Coherentism is the name given to a few philosophical theories in modern epistemology.

There are two distinct types of coherentism. One is the coherence theory of truth;[1] the other, the coherence theory of justification[2] (also known as epistemic coherentism).[3] Coherent truth is divided between an anthropological approach, which applies only to localized networks ('true within a given sample of a population, given our understanding of the population'), and an approach that is judged on the basis of universals, such as categorical sets. The anthropological approach belongs more properly to the correspondence theory of truth, while the universal theories are a small development within analytic philosophy. The coherentist theory of justification, which may be interpreted as relating to either theory of coherent truth, characterizes epistemic justification as a property of a belief only if that belief is a member of a coherent set. What distinguishes coherentism from other theories of justification is that the set is the primary bearer of justification.[4] As an epistemological theory, coherentism opposes dogmatic foundationalism and also infinitism through its insistence on definitions. It also attempts to offer a solution to the regress argument that plagues correspondence theory. In an epistemological sense, it is a theory about how belief can be proof-theoretically justified.

Coherentism is a view about the structure and system of knowledge, or else justified belief. The coherentist's thesis is normally formulated in terms of a denial of its contrary, such as dogmatic foundationalism, which lacks a proof-theoretical framework, or correspondence theory, which lacks universalism. Counterfactualism, through a vocabulary developed by David K. Lewis and his many worlds theory[5] although popular with philosophers, has had the effect of creating wide disbelief of universals amongst academics. Many difficulties lie in between hypothetical coherence and its effective actualization. Coherentism claims, at a minimum, that not all knowledge and justified belief rest ultimately on a foundation of noninferential knowledge or justified belief. To defend this view, they may argue that conjunctions (and) are more specific, and thus in some way more defensible, than disjunctions (or).

After responding to foundationalism, coherentists normally characterize their view positively by replacing the foundationalism metaphor of a building as a model for the structure of knowledge with different metaphors, such as the metaphor that models our knowledge on a ship at sea whose seaworthiness must be ensured by repairs to any part in need of it. This metaphor fulfills the purpose of explaining the problem of incoherence, which was first raised in mathematics. Coherentists typically hold that justification is solely a function of some relationship between beliefs, none of which are privileged beliefs in the way maintained by dogmatic foundationalists. In this way universal truths are in closer reach. Different varieties of coherentism are individuated by the specific relationship between a system of knowledge and justified belief, which can be interpreted in terms of predicate logic, or ideally, proof theory.[6]


As a theory of truth, coherentism restricts true sentences to those that cohere with some specified set of sentences. Someone's belief is true if and only if it is coherent with all or most of his or her other (true) beliefs. The terminology of coherence is then said to correlate with truth via some concept of what qualifies all truth, such as absoluteness or universalism. These further terms become the qualifiers of what is meant by a truth statement, and the truth-statements then decide what is meant by a true belief. Usually, coherence is taken to imply something stronger than mere consistency. Statements that are comprehensive and meet the requirements of Occam's razor are usually to be preferred.

As an illustration of the principle, if people lived in a virtual reality universe, they could see birds in the trees that aren't really there. Not only are the birds not really there, but the trees aren't really there either. The people may or may not know that the bird and the tree are there, but in either case there is a coherence between the virtual world and the real one, expressed in terms of true beliefs within available experience. Coherence is a way of explicating truth values while circumventing beliefs that might be false in any way. More traditional critics from the correspondence theory of truth have said that it cannot have contents and proofs at the same time, unless the contents are infinite, or unless the contents somehow exist in the form of proof. Such a form of 'existing proof' might seem ridiculous, but coherentists tend to think it is non-problematic. It therefore falls into a group of theories that are sometimes deemed excessively generalistic, what Gabor Forrai calls 'blob realism'.[7]

Perhaps the best-known objection to a coherence theory of truth is Bertrand Russell's argument concerning contradiction. Russell maintained that a belief and its negation will each separately cohere with one complete set of all beliefs, thus making it internally inconsistent. For example, if someone holds a belief that is false, how might we determine whether the belief refers to something real although it is false, or whether instead the right belief is true although it is not believed? Coherence must thus rely on a theory that is either non-contradictory or accepts some limited degree of incoherence, such as relativism or paradox. Additional necessary criteria for coherence may include universalism or absoluteness, suggesting that the theory remains anthropological or incoherent when it does not use the concept of infinity. A coherentist might argue that this scenario applies regardless of the theories being considered, and so, that coherentism must be the preferred truth-theoretical framework in avoiding relativism.


