Truth Is Established on Pragmatic Grounds
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 5 - Knowledge
William James, from Pragmatism
Kem Stone - 15 November 2007
A different approach to truth than the traditional theories of correspondence and coherence is to take a pragmatic
approach, and think of truth as something flexible and subject to revision depending on whether it “works”.
Rather than think of a proposition as either absolutely true or absolutely false, a pragmatist will consider the
consequences of designating the proposition true or false, and decide whether or not to consider it true based on
what follows. I think that this is an invaluable method for the formation of scientific theories, but is just not solid
enough for a theory of truth in general.
Like correspondence theorists, pragmatists think of truth in terms of an agreement between our ideas and reality.
Where they differ is in their conception of what is meant by the terms “agreement” and “reality.” James grants that
our true ideas of an object “copy” them, such as in closing my eyes and picturing a clock on the wall, the image in
my mind is a copy of the actual object. But we run into a problem when thinking of the clock’s inner workings, as
because I am not a clock-maker my idea of the gears and levers within the mechanism of the clock do not clash
with reality in any significant way.
What then does it mean to say that truth is an agreement with reality, if our true ideas of objects do not completely
agree with their objects? Some answers that have been given are that our ideas are true when we hold in thought
what God intends we ought to think about the particular object, or that our ideas approach truth the closer they
come to being actual copies of God’s idea. “But the great assumption of the intellectualists is that truth means
essentially an inert static relation. When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter.
You're in possession; you know; you’ve fulfilled your thinking destiny” (297).
But pragmatism thinks of truth in terms of consequences. If we grant a belief to be true, the pragmatist asks, what
experiences would we expect to follow, and do they match up with our actual experiences? This is the essence of
the scientific method. “True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verity. False
ideas are those that we cannot” (298). Thus truth is not a static relation but a process, or an event that happens
to an idea. Verification is what happens to an idea when we determine that it is true based on the available
James points out that in itself, the possession of truth is merely the means to other satisfactions. As an example, he
imagines himself lost and starving in the woods and stumbling along a cow-path. His true idea that a house lies at
the other end of the path may save his life. “The true thought is useful here because the house which is its object is
useful. The practical value of true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to
us” (298). But because not all true ideas will have practical import at all times, it is always possible that they will
become temporarily important and thus it is of great advantage to us to have a large stock of “extra truths” which
may come in handy one day.
For the pragmatist, utility and truth are essentially tied together. “It is useful because it is true” has the same
meaning for the pragmatist as “It is true because it is useful.” The verifiable idea is what is true, and its function in
our experience is what is useful. “When a moment in our experience, of any kind whatever, inspires us with a
thought that is true, that means that sooner or later we dip by that thought’s guidance into the particulars of
experience again and make advantageous connection with them” (299). All true ideas are potentially beneficial,
even if only for the purpose of leading us to other true ideas, and therefore the pragmatists think of the concept of
truth itself in terms of the practical advantages it brings.
One of the most important aspects of any truth is that it always leads to other truths, and for this reason James
believes we do not need complete verification to accept all truths. Things exist in kinds, so for instance we may
accept the belief that the object on the wall is a clock without opening it up to verify this because we have held
true beliefs previously about other clocks. The belief that the object is a clock works—it fits into our conceptions
of what is true and makes the world more coherent—and therefore we need not examine the clock to verify that it
is a clock. In the same vain, we need not go to Japan to verify that Japan actually exists. It makes sense to
believe so, and if we were to assume that Japan does not exist, it would call countless other beliefs into question.
In this respect, pragmatism is nearly identical to coherence.
Because things exist in kinds, James says, indirect verification processes are usually sufficient. “So that when we
have once directly verified our ideas about one specimen of a kind, we consider ourselves free to apply them to
other specimens without verification” (300). In generalising about objects from what we know about only a few
of those objects, we will be right ninety-nine out of a hundred times. And so James believes that these processes
of verification are just as acceptable when dealing with truth as full-verification processes, with the advantage of
being more expedient.
