The Meaning of Truth
By William James

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III. Humanism and Truth

[Footnote: Reprinted, with slight verbal revision, from Mind, vol. xiii, N. S., p. 457 (October, 1904). A couple of interpolations from another article in Mind, ’Humanism and truth once more,’ in vol. xiv, have been made.]

RECEIVING from the Editor of Mind an advance proof of Mr. Bradley’s article on ’Truth and Practice,’ I understand this as a hint to me to join in the controversy over ’Pragmatism’ which seems to have seriously begun. As my name has been coupled with the movement, I deem it wise to take the hint, the more so as in some quarters greater credit has been given me than I deserve, and probably undeserved discredit in other quarters falls also to my lot.

First, as to the word ’pragmatism.’ I myself have only used the term to indicate a method of carrying on abstract discussion. The serious meaning of a concept, says Mr. Peirce, lies in the concrete difference to some one which its being true will make. Strive to bring all debated conceptions to that’ pragmatic’ test, and you will escape vain wrangling: if it can make no practical difference which of two statements be true, then they are really one statement in two verbal forms; if it can make no practical difference whether a given statement be true or false, then the statement has no real meaning. In neither case is there anything fit to quarrel about: we may save our breath, and pass to more important things.

All that the pragmatic method implies, then, is that truths should HAVE practical [Footnote: ’Practical’ in the sense of PARTICULAR, of course, not in the sense that the consequences may not be MENTAL as well as physical.] consequences. In England the word has been used more broadly still, to cover the notion that the truth of any statement CONSISTS in the consequences, and particularly in their being good consequences. Here we get beyond affairs of method altogether; and since my pragmatism and this wider pragmatism are so different, and both are important enough to have different names, I think that Mr. Schiller’s proposal to call the wider pragmatism by the name of ’humanism’ is excellent and ought to be adopted. The narrower pragmatism may still be spoken of as the ’pragmatic method.’

I have read in the past six months many hostile reviews of Schiller’s and Dewey’s publications; but with the exception of Mr. Bradley’s elaborate indictment, they are out of reach where I write, and I have largely forgotten them. I think that a free discussion of the subject on my part would in any case be more useful than a polemic attempt at rebutting these criticisms in detail. Mr. Bradley in particular can be taken care of by Mr. Schiller. He repeatedly confesses himself unable to comprehend Schiller’s views, he evidently has not sought to do so sympathetically, and I deeply regret to say that his laborious article throws, for my mind, absolutely no useful light upon the subject. It seems to me on the whole an IGNORATIO ELENCHI, and I feel free to disregard it altogether.

The subject is unquestionably difficult. Messrs. Dewey’s and Schiller’s thought is eminently an induction, a generalization working itself free from all sorts of entangling particulars. If true, it involves much restatement of traditional notions. This is a kind of intellectual product that never attains a classic form of expression when first promulgated. The critic ought therefore not to be too sharp and logic-chopping in his dealings with it, but should weigh it as a whole, and especially weigh it against its possible alternatives. One should also try to apply it first to one instance, and then to another to see how it will work. It seems to me that it is emphatically not a case for instant execution, by conviction of intrinsic absurdity or of self-contradiction, or by caricature of what it would look like if reduced to skeleton shape. Humanism is in fact much more like one of those secular changes that come upon public opinion overnight, as it were, borne upon tides ’too deep for sound or foam,’ that survive all the crudities and extravagances of their advocates, that you can pin to no one absolutely essential statement, nor kill by any one decisive stab.

Such have been the changes from aristocracy to democracy, from classic to romantic taste, from theistic to pantheistic feeling, from static to evolutionary ways of understanding life–changes of which we all have been spectators. Scholasticism still opposes to such changes the method of confutation by single decisive reasons, showing that the new view involves self-contradiction, or traverses some fundamental principle. This is like stopping a river by planting a stick in the middle of its bed. Round your obstacle flows the water and ’gets there all the same.’ In reading some of our opponents, I am not a little reminded of those catholic writers who refute darwinism by telling us that higher species cannot come from lower because minus nequit gignere plus, or that the notion of transformation is absurd, for it implies that species tend to their own destruction, and that would violate the principle that every reality tends to persevere in its own shape. The point of view is too myopic, too tight and close to take in the inductive argument. Wide generalizations in science always meet with these summary refutations in their early days; but they outlive them, and the refutations then sound oddly antiquated and scholastic. I cannot help suspecting that the humanistic theory is going through this kind of would-be refutation at present.

The one condition of understanding humanism is to become inductive- minded oneself, to drop rigorous definitions, and follow lines of least, resistance ’on the whole.’ ’In other words,’ an opponent might say, ’resolve your intellect into a kind of slush.’ ’Even so,’ I make reply,–’if you will consent to use no politer word.’ For humanism, conceiving the more ’true’ as the more ’satisfactory’ (Dewey’s term), has sincerely to renounce rectilinear arguments and ancient ideals of rigor and finality. It is in just this temper of renunciation, so different from that of pyrrhonistic scepticism, that the spirit of humanism essentially consists. Satisfactoriness has to be measured by a multitude of standards, of which some, for aught we know, may fail in any given case; and what is more satisfactory than any alternative in sight, may to the end be a sum of PLUSES and MINUSES, concerning which we can only trust that by ulterior corrections and improvements a maximum of the one and a minimum of the other may some day be approached. It means a real change of heart, a break with absolutistic hopes, when one takes up this inductive view of the conditions of belief.

