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Knowledge and justification, coherence theory of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P009-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 27, 2021, from

Article Summary

Coherence theories of justification represent one main alternative to foundationalist theories of justification. If, as has usually been thought, possessing epistemic justification is one necessary condition (along with truth and perhaps others) for a belief to constitute knowledge, then a coherence theory of justification would also provide the basis for a coherence theory of knowledge. While some proponents of coherence theories have restricted the scope of the theory to empirical justification, others have applied it to all varieties of epistemic justification. (There are also coherence theories of meaning and of truth, as well as coherence theories of ethical or moral justification.)

The initial contrast between coherence theories and foundationalist theories arises in the context of the epistemic regress problem. It is obvious that the justification of some beliefs derives from their inferential relations to other, putatively justified beliefs, and that the justification of these other beliefs may depend on inferential relations to still further beliefs, and so on, so that a potential regress of epistemic justification looms, with scepticism as the threatened outcome. The foundationalist solution to this problem is that one arrives sooner or later at basic or foundational beliefs: beliefs that are epistemically justified, but whose justification does not derive from inferential relations to any further beliefs and so brings the regress to an end. The defining tenet of a coherence theory of justification is the rejection of this foundationalist solution, the coherentist insisting that any belief (of the kinds to which the theory is applied) depends for its justification on inferential relations to other beliefs and eventually to the overall system of beliefs held by the believer in question. According to the coherentist, the justification of this system of beliefs is logically prior to that of its component beliefs and derives ultimately from the coherence of the system, where coherence is a matter of how tightly unified or interconnected the system is by virtue of inferential connections (including explanatory connections) between its members.

Contrary to what this might seem to suggest, coherence theories do not deny that sensory observation or perception plays an important role in justification. What they deny is that this role should be construed in a foundationalist way, insisting instead that the justification of observational beliefs ultimately derives also from considerations of coherence. Specific coherence theories may also add other requirements for justification, thereby departing from a pure coherentism, while still avoiding foundationalism.

While the idea of a coherence theory has often played the role of a dialectical foil, developed theories of this kind are relatively rare and are often in serious disagreement among themselves. In this way, coherentism is much less a unified view with standard, generally accepted features, than is foundationalism.

Citing this article:
Bonjour, Laurence. Knowledge and justification, coherence theory of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P009-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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