The Meaning of Truth
By William James

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XIII. Abstractionism and ’Relativismus’

Abstract concepts, such as elasticity, voluminousness, disconnectedness, are salient aspects of our concrete experiences which we find it useful to single out. Useful, because we are then reminded of other things that offer those same aspects; and, if the aspects carry consequences in those other things, we can return to our first things, expecting those same consequences to accrue.

To be helped to anticipate consequences is always a gain, and such being the help that abstract concepts give us, it is obvious that their use is fulfilled only when we get back again into concrete particulars by their means, bearing the consequences in our minds, and enriching our notion of the original objects therewithal.

Without abstract concepts to handle our perceptual particulars by, we are like men hopping on one foot. Using concepts along with the particulars, we become bipedal. We throw our concept forward, get a foothold on the consequence, hitch our line to this, and draw our percept up, travelling thus with a hop, skip and jump over the surface of life at a vastly rapider rate than if we merely waded through the thickness of the particulars as accident rained them down upon our heads. Animals have to do this, but men raise their heads higher and breathe freely in the upper conceptual air.

The enormous esteem professed by all philosophers for the conceptual form of consciousness is easy to understand. From Plato’s time downwards it has been held to be our sole avenue to essential truth. Concepts are universal, changeless, pure; their relations are eternal; they are spiritual, while the concrete particulars which they enable us to handle are corrupted by the flesh. They are precious in themselves, then, apart from their original use, and confer new dignity upon our life.

One can find no fault with this way of feeling about concepts so long as their original function does not get swallowed up in the admiration and lost. That function is of course to enlarge mentally our momentary experiences by ADDING to them the consequences conceived; but unfortunately, that function is not only too often forgotten by philosophers in their reasonings, but is often converted into its exact opposite, and made a means of diminishing the original experience by DENYING (implicitly or explicitly) all its features save the one specially abstracted to conceive it by.

This itself is a highly abstract way of stating my complaint, and it needs to be redeemed from obscurity by showing instances of what is meant. Some beliefs very dear to my own heart have been conceived in this viciously abstract way by critics. One is the ’will to believe,’ so called; another is the indeterminism of certain futures; a third is the notion that truth may vary with the standpoint of the man who holds it. I believe that the perverse abuse of the abstracting function has led critics to employ false arguments against these doctrines, and often has led their readers to false conclusions. I should like to try to save the situation, if possible, by a few counter-critical remarks.

Let me give the name of ’vicious abstractionism’ to a way of using concepts which may be thus described: We conceive a concrete situation by singling out some salient or important feature in it, and classing it under that; then, instead of adding to its previous characters all the positive consequences which the new way of conceiving it may bring, we proceed to use our concept privatively; reducing the originally rich phenomenon to the naked suggestions of that name abstractly taken, treating it as a case of ’nothing but’ that concept, and acting as if all the other characters from out of which the concept is abstracted were expunged. [Footnote: Let not the reader confound the fallacy here described with legitimately negative inferences such as those drawn in the mood ’celarent’ of the logic-books.] Abstraction, functioning in this way, becomes a means of arrest far more than a means of advance in thought. It mutilates things; it creates difficulties and finds impossibilities; and more than half the trouble that metaphysicians and logicians give themselves over the paradoxes and dialectic puzzles of the universe may, I am convinced, be traced to this relatively simple source. THE VICIOUSLY PRIVATIVE EMPLOYMENT OF ABSTRACT CHARACTERS AND CLASS NAMES is, I am persuaded, one of the great original sins of the rationalistic mind.

To proceed immediately to concrete examples, cast a glance at the belief in ’free will,’ demolished with such specious persuasiveness recently by the skilful hand of Professor Fullerton. [Footnote: Popular Science Monthly, N. Y., vols. lviii and lix.] When a common man says that his will is free, what does he mean? He means that there are situations of bifurcation inside of his life in which two futures seem to him equally possible, for both have their roots equally planted in his present and his past. Either, if realized, will grow out of his previous motives, character and circumstances, and will continue uninterruptedly the pulsations of his personal life. But sometimes both at once are incompatible with physical nature, and then it seems to the naive observer as if he made a choice between them NOW, and that the question of which future is to be, instead of having been decided at the foundation of the world, were decided afresh at every passing moment in I which fact seems livingly to grow, and possibility seems, in turning itself towards one act, to exclude all others.