As I understand the pragmatist way of seeing things, it owes its being to the break-down which the last fifty years have brought about in the older notions of scientific truth. ’God geometrizes,’ it used to be said; and it was believed that Euclid’s elements literally reproduced his geometrizing. There is an eternal and unchangeable ’reason’; and its voice was supposed to reverberate in Barbara and Celarent. So also of the ’laws of nature,’ physical and chemical, so of natural history classifications–all were supposed to be exact and exclusive duplicates of pre-human archetypes buried in the structure of things, to which the spark of divinity hidden in our intellect enables us to penetrate. The anatomy of the world is logical, and its logic is that of a university professor, it was thought. Up to about 1850 almost every one believed that sciences expressed truths that were exact copies of a definite code of non- human realities. But the enormously rapid multiplication of theories in these latter days has well-nigh upset the notion of any one of them being a more literally objective kind of thing than another. There are so many geometries, so many logics, so many physical and chemical hypotheses, so many classifications, each one of them good for so much and yet not good for everything, that the notion that even the truest formula may be a human device and not a literal transcript has dawned upon us. We hear scientific laws now treated as so much ’conceptual shorthand,’ true so far as they are useful but no farther. Our mind has become tolerant of symbol instead of reproduction, of approximation instead of exactness, of plasticity instead of rigor. ’Energetics,’ measuring the bare face of sensible phenomena so as to describe in a single formula all their changes of ’level,’ is the last word of this scientific humanism, which indeed leaves queries enough outstanding as to the reason for so curious a congruence between the world and the mind, but which at any rate makes our whole notion of scientific truth more flexible and genial than it used to be.

It is to be doubted whether any theorizer to-day, either in mathematics, logic, physics or biology, conceives himself to be literally re-editing processes of nature or thoughts of God. The main forms of our thinking, the separation of subjects from predicates, the negative, hypothetic and disjunctive judgments, are purely human habits. The ether, as Lord Salisbury said, is only a noun for the verb to undulate; and many of our theological ideas are admitted, even by those who call them ’true,’ to be humanistic in like degree.

I fancy that these changes in the current notions of truth are what originally gave the impulse to Messrs. Dewey’s and Schiller’s views. The suspicion is in the air nowadays that the superiority of one of our formulas to another may not consist so much in its literal ’objectivity,’ as in subjective qualities like its usefulness, its ’elegance’ or its congruity with our residual beliefs. Yielding to these suspicions, and generalizing, we fall into something like the humanistic state of mind. Truth we conceive to mean everywhere, not duplication, but addition; not the constructing of inner copies of already complete realities, but rather the collaborating with realities so as to bring about a clearer result. Obviously this state of mind is at first full of vagueness and ambiguity. ’Collaborating’ is a vague term; it must at any rate cover conceptions and logical arrangements. ’Clearer’ is vaguer still. Truth must bring clear thoughts, as well as clear the way to action. ’Reality’ is the vaguest term of all. The only way to test such a programme at all is to apply it to the various types of truth, in the hope of reaching an account that shall be more precise. Any hypothesis that forces such a review upon one has one great merit, even if in the end it prove invalid: it gets us better acquainted with the total subject. To give the theory plenty of ’rope’ and see if it hangs itself eventually is better tactics than to choke it off at the outset by abstract accusations of self-contradiction. I think therefore that a decided effort at sympathetic mental play with humanism is the provisional attitude to be recommended to the reader.

When I find myself playing sympathetically with humanism, something like what follows is what I end by conceiving it to mean.

Experience is a process that continually gives us new material to digest. We handle this intellectually by the mass of beliefs of which we find ourselves already possessed, assimilating, rejecting, or rearranging in different degrees. Some of the apperceiving ideas are recent acquisitions of our own, but most of them are common-sense traditions of the race. There is probably not a common-sense tradition, of all those which we now live by, that was not in the first instance a genuine discovery, an inductive generalization like those more recent ones of the atom, of inertia, of energy, of reflex action, or of fitness to survive The notions of one Time and of one Space as single continuous receptacles; the distinction between thoughts and things, matter and mind between permanent subjects and changing attributes; the conception of classes with sub classes within them; the separation of fortuitous from regularly caused connections; surely all these were once definite conquests made at historic dates by our ancestors in their attempt to get the chaos of their crude individual experiences into a more shareable and manageable shape. They proved of such sovereign use as denkmittel that they are now a part of the very structure of our mind. We cannot play fast and loose with them. No experience can upset them. On the contrary, they apperceive every experience and assign it to its place.

To what effect? That we may the better foresee the course of our experiences, communicate with one another, and steer our lives by rule. Also that we may have a cleaner, clearer, more inclusive mental view.

