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Philosophy Coherentism
by
Jonathan L. Kvanvig

Introduction

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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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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Textbooks

Any competent textbook in epistemology will include a section covering the dispute between foundationalism and coherentism, and among the best and most widely used in courses in epistemology are Audi 2003, Dancy 1985, Feldman 2003 and Cruz and Pollock 1999. Plantinga 1993, though not designed as a textbook, can be and often is used as such, though it has a fairly nonstandard approach to the normative issues related to knowledge—nonstandard enough that it is not always clear whether the disputants are talking past each other. A coherentist conclusion on the theory of knowledge is defended in Lehrer 2000, giving it an unusual partisan character for works designed to be used as textbooks. Suitable also for use as a textbook on coherentism, and often so used, is BonJour 1985.

Anthologies

Anthologies on coherentism proper are quite rare, but recent decades have seen two high-quality collections appear: Bender 1989 and Olsson 2003. In addition to these collections, there are several anthologies on epistemology more generally that contain a good sampling of some of the best work on coherentism. Two of the best are Bernecker and Dretske 2000 and Sosa, et al. 2008. In part 2 of Bernecker and Dretske 2000, the section on internalism contains pieces by BonJour and Lehrer that both defend internalism and articulate coherentist versions of that viewpoint; and the section in part 3 on “Foundations” contains a classic paper by Wilfrid Sellars titled “Does Empirical Knowledge have a Foundation?” Sosa, et al. 2008 includes articles such as “The Myth of the Given” by Roderick M. Chisholm; “Does Empirical Knowledge Have a Foundation?” by Wilfrid Sellars; “Epistemic Principles” by Wilfrid Sellars; “Can Empirical Knowledge Have a Foundation?” by Laurence BonJour; “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge” by Donald Davidson; “A Foundherentist Theory of Empirical Justification” by Susan Haack; “The Raft and the Pyramid” by Ernest Sosa; and “Human Knowledge and the Infinite Regress of Reasons” by Peter Klein.

  • Bender, John W., ed. The Current State of the Coherence Theory. Dordrecht, The Netherlands, and Boston: Kluwer, 1989.

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    Critical essays on the coherentist theories of Lehrer and BonJour, containing replies by those authors that both clarify and expand their previous coherentist positions. Particularly noteworthy on this latter point is that BonJour retracts his claim that consistency is a minimal condition on coherence.

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  • Bernecker, Sven, and Fred I. Dretske, eds. Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Although this collection of readings has no section devoted to the foundationalism-coherentism controversy or to the regress problem, several of the pieces in parts 2 and 3 provide excellent resources on these issues.

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  • Olsson, Erik J., ed. The Epistemology of Keith Lehrer. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 2003.

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    This anthology is divided into four sections: “Externalism vs. Internalism,” “Coherence and Personal Justification,” “Trustworthiness, Undefeated Justification, and the Gettier Problem,” and “Skepticism.” The first three are most relevant to Lehrer’s coherentism, and the volume closes with Lehrer’s replies.

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  • Sosa, Ernest, Jaegwon Kim, Jeremy Fantl, and Matthew McGrath, eds. Epistemology: An Anthology. 2d ed. New York: Blackwell, 2008.

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    Part 2 of this collection is devoted to questions concerning the structure of knowledge and justification, and contains articles that form the central resources for any further discussion of the regress argument and the foundationalist-coherentist controversy.

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Reference Works

Blackwell Publishers has made a strong push in its Guides series and Companion series to provide systematic, high-quality reference material for subdisciplines in philosophy. In epistemology, the Companion series entry is Dancy and Sosa 1992, and the Guide series entry is Greco and Sosa 1999. The former is best used to glean material on coherentism by using the very detailed index, and the latter has several entries that address coherentism and its prospects, the most relevant being BonJour’s “The Dialectic between Foundationalism and Coherentism.”

  • Dancy, Jonathan, and Ernest Sosa, eds. A Companion to Epistemology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1992.

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    Here the volume’s index is the best place to look for helpful entries on coherentism, especially the following general entries with extensive subheadings—“coherentism,” “given, the,” “inference to the best explanation,” “justification,” “infinite regress argument,” “myth of the given,” and “moral epistemology”—as well as entries on the major coherentist figures such as Sellars, Quine, Goodman, Lehrer, and BonJour.

