The Meaning of Truth
By William James

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XIV. Two English Critics

Mr. Bertrand Russell’s article entitled ’Transatlantic Truth,’ [Footnote: In the Albany Review for January, 1908.] has all the clearness, dialectic subtlety, and wit which one expects from his pen, but it entirely fails to hit the right point of view for apprehending our position. When, for instance, we say that a true proposition is one the consequences of believing which are good, he assumes us to mean that any one who believes a proposition to be true must first have made out clearly that its consequences be good, and that his belief must primarily be in that fact,–an obvious absurdity, for that fact is the deliverance of a new proposition, quite different from the first one and is, moreover, a fact usually very hard to verify, it being ’far easier,’ as Mr. Russell justly says, ’to settle the plain question of fact: “Have popes always been infallible?"’ than to settle the question whether the effects of thinking them infallible are on the whole good.’

We affirm nothing as silly as Mr. Russell supposes. Good consequences are not proposed by us merely as a sure sign, mark, or criterion, by which truth’s presence is habitually ascertained, tho they may indeed serve on occasion as such a sign; they are proposed rather as the lurking motive inside of every truth-claim, whether the ’trower’ be conscious of such motive, or whether he obey it blindly. They are proposed as the causa existendi of our beliefs, not as their logical cue or premise, and still less as their objective deliverance or content. They assign the only intelligible practical meaning to that difference in our beliefs which our habit of calling them true or false comports.

No truth-claimer except the pragmatist himself need ever be aware of the part played in his own mind by consequences, and he himself is aware of it only abstractly and in general, and may at any moment be quite oblivious of it with respect to his own beliefs.

Mr. Russell next joins the army of those who inform their readers that according to the pragmatist definition of the word ’truth’ the belief that A exists may be ’true’ even when A does not exist. This is the usual slander repeated to satiety by our critics. They forget that in any concrete account of what is denoted by ’truth’ in human life, the word can only be used relatively to some particular trower. Thus, I may hold it true that Shakespeare wrote the plays that bear his name, and may express my opinion to a critic. If the critic be both a pragmatist and a baconian, he will in his capacity of pragmatist see plain that the workings of my opinion, I being who I am, make it perfectly true for me, while in his capacity of baconian he still believes that Shakespeare never wrote the plays in question. But most anti-pragmatist critics take the wont ’truth’ as something absolute, and easily play on their reader’s readiness to treat his OWE truths as the absolute ones. If the reader whom they address believes that A does not exist, while we pragmatists show that those for whom tho belief that it exists works satisfactorily will always call it true, he easily sneers at the naivete of our contention, for is not then the belief in question ’true,’ tho what it declares as fact has, as the reader so well knows, no existence? Mr. Russell speaks of our statement as an ’attempt to get rid of fact’ and naturally enough considers it ’a failure’ (p. 410). ’The old notion of truth reappears,’ he adds– that notion being, of course, that when a belief is true, its object does exist.

It is, of course, BOUND to exist, on sound pragmatic principles. Concepts signify consequences. How is the world made different for me by my conceiving an opinion of mine under the concept ’true’? First, an object must be findable there (or sure signs of such an object must be found) which shall agree with the opinion. Second, such an opinion must not be contradicted by anything else I am aware of. But in spite of the obvious pragmatist requirement that when I have said truly that something exists, it SHALL exist, the slander which Mr. Russell repeats has gained the widest currency.

Mr. Russell himself is far too witty and athletic a ratiocinator simply to repeat the slander dogmatically. Being nothing if not mathematical and logical, he must prove the accusation secundum artem, and convict us not so much of error as of absurdity. I have sincerely tried to follow the windings of his mind in this procedure, but for the life of me I can only see in it another example of what I have called (above, p. 249) vicious abstractionism. The abstract world of mathematics and pure logic is so native to Mr. Russell that he thinks that we describers of the functions of concrete fact must also mean fixed mathematical terms and functions. A mathematical term, as a, b, c, x, y, sin., log., is self-sufficient, and terms of this sort, once equated, can be substituted for one another in endless series without error. Mr. Russell, and also Mr. Hawtrey, of whom I shall speak presently, seem to think that in our mouth also such terms as ’meaning,’ ’truth,’ ’belief,’ ’object,’ ’definition,’ are self-sufficients with no context of varying relation that might be further asked about. What a word means is expressed by its definition, isn’t it? The definition claims to be exact and adequate, doesn’t it? Then it can be substituted for the word–since the two are identical–can’t it? Then two words with the same definition can be substituted for one another, n’est–ce pas? Likewise two definitions of the same word, nicht wahr, etc., etc., till it will be indeed strange if you can’t convict some one of self-contradiction and absurdity.

