The Pragmatic Theory of Truth

In his overview of pragmatism in “What Pragmatism Means” from 1906, William James offers his pragmatic theory of truth. Many of the ideas he presents he goes into more detail in subsequent lectures, but what he provides here seems rather clear, and an overall picture of the pragmatic view of truth emerges (The link to the lectures is at the end of the post). There are perhaps three parts to it. The first part quotes James’ contemporaries who had been recently developing the view, and giving the pragmatic position on the significance of beliefs and world views, and the principle of questioning that distinguishes them from one another; the second part provides the instrumental definition of truth; and the third part gives James’ own definition of truth as what it is best to believe. These are all components that encompass the pragmatic theory of truth. James makes clear that his view of truth is to be contrasted with the correspondence theory of truth (or perhaps some unrecognizable straw man of it):

“As against [pragmatic truth], objective truth must be something non-utilitarian, haughty, refined, remote, august, exalted. It must be an absolute correspondence of our thoughts with an equally absolute reality” (p 10)

as well as

“[Pragmatic truth] converts the absolutely empty notion of a static relation of ‘correspondence’ (what that may mean we must ask later) between our minds and reality, into that of a rich and active commerce (that any one may follow in detail and understand) between particular thoughts of ours, and the great universe of other experiences in which they play their parts and have their uses” (p 11)

Since the correspondence view of truth is rather easy to say succinctly, let’s start there. Aristotle put it best in his Metaphysics: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true” (1011b25) (perplexingly, James cites Aristotle as a precursor to his pragmatic view of truth). Let’s break it down. In Aristotle’s definition, there are two components: the saying, and what is and what is not. The later often goes by the name ‘reality’ while the former is composed of language bits (words, sentences and so forth) that can express or perhaps bring to mind certain features of that reality. When reality has the features expressed in the saying (i.e. when reality corresponds to the saying), then the saying is true. For an entirely original example, take the sentence “The mat is on the cat.” This sentence is true if what is in the vicinity of the utterance features a mat and a cat and the mat’s being on top of the cat. (In this blog, I have adhered to a correspondence view of truth exclusively as far as I can recall, but I will note that changing the definition of truth surprisingly does not affect my solutions to various paradoxes involving truth — what’s important in those pages is merely remaining consistent in the definition that is given. Pretty nice find, if I may say so!) So what is the alternative to Aristotle’s and my view of truth that we may make use of? Enter the pragmatic theory of truth. As James writes,

“It was first introduced into philosophy by Mr. Charles Peirce in 1878. In an article entitled How to Make Our Ideas Clear, in the Popular Science Monthly for January of that year Mr. Peirce, after pointing out that our beliefs are really rules for action, said that, to develop a thought’s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance. And the tangible fact at the root of all our thought-distinctions, however subtle, is that there is no one of them so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice. To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve – what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects, whether immediate or remote, is then for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all. This is the principle of Peirce, the principle of pragmatism.” (p.2)

For Peirce, a belief is a rule for action. And it is not anything but a rule for action. So my belief that Norm MacDonald is hilarious is really just a rule to laugh at much of what he says. Writing that last line actually made me laugh out loud (lol — for the folks at home). Why did it make me laugh? Is it because I’m following a rule where I have to laugh? To say that part of what beliefs do is provide rules for action is plausible enough, but to say that is all that it does would seem to go against common sense. I laugh at that view about my beliefs because the picture that such a notion forms or implies is absurd. It clashes with many of my notions of what beliefs are, which in the case of Norm is to behold what he says and to witness my thwarted expectations and simple turns of common phrases, and whatnot. And so, the proper picture from the outset would seem to be that I behold Norm’s words first and so have my belief of it insofar as I retain what I’ve beheld — this does not yet imply I have to adhere to any rule of action. To say it does implies that the beholding or what is beheld contains the entirety of the rules of action. But such courses of action that I do take are much more likely the additive result of additional cognitive apparati that inform the subsequent course for action for what I have beheld rather than being an actual component of it. The evidence of this is that I may not laugh at all at any of Norm’s same jokes, if my mood is sour that day. All the same, my belief of what has taken place before me should not be said to be necessarily different. More commonly, I may laugh less as I hear the jokes repeatedly over the course of a week. I behold the same jokes, and so have a same basic belief about what is said, but my actions change. So that the belief outlines a rule for action is not all the belief is — it also beholds what occurs, regardless of some particular action or other that results. A prisoner may have all sorts of beliefs he has no possibility of acting out. The belief that roller coasters are fun would seem to be no different in prison or out, and yet the differences of practice are huge. This ought to show that the significance of beliefs amounts to more than their possible practices. But, despite such intuitions, perhaps there’s good reason to suppose that I am wrong and that the change in behavior or possible actions is a sure indication that the beliefs have changed. Continuing on, James cites another forebearer of pragmatism:

“I found a few years ago that Ostwald, the illustrious Leipzig chemist, had been making perfectly distinct use of the principle of pragmatism in his lectures on the philosophy of science, though he had not called it by that name. ‘All realities influence our practice,’ he wrote me, ‘and that influence is their meaning for us. I am accustomed to put questions to my classes in this way: In what respects would the world be different if this alternative or that were true? If I can find nothing that would become different, then the alternative has no sense.’ (p. 3)

Notice the metaphysical position put forth by Ostwald: All realities influence our practice. Did he mean to make a metaphysical statement? It definitely has an idealistic twang to it, and indeed if taken literally it says that all that is influences our human practices. The flip side of this statement is that if something does not in some way influence our human practices then it simply does not exist. Contentious metaphysical statements for the win! — I thought it was against such things that James was primarily against a correspondence theory! It’s arrogant to think that reality couldn’t be greater than what we humans perceive, or that we couldn’t talk sensibly about such a possibility. Consider neutrinos: those subatomic particles that rarely react with normal matter. They were first postulated in 1930 and first observed in 1970. Does this mean that they didn’t exist before we discovered or postulated them — since they didn’t in any way influence our practices beforehand? That would be absurd! Even the idealistic maestro Berkeley himself wouldn’t be so solipsistic — he’d at least have it so God watches over our lovely neutrinos whether or not we discover them. Neutrinos would then affect God’s practices of overseeing them, and so exist according to a modified and less anthropocentric version of Ostwald’s statement. Yet if one of the points of pragmatism is to be without a priori metaphysical positions, then materialism should at least be an open possibility at the outset, which it is clearly not in the idealistic statement James upholds from Ostwald. Let’s move on from this issue of metaphysics.

After the metaphysics-laden statement, Ostwald provides a principle of pragmatism that involves tracing the consequential differences of rival views. To get at these, we are to ask “In what respects would the world be different if this alternative or that were true?” and “If I can find nothing that would become different, then the alternative has no sense.” James explains, “That is, the rival views mean practically the same thing, and meaning, other than practical, there is for us none.”

The method here outlined is appreciable for assessing sensible debates between rival theories or world views. Ostwald says that if a debate occurs around competing views that are without a findable difference, then “the quarrel was as unreal as if, theorising in primitive times about the raising of dough by yeast, one party should have invoked a ‘brownie’, while another insisted on an ‘elf’ as the true cause of the phenomenon.” Now, much is agreeable about what Ostwald says here. Definitely, many people would be fine with calling such a quarrel “unreal”, among other terms, I would venture to guess, as “useless” and “unimportant”. Yet, outwardly, there is a clear difference: one worldview holds to elves as the direct instigators, while another rather holds that brownies (mythical spirits that resemble hobgoblins) are. While a debate is useless for reason of a lack of evidence to support one over the other, it is by no means clear how the world views are to be regarded as thereby identical. A counterexample to the thought of their being identical is to consider that in the future we have elf and brownie detectors. Would the rival theories then become distinct for, say, one being vindicated? But it seems much more sensible to say that the rival theories were always distinct, but that we just couldn’t test them. And, of course, the insight of pragmatism here is that having a constructive debate over these rival theories would be nonsense in the sense of being a useless discussion at present for the complete lack of evidence supporting either side; but there is nonetheless a difference between the views, one that might be discovered in the distant future, but one that does not practically affect us today, even in the preparation to begin the possibility of an investigation. The difference regards what pragmatism puts off: differences regarding causes and present constituents that have not yet been discovered. So it would seem that the pragmatic principle Ostwald outlines is perhaps a good method of determining which debates or theories are worth engaging with, but it is not a good logical principle of determining which theories or world views are distinct from one another.