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  • Greco, John, and Ernest Sosa, eds. The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999.

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    Contains relevant material on coherentism, especially Laurence BonJour’s “The Dialectic between Foundationalism and Coherentism.”

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Historical Figures

Defenses of coherentism find their roots in the idealist tradition in philosophy, especially in the post-Hegelian period. The result of this idealist underpinning is that the historical sources of current coherentist theory often mixed, and occasionally confused, coherence theories of truth with coherence theories of justification; see especially Bradley 1914, Blanshard 1939, and Bosanquet 1920. The central coherentist metaphor of thinking of a system of beliefs or mental attitudes in terms of needing to rebuild a ship while at sea, with no part of the ship immune to the need for repair, is found in the classic Neurath 1932–1933. This metaphor is offered in place of the foundationalist’s metaphor of the structure of a building, with the idea being that a ship at sea may need to replace any particular part in the process of keeping the ship seaworthy. Just so, the coherentist claims, with belief systems: nothing is immune from revision.

  • Blanshard, Brand. The Nature of Thought. New York: G. Allen and Unwin, 1939.

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    This work presents an updated version of a coherence theory set within the context of absolute idealism. Blanshard argues that coherence is a test of truth, and thus appropriately thought of as a theory of justification, but also as a theory of truth, because if truth were other than coherence, coherence could not be a test of truth.

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  • Bosanquet, Bernard. Implication and Linear Inference. London: Macmillan, 1920.

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    A defense of coherentism through an attack on the linear conception of justification presupposed by standard formulations of the regress argument.

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  • Bradley, F. H. Essays on Truth and Reality. Oxford: Clarendon, 1914.

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    A collection of essays defending a coherence theory both of truth and of justification, and criticizing correspondence theories of truth.

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  • Neurath, Otto. “Protokollsätze.” Erkenntnis 3 (1932–1933): 204–214.

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    Appearing in translation as “Protocol Sentences” in Logical Positivism, edited by A. J. Ayer (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959), pp. 199–208, and in Philosophical Papers 1913–46, edited by Robert S. Cohen and Marie Neurath (Dordrecht, The Netherlands, and Boston: D. Reidel, 1983), this paper is the original location of the ship-at-sea metaphor for coherentism.

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The Golden Age of Coherentism (Mid-20th Century)

By the middle of the 20th century, it was commonplace to note that the only foundationalist left in philosophy was Roderick Chisholm. By that point, the giants of epistemology—Quine, Sellars, and Goodman—were all endorsing versions of coherentism, and foundationalism seemed a lost cause. In each case, however, the epistemology is intertwined with a variety of other perspectives that make it somewhat difficult to discern exactly what coherentism involves in their endorsements. Goodman 1951 and Goodman 1978 are primarily a defense of irrealism in metaphysics, which Goodman views as especially congenial to coherentist outlooks in epistemology; Sellars 1963 aims at articulating a synoptic vision of an entire metaphysics and philosophy of science, and is quite pointed in articulating why this vision involves no appeal to anything like a foundationalist’s given element in sensory experience; and Quine’s behaviorist and empiricist perspective applied to the philosophy of language and the philosophy of science yields a kind of coherentism in terms of the metaphor of a web of belief (Quine and Ullian 1970), which first appeared in his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.”

  • Goodman, Nelson. The Structure of Appearance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951.

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    The general project here is a constructional one, developed to show how to construct what Goodman calls “concreta,” or what we might think of as objects, out of sensory qualities. Goodman denies, however, that this metaphysical project mirrors anything in the order of knowledge, and in fact argues that the question is confused of whether physicalistic or phenomenalistic starting points are fundamental in the order of knowledge. A second edition was published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1966 and a third edition by Reidel in 1977.

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  • Goodman, Nelson. Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1978.

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    Though this is primarily a work developing an irrealist and relativistic metaphysic, Goodman develops his metaphysics together with an epistemology that denies any tests for truth other than systemic ones, and joins other coherentists such as Sellars in rejecting any appeals to the given in sensory experience as providing the foundations for our understanding of the world.