In the next section, James defends pragmatism against the obvious objection of rationalism. A rationalist would
say that truth is not made, that it “absolutely obtains, being a unique relation that does not wait upon any process,
but shoots straight over the head of experience, and hits its reality every time” (300). For the rationalist, that the
object on the wall is a clock was true long before any mind even formed the proposition. This is indeed the
strongest objection against pragmatism, so James needs an equally forceful counter-argument.
James analogises truth to health, wealth, and strength, all of which exist in things before the name given to
designate them. It is a fallacy to say that a person has a lot of money because he is wealthy when it is in fact quite
the other way around. A person is wealthy because he has a lot of money. He is made wealthy by the
accumulation of wealth. In exactly the same way, a person is healthy if they digest well or sleep easily, but it is the
ability to digest or sleep well that makes a person healthy and not a person’s health that makes him able to digest
and sleep well. The fallacy is most apparent when it comes to strength. We may say a person can lift a lot of
weight because he is strong, when in actuality he is only strong because he can lift a lot of weight. James asserts
that the same applies to truth. The object on the wall is a clock—this statement is true because it is a clock; it is
not a clock because the statement is true.
The truth of the statement exists in actuality only when it is verified. “A healthy man need not always be sleeping,
or always digesting, any more than a wealthy man need be always handling money, or a strong man always lifting
weights. All such qualities sink to the status of ‘habits’ between their times of exercise; and similarly truth
becomes a habit of certain of our ideas and beliefs in their intervals of rest from their verifying activities” (301).
What the rationalist is thinking of when he makes his objection is the “absolutely” true, which for the pragmatist is
merely the ideal vanishing-point towards which all our temporary truths are imagined to converge.
The most important aspect of pragmatism, and where it differs absolutely from correspondence, is that we must
accept that what is true today may not be true tomorrow. Ptolemaic astronomy, Euclidean geometry, and
Aristotelian logic are examples James gives of sciences that were once regarded as true. They worked in their
own time to explain the regularity of motion in the heavens, the proportional relations of figures, and the truth value
of syllogisms, and so they were regarded as true, which the pragmatist sees no problem with. Now that we have
advanced beyond the point where these systems work to incorporate all our knowledge, some of the propositions
within them are regarded as false. The sciences we currently go by are thought to be true because thus far they
work well to explain the phenomena we are aware of. But as our awareness expands and our stock of true ideas
grows ever larger, we must be prepared to alter the truth value of many of our theories and accept that what is
true is not necessarily true forever.
The final section of the selected text is James’ claim that truth is a species of good as opposed to a category
distinct and separate from it. “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief,
and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons” (302). If there were no good in true ideas, our duty would be
to shun truth, but it is clear from experience that true ideas, in addition to supporting other true ideas, do genuinely
help in life’s practical struggles.
The obvious objection to this claim is that if we only believed what it is better for us to believe, the truth would not
always fit the bill. For instance, it might be better for a dying child to believe that he is not really dying in order to
spare him unnecessary anxiety from the fear of his imminent death. And since what is better to believe is not
always the truth, the truth and the good must be separate. To this objection James only replies “Pragmatism says
no, and I fully agree with her,” but offers no support. He admits that if we believed only what was better for us to
believe in our personal lives, we may find ourselves entertaining different fancies about the affairs of the world and
life after death, but “it is evident that something happens when you pass from the abstract to the concrete that
complicates the situation” (302). Yet this is clearly an inadequate response to the objection.
James goes on to say that what is better for us to believe is true unless it clashes with another benefit, which is
most usually another truth. The greatest enemy of truth is other truths. So perhaps James would say that if it is
better for us to believe some unfounded fancy, we may grant that belief to be true unless it contradicts a belief that
we know to be true. Perhaps then we may grant that there is a life after death, because we have no specific truths
to defeat that belief. Yet I do not believe that James would want to grant this, as for such a belief there is no
verifiability whatsoever and pragmatism as a theory would crumble if it had to admit all beliefs of which verification
of truth or falsehood is impossible. The objection is left without an adequate response.
