Truth by consensus

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In philosophy, truth by consensus is the process of taking statements to be true simply because people generally agree upon them.

Imre Lakatos characterizes it as a "watered down" form of provable truth propounded by some sociologists of knowledge, particularly Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi.[1]

Philosopher Nigel Warburton argues that the truth by consensus process is not a reliable way of discovering truth. That there is general agreement upon something does not make it actually true.
There are two main reasons for this:[2]

  1. One reason Warburton discusses is that people are prone to wishful thinking. People can believe an assertion and espouse it as truth in the face of overwhelming evidence and facts to the contrary, simply because they wish that things were so.
  2. The other one is that people are gullible, and easily misled.

Another unreliable method of determining truth is by determining the majority opinion of a popular vote. This is unreliable because on many questions the majority of people are ill-informed. Warburton gives astrology as an example of this. He states that while it may be the case that the majority of the people of the world believe that people's destinies are wholly determined by astrological mechanisms, given that most of that majority have only sketchy and superficial knowledge of the stars in the first place, their views cannot be held to be a significant factor in determining the truth of astrology. The fact that something "is generally agreed" or that "most people believe" something should be viewed critically, asking the question why that factor is considered to matter at all in an argument over truth. He states that the simple fact that a majority believes something to be true is unsatisfactory justification for believing it to be true.[2] Warburton makes a distinction between the fallacy of truth by consensus and the process of democracy in decision-making. Democracy is preferable to other processes not because it results in truth, but because it provides for equal participation by multiple special-interest groups, and the avoidance of tyranny.[2] Weinberger characterizes Jürgen Habermas as a proponent of a consensus theory of truth, and criticizes that theory as unacceptable on the following grounds: First, even if everyone's opinion is in agreement, those opinions may all nonetheless be erroneous. Second, truth by consensus is conceived as a limit that is approached via an idealized process of discourse; however, it has not been proven that discourse even tends towards such a limit, or that discourse even tends towards one single limit, and thus it is not proven that truth is the limit that is approached by ideal discourse and consensus.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Imre Lakatos (1978). "Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes" (PDF). Philosophical Papers. Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-521-28031-0. Retrieved 1 October 2016.
  2. ^ a b c Nigel Warburton (2000). "truth by consensus". Thinking from A to Z. Routledge. pp. 134–135. ISBN 0-415-22281-8.
  3. ^ Ota Weinberger (1998). Alternative Action Theory: Simultaneously a Critique of Georg Henrik Von Wright's Practical Philosophy. Springer. p. 63. ISBN 0-7923-5184-3.