James proceeds by claiming that all of philosophy ought to proceed by determining effective differences:

“The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.”

Such a course of action may indeed be a worthwhile function of philosophy, even today, yet I think it betrays James’ own project. The method appears to be this: Apparently, there are these world-formulas, and we take them and trace their practical differences or effects. Then, if no differences can be traced, the result is that they are the same world-formulas. However, the problem here is that ‘identity’ is a strong word. It usually means something like having all properties in common. Yet the obvious question to ask is why the philosophers did not immediately recognize the identity of the world-formulas from the start. Why did they not see that they were identical — that is, that they had all their properties in common? For it would seem sensible to assume that the claims had some property or other that was different, one that led the philosophers to be unsure whether or not they were different. Yet this betrays the notion that they are identical. The pragmatist therefore must hold the view that such outward differences are illusory. Yet this encumbers the pragmatist theory, it would seem, beyond what James should have intended for it. Pragmatism is about common sense, not about theoretical notions of illusion and reality — such are notions for the metaphysicians! Ironically, correspondence seems to be the common-sense answer here: the elves world-formula and the brownies world-formula are false simply for failing to correctly specify the reality of what constitutes the yeast and the dough. Such claims about their failing to do so are easily understood and sensible. The claim that there is no distinction between the world views, on the other hand, is highly implausible. They are outwardly a difference about causes, and the pragmatist must say that there is no difference between the claims of such causes since they fail to affect our current practices. I can’t help but consider this to be a willful ignorance. Again, the claims look different, but they are supposed to be identical. The only way the pragmatist can square this up is to have a theory of claims whereby some look distinct but are not really distinct (again a theory between illusion and reality as regards claims). That such a theory would be amenable to pragmatism rather than a the sort of theoretical notions that James opposes would seem unlikely.

The Instrumental View of Truth


Let’s now turn away from the pragmatic significance of beliefs and world views and on to James’ presentation of the instrumental view of truth, which he attributes to Dewey, Schiller, and others. In presenting this view, James says,

“‘truth’ in our ideas and beliefs means the same thing that it means in science. It means, they say, nothing but this, that ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience, to summarise them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena. Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally.”

To sum, truth has to do with ideas that help us relate well to our experiences. Next, James focuses on the process of new ideas coming into contact with old ideas. Of this process, he explains:

“The individual has a stock of old opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain. Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers that they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy. The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions. He saves as much of it as he can, for in this matter of belief we are all extreme conservatives. So he tries to change first this opinion, and then that (for they resist change very variously), until at last some new idea comes up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum of disturbance of the latter, some idea that mediates between the stock and the new experience and runs them into one another most felicitously and expediently.”

Basically, new ideas that are added to an individual’s stock but do not sit well with the old ideas are added in a way that will do the least amount of disruption to those old ideas. James next goes into some decent descriptions of psychology, although this isn’t the term he uses for what he is doing. He explains, in my own words, that we may believe in different theories according to personal reasons, tastes, and preferences. Also, our oldest ideas more or less correspond to our first principles, and they are not shaken easily. Examples here include cause and effect, space and time, and the like. This, I take it, is sound psychology as it relates to beliefs. It’s just a fact that we cannot realize that our beliefs contradict one another and subsequently adhere to them. Either one would have to go, or they would all have to be tweaked until the contradiction is no more.