In modern philosophy, the coherence theory of truth was defended by Baruch Spinoza,[1] Immanuel Kant,[1] Johann Gottlieb Fichte,[1] Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel,[8] and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel[1] and Harold Henry Joachim (who is credited with the definitive formulation of the theory).[9] (However, Spinoza and Kant have also been interpreted as defenders of the correspondence theory of truth.)[10] In contemporary philosophy, several epistemologists have significantly contributed to and defended the theory, primarily Brand Blanshard (who gave the earliest characterization of the theory in contemporary times) and Nicholas Rescher.[1]

In late modern philosophy, epistemic coherentist views were held by Schlegel[11] and Hegel,[12] but the definitive formulation of the coherence theory of justification was provided by F. H. Bradley in his book The Principles of Logic (1883).[13] In contemporary philosophy, several epistemologists have significantly contributed to epistemic coherentism, primarily A. C. Ewing (who gave the earliest characterization of the theory in contemporary times), Brand Blanshard, C. I. Lewis, Nicholas Rescher, Laurence BonJour, Keith Lehrer, and Paul Thagard.[2] Otto Neurath is also sometimes thought to be an epistemic coherentist.[14]

The regress argument

Both coherence and foundationalist theories of justification attempt to answer the regress argument, a fundamental problem in epistemology that goes as follows. Given some statement P, it appears reasonable to ask for a justification for P. If that justification takes the form of another statement, P', one can again reasonably ask for a justification for P', and so forth. There are three possible outcomes to this questioning process:

  1. the series is infinitely long, with every statement justified by some other statement.
  2. the series forms a loop, so that each statement is ultimately involved in its own justification.
  3. the series terminates with certain statements having to be self-justifying.

An infinite series appears to offer little help, unless a way is found to model infinite sets. This might entail additional assumptions. Otherwise, it is impossible to check that each justification is satisfactory without making broad generalizations.

Coherentism is sometimes characterized as accepting that the series forms a loop, but although this would produce a form of coherentism, this is not what is generally meant by the term. Those who do accept the loop theory sometimes argue that the body of assumptions used to prove the theory is not what is at question in considering a loop of premises. This would serve the typical purpose of circumventing the reliance on a regression, but might be considered a form of logical foundationalism. But otherwise, it must be assumed that a loop begs the question, meaning that it does not provide sufficient logic to constitute proof.

Foundationalism's response

One might conclude that there must be some statements that, for some reason, do not need justification. This view is called foundationalism. For instance, rationalists such as Descartes and Spinoza developed axiomatic systems that relied on statements that were taken to be self-evident: "I think therefore I am" is the most famous example. Similarly, empiricists take observations as providing the foundation for the series.

Foundationalism relies on the claim that it is not necessary to ask for justification of certain propositions, or that they are self-justifying. Coherentists argue that this position is overly dogmatic. In other words, it does not provide real criteria for determining what is true and what is not. The Coherentist analytic project then involves a process of justifying what is meant by adequate criteria for non-dogmatic truth. As an offshoot of this, the theory insists that it is always reasonable to ask for a justification for any statement. For example, if someone makes an observational statement, such as "it is raining", the coherentist contends that it is reasonable to ask for example whether this mere statement refers to anything real. What is real about the statement, it turns out, is the extended pattern of relations that we call justifications. But, unlike the relativist, the coherentist argues that these associations may be objectively real. Coherentism contends that dogmatic foundationalism does not provide the whole set of pure relations that might result in actually understanding the objective context of phenomena, because dogmatic assumptions are not proof-theoretic, and therefore remain incoherent or relativistic. Coherentists therefore argue that the only way to reach proof-theoretic truth that is not relativistic is through coherency.

Coherentism's response

Coherentism denies the soundness of the regression argument. The regression argument makes the assumption that the justification for a proposition takes the form of another proposition: P" justifies P', which in turn justifies P. For coherentism, justification is a holistic process. Inferential justification for the belief that P is nonlinear. This means that P" and P' are not epistemically prior to P. Rather, the beliefs that P", P', and P work together to achieve epistemic justification. Catherine Elgin has expressed the same point differently, arguing that beliefs must be "mutually consistent, cotenable, and supportive. That is, the components must be reasonable in light of one another. Since both cotenability and supportiveness are matters of degree, coherence is too."[15] Usually the system of belief is taken to be the complete set of beliefs of the individual or group, that is, their theory of the world.