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  • Harman, Gilbert. “Quine on Meaning and Existence.” Review of Metaphysics 21 (1967): 124–151.

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    An explication of Quine’s coherentism in the context of his theory of knowledge.

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  • Quine, Willard, and J. Ullian. The Web of Belief. New York: Random House, 1970.

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    Develops a coherentist picture of our understanding of the world through the idea of a web of belief (first introduced in Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”) that can be adjusted at any point in response to recognized failures to predict the course of experience.

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  • Sellars, Wilfrid. Science, Perception, and Reality. New York: Humanities Press, 1963.

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    A collection of papers by Sellars, with chapters 5 and 11 arguing that justification is best understood in terms of explanatory coherence, and famously rejecting the foundationalist doctrine he terms “the myth of the given.”

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Contemporary Exponents

The most important contemporary exponents of traditional coherentism are BonJour, Davidson, Harman, Lehrer, and Lycan. Davidson 1986 and Harman 1973 offer two Quinean-inspired, but quite different, coherentist theories, the former including the Davidsonian twist on Quine’s notion of radical translation in terms of a notion of interpretation claimed to yield a nice result for coherentism—that every belief is most likely to be true—and the latter focusing more on explanatory coherence and the concept of inference to the best explanation in articulating a version of coherentism. BonJour 1985 shares with Harman 1973 a focus on explanatory coherence, in this case influenced more by Sellars. Lehrer 1974 offers a novel, subjective approach to justification, criticizing other varieties of coherentism in the process, including the explanatory coherentist views made popular by Quine and Sellars, while Lycan 1988 attempts to avoid these criticisms by wedding explanatory coherentism to a doctrine of conservatism, according to which a belief has some degree of credibility solely in virtue of being held. More recently, another form of coherentism has become increasingly popular, influenced by the rise of the importance of probability theory in science over the past 150 years or so and by Ramsey 1931, the initial source of the idea the varying strengths of our beliefs can be modeled probabilistically. Doing so allows an epistemology based on degrees of belief, rather than belief simpliciter, and the development of Bayesian coherentist approaches is a result of this insight, together with the beautiful simplicity of characterizing the concept of coherence when it is interpreted to mean probabilistic coherence.

Traditional Approaches

Among current defenses of coherentism, the majority are those influenced primarily by the explanatory coherentisms of Quine and Sellars. In this group fall BonJour 1985, demonstrating a primarily Sellarsian influence, Harman 1973, showing a strong Quinean flavor, and Lycan 1988, showing both Quinean and Sellarsian influences. The most thorough investigation of the concept of inference to the best explanation is Lipton 2004. Davidson 1986 is not a version of explanatory coherence, but it shows a Quinean influence through the notion of radical interpretation, Davidson’s replacement for the Quinean notion of radical translation, and this notion of radical interpretation plays a crucial role in tying coherentism to truth in Davidson’s theory. Lehrer 1974 is a highly influential and much different approach to coherentism, being a subjective version of the view that clarifies justification in terms of the system of beliefs of the individual in question.

  • BonJour, Laurence. The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

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    Combines a coherence theory of justification with a correspondence theory of truth, and improves in a very detailed way the account of the nature of coherence itself.

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  • Davidson, Donald. “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge.” In Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Edited by Ernest LePore, 307–319. New York: Blackwell, 1986.

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    Argues that nothing can justify a belief except another belief, and appeals to the notion of interpretation from his philosophy of language to argue that belief is by its very nature highly likely to be true.

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  • Harman, Gilbert. Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

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    An explication and defense of coherentism using the concept of inference to the best explanation, influenced strongly by Quine’s work.

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  • Lehrer, Keith. Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

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    A development of a subjective version of coherentism, according to which the fundamental notion of justification is justification relative to a system of beliefs.

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  • Lipton, Peter. Inference to the Best Explanation. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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    The first edition, published in 1991, is a classic in the philosophy of science of the past half-century, being the only work attempting a careful elucidation of the concept of inference to the best explanation. The second edition improves on the first in a variety of ways, one of which is an attempted reconciliation between Bayesian approaches and those that rely on inference to the best explanation.

