In This Article Coherentism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • The Nature of Coherence
  • Coherentist Elements in Noncoherence Theories
  • Input/Isolation and Alternative Systems

Philosophy Coherentism
Jonathan L. Kvanvig
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0020


Coherentism in epistemology is to be contrasted with coherentism in the theory of truth, which falls within the domain of semantics and philosophy of language. The focus of this bibliography is on coherentism in epistemology, which arises historically in opposition to foundationalism, a view about the structure of knowledge that required that all knowledge rest on a bedrock of infallible or metaphysically certain starting points. Foundationalism’s history can be traced to Aristotle, but the patron saint of classical foundationalism is Descartes, as embodied in his Meditations on First Philosophy. Coherentists object to this picture of the structure of knowledge, insisting on revisability in place of fixed starting points, and on the possibility of errors that might appear at any point in a conceptual scheme. Coherentism also arises conceptually in response to the regress argument for skepticism, according to which, when we have grounds for belief, the grounds themselves are in need of being grounded or justified, and a regress is thus launched. The options for avoiding a skeptical conclusion are that there is a nonarbitrary stopping point concerning the need for further grounds (foundationalism), that the regress is infinite but nonproblematic (infinitism), or that grounds can go in a circle in some sense or generate mutual support for each other apart from a need to trace grounds in the linear fashion presupposed by the regress argument (coherentism). To formulate a complete theory, a coherentist must specify the items that must cohere, and must also explain the notion of coherence itself. Both tasks lead to controversy. The nearly universal view is that the items that must cohere are beliefs, and this answer leads to a variety of objections pressed early on against coherence theories. Critics claim that the system of beliefs might be cut off from the world, not reliably connected to the way the world is, and not even respecting the role of experience in an account of knowledge and justification. These are the “isolation” and “input” objections, respectively. Early critics also claimed that one could replace every belief with its negation, and the system would be just as well justified on coherentist grounds, an objection typically called “the alternative systems objection.” In recent times, two other types of strong objections have arisen to coherentism. Formal work in probabilities has shown some impossibility results concerning when coherence among independent witnesses cannot make for greater likelihood of truth. If generalizable, such a result would lead to the disturbing conclusion that coherence can increase while likelihood of truth decreases. In addition, epistemologists have also turned their attention to the possibility of justified inconsistent beliefs, both when the inconsistency is known to the cognizer in question and when it isn’t. To the extent that logical consistency is a necessary condition for coherence, such possibilities pose a serious challenge to coherentist theories of knowledge and justification.

General Overviews

The best general overviews of coherentism are found in the encyclopedias of philosophy that have sprung up in recent decades. The quality of the Routledge Encylopedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia are unmatched, but the Internet Encyclopedia is typically of high quality as well. BonJour 1998, Kvanvig 2003, and Murphy 2006 provide excellent general overviews of coherentism as a general theory of justification, while Talbott 2001 provides an overview of Bayesianism, which provides the resources for a distinctive version of coherentism.

  • BonJour, Laurence. “Knowledge and Justification, Coherence Theory of.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 5. Edited by Edward Craig, 253–259. New York: Routledge, 1998.

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    This encyclopedia article follows the structure of BonJour’s other work on coherentism, and is distinctive among general overviews by the historical discussion it contains of coherentism prior to the middle of the 20th century, when the view came to be presented in its more mature form.

  • Kvanvig, Jonathan. “Coherentist Theories of Epistemic Justification.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2003.

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    Unique among discussions of coherentism, this entry addresses the issue of how a coherentist can allow the contents of experience to be among the items in a system over which coherence is defined.

  • Murphy, Peter. “Coherentism.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. 2006.

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    A nicely organized presentation of the literature in terms of arguments for and against coherentism, in terms of what is necessary for coherence and what is sufficient for it.

  • Talbott, William. “Bayesian Epistemology.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2001.

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    A general introduction to Bayesian epistemology, covering the features relevant to the theory of justification in parts 1–3, with part 4 discussing the Bayesian approach to scientific reasoning that is also of at least ancillary interest in the theory of justification.

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