Correspondence theory

I came upon this thought while reflecting on the negative influence of positivism, and the call for reductive criticism to be challenged with ‘restorative criticism’

In Ricoeur’s words, “to go beyond criticism by means of criticism, by a criticism that is no longer reductive but restorative.”
~Cardinal Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation, p. 271-272

My thought was that positivism, for all its merits, is semantically bankrupt when it comes to the very things which the metaphysician is interested in – the very things which the common person with a love of wisdom is interested in. More than this, it seems too easy a card to play. It seems to represent a refusal, perhaps a stubborn refusal, to engage western philosophy seriously. For the positivists, as for many protestants, there was Aristotle/Augustine, and then nothing of note happened until Hume/Luther (this is, of course, a caricature). I recall a philosophy professor of mine this semester praising Hume for having “saved us from the Theologues” – really, did he do anything of the sort? If anything positivism just handed metaphysics over to the theologians and then refused to speak to them any more. Now, of course, I don’t intend to disparage all of positivism, as I think it has had some actually ‘positive’ influence (perhaps despite itself). For instance, its approach to science has been fantastically technologically useful, since it has built into all science Newton’s “Hypotheses non fingo” constraint (I feign no hypothesis) from the Principio. Its only interest is in constructing models which accord with our experience, and which allow us to project accurate predictions about future experiences – it should be no surprise that such an approach is ‘useful’ if nothing else (and it is perhaps close to nothing else). It has also helped plant the seeds for analytic theology, and it has made analytic philosophers self-consciously aware of what stunning lack of clarity often crept into to philosophical discussions in which philosophy of language was not taken to be fundamental. It has contributed some things to the conversation, but by and large it has refused to take part in the conversation altogether, since it has ‘changed the conversation’. It has erected it’s temple on the conviction that “we can no longer afford to think that way” (i.e., the way in which all or most pre-modern philosophers thought in western philosophy). It has proposed to start the conversation over anew and speak a language in which meaning is conditioned by a particularly anti-intuitive theory of ‘correspondence’ – namely one without metaphysical reference.

This is when the following distinctions and argument came to me. I take it that when philosophers engage in conversations about Epistemology, whether they are talking about ‘Coherentism’ or ‘externalism & reliabilism,’ there is always an implicit question of correspondence. For instance, a popular objection to coherentism (the view that consistency verified over a range of beliefs grants epistemic warrant) is/was that it has no way of guaranteeing correspondence with the real world (after all, J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of middle earth is consistent, but that doesn’t guarantee that it is true). Against this objection, Laurence Bonjour, who is the innovative thinker behind ‘coherentism’ as an epistemological system, has answered that he has a correspondence theory of truth, and works to guarantee that correspondence. This exemplifies an awareness of a more fundamental concern which I want to tease out in what follows.

To begin then, let me introduce the seminal question – since everyone, or nearly everyone, agrees with a correspondence theory of truth, one must ask: correspondence to what? To this, I submit, there are two answers: either to mind-independent reality (metaphysical reality), or else to experience. The first I will call “Correspondence Realism”, and the latter I will call “Experiential Correspondence.” The former of the two simply means what common sense would have it mean (I take it that only philosophy majors could possibly have trouble understanding it), namely, that for something to be true it must correspond with reality understood as a mind-independent (experience-independent, model-independent, etc) object of perception. It is the later of the two which I am interested in exploring, as I take it that positivism commits one to the experiential theory of correspondence. This last admits of essentially three positions: Metaphysical agnosticism, epistemological idealism, or brute experientialism. These labels are all, of course, mine, but they seem straightforward and appropriate. What I mean by a metaphysical agnostic is simply somebody who is committed to mind-independent reality, and yet believes that, due to the human situation, there is just nothing which we can say about metaphysics. In other words, ‘we cannot talk about it’ precisely because our cognitive equipment doesn’t license our doing so. I take it that John Locke might serve as an example of this position, to an extent (to whatever extent he was sceptical of the metaphysical ‘conversation’ in philosophy). Since Locke says his philosophical project requires the first step of identifying that which we cannot speak about:

“to raise questions…about things to which our understandings are not suited” […] “Knowing the extent of our capacities will hinder us from useless curiosity, skepticism, and idleness.”
~John Locke, (I, 1, 6)

These questions include things such as the existence of God. Locke’s approach identifies such questions, labels them as ‘questions to which our understandings are not suited’ and proceeds to methodologically ignore them. Locke himself, of course, will not go so far as to deny metaphysical substance, but he doesn’t seem keen to ruminate on the topic of metaphysics. Instead, something is said to be ‘true’ to the extent that it is empirically verifiable – thus verifiable by the criterion of experience.