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  • Lycan, William. Judgment and Justification. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

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    A defense of coherentism by appeal to a fundamental role for the principle of conservatism, the principle that accords some positive justificatory status to a belief simply because it is held.

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Bayesian Coherentism

The most common form of Bayesian coherentism, explained well in Howson and Urbach 1993 and in Talbott 2001, involves two basic features: a modeling of strength of belief in terms of a probability function, the possibility of which was first noted by Ramsey 1931, with the requirement that justification requires probabilistic coherence; and an updating rule, called “conditionalization,” for what changes to make in light of new learning, according to which one’s new probability should mirror one’s old probability conditional on the new learning in question. Jeffrey 1992 and Jeffrey 1983 replace conditionalization with a weaker principle, termed “probability kinematics,” which allows for updating probabilities when new learning doesn’t involve new certainties. van Fraassen 1989 investigates problems for either type of Bayesianism primarily in terms of the problem of completeness of probabilities, the problem that arises when someone has no attitude in place about what significance to attach to some particular bit of further learning. Earman 1992 reflects on other standard problems for Bayesianism, noting the successes Bayesians have had in solving problems for their view and also noting which problems remain.

  • Earman, John. Bayes or Bust? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

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    A critical evaluation of the Bayesian approach to confirmation theory, arguing that Bayesianism is the best approach available to this point but that it faces serious problems as well.

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  • Howson, Colin, and Peter Urbach. Scientific Reasoning: The Bayesian Approach. 2d ed. Peru, IL: Open Court, 1993.

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    This work is the classic explanation and defense of the Bayesian approach to scientific reasoning more broadly and also to confirmation theory, with chapters 5 and 6 on subjective probability and updating belief containing an explication of the core Bayesian approach to the theory of justification.

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  • Jeffrey, Richard. The Logic of Decision. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

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    An updated version of a book originally published in 1965, this work is a classic and philosophically rich explication of Bayesian decision theory, introducing a new foundation for it in terms of preference orderings.

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  • Jeffrey, Richard. “Bayesianism with a Human Face.” In Probability and the Art of Judgment. By Richard Jeffrey, 77–108. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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    A modification of the standard Bayesian rule of updating, which requires that learning be modeled by certainty, in favor of a weaker rule of updating that allows learning to occur even though what is learned is not fully certain.

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  • Ramsey, F. P. “Truth and Probability.” In The Foundations of Mathematics and Other Logical Essays. Edited by R. B. Braithwaite, 156–198. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1931.

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    The original source of using betting behavior to measure strength of belief, thereby allowing a probabilistic measure of degree of belief.

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  • 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, which is also of at least ancillary interest in the theory of justification.

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  • van Fraassen, Bas. Laws and Symmetry, Part II: Belief as Rational but Lawless. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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    A limited endorsement of Bayesianism, accommodating the point that ordinary human beings often lack conditional degrees of belief regarding much of what might be learned in the future and what implications such learning would or should have on present opinion.

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The Nature of Coherence

A common complaint against coherentism is that the central concept of the theory, coherence itself, is not adequately explained. The central attempts at this task begin with Ewing 1934, who understandings coherence in terms of logical notions: consistency plus mutual logical support, so that each element in the set of coherent claims follows logically from the others. Lewis 1946 relaxes this logical notion in terms of probabilistic support between sentences rather than in terms of logical relations. BonJour 1985 views coherence as multifaceted, including probabilistic and logical relations as well as explanatory ones. Shogenji 1999 and Olsson 2002 follow Lewis 1946 in understanding coherence in terms of probabilistic relations, but differ by viewing coherence as admitting of degrees.

  • BonJour, Laurence. The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

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    Combines a coherence theory of justification with a correspondence theory of truth, and improves in a very detailed way the account of the nature of coherence itself, even while admitting that his account of coherence is not yet fully adequate.

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  • Ewing, A. C. Idealism: A Critical Survey. London: Methuen, 1934.

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    The earliest attempt to state precisely what coherence involves, requiring both logical consistency in a coherent set and mutual logical support, where the latter notion is understood in such a way that each member of the set is logically implied by the remainder of the set.