The particular application of this rigoristic treatment to my own little account of truth as working seems to be something like what follows. I say ’working’ is what the ’truth’ of our ideas means, and call it a definition. But since meanings and things meant, definitions and things defined, are equivalent and interchangeable, and nothing extraneous to its definition can be meant when a term is used, it follows that who so calls an idea true, and means by that word that it works, cannot mean anything else, can believe nothing but that it does work, and in particular can neither imply nor allow anything about its object or deliverance. ’According to the pragmatists,’ Mr. Russell writes, ’to say “it is true that other people exist” means “it is useful to believe that other people exist.” But if so, then these two phrases are merely different words for the same proposition; therefore when I believe the one, I believe the other’ (p. 400). [Logic, I may say in passing, would seem to require Mr. Russell to believe them both at once, but he ignores this consequence, and considers that other people exist’ and ’it is useful to believe that they do EVEN IF THEY DON’T,’ must be identical and therefore substitutable propositions in the pragmatist mouth.]

But may not real terms, I now ask, have accidents not expressed in their definitions? and when a real value is finally substituted for the result of an algebraic series of substituted definitions, do not all these accidents creep back? Beliefs have their objective ’content’ or ’deliverance’ as well as their truth, and truth has its implications as well as its workings. If any one believe that other men exist, it is both a content of his belief and an implication of its truth, that they should exist in fact. Mr. Russell’s logic would seem to exclude, ’by definition,’ all such accidents as contents, implications, and associates, and would represent us as translating all belief into a sort of belief in pragmatism itself–of all things! If I say that a speech is eloquent, and explain ’eloquent’ as meaning the power to work in certain ways upon the audience; or if I say a book is original, and define ’original’ to mean differing from other books, Russell’s logic, if I follow it at all, would seem to doom me to agreeing that the speech is about eloquence, and the book about other books. When I call a belief true, and define its truth to mean its workings, I certainly do not mean that the belief is a belief ABOUT the workings. It is a belief about the object, and I who talk about the workings am a different subject, with a different universe of discourse, from that of the believer of whose concrete thinking I profess to give an account.

The social proposition ’other men exist’ and the pragmatist proposition ’it is expedient to believe that other men exist’ come from different universes of discourse. One can believe the second without being logically compelled to believe the first; one can believe the first without having ever heard of the second; or one can believe them both. The first expresses the object of a belief, the second tells of one condition of the belief’s power to maintain itself. There is no identity of any kind, save the term ’other men’ which they contain in common, in the two propositions; and to treat them as mutually substitutable, or to insist that we shall do so, is to give up dealing with realities altogether.

Mr. Ralph Hawtrey, who seems also to serve under the banner of abstractionist logic, convicts us pragmatists of absurdity by arguments similar to Mr. Russell’s. [Footnote: See The New Quarterly, for March, 1908.]

As a favor to us and for the sake of the argument, he abandons the word ’true’ to our fury, allowing it to mean nothing but the fact that certain beliefs are expedient; and he uses the word ’correctness’ (as Mr. Pratt uses the word ’trueness’) to designate a fact, not about the belief, but about the belief’s object, namely that it is as the belief declares it. ’When therefore,’ he writes, ’I say it is correct to say that Caesar is dead, I mean “Caesar is dead.” This must be regarded as the definition of correctness.’ And Mr. Hawtrey then goes on to demolish me by the conflict of the definitions. What is ’true’ for the pragmatist cannot be what is ’correct,’ he says, ’for the definitions are not logically interchangeable; or if we interchange them, we reach the tautology:

“Caesar is dead” means “it is expedient to believe that Caesar is dead.” But what is it expedient to believe? Why, “that Caesar is dead.” A precious definition indeed of ’Caesar is dead.’