It is necessary for coherentism to explain in some detail what it means for a system to be coherent. At the least, coherence must include logical consistency. It also usually requires some degree of integration of the various components of the system. A system that contains more than one unrelated explanation of the same phenomenon is not as coherent as one that uses only one explanation, all other things being equal. Conversely, a theory that explains divergent phenomena using unrelated explanations is not as coherent as one that uses only one explanation for those divergent phenomena. These requirements are variations on Occam's razor. The same points can be made more formally using Bayesian statistics. Finally, the greater the number of phenomena explained by the system, the greater its coherence.

Problems for coherentism

A problem coherentism has to face is the plurality objection. There is nothing within the definition of coherence that makes it impossible for two entirely different sets of beliefs to be internally coherent. Thus there might be several such sets. But if one supposes—in line with the principle of non-contradiction—that there can only be one complete set of truths, coherentism must therefore resolve internally that these systems are not contradictory, by establishing what is meant by truth. At this point, Coherence could be faulted for adopting its own variation of dogmatic foundationalism by arbitrarily selecting truth values. Coherentists must argue that their truth-values are not arbitrary for provable reasons.

A second objection also emerges, the finite problem: that arbitrary, ad hoc relativism could reduce statements of relatively insignificant value to non-entities during the process of establishing universalism or absoluteness. This might result in a totally flat truth-theoretic framework, or even arbitrary truth values. Coherentists generally solve this by adopting a metaphysical condition of universalism, sometimes leading to materialism, or by arguing that relativism is trivial.

However, metaphysics poses another problem, the problem of the stowaway argument that might carry epistemological implications. However, a coherentist might say that if the truth conditions of the logic hold, then there will be no problem regardless of any additional conditions that happen to be true. Thus, the stress is on making the theory valid within the set, and also verifiable.

A number of philosophers have raised concerns over the link between intuitive notions of coherence that form the foundation of epistemic forms of coherentism and some formal results in Bayesian probability. This is an issue raised by Luc Bovens and Stephen Hartmann in the form of 'impossibility' results,[16] and by Erik J. Olsson.[17] Attempts have been made to construct a theoretical account of the coherentist intuition.[18]

See also

Epistemological theories

Theories of truth


  1. ^ a b c d e f The Coherence Theory of Truth (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  2. ^ a b Coherentist Theories of Epistemic Justification (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  3. ^ Paul K. Moser (1986), "Epistemic Coherentism and the Isolation Objection", Grazer Philosophische Studien 27:83–99.
  4. ^ Klein, P. D. (2007). Human Knowledge and the Infinite Progress of Reasoning. Philosophical Studies, 134 (1), 1-17.
  5. ^ Lewis, David K. Counterfactuals. Wiley-Blackwell, 2001.
  6. ^ Ángel Garrido, Urszula Wybraniec-Skardowska (eds.), The Lvov-Warsaw School. Past and Present, Birkhäuser, 2018, p. 510.
  7. ^ Forrai, G. Reference, Truth, and Conceptual Schemes. Synthese Library.
  8. ^ Elizabeth Millan, Friedrich Schlegel and the Emergence of Romantic Philosophy, SUNY Press, 2012, p. 49.
  9. ^ Harold Henry Joachim (1868—1938) (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  10. ^ The Correspondence Theory of Truth (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  11. ^ Asko Nivala, The Romantic Idea of the Golden Age in Friedrich Schlegel's Philosophy of History, Routledge, 2017, p. 23.
  12. ^ James Kreines, Reason in the World: Hegel's Metaphysics and Its Philosophical Appeal, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 21.
  13. ^ Coherentism in Epistemology (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  14. ^ Otto Neurath (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  15. ^ Elgin, Catherine Z. (2005.) "Non-foundationalist Epistemology: Holism, Coherence, and Tenability." In Matthias Steup and Ernest Sosa. (Eds.) Contemporary Debates in Epistemology. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 156 – 167.
  16. ^ Luc Bovens (2003), Bayesian epistemology, Oxford: Clarendon, ISBN 0-19-926975-0, OCLC 53393352, 0199269750
  17. ^ Erik J. Olsson (2005), Against coherence, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-927999-3, 0199279993
  18. ^ "Why Does Coherence Appear Truth-Conducive?". Synthese. 157 (3): 361–372. 2007. doi:10.1007/s11229-006-9062-8. JSTOR 27653566.


External links


Anti-foundationalism (also called nonfoundationalism) is any philosophy which rejects a foundationalist approach. An anti-foundationalist is one who does not believe that there is some fundamental belief or principle which is the basic ground or foundation of inquiry and knowledge.

