Pragmatism | Study Guide

William James

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Pragmatism | Lecture 6 : Pragmatism's Conception of Truth | Summary



James tackles the pragmatist's notion of truth in this sixth lecture, and he notes that both Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller and John Dewey have been "ferociously attacked by rationalist philosophers" and "abominably misunderstood." He now intends to clarify some misperceptions.

The popular idea of truth is that it is a copy of reality, and while this definition serves for things that can easily be perceived by the senses, it soon gets into trouble when ideas cannot exactly copy their object. James takes issue with the "intellectualist" assumption that truth implies an inert, static relationship. He says that instead, "true ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot." In this view, the truth of an idea is not a static property that inheres to the idea. Rather, it is an action that happens to an idea, which is made true by events. He says, "truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process," in which it verifies itself.

Truth is not an end in itself, but a means toward some object. For example, a person lost in the woods wants the true path out of that forest for the purpose of preserving his or her life. At the same time, it is useful to have "a general stock of extra truths" that may come in handy in future situations. When such truths become relevant, they are useful because they are true and true because they are useful, which for James means the same thing. "True is the name for whatever starts the verification-process," he says, and "useful is the name for its completed function in experience."

Both direct and indirect verifications of truth are useful if "circumstantial evidence is sufficient." For example, an American who has never been to Japan can still assume Japan exists. Mostly truth "lives ... on a credit system," in that thoughts and beliefs are allowed to stand until they are challenged. Meanwhile, beliefs "verified concretely by somebody are the posts of the whole superstructure." In the realm of mental ideas, beliefs are "absolute, or unconditional," and are called definitions or principles. In the realm of mathematics, for example, truth is eternal.

New ideas must take into account the current body of knowledge to be real. But the question then arises: what does agreement with reality consist of in determining the truth? James says he has already shown that one-to-one correspondence, in which the mind copies an object, doesn't work in all cases. Therefore, he asserts that any idea that helps people in managing reality and does not frustrate them—that "fits" and "adapts ... life to reality's whole setting"—meets the requirement of agreement. When alternative ideas are compatible with current accepted truths, people choose what to believe according to their subjective biases. In science, truth is "what gives ... the maximum possible sum of satisfactions ... but consistency both with previous truth and with novel fact."

James now addresses rationalist objectors, who claim truth exists before verification. In their view, "thoughts partake of ... [truth] directly, as they partake of falsity or of irrelevancy." James objects to this idea. He says one cannot treat the name of a concrete reality as a thing in itself and place it "behind the reality as its explanation." For James, absolute truth is what "no farther experience will ever alter ... [the] ideal vanishing-point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will someday converge." He puts absolute truth in the same category as "the perfectly wise man" and "absolutely complete experience." They are ideals that, "if ever realized ... will all be realized together." He says that for now we must be satisfied with "what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood."

The pragmatist's need to seek truth is part of a "general obligation to do what pays." The payments brought by true ideas, James says, "are the sole why of our duty to follow them." Thus, he must acknowledge that truth is conditional. He calls upon critics of the pragmatist notion of truth to show more "imagination of realities."


Lecture 6, which lays out the pragmatic conception of truth, is the most controversial portion of William James's treatise. James's discussion of truth received so much negative feedback from his contemporaries that he felt obliged to defend and clarify his position with a subsequent publication, The Meaning of Truth, published two years after Pragmatism, in 1909. He may have been surprised to find that those who most vehemently attacked him were not the rationalists and idealists, whom he so vigorously opposes in the treatise, but rather the early proponents of analytic philosophy, realist philosophers who were the heirs of empiricism.

According to literary critic Bryan Vescio, James's detractors saw his notion of truth as construed by human beings and measured by its compatibility with prior beliefs as another form of idealism. In an article on James's theory of truth, scholar D.C. Phillips argues that James's critics do not distinguish between his relativism and instrumentalism. Relativists hold that no statement has truth value, since truth is relative to a theoretical frame (contextual truth), while instrumentalists argue that the truth of statements should be assessed according to their instrumental value.

James begins by attacking the correspondence theory of truth, which asserts that the mind is able to copy reality. This theory holds true for sensible objects that a person clearly comprehends and discerns. But when people use a word for a concept they cannot clearly discern (for example, the "works" of a clock) or a word to describe a function (for example, timekeeping), then the correspondence theory breaks down. Truth is a verb for James, a process that happens to an idea that is made true by events. Furthermore, truth is a means to an end. Therefore, something can be true but not useful. A fact that is relevant in a particular instance (as for a person who needs to know the way out of a forest) is useful because it is true and true because it is useful.

James is particularly concerned with determining what agreement with reality looks like in determining the truth. This point is not addressed by correspondence theory. For James, agreement with reality boils down to an idea's ability to help people navigate reality without frustrating them. True ideas lead to "consistency, stability, and flowing human intercourse ... [and] away from eccentricity and isolation, from foiled and barren thinking." Thus, truth is essentially a matter of trust, the ability of one person to take another's experience at face value.

When rationalists say thoughts partake of truth or falsehood, they are claiming that truth and falsehood have being. This, they say, is why the mind can perceive truths and falsehoods before they are proven true or false. James calls this a "rationalist trick" of pretending that the name of something is an entity or an explanation for a phenomenon. For the rationalist, reality is a ready-made given, while for James experience and truth are in flux. An absolute truth that no subsequent experience can alter is an ideal, and it is doubtful that anyone will ever reach such perfection.

James has been criticized for calling truth conditional, since such a view can certainly be perverted for the purposes of passing off deliberate lies as truths. On the other hand, the fact that truth is conditional is proven day after day. Even in the scientific field, theories are continually shown to be false or incomplete. The pragmatist must be ever ready to grasp whatever truth he can get today while keeping in mind it might turn out, as James said, to be tomorrow's falsehood.

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