However, James quickly shifts from speaking in terms of opinions and ideas to speaking of truth: “[The new idea] makes itself true, gets itself classed as true, by the way it works; grafting itself then upon the ancient body of truth, which thus grows . . .” (p. 9). For the instrumental view of truth, “Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for ‘to be true’ means only to perform this marriage-function.”

Again, that there is a grafting of new ideas to old ideas, and even that this plays a role in truth is a fine position to take. After all, beliefs may be seen to be a necessity in thinking truthfully. Without beliefs, how could one think truthfully about things? It is also plausible that beliefs behave as James describes. However, in that last sentence just quoted, James clearly conflates the meaning of belief with the meaning of truth. He says that to be true means only to perform this marriage-function. Really? So if my friend says that he saw a squirrel in his backyard, and I say, “Really?”And he says, “Yes, it’s true,” what he means there is that the idea of a squirrel being in his backyard performed the marriage function that James’ describes with all the rest of his older ideas? Yeah, no. The difficulty, to start, is just that my friend makes no mention about his own ideas at all, and especially not how well they line up with one another, but rather mentions squirrels in his backyard — that these things happened as he said they did (recall the simple correspondence view from earlier). This is definitely one of the more implausible lines from James that such a psychological process is what regular people mean when they say that what they say is true.

The real proof against James’ view here is to suppose that another friend of mine has a pest control company and was just over at my friend’s house. He claims that my friend couldn’t have seen a squirrel, since he got rid of all the rodents in the wide vicinity. Now, at the beginning when my friends meet to discuss the merits of there being a squirrel vs. there not being one in his backyard, they clearly have a difference with respect to what has occurred. That is, they have a difference about what corresponds to reality. Yet — and this is the telling point — each of them has had their own addition of new ideas to the old ones. So when my first friend initiates their discussion by saying to my other friend that it’s true that there was a squirrel in his backyard, he absolutely cannot mean that his idea of there being a squirrel in his backyard fits in very nicely with all of his old ideas, because the other friend would have no problem agreeing with him about that. The dispute concerns not how well their respective ideas have made it through their respective idea-marraige-functions at all, but rather concerns what actually occurred in my friend’s backyard. The dispute is precisely over what’s true in a correspondence sense, and cannot be a dispute over what’s true in an instrumental sense. One step further, exchanging the belief marriage function with other commonly held pragmatic tropes, such as what is true is what is useful to believe, results in the same absurdity. Those who disagree cannot be merely talking about the respective usefulness of holding the beliefs that they do. They may end up agreeing that their beliefs are useful to some end, but nevertheless wrong.

Note that this proof extends to evidence as well. So when my first friend says that his view is true because he saw the squirrel with his own two eyes, he is again not talking merely about how his visual system provided a belief that sat nicely with his old ones, for, once again, the other friend would have no issue accepting that proposition. What he denies is rather that what the friend saw indeed was a squirrel. I’m surprised by how thoroughly instrumentalism is defeated here: the dispute is clearly over squirrels, backyards, and what is seen, and not about about ideas, beliefs, or personal visual processes, even if these necessarily factor into truth.

James claims that all there is to truth is speaking about this marriage function of ideas: “The new [ideas] themselves are not true, they simply come and are. Truth is what we say about them, and when we say that they have come, truth is satisfied by the plain additive formula” (p. 8). Yet what is confusing is he says there that truth is something that is satisfied by that additive formula. So it is not merely a saying without a corresponding reality. In another line of argument against intrumentalism, I think James clearly misses how much his proclamations take for granted a notion of how things are and speaking about them. So, in James’ worldview, there are clearly ideas and experiences various and sundry that relate to one another in various ways, and which underpin or perhaps make up human practices. Yet how is James able to truthfully speak about such things? Perhaps he’d say that such ideas as ideas and experience and human practices line up well with his stock of old ideas. Yet aren’t we taking James’ whole picture of events for granted? That is, aren’t we tacitly subscribing to a correspondence view that first holds that such things are the reality, from which we can then sort out a view of instrumentalism? It would seem so, and if so correspondence serves as the bedrock for instrumentalism, without which providing an account for instrumentalism would be meaningless. So far from doing away with correspondence, instrumentalism requires it.