Coherence theory of truth

In epistemology, the coherence theory of truth regards truth as coherence within some specified set of sentences, propositions or beliefs. The model is contrasted with the correspondence theory of truth.

A positive tenet is the idea that truth is a property of whole systems of propositions and can be ascribed to individual propositions only derivatively according to their coherence with the whole. While modern coherence theorists hold that there are many possible systems to which the determination of truth may be based upon coherence, others, particularly those with strong religious beliefs hold that the truth only applies to a single absolute system. In general, truth requires a proper fit of elements within the whole system. Very often, though, coherence is taken to imply something more than simple formal coherence. For example, the coherence of the underlying set of concepts is considered to be a critical factor in judging validity. In other words, the set of base concepts in a universe of discourse must form an intelligible paradigm before many theorists consider that the coherence theory of truth is applicable.

Danish philosophy

Danish philosophy has a long tradition as part of Western philosophy.

Perhaps the most influential Danish philosopher was Søren Kierkegaard, the creator of Christian existentialism, which inspired the philosophical movement of Existentialism. Kierkegaard had a few Danish followers, including Harald Høffding, who later in his life moved on to join the movement of positivism. Among Kierkegaard's other followers include Jean-Paul Sartre who was impressed with Kierkegaard's views on the individual, and Rollo May, who helped create humanistic psychology.

Epistemic theories of truth

In philosophy, epistemic theories of truth are attempts to analyze the notion of truth in terms of epistemic notions such as knowledge, belief, acceptance, verification, justification, and perspective.

A variety of such conceptions can be classified into verificationist theories, perspectivalist or relativist theories, and pragmatic theories.

Verificationism is based on verifying propositions. The distinctive claim of verificationism is that the result of such verifications is, by definition, truth. That is, truth is reducible to this process of verification.

According to perspectivalism and relativism, a proposition is only true relative to a particular perspective. Roughly, a proposition is true relative to a perspective if and only if it is accepted, endorsed, or legitimated by that perspective.

Many authors writing on the topic of the notion of truth advocate or endorse combinations of the above positions. Each of these epistemic conceptions of truth can be subjected to various criticisms. Some criticisms apply across the board, while others are more specific.


Epistemology ( (listen); from Greek, Modern ἐπιστήμη, epistēmē, meaning 'knowledge', and λόγος, logos, meaning 'the study of [a certain subject]') is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief. Much debate in epistemology centers on four areas: (1) the philosophical analysis of the nature of knowledge and how it relates to such concepts as truth, belief, and justification, (2) various problems of skepticism, (3) the sources and scope of knowledge and justified belief, and (4) the criteria for knowledge and justification. Epistemology addresses such questions as: "What makes justified beliefs justified?", "What does it mean to say that we know something?", and fundamentally "How do we know that we know?"


Evidentialism is a thesis in epistemology which states that one is justified to believe something if and only if that person has evidence which supports his or her belief. Evidentialism is therefore a thesis about which beliefs are justified and which are not.

For philosophers Richard Feldman and Earl Conee, evidentialism is the strongest argument for justification because it identifies the primary notion of epistemic justification. They argue that if a person's attitude towards a proposition fits their evidence, then their doxastic attitude for that proposition is epistemically justified. Feldman and Conee offer the following argument for evidentialism as an epistemic justification:

(EJ) Doxastic attitude D toward proposition p is epistemically justified for S at t if and only if having D toward p fits the evidence.

For Feldman and Conee a person's doxastic attitude is justified if it fits their evidence. EJ is meant to show the idea that justification is characteristically epistemic. This idea makes justification dependent on evidence.

Feldman and Conee believe that because objections to EJ have become so prominent their defense for it is appropriate. The theses that object EJ are implying that epistemic justification is dependent upon the "cognitive capacities of an individual or upon the cognitive processes or information-gatherings practices that lead to an attitude." For Feldman and Conee, EJ is in contrast to these theses; EJ contends that the epistemic justification for an attitude is only dependent upon evidence.

F. H. Bradley

Francis Herbert Bradley OM (30 January 1846 – 18 September 1924) was a British idealist philosopher. His most important work was Appearance and Reality (1893).


Broadly speaking, fallibilism (from Medieval Latin: fallibilis, "liable to err") is the philosophical claim that no belief can have justification which guarantees the truth of the belief. However, not all fallibilists believe that fallibilism extends to all domains of knowledge.


In epistemology, foundherentism is a theory of justification that combines elements from the two rival theories addressing infinite regress, foundationalism prone to arbitrariness, and coherentism prone to circularity (problems raised by the Münchhausen trilemma).