He who takes things at their face-value here may indeed be deceived. He may far too often mistake his private ignorance of what is predetermined for a real indetermination of what is to be. Yet, however imaginary it may be, his picture of the situation offers no appearance of breach between the past and future. A train is the same train, its passengers are the same passengers, its momentum is the same momentum, no matter which way the switch which fixes its direction is placed. For the indeterminist there is at all times enough past for all the different futures in sight, and more besides, to find their reasons in it, and whichever future comes will slide out of that past as easily as the train slides by the switch. The world, in short, is just as CONTINUOUS WITH ITSELF for the believers in free will as for the rigorous determinists, only the latter are unable to believe in points of bifurcation as spots of really indifferent equilibrium or as containing shunts which there–and there only, NOT BEFORE– direct existing motions without altering their amount.

Were there such spots of indifference, the rigorous determinists think, the future and the past would be separated absolutely, for, ABSTRACTLY TAKEN, THE WORD ’INDIFFERENT’ SUGGESTS DISCONNECTION SOLELY. Whatever is indifferent is in so far forth unrelated and detached. Take the term thus strictly, and you see, they tell us, that if any spot of indifference is found upon the broad highway between the past and the future, then no connection of any sort whatever, no continuous momentum, no identical passenger, no common aim or agent, can be found on both sides of the shunt or switch which there is moved. The place is an impassable chasm.

Mr. Fullerton writes–the italics are mine–as follows:–

’In so far as my action is free, what I have been, what I am, what I have always done or striven to do, what I most earnestly wish or resolve to do at the present moment–these things can have NO MORE TO DO WITH ITS FUTURE REALIZATION THAN IF THEY HAD NO EXISTENCE.... The possibility is a hideous one; and surely even the most ardent free-willist will, when he contemplates it frankly, excuse me for hoping that if I am free I am at least not very free, and that I may reasonably expect to find SOME degree of consistency in my life and actions. ... Suppose that I have given a dollar to a blind beggar. Can I, if it is really an act of free- will, be properly said to have given the money? Was it given because I was a man of tender heart, etc., etc.? ... What has all this to do with acts of free-will? If they are free, they must not be conditioned by antecedent circumstances of any sort, by the misery of the beggar, by the pity in the heart of the passer-by. They must be causeless, not determined. They must drop from a clear sky out of the void, for just in so far as they can be accounted for, they are not free.’ [Footnote: Loc. cit., vol. lviii, pp. 189, 188.]

Heaven forbid that I should get entangled here in a controversy about the rights and wrongs of the free-will question at large, for I am only trying to illustrate vicious abstractionism by the conduct of some of the doctrine’s assailants. The moments of bifurcation, as the indeterminist seems to himself to experience them, are moments both of re-direction and of continuation. But because in the ’either–or’ of the re-direction we hesitate, the determinist abstracts this little element of discontinuity from the superabundant continuities of the experience, and cancels in its behalf all the connective characters with which the latter is filled. Choice, for him, means henceforward DISconnection pure and simple, something undetermined in advance IN ANY RESPECT WHATEVER, and a life of choices must be a raving chaos, at no two moments of which could we be treated as one and the same man. If Nero were ’free’ at. the moment of ordering his mother’s murder, Mr. McTaggart [Footnote: Some Dogmas of Religion, p. 179.] assures us that no one would have the right at any other moment to call him a bad man, for he would then be an absolutely other Nero.

A polemic author ought not merely to destroy his victim. He ought to try a bit to make him feel his error–perhaps not enough to convert him, but enough to give him a bad conscience and to weaken the energy of his defence. These violent caricatures of men’s beliefs arouse only contempt for the incapacity of their authors to see the situations out of which the problems grow. To treat the negative character of one abstracted element as annulling all the positive features with which it coexists, is no way to change any actual indeterminist’s way of looking on the matter, tho it may make the gallery applaud.

Turn now to some criticisms of the ’will to believe,’ as another example of the vicious way in which abstraction is currently employed. The right to believe in things for the truth of which complete objective proof is yet lacking is defended by those who apprehend certain human situations in their concreteness. In those situations the mind has alternatives before it so vast that the full evidence for either branch is missing, and yet so significant that simply to wait for proof, and to doubt while waiting, might often in practical respects be the same thing as weighing down the negative side. Is life worth while at all? Is there any general meaning in all this cosmic weather? Is anything being permanently bought by all this suffering? Is there perhaps a transmundane experience in Being, something corresponding to a ’fourth dimension,’ which, if we had access to it, might patch up some of this world’s zerrissenheit and make things look more rational than they at first appear? Is there a superhuman consciousness of which our minds are parts, and from which inspiration and help may come? Such are the questions in which the right to take sides practically for yes or no is affirmed by some of us, while others hold that this is methodologically inadmissible, and summon us to die professing ignorance and proclaiming the duty of every one to refuse to believe.

