. Such a process, it was felt, would have its own utility, even though it lacked any final or absolute endpoint.

The rise of formal logic the abstract study of assertions and deductive arguments and the growth of interest in formal systems formal or mathematical languages among many Anglo-American philosophers in the early 20th century led to new attempts to define truth in logically or scientifically acceptable terms. It also led to a renewed respect for the ancient liar paradox attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Epimenides , in which a sentence says of itself that it is false, thereby apparently being true if it is false and false if it is true.

Logicians set themselves the task of developing systems of mathematical reasoning that would be free of the kinds of self-reference that give rise to paradoxes such as that of the liar.

Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire

However, this proved difficult to do without at the same time making some legitimate proof procedures impossible. These efforts culminated in the work of the Polish-born logician Alfred Tarski , who in the s showed how to construct a definition of truth for a formal or mathematical language by means of a theory that would assign truth conditions the conditions in which a given sentence is true to each sentence in the language without making use of any semantic terms, notably including truth, in that language.

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A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary (Oxford World’s Classics)

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