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  • Lewis, C. I. An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1946.

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    The father of rapprochement accounts between aspects of foundationalism and coherentist elements, Lewis uses the term “congruence” to avoid confusion between coherence elements regarding justification and coherence accounts of truth, and develops an account of congruence in terms of probabilistic notions.

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  • Olsson, E. J. “What Is the Problem of Coherence and Truth?” Journal of Philosophy 99 (2002): 246–272.

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    Clarifies the notion of coherence in probabilistic terms, arguing that a connection between truth and coherence has to be highly qualified in order to be maintained.

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  • Shogenji, Tomoji. “Is Coherence Truth-Conducive?” Analysis 59 (1999): 338–345.

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    Defends coherentism against the objection that coherence can increase while probability of truth decreases, clarifying coherence in probabilistic terms but arguing that the truth-conduciveness claim made by coherentism should be understood in a ceteris paribus sense.

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Coherentist Elements in Noncoherence Theories

One of the lasting influences of Lewis 1946 is the way in which noncoherentist positions in contemporary philosophy give central place to the idea of coherence even while rejecting coherentism. Lewis’s idea was motivated in part by cases of testimony, where one has two or more independent sources (assumed not to be totally unreliable) all of whom say exactly the same thing. The fact that they all agree is a sign that they are all telling the truth and are reliable concerning it, and this idea motivated Lewis to require congruence among beliefs in order for them to count as knowledge. (Lewis used the term “concurrence” rather than “coherence” to avoid confusing the theory of justification with the theory of truth, since the idea of a coherence theory of truth was already well entrenched in the literature.) This tradition of requiring coherence in a theory of justification is carried on in Chisholm 1966 and Chisholm 1982, in which the author adopts the Lewisian view that coherence turns minimally acceptable beliefs into ones justified enough to be candidates for knowledge. Haack 1993 is similar, analogizing justification to the solving of a crossword puzzle, and naming the resulting combination of foundationalist and coherentist elements “foundherentism.” The influence of Lewis’s idea extends even to those outside the foundationalist-coherentist group in Sosa 1991, where the distinction between animal knowledge and reflective knowledge is clarified in typically coherentist language.

  • Chisholm, Roderick. Theory of Knowledge. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966.

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    The style of each is classically Chisholmian, full of principles and axioms and definitions, with pithy and minimalist prose regarding positions and authors with contrary viewpoints. For a thorough grounding both in Chisholm’s overall project and in the role of coherence in his overall theory of knowledge, the second volume is classic. A more widely used second edition was published in 1977 and a less used and terser third edition in 1989.

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  • Chisholm, Roderick. The Foundations of Knowing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

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    The last in the various articulations of Chisholm’s foundationalism, with the standard Chisholmian role for coherence, according to which coherence is required to turn minimally acceptable beliefs into beliefs evident enough to be candidates for knowledge.

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  • Haack, Susan. Evidence and Inquiry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    Haack invents the term “foundherentism” to describe a view that mixes foundationalist and coherentist elements, preferring the metaphor of solving a crossword puzzle to the foundationalist metaphor of constructing a building and to the coherentist metaphor of rebuilding a ship at sea.

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  • Lewis, C. I. An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1946.

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    The father of rapprochement accounts between aspects of foundationalism and coherentist elements, Lewis uses the term “congruence” to avoid confusion between coherence elements regarding justification and coherence accounts of truth.

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  • Sosa, Ernest. Knowledge in Perspective: Essays in Epistemology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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    Sosa is the father of virtue epistemology, and the role of coherence in his approach is contained in his distinction between animal and reflective knowledge. Animal knowledge requires no perspective on oneself or one’s abilities, but only belief resulting from cognitive skills. When discussing reflective knowledge, however, Sosa’s language is strongly coherentist in tone and content, and he claims that reflective knowledge is the distinctively human knowledge that we value most.