The second position I have outlined is epistemological idealism, which I take to be the commitment to ‘reality’ being essentially reducible to experience. In other words, it seems to me it is the commitment to ‘relations being ontologically prior to relata’. A Naturalised form of Idealism, deeply consonant with Humean intuitions. This covers all contemporary versions of model-dependent realism. Thus the answer to what causes the ‘impressions’ for Hume will not be some metaphysical reality of which we cannot speak (as in the former position), but rather the impressions themselves are the most fundamental building blocks of reality; esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived).

Finally, there is brute experientialism, which will suggest that experiences, ‘impressions’, are not caused by anything, being brute facts. This last position seems to be the least useful. It neither does enjoy, nor is likely to win over to itself, a large following. However, I point it out only because it is, as I see it, one of the ‘possible’ options.

Having laid out these distinctions, it should be clear that positivism will inevitably commit one to one of these three views, all of which fall under the umbrella of experiential correspondence. What I want to submit, then, are a few points for reflection. First, I suggest that the view I have called ‘Correspondence Realism’ is the naturally developed view. What I mean by this is that children are psychologically disposed (or disposed psychologically by the human situation) to believe, rightly or wrongly (though certainly naively) this theory of correspondence. I think the contrary view not only comes late in the lives of individuals pursuing philosophy, but late in the history of philosophy itself. So, the first point is that human cognizers have a natural disposition towards correspondence realism.

The second point I’d like to make is that there is absolutely no reason for doubting this “intuition” (if we can call it as such). Rather, it may be that correspondence realism is held in a properly basic way. That is, perhaps it is something which we are rational to believe, given the predispositions which come packaged with the human situation, wholly apart from arguments. Rather, we are rational to maintain belief in it in the absence of a defeater, and indeed we may be irrational to abandon in the absence of such a defeater. Clearly, it seems to me, there is no defeater for this view, nor are there even any arguments offered at all against it. It is often presumed that the Medieval metaphysical systems which are no longer in vogue have passed out of use precisely because they have been found wanting. However, as Chesterton once said of Christianity:

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
~G.K. Chesterton

The same can be said about Medieval metaphysics; it has been found difficult precisely because of it’s connection to Christianity, which itself has been the elephant in the room which the enlightenment sought to get-around. Out with Christianity went Metaphysics – and this narrative is not just a religious way to read modernism, it is a clearly modern reading of modernism! In any case, I take it that disregarding a view does not itself provide any good argument(s) against it, nor any good reason to disbelieve it. So again, if correspondence realism is believed in a properly basic way then it is thus secured against the incredulous rhetoric of the Vienna circle.

In addition, there are other beliefs which are held just as ‘basically’, such as Theism, which require (or seem to require) correspondence realism. Thus, if any one of those beliefs, or else the set of all such beliefs, are taken seriously, the weights will be tipped in the direction of correspondence realism. Thus, for Theists, as well as certain Agnostics (indeed, for anyone to whom the question of God’s existence seems intellectually live in the William James-ian sense) correspondence realism must at least remain on the table.

What I have argued in the preceding paragraphs is just that there is no good reason to discard correspondence realism, and that there is good reason to accept it – I take it that it’s being an epistemic ‘starting point’ for human beings who are naturally disposed to think in its terms provides, if nothing else, a pragmatic/methodological reason for accepting it (even if tenuously). I have suggested that correspondence realism may in fact be properly basic, and that the rejection of it may be as incredible as solipsism (sure, logically possible, but we have no good reason to believe it in place of the normative belief in many other minds like our own).

One response to these points might go something like this: whether or not some people are naturally disposed to believe in correspondence realism, correspondence realism is not cognitively meaningful upon analysis, and only experiential correspondence is cognitively meaningful. While this claim to ignorance may work to stifle any positive arguments for correspondence realism, I think two points ought to be made in response. The first is that the correspondence realist can hardly consider somebody else’s cognitive blindness to metaphysics to constitute any good reason for regarding it with scepticism; it certainly seems cognitively meaningful to me, as well as to a great majority of other great thinkers of the past in whose company I enjoy remaining. Perhaps it is true that human beings are conditioned rightly and naturally by a ‘communal’ constraint on epistemology (one is right to doubt beliefs which are not shared by the preponderant majority of other members of the thinking community). However, surely the view of correspondence realism has a majority vote in its favour (and this is beyond doubt if one takes the pole to include the ‘democracy of the dead’). The second response is to say that this claim to ignorance is incredible. It is practically unbelievable, and the correspondence realist has every right to invite the positivist to reconsider her own intuitions, intellectual history, and so on, in order to help her see that her claim to ignorance is only possible because of intensive positivist conditioning. Of course, perhaps the only useful insight of post-modernism has been that nobody is unbiased, and so that suggestion cuts both ways, but that’s hardly a reason not to call to attention the innateness of the idea.

I will leave these thoughts here for tonight.


I think for my upcoming Metaphysics class, if there is a paper to write, I will likely focus on these notions of correspondence and work them out in greater detail, likely helped with the insights of Michael Anthony Dummett, whom I have not yet read.

To all positivist readers: I love you guys.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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