I say nothing of the personal inconsistency of some of these critics, whose printed works furnish exquisite illustrations of the will to believe, in spite of their denunciations of it as a phrase and as a recommended thing. Mr. McTaggart, whom I will once more take as an example, is sure that ’reality is rational and righteous’ and ’destined sub specie temporis to become perfectly good’; and his calling this belief a result of necessary logic has surely never deceived any reader as to its real genesis in the gifted author’s mind. Mankind is made on too uniform a pattern for any of us to escape successfully from acts of faith. We have a lively vision of what a certain view of the universe would mean for us. We kindle or we shudder at the thought, and our feeling runs through our whole logical nature and animates its workings. It CAN’T be that, we feel; it MUST be this. It must be what it OUGHT to be, and OUGHT to be this; and then we seek for every reason, good or bad, to make this which so deeply ought to be, seem objectively the probable thing. We show the arguments against it to be insufficient, so that it MAY be true; we represent its appeal to be to our whole nature’s loyalty and not to any emaciated faculty of syllogistic proof. We reinforce it by remembering the enlargement of our world by music, by thinking of the promises of sunsets and the impulses from vernal woods. And the essence of the whole experience, when the individual swept through it says finally ’I believe,’ is the intense concreteness of his vision, the individuality of the hypothesis before him, and the complexity of the various concrete motives and perceptions that issue in his final state.

But see now how the abstractionist treats this rich and intricate vision that a certain state of things must be true. He accuses the believer of reasoning by the following syllogism:–

All good desires must be fulfilled; The desire to believe this proposition is a good desire;

Ergo, this proposition must be believed.

He substitutes this abstraction for the concrete state of mind of the believer, pins the naked absurdity of it upon him, and easily proves that any one who defends him must be the greatest fool on earth. As if any real believer ever thought in this preposterous way, or as if any defender of the legitimacy of men’s concrete ways of concluding ever used the abstract and general premise, ’All desires must be fulfilled’! Nevertheless, Mr. McTaggart solemnly and laboriously refutes the syllogism in sections 47 to 57 of the above- cited book. He shows that there is no fixed link in the dictionary between the abstract concepts ’desire,’ ’goodness’ and ’reality’; and he ignores all the links which in the single concrete case the believer feels and perceives to be there! He adds:–

’When the reality of a thing is uncertain, the argument encourages us to suppose that our approval of a thing can determine its reality. And when this unhallowed link has once been established, retribution overtakes us. For when the reality of the thing is independently certain, we [then] have to admit that the reality of the thing should determine our approval of that thing. I find it difficult to imagine a more degraded position.’

One here feels tempted to quote ironically Hegel’s famous equation of the real with the rational to his english disciple, who ends his chapter with the heroic words:–

’For those who do not pray, there remains the resolve that, so far as their strength may permit, neither the pains of death nor the pains of life shall drive them to any comfort in that which they hold to be false, or drive them from any comfort [discomfort?] in that which they hold to be true.’

How can so ingenious-minded a writer fail to see how far over the heads of the enemy all his arrows pass? When Mr. McTaggart himself believes that the universe is run by the dialectic energy of the absolute idea, his insistent desire to have a world of that sort is felt by him to be no chance example of desire in general, but an altogether peculiar insight-giving passion to which, in this if in no other instance, he would be stupid not to yield. He obeys its concrete singularity, not the bare abstract feature in it of being a ’desire.’ His situation is as particular as that of an actress who resolves that it is best for her to marry and leave the stage, of a priest who becomes secular, of a politician who abandons public life. What sensible man would seek to refute the concrete decisions of such persons by tracing them to abstract premises, such as that ’all actresses must marry,’ ’all clergymen must be laymen,’ ’all politicians should resign their posts’? Yet this type of refutation, absolutely unavailing though it be for purposes of conversion, is spread by Mr. McTaggart through many pages of his book. For the aboundingness of our real reasons he substitutes one narrow point. For men’s real probabilities he gives a skeletonized abstraction which no man was ever tempted to believe.