Hierarchical epistemology

Hierarchical epistemology is a theory of knowledge which posits that beings have different access to reality depending on their ontological rank.


Infinitism is the view that knowledge may be justified by an infinite chain of reasons. It belongs to epistemology, the branch of philosophy that considers the possibility, nature, and means of knowledge.

Information source

An information source is a person, thing, or place from which information comes, arises, or is obtained. Information souces can be known as primary or secondary. That source might then inform a person about something or provide knowledge about it. Information sources are divided into separate distinct categories, primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on.

Laurence BonJour

Laurence BonJour (born August 31, 1943) is an American philosopher and Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Washington.

List of epistemologists

This is a list of epistemologists, that is, people who theorize about the nature of knowledge, belief formation and the nature of justification.

Münchhausen trilemma

In epistemology, the Münchhausen trilemma is a thought experiment used to demonstrate the impossibility of proving any truth, even in the fields of logic and mathematics. If it is asked how any knowledge is known to be true, proof may be provided. Yet that same question can be asked of the proof, and any subsequent proof. The Münchhausen trilemma is that there are only three options when providing proof in this situation:

The circular argument, in which theory and proof support each other

The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof, ad infinitum

The axiomatic argument, which rests on accepted preceptsThe trilemma, then, is the decision among the three equally unsatisfying options.

The name Münchhausen-Trilemma was coined by the German philosopher Hans Albert in 1968 in reference to a trilemma of "dogmatism versus infinite regress versus psychologism" used by Karl Popper. It is a reference to the problem of "bootstrapping", based on the story of Baron Munchausen (in German, "Münchhausen") pulling himself and the horse on which he was sitting out of a mire by his own hair.

It is also known as Agrippa's trilemma after a similar argument by Sextus Empiricus, which was attributed to Agrippa the Skeptic by Diogenes Laërtius. Sextus' argument, however, consists of five (not three) "modes". Popper in his original 1935 publication mentions neither Sextus nor Agrippa, but attributes his trilemma to Jakob Fries.In contemporary epistemology, advocates of coherentism are supposed to accept the "circular" horn of the trilemma; foundationalists rely on the axiomatic argument. The view that accepts infinite regress is called infinitism.

Outline of epistemology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to epistemology:

Epistemology or theory of knowledge – branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge. The term was introduced into English by the Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier (1808–1864). Epistemology asks the questions: "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", and "What do people know?"

Regress argument

The regress argument (also known as the diallelus (Latin) or diallelon, from Greek di allelon "through or by means of one another") is a problem in epistemology and, in general, a problem in any situation where a statement has to be justified.According to this argument, any proposition requires a justification. However, any justification itself requires support. This means that any proposition whatsoever can be endlessly (infinitely) questioned.

Theory of justification

The theory of justification is a part of epistemology that attempts to understand the justification of propositions and beliefs. Epistemologists are concerned with various epistemic features of belief, which include the ideas of justification, warrant, rationality, and probability. Loosely speaking, justification is the reason that someone (properly) holds a belief.

When a claim is in doubt, justification can be used to support the claim and reduce or remove the doubt. Justification can use empiricism (the evidence of the senses), authoritative testimony (the appeal to criteria and authority), or reason.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (born 1955) is an American philosopher. He specializes in ethics, epistemology, and more recently in neuroethics, the philosophy of law, and the philosophy of cognitive science. He is the Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. He earned his Ph.D. from Yale University under the supervision of Robert Fogelin and Ruth Barcan Marcus, and taught for many years at Dartmouth College, before moving to Duke.His Moral Skepticisms (2006) defends the view that we do not have fully adequate responses to the moral skeptic. It also defends a coherentist moral epistemology, which he has defended for decades. His Morality Without God? (2009) endorses the moral philosophy of his former colleague Bernard Gert as an alternative to religious views of morality.In 1999, he debated William Lane Craig in a debate titled "God? A Debate Between A Christian and An Atheist".Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argues that God is not only not essential to morality, but moral behaviour should be independent of religion. A separate entity, one could say. He strongly disagrees with several core ideas: that atheists are immoral people; that any society will become like Lord of the Flies if it becomes too secular; that without morality being laid out in front of us, like a commandment, we have no reason to be moral; that absolute moral standards require the existence of a God.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is a proponent of Contrastivism, the idea that all claims of reasons are relative to contrast classes. According to him, "[the contrastivist] approach applies to explanation (reasons why things happen), moral philosophy (reasons for action), and epistemology (reasons for belief), and it illuminates moral dilemmas, free will, and the grue paradox."

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.