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Input/Isolation and Alternative Systems

The three historically central objections to coherentism are stated most clearly in BonJour 1985. These objections are (1) the input objection, which notes that if coherence is a relation solely among beliefs, then a system of beliefs can be justified even if there is no input provided by the senses concerning the surrounding environment; (2) the isolation problem, which is similar to the input objection but involves the possibility of having a coherent set of beliefs that is isolated from the input of the senses, in the sense of being unresponsive to changes in sensory input; and (3) the alternative systems objection, which notes that even given a quite detailed account of coherence, there will be many alternative systems of belief that count as coherent, leading to the worry of why one should prefer one’s own set of beliefs to an alternative system of beliefs. Plantinga 1992 presses the isolation objection in terms of a mountain climber whose belief system becomes frozen while climbing a mountain and who is now presently experiencing an opera, but whose belief system has not changed at all. Sosa 1980 investigates the dialectic between foundationalists and coherentists, focusing his discussion on the justification of perceptual beliefs in a way that raises all of these traditional worries in one package by arguing that perceptual beliefs have so few ties to the remainder of the system that, if those beliefs are replaced by their denials, the system will remain just as coherent in the absence of some appeal to experience itself. This latter requirement—that coherence is a relation on beliefs only—is challenged in Kvanvig and Riggs 1992. Kvanvig 1995 addresses other objections to coherentism, arguing that they are not compelling and serve as distractions from the main coherentist task of saying what coherence involves.

Recent Objections

Coherentism historically has been criticized in a number of ways, but a central recurring theme in these criticisms is that coherentism fails to provide an adequate explanation of how our beliefs are likely to be true. This concern takes center stage in BonJour 1985, but Lewis 1946 has a helpful proposal for coherentists in terms of witness testimony. Lewis’s idea of connecting coherence with likelihood of truth involves cases of two or more independent sources (assumed not to be totally unreliable), all of whom say exactly the same thing concerning a given event. The fact that they all agree is a sign that they are all telling the truth and are reliable concerning it, Lewis argues. This claim of Lewis’s has been subjected to rigorous examination in recent literature, beginning with Klein and Warfield 1994, which argues that increased coherence can easily decrease likelihood of truth, a charge responded to in Shogenji 1999. This concern led to an explosion of literature on the precise conditions required for the failure of Lewis’s conclusion, and various impossibility results can be found in Bovens and Hartmann 2003 and Olsson 2005. The negative conclusions in these works have received a number of replies, including Cross 1999, and it is fair to say that the status of these various impossibility results and attempts to avoid them are among the most active topics in the current literature on coherentism. The connection between coherence and truth arises in recent literature in another way as well. Whatever one’s theory of the nature of coherence, it would seem an attractive position to hold that logical consistency is strictly weaker than coherence, and that a decent theory of coherence should begin from the starting point of logical consistency and attempt to say what else is needed in order to achieve coherence. This role for logical consistency has been challenged, however, leading to a concern that coherentism may have not only too weak a connection to truth, but perhaps too strong a connection to truth by requiring the joint possibility of truth for all beliefs in a coherent system of beliefs.

Enhanced Probability of Truth

The impetus for the formal work on the connection between coherentism and truth is Lewis 1946, where it is argued that independent witnesses to an event gain credibility in virtue of agreement on what they report. This claim raises the interesting idea that coherence enhances likelihood of truth, but this idea is challenged first in Klein and Warfield 1994, responded to in Shogenji 1999, and in the proofs of various impossibility results in Bovens and Hartmann 2003 and Olsson 2005. Cross 1999 responds to Klein and Warfield, defending the claim that their results do not threaten one standard form of coherentism, and Olsson 2007 contains a variety of approaches to the impossibility results in a way that prevents them from being as severe a threat to coherentism as they might at first appear to be.

  • Bovens, Luc, and Stephan Hartmann. Bayesian Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    The initial source of impossibility results, demonstrating that under certain conditions, coherence is not truth-conducive. In particular, they prove that no coherence measure that assigns a degree of coherence to all sets can be truth-conducive.

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  • Cross, Charles. “Coherence and Truth Conducive Justification.” Analysis 59 (1999): 186–193.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-8284.00166Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Defends BonJour’s coherentism against the criticisms of Klein and Warfield, arguing that coherence pertains to sets of beliefs and not to sets of propositions, thereby allowing BonJour’s coherentism to evade the criticisms in question.

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  • Klein, Peter, and Ted Warfield. “What Price Coherence?” Analysis 54 (1994): 129–132.