The abstraction in my next example is less simple, but is quite as flimsy as a weapon of attack. Empiricists think that truth in general is distilled from single men’s beliefs; and the so-called pragmatists ’go them one better’ by trying to define what it consists in when it comes. It consists, I have elsewhere said, in such a working on the part of the beliefs as may bring the man into satisfactory relations with objects to which these latter point. The working is of course a concrete working in the actual experience of human beings, among their ideas, feelings, perceptions, beliefs and acts, as well as among the physical things of their environment, and the relations must be understood as being possible as well as actual. In the chapter on truth of my book Pragmatism I have taken pains to defend energetically this view. Strange indeed have been the misconceptions of it by its enemies, and many have these latter been. Among the most formidable-sounding onslaughts on the attempt to introduce some concreteness into our notion of what the truth of an idea may mean, is one that has been raised in many quarters to the effect that to make truth grow in any way out of human opinion is but to reproduce that protagorean doctrine that the individual man is ’the measure of all things,’ which Plato in his immortal dialogue, the Thaeatetus, is unanimously said to have laid away so comfortably in its grave two thousand years ago. The two cleverest brandishers of this objection to make truth concrete, Professors Rickert and Munsterberg, write in German, [Footnote: Munsterberg’s book has just appeared in an English version: The Eternal Values, Boston, 1909.] and ’relativismus’ is the name they give to the heresy which they endeavor to uproot.

The first step in their campaign against ’relativismus’ is entirely in the air. They accuse relativists–and we pragmatists are typical relativists–of being debarred by their self-adopted principles, not only from the privilege which rationalist philosophers enjoy, of believing that these principles of their own are truth impersonal and absolute, but even of framing the abstract notion of such a truth, in the pragmatic sense, of an ideal opinion in which all men might agree, and which no man should ever wish to change. Both charges fall wide of their mark. I myself, as a pragmatist, believe in my own account of truth as firmly as any rationalist can possibly believe in his. And I believe in it for the very reason that I have the idea of truth which my learned adversaries contend that no pragmatist can frame. I expect, namely, that the more fully men discuss and test my account, the more they will agree that it fits, and the less will they desire a change. I may of course be premature in this confidence, and the glory of being truth final and absolute may fall upon some later revision and correction of my scheme, which later will then be judged untrue in just the measure in which it departs from that finally satisfactory formulation. To admit, as we pragmatists do, that we are liable to correction (even tho we may not expect it) involves the use on our part of an ideal standard. Rationalists themselves are, as individuals, sometimes sceptical enough to admit the abstract possibility of their own present opinions being corrigible and revisable to some degree, so the fact that the mere NOTION of an absolute standard should seem to them so important a thing to claim for themselves and to deny to us is not easy to explain. If, along with the notion of the standard, they could also claim its exclusive warrant for their own fulminations now, it would be important to them indeed. But absolutists like Rickert freely admit the sterility of the notion, even in their own hands. Truth is what we OUGHT to believe, they say, even tho no man ever did or shall believe it, and even tho we have no way of getting at it save by the usual empirical processes of testing our opinions by one another and by facts. Pragmatically, then, this part of the dispute is idle. No relativist who ever actually walked the earth [Footnote: Of course the bugaboo creature called ’the sceptic’ in the logic-books, who dogmatically makes the statement that no statement, not even the one he now makes, is true, is a mere mechanical toy–target for the rationalist shooting-gallery– hit him and he turns a summersault–yet he is the only sort of relativist whom my colleagues appear able to imagine to exist.] has denied the regulative character in his own thinking of the notion of absolute truth. What is challenged by relativists is the pretence on any one’s part to have found for certain at any given moment what the shape of that truth is. Since the better absolutists agree in this, admitting that the proposition ’There is absolute truth’ is the only absolute truth of which we can be sure, [Footnote: Compare Bickert’s Gegenstand der Erkentniss, pp. 187, 138. Munsterberg’s version of this first truth is that ’Es gibt eine Welt,’–see his Philosophie der Werte, pp. 38 and 74 And, after all, both these philosophers confess in the end that the primal truth of which they consider our supposed denial so irrational is not properly an insight at all, but a dogma adopted by the will which any one who turns his back on duty may disregard! But if it all reverts to ’the will to believe,’ pragmatists have that privilege as well as their critics.] further debate is practically unimportant, so we may pass to their next charge.