In spite of its many problems, pragmatism has two major strengths. The first is its agreement with correspondence
theory that our concept of truth has to do with a relation between beliefs and facts in the external world. The
second is its inherent fallibilism: that it admits that all truth values are subject to change. Thus the pragmatic theory
of truth has the major advantages of both correspondence and coherence while avoiding many of their
disadvantages. However, pragmatism suffers from many weaknesses of its own.
By discussing truth as a function of propositions rather than a property, it ignores what we mean by truth. When
we think of something that is true, we think that it has a certain property—that it corresponds to reality. We are
not thinking that it is merely useful because it coheres with our existing explanation of reality. It may be the case
that something is useful because it is true, but this does not entail as James asserts that if something is useful it is
true. If I have a fear of heights and am trapped on the top floor of a burning building, it may be useful to believe I
can fly—this will get me out of the window where I will fall to the air mattress below rather than burn to death out
of my fear of the fall. My belief was useful but false. I may find it useful to believe in an after-life while I am lying
on my death-bed, but this does not make the belief true. The belief is already either true or false, depending on
whether I really have an immortal soul, a fact which can not be proven either true or false.
Another major weakness is the idea that indirect verification can be just as good a process for making truth as
direct examination. Because things exist in kinds, James says, we may make generalisations about all specimens
of a certain type from what we know to be true of only a few. He asserts that if we do so we will be right in
ninety-nine out of one hundred cases. But what of that hundredth case? Pragmatism will have us grant the
property of truth to all cases in spite of the certainty that in some cases this property will be falsely assigned. How
can we accept a theory of truth that we already know will be wrong in some cases? In addition, allowing broad
generalisations to pass for truth without direct verification, and thus assigning certain properties to all members of a
particular class based on properties that we have only verified in a few such members is the essence of prejudice
and stereotyping, and ought to be avoided.
Finally, the objections that James leaves open are enough to seriously hinder the pragmatic theory, most obviously
the objection that truth and the good are separate because it will often be better for us to believe something false
or unverifiable than to believe what is true. But even James’s response to the rationalist’s objection that truth is
not made but exists eternally does not stand up to scrutiny. James’s counter-argument is based on an analogy of
truth to wealth, health, and strength. A man is strong because he can lift heavy weights; it is not the case that he
can lift heavy weights because he is strong. James wants to say that the same applies for truth. A proposition is
true because it works in reality; it is not the case that it works in reality because it is true. But this analogy does
not hold: it can be the case that a proposition works in reality because it is true, but it may not be the case that a
proposition that works in reality is true. Ptolemaic astronomy contains many claims that work to explain the
motion of heavenly bodies but we now know them to be completely false.
This is the fatal flaw of pragmatism as a theory of truth. People used to believe that the world was flat, and this
belief worked and was coherent with all other beliefs people encountered in their daily lives. The actual world,
however, was still quite round. When new information came to light and people began to realise that the world
was round, it did not suddenly change shape. The proposition that the world is flat was false when everyone
believed it and it worked within the framework of their knowledge, and it is still false now. The proposition that
the world is round was true when nobody believed it and it was unnecessary to know, and it is still true now.
Truth is not made, as pragmatism asserts. It simply is. The only things that are made when we designate
something as true are the reasons we have for making the designation.
Still, as a tool for scientific discovery, pragmatism does have much to offer. When constructing theories it is
undoubtedly helpful to think of truth as a plastic, changeable thing. If we regarded all previously held truths to be
true absolutely, we would never have advanced beyond Ptolemaic astronomy or Aristotelian logic. The essence
of the scientific method is to grant truth to whatever explanation works for a given phenomenon, and this idea is at
the very core of pragmatism. But as an actual theory for what is completely and absolutely true, pragmatism fails
Therefore, whether you accept or reject the theory depends entirely on what you are interested in accomplishing.
If your goal is to expand scientific knowledge, pragmatism is what its name advertises: pragmatic. But if you are
interested in actually defining truth and what it really means for something to be true, pragmatism must be rejected
in favour of other theories which treat the concept of truth as a concrete, rather than a provisional, phenomenon.