Two Theories of Truth: Correspondence and Pragmatic
Critiquing the Correspondence Theory of Truth
Most discussions of the Bible’s truth are flawed because they assume a “correspondence theory of truth” according to which the parts of the Bible that might matter most are almost certainly false, and that’s the end of the matter.
In the correspondence theory, the world is composed of states of affairs, which language somehow pictures. When the verbal pictures that make up sentences correspond to these states of affairs, we call them true. To say “The Bible is true” implies that its statements accurately map the way things really are, something I have never believed and never worried about. Of course, certain parts of the Bible are true even according to the correspondence theory: Jerusalem’s temple really was destroyed, for instance; but these “truths” are probably less frequent than the “untruths,” and they are not the parts of the Bible that motivate me anyway.
Embracing the Pragmatic Theory of Truth
A broader and better criterion for truth is the “pragmatic theory,” as advanced by philosophers like William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty. Statements are “true” to the extent that they help advance the human project of navigating life. Language is for coping, not just copying, says Rorty. We make progress, not by arguing better but by speaking differently, an art we get not just from scientific truths but from fiction, poetry, and metaphor, other ways of stretching our understanding of reality. Scientifically speaking, life is not “petty”; time does not “creep”; but it is still profoundly true of despair to quote Macbeth: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day.”
Philosopher Wilfred Sellars separates cause from reason. Causes describe the world as it is. Reasons describe the way we make sense of that world: how we learn to say meaningful things about it – whether the scientific “truths” (by “correspondence theory” standards); or poetry, metaphor and the like. A God who is “compassionate and gracious” (Adonai Adonai el rachum v’chanun) comes regularly to mind, as a reason for my being who I am.
Beliefs, says philosopher John Dewey, are recipes for habitual patterns of action. Believing God merciful and myself made in God’s image, I become merciful as a matter of habit.
Gestalt psychologists tell us that we see the world holistically, as patterns. It turns out, we capture it linguistically that way too. The Bible and its subsequent interpretive history is the Jewish linguistic pattern of choice by which to capture it. Jewish history is, by now, long and deep, reasonable proof that the Jewish pattern has proven very “useful to the human project of navigating life.” To that extent, the Bible is very true indeed.
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September 7, 2015
March 16, 2020
Professor Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship, and Ritual at HUC-JIR, where he was ordained and where received his Ph.D. He is the editor of the the multi-volume My People’s Prayerbook, and among his many books are Beyond the Text, Rethinking Synagogues,and Canonization of the Synagogue Service.
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