It is in this charge that the vicious abstractionism becomes most apparent. The antipragmatist, in postulating absolute truth, refuses to give any account of what the words may mean. For him they form a self-explanatory term. The pragmatist, on the contrary, articulately defines their meaning. Truth absolute, he says, means an ideal set of formulations towards which all opinions may in the long run of experience be expected to converge. In this definition of absolute truth he not only postulates that there is a tendency to such convergence of opinions, to such ultimate consensus, but he postulates the other factors of his definition equally, borrowing them by anticipation from the true conclusions expected to be reached. He postulates the existence of opinions, he postulates the experience that will sift them, and the consistency which that experience will show. He justifies himself in these assumptions by saying that they are not postulates in the strict sense but simple inductions from the past extended to the future by analogy; and he insists that human opinion has already reached a pretty stable equilibrium regarding them, and that if its future development fails to alter them, the definition itself, with all its terms included, will be part of the very absolute truth which it defines. The hypothesis will, in short, have worked successfully all round the circle and proved self-corroborative, and the circle will be closed.

The anti-pragmatist, however, immediately falls foul of the word ’opinion’ here, abstracts it from the universe of life, and uses it as a bare dictionary-substantive, to deny the rest of the assumptions which it coexists withal. The dictionary says that an opinion is ’what some one thinks or believes.’ This definition leaves every one’s opinion free to be autogenous, or unrelated either to what any one else may think or to what the truth may be.

Therefore, continue our abstractionists, we must conceive it as essentially thus unrelated, so that even were a billion men to sport the same opinion, and only one man to differ, we could admit no collateral circumstances which might presumptively make it more probable that he, not they, should be wrong. Truth, they say, follows not the counting of noses, nor is it only another name for a majority vote. It is a relation that antedates experience, between our opinions and an independent something which the pragmatist account ignores, a relation which, tho the opinions of individuals should to all eternity deny it, would still remain to qualify them as false. To talk of opinions without referring to this independent something, the anti-pragmatist assures us, is to play Hamlet with Hamlet’s part left out.

But when the pragmatist speaks of opinions, does he mean any such insulated and unmotived abstractions as are here supposed? Of course not, he means men’s opinions in the flesh, as they have really formed themselves, opinions surrounded by their causes and the influences they obey and exert, and along with the whole environment of social communication of which they are a part and out of which they take their rise. Moreover the ’experience’ which the pragmatic definition postulates is the independent something which the anti-pragmatist accuses him of ignoring. Already have men grown unanimous in the opinion that such experience is of an independent reality, the existence of which all opinions must acknowledge, in order to be true. Already do they agree that in the long run it is useless to resist experience’s pressure; that the more of it a man has, the better position he stands in, in respect of truth; that some men, having had more experience, are therefore better authorities than others; that some are also wiser by nature and better able to interpret the experience they have had; that it is one part of such wisdom to compare notes, discuss, and follow the opinion of our betters; and that the more systematically and thoroughly such comparison and weighing of opinions is pursued, the truer the opinions that survive are likely to be. When the pragmatist talks of opinions, it is opinions as they thus concretely and livingly and interactingly and correlatively exist that he has in mind; and when the anti-pragmatist tries to floor him because the word ’opinion’ can also be taken abstractly and as if it had no environment, he simply ignores the soil out of which the whole discussion grows. His weapons cut the air and strike no blow. No one gets wounded in the war against caricatures of belief and skeletons of opinion of which the German onslaughts upon ’relativismus’ consists. Refuse to use the word ’opinion’ abstractly, keep it in its real environment, and the withers of pragmatism remain unwrung. That men do exist who are ’opinionated,’ in the sense that their opinions are self-willed, is unfortunately a fact that must be admitted, no matter what one’s notion of truth in general may be. But that this fact should make it impossible for truth to form itself authentically out of the life of opinion is what no critic has yet proved. Truth may well consist of certain opinions, and does indeed consist of nothing but opinions, tho not every opinion need be true. No pragmatist needs to dogmatize about the consensus of opinion in the future being right–he need only postulate that it will probably contain more of truth than any one’s opinion now.


Preface  •  I. The Function of Cognition  •  II. The Tigers in India  •  III. Humanism and Truth  •  IV. The Relation Between Knower and Known  •  V. The Essence of Humanism  •  VI. A Word More About Truth  •  VII. Professor Pratt On Truth  •  VIII. The Pragmatist Account of Truth and Its Misunderstanders  •  IX. The Meaning of the Word Truth  •  X. The Existence of Julius Caesar  •  XI. The Absolute and the Strenuous Life  •  XII. Professor Hebert On Pragmatism  •  XIII. Abstractionism and ’Relativismus’  •  XIV. Two English Critics  •  XV. A Dialogue

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William James : Writings 1902-1910 : The Varieties of Religious Experience / Pragmatism / A Pluralistic Universe / The Meaning of Truth / Some Problems of Philosophy / Essays (Library of America)
By William James
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