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    Argues that coherence is not truth-conducive by showing that a set of propositions can be made more coherent by the addition of more elements that decrease the probability of the larger set.

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  • Lewis, C. I. An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1946.

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    The father of rapprochement accounts between aspects of foundationalism and coherentist elements, Lewis uses the term “congruence” to avoid confusion between coherence elements regarding justification and coherence accounts of truth.

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  • Olsson, Erik. Against Coherence: Truth, Probability, and Justification. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    A systematic study of coherence from the viewpoint of probability theory. Crucial claims made by coherentists are given probabilistic interpretations, allowing for precise testability. On this basis, it is argued, coherence does not imply probability of truth, and an impossibility result is derived different from that of Bovens and Hartmann.

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  • Olsson, Erik, ed. “Special Issue: Coherence and Truth: Recovering from the Impossibility Results.” Synthese 157.3 (August 2007).

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    Investigates what options are open to coherentists in light of the impossibility results, perhaps by linking coherence to inference to the best explanation, or by rejecting certain independence assumptions used in the proofs of the impossibility results.

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  • Shogenji, Tomoji. “Is Coherence Truth-Conducive?” Analysis 59 (1999): 338–345.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-8284.00191Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Defends coherentism against the argument of Klein and Warfield, arguing that the truth-conduciveness claim made by coherentism should be understood in a ceteris paribus sense.

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Inconsistency

BonJour 1985 endorses the claim that logical consistency is a minimal requirement on coherence, and Foley 1979 provides evidence for the uniformity of this requirement among historical coherentists. Foley joins Klein 1985 in arguing on the basis of the lottery and preface paradoxes that inconsistent justified beliefs are possible. (In the lottery paradox, one apparently has good reason to believe of each ticket that it will lose and also that some ticket will win. In the preface paradox, one has good reasons for thinking that each claim in one’s book is true, but also good reasons for thinking that the preface claim, which warns the reader that errors are sure to remain, is also true.) Foley 1992 extends these arguments to coherentist theories that invoke degrees of belief rather than belief simpliciter. Pollock 1986 addresses both lottery and preface paradoxes, arguing that they present different problems, but presenting an account of the defeasible character of justification that prevents these paradoxes from threatening the consistency requirement.

  • BonJour, Laurence. The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

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    Combines a coherence theory of justification with a correspondence theory of truth, and improves in a very detailed way the account of the nature of coherence itself.

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  • Foley, Richard. “Justified Inconsistent Beliefs.” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979): 247–258.

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    Foley argues on the basis of lottery and preface paradoxes that justified inconsistent beliefs are possible. In the lottery paradox, one apparently has good reason to believe of each ticket that it will lose and also that some ticket will win. In the preface paradox, one has good reasons for thinking that each claim in one’s book is true, but also good reasons for thinking that the preface claim, which warns the reader that errors are sure to remain, is also true. Foley uses this possibility to argue that coherentism is false, claiming that consistency is a minimal condition for coherence.

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  • Foley, Richard. “Being Knowingly Incoherent.” Noûs 26 (1992): 181–203.

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    This article addresses a number of ways in which one can know that one’s beliefs are incoherent, because inconsistent, and yet be fully justified in those beliefs. The article discusses incoherence in degrees of belief as well as incoherence in belief itself, thus being relevant to both standard coherentism and Bayesian coherentism.

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  • Klein, Peter. “The Virtues of Inconsistency.” Monist 68 (1985): 105–135.

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    Klein argues, on the basis of lottery and preface paradoxes, that a person violates no valid epistemic rule in believing a sufficiently large set of claims that is known to be inconsistent, and he suggests that every knowledgeable person aware of his or her own fallibility will be epistemically praiseworthy for having known inconsistent beliefs.

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  • Pollock, John. “The Paradox of the Preface.” Philosophy of Science 53 (1986): 246–258.

    DOI: 10.1086/289309Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents a solution to the preface paradox, contrasting it with the lottery paradox. In each case, however, Pollock argues against the idea that one can be fully justified in believing a set of claims that are known to be inconsistent, as is usually thought concerning these paradoxes.

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LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0020

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