Mr. Hawtrey’s conclusion would seem to be that the pragmatic definition of the truth of a belief in no way implies–what?–that the believer shall believe in his own belief’s deliverance?–or that the pragmatist who is talking about him shall believe in that deliverance? The two cases are quite different. For the believer, Caesar must of course really exist; for the pragmatist critic he need not, for the pragmatic deliverance belongs, as I have just said, to another universe of discourse altogether. When one argues by substituting definition for definition, one needs to stay in the same universe.

The great shifting of universes in this discussion occurs when we carry the word ’truth’ from the subjective into the objective realm, applying it sometimes to a property of opinions, sometimes to the facts which the opinions assert. A number of writers, as Mr. Russell himself, Mr. G. E. Moore, and others, favor the unlucky word ’proposition,’ which seems expressly invented to foster this confusion, for they speak of truth as a property of ’propositions.’ But in naming propositions it is almost impossible not to use the word ’that.’

THAT Caesar is dead, THAT virtue is its own reward, are propositions.

I do not say that for certain logical purposes it may not be useful to treat propositions as absolute entities, with truth or falsehood inside of them respectively, or to make of a complex like ’that– Caesar–is–dead’ a single term and call it a ’truth.’ But the ’that’ here has the extremely convenient ambiguity for those who wish to make trouble for us pragmatists, that sometimes it means the FACT that, and sometimes the BELIEF that, Caesar is no longer living. When I then call the belief true, I am told that the truth means the fact; when I claim the fact also, I am told that my definition has excluded the fact, being a definition only of a certain peculiarity in the belief–so that in the end I have no truth to talk about left in my possession.

The only remedy for this intolerable ambiguity is, it seems to me, to stick to terms consistently. ’Reality,’ ’idea’ or ’belief,’ and the ’truth of the idea or belief,’ which are the terms I have consistently held to, seem to be free from all objection.

Whoever takes terms abstracted from all their natural settings, identifies them with definitions, and treats the latter more algebraico, not only risks mixing universes, but risks fallacies which the man in the street easily detects. To prove ’by definition’ that the statement ’Caesar exists’ is identical with a statement about ’expediency’ because the one statement is ’true’ and the other is about ’true statements,’ is like proving that an omnibus is a boat because both are vehicles. A horse may be defined as a beast that walks on the nails of his middle digits. Whenever we see a horse we see such a beast, just as whenever we believe a ’truth’ we believe something expedient. Messrs. Russell and Hawtrey, if they followed their antipragmatist logic, would have to say here that we see THAT IT IS such a beast, a fact which notoriously no one sees who is not a comparative anatomist.

It almost reconciles one to being no logician that one thereby escapes so much abstractionism. Abstractionism of the worst sort dogs Mr. Russell in his own trials to tell positively what the word ’truth’ means. In the third of his articles on Meinong, in Mind, vol. xiii, p. 509 (1904), he attempts this feat by limiting the discussion to three terms only, a proposition, its content, and an object, abstracting from the whole context of associated realities in which such terms are found in every case of actual knowing. He puts the terms, thus taken in a vacuum, and made into bare logical entities, through every possible permutation and combination, tortures them on the rack until nothing is left of them, and after all this logical gymnastic, comes out with the following portentous conclusion as what he believes to be the correct view: that there is no problem at all in truth and falsehood, that some propositions are true and some false, just as some roses are red and some white, that belief is a certain attitude towards propositions, which is called knowledge when they are true, error when they are false’–and he seems to think that when once this insight is reached the question may be considered closed forever!

In spite of my admiration of Mr. Russell’s analytic powers, I wish, after reading such an article, that pragmatism, even had it no other function, might result in making him and other similarly gifted men ashamed of having used such powers in such abstraction from reality. Pragmatism saves us at any rate from such diseased abstractionism as those pages show.

P. S. Since the foregoing rejoinder was written an article on Pragmatism which I believe to be by Mr. Russell has appeared in the Edinburgh Review for April, 1909. As far as his discussion of the truth-problem goes, altho he has evidently taken great pains to be fair, it seems to me that he has in no essential respect improved upon his former arguments. I will therefore add nothing further, but simply refer readers who may be curious to pp. 272-280 of the said article.


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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