Truth as What is Best to Believe


James’ final formulation of truth concerns what is best to believe or what we ought to believe. He says, “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons.” In support, James notes that if true weren’t advantageous to believe, if it were rather disadvantageous, then not only would it be better not to believe the truth, but we should shun it. Just as certain foods are both healthful and taste good, James explains, “so certain ideas are not only agreeable to think about, or agreeable as supporting other ideas that we are fond of, but they are also helpful in life’s practical struggles” (p. 14). Notice how no form of correspondence is mentioned or implied here, and that the instrumental view is mentioned in ideas “supporting other ideas that we are fond of.” So James’ final formulation makes use of the instrumental view of truth. James continues,

“’What would be better for us to believe’! This sounds very like a definition of truth. It comes very near to saying ‘what we ought to believe’: and in that definition none of you would find any oddity. Ought we ever not to believe what it is better for us to believe? And can we then keep the notion of what is better for us, and what is true for us, permanently apart?” (p. 14).

What is true, according to James, is what ought to be believed. At first glance, this isn’t a bad definition of truth. If we always ought to believe what is true, then what is true will always be what would be better to believe. It is initially plausible that we always ought to believe what’s true. But I take it that the underlying reason for this would be something like that failing to believe what is true would be detrimental, since reality, in the end, will disagree. So I ought to believe that a loved one has died, say, not because that is the best thing to believe per se, but because in not believing it, I would have to deny the reality looking me in the face every step of the way. Incidentally, such a picture of reality confirming the opposite of what you’d rather believe has a striking correspondence theory aspect to it. I suppose the pragmatist might say that it is best not to go on clashing with the new beliefs that confirm that your loved one is indeed dead, but the thought here would seem to be that these new beliefs just come out of nowhere — they certainly do not correspond to some reality outside the person having them. No, they correspond to the fact that your love one has died. And the pragmatist cannot admit this. The best he can say here is that the idea of your loved one dying will clash with your desire for it not to be true, and the one that wins will be the true one. So loved ones don’t really die unless such an idea properly attaches itself to one’s beliefs? I don’t know how that could be taken seriously! Solipsism has a fine stature in philosophy after all! In the end, at least a holder of correspondence can assert that you ought to believe your loved one has died because it is true by correspondence, where corresponding with reality itself is the right thing to do. Such an assertion would be foreign to the pragmatist.

Unfortunately for pragmatism, coming up with counterexamples to the notion that believing what is true is always believing what is best seem simple enough to come up with.

Consider overly protective, helicopter parents. By a fortunate stroke of luck for their son, he gets to go outside and play with his friends for a day. They end up playing street hockey, and he gets scraped up. Now, if his parents find out, the son will be grounded for participating in such rugged activities. He would get a good talking-to about how dangerous scraping himself can be and how it can lead to infections and then sure death and about how the outside world should be avoided from now on just to be on the safe side.

Clearly, what is best for the parents to believe is that their son went outside to play and was safe the whole time without any cuts or scrapes. However, the parents now have beliefs about what happened that day that did not actually happen. So — get this — even if James somehow highjacks the notion of truth to mean what is best to believe or what one ought to believe, there is still something in addition to how the parents’ beliefs are true in James’ sense, since they give expression of the events of the day that are different or at odds from what actually occurred. And so, truth as correspondence would nevertheless prevail as a substantive notion, one that has its place in the regular world of facts. There seems to be no way around this.

It’s embarrassing that James did not anticipate any problems with throwing away truth as correspondence, or with identifying truth as an addition function of ideas, or as what ought to be believed. I consider the pragmatic view of truth to be completely leveled. Pragmatism may be useful in considering which theories are worth debating, or in getting on the same page about what counts as evidence for particular theories, or as a theory of beliefs, but as a final say in truth it is entirely inadequate.


James, William. PRAGMATISM A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. Lecture II. — What Pragmatism Means


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