Coherentist Theories of Epistemic Justification
First published Tue Nov 11, 2003; substantive revision Thu Nov 15, 2012 According to the coherence theory of justification, also known as coherentism, a belief or set of beliefs is justified, or justifiably held, just in case the belief coheres with a set of beliefs, the set forms a coherent system or some variation on these themes. The coherence theory of justification should be distinguished from the coherence theory of truth. The former is a theory of what it means for a belief or a set of beliefs to be justified, or for a subject to be justified in holding the belief or set of beliefs. The latter is a theory of what it means for a belief or proposition to be true. Modern coherence theorists, in contrast to some earlier writers in the British idealist tradition, typically subscribe to a coherence theory of justification without advocating a coherence theory of truth. Rather, they either favor a correspondence theory of truth or take the notion of truth for granted, at least for the purposes of their epistemological investigations. This does not prevent many authors from claiming that coherence justification is an indication or “criterion” of truth.
1. Coherentism Versus Foundationalism
2. The Regress Problem
3. Traditional Accounts of Coherence
4. Other Accounts of Coherence
5. Justification by Coherence from Scratch
6. Probabilistic Measures of Coherence
7. Truth Conduciveness: the Analysis Debate
8. Impossibility Results
Other Internet Resources
1. Coherentism Versus Foundationalism
A central problem in epistemology is when we are justified in holding a proposition to be true. This is a problem because it is not at all evident how epistemic justification should be understood, and classical accounts of that notion have turned out to be severely problematic. Descartes thought that a person is justified in holding something to be true just in case the proposition in question can be derived from impeccable first principles characterized by their presenting themselves as being self-evident to the subject in question. But, as is often argued, little of what we take ourselves to justifiably believe satisfies these austere conditions: many of our apparently justified beliefs, it is commonly thought, are neither based on self-evident truths nor derivable in a strict logical sense from other things we believe in. Thus, the rationalist picture of justification faces severe skeptical challenges. Similar problems hound empiricist attempts to ground all our knowledge in the allegedly indubitable data of the senses. Depending on how they are understood, sense data are either not indubitable or else not informative enough to justify a sufficient portion of our purported knowledge. The exact characterization of foundationalism is a somewhat contentious issue. There is another form of foundationalism according to which some beliefs have some non-doxastic source of epistemic support that requires no support of its own. This support can be defeasible and it can require supplementation to be strong enough for knowledge. This sort of non-doxastic support would terminate the regress of justification. To do so it may not have to appeal to self-evidence, indubitability or certainty. Such foundationalist views vary on the source of the non-doxastic support, how strong the support is on its own, and what role in justification coherence plays, if any. Some critics of this position have questioned the intelligibility of the non-doxastic support relation. Thus, Davidson (1986) complains that advocates have been unable to explain the relation between experience and belief that allows the first to justify the second. This is an on-going debate the detailed coverage of which is outside the scope of the present article.
The difficulties pertaining to both rationalism and empiricism have led many epistemologists to think that...
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