The greatest common-sense achievement, after the discovery of one Time and one Space, is probably the concept of permanently existing things. When a rattle first drops out of the hand of a baby, he does not look to see where it has gone. Non-perception he accepts as annihilation until he finds a better belief. That our perceptions mean BEINGS, rattles that are there whether we hold them in our hands or not, becomes an interpretation so luminous of what happens to us that, once employed, it never gets forgotten. It applies with equal felicity to things and persons, to the objective and to the ejective realm. However a Berkeley, a Mill, or a Cornelius may CRITICISE it, it WORKS; and in practical life we never think of ’going back’ upon it, or reading our incoming experiences in any other terms. We may, indeed, speculatively imagine a state of ’pure’ experience before the hypothesis of permanent objects behind its flux had been framed; and we can play with the idea that some primeval genius might have struck into a different hypothesis. But we cannot positively imagine today what the different hypothesis could have been, for the category of trans-perceptual reality is now one of the foundations of our life. Our thoughts must still employ it if they are to possess reasonableness and truth.

This notion of a FIRST in the shape of a most chaotic pure experience which sets us questions, of a SECOND in the way of fundamental categories, long ago wrought into the structure of our consciousness and practically irreversible, which define the general frame within which answers must fall, and of a THIRD which gives the detail of the answers in the shapes most congruous with all our present needs, is, as I take it, the essence of the humanistic conception. It represents experience in its pristine purity to be now so enveloped in predicates historically worked out that we can think of it as little more than an OTHER, of a THAT, which the mind, in Mr. Bradley’s phrase, ’encounters,’ and to whose stimulating presence we respond by ways of thinking which we call ’true’ in proportion as they facilitate our mental or physical activities and bring us outer power and inner peace. But whether the Other, the universal THAT, has itself any definite inner structure, or whether, if it have any, the structure resembles any of our predicated WHATS, this is a question which humanism leaves untouched. For us, at any rate, it insists, reality is an accumulation of our own intellectual inventions, and the struggle for ’truth’ in our progressive dealings with it is always a struggle to work in new nouns and adjectives while altering as little as possible the old.

It is hard to see why either Mr. Bradley’s own logic or his metaphysics should oblige him to quarrel with this conception. He might consistently adopt it verbatim et literatim, if he would, and simply throw his peculiar absolute round it, following in this the good example of Professor Royce. Bergson in France, and his disciples, Wilbois the physicist and Leroy, are thoroughgoing humanists in the sense defined. Professor Milhaud also appears to be one; and the great Poincare misses it by only the breadth of a hair. In Germany the name of Simmel offers itself as that of a humanist of the most radical sort. Mach and his school, and Hertz and Ostwald must be classed as humanists. The view is in the atmosphere and must be patiently discussed.

The best way to discuss it would be to see what the alternative might be. What is it indeed? Its critics make no explicit statement, Professor Royce being the only one so far who has formulated anything definite. The first service of humanism to philosophy accordingly seems to be that it will probably oblige those who dislike it to search their own hearts and heads. It will force analysis to the front and make it the order of the day. At present the lazy tradition that truth is adaequatio intellectus et rei seems all there is to contradict it with. Mr. Bradley’s only suggestion is that true thought ’must correspond to a determinate being which it cannot be said to make,’ and obviously that sheds no new light. What is the meaning of the word to ’correspond’? Where is the ’being’? What sort of things are ’determinations,’ and what is meant in this particular case by ’not to make’?

Humanism proceeds immediately to refine upon the looseness of these epithets. We correspond in SOME way with anything with which we enter into any relations at all. If it be a thing, we may produce an exact copy of it, or we may simply feel it as an existent in a certain place. If it be a demand, we may obey it without knowing anything more about it than its push. If it be a proposition, we may agree by not contradicting it, by letting it pass. If it be a relation between things, we may act on the first thing so as to bring ourselves out where the second will be. If it be something inaccessible, we may substitute a hypothetical object for it, which, having the same consequences, will cipher out for us real results. In a general way we may simply ADD OUR THOUGHT TO IT; and if it SUFFERS THE ADDITION, and the whole situation harmoniously prolongs and enriches itself, the thought will pass for true.

As for the whereabouts of the beings thus corresponded to, although they may be outside of the present thought as well as in it, humanism sees no ground for saying they are outside of finite experience itself. Pragmatically, their reality means that we submit to them, take account of them, whether we like to or not, but this we must perpetually do with experiences other than our own. The whole system of what the present experience must correspond to ’adequately’ may be continuous with the present experience itself. Reality, so taken as experience other than the present, might be either the legacy of past experience or the content of experience to come. Its determinations for US are in any case the adjectives which our acts of judging fit to it, and those are essentially humanistic things.

To say that our thought does not ’make’ this reality means pragmatically that if our own particular thought were annihilated the reality would still be there in some shape, though possibly it might be a shape that would lack something that our thought supplies. That reality is ’independent’ means that there is something in every experience that escapes our arbitrary control. If it be a sensible experience it coerces our attention; if a sequence, we cannot invert it; if we compare two terms we can come to only one result. There is a push, an urgency, within our very experience, against which we are on the whole powerless, and which drives us in a direction that is the destiny of our belief. That this drift of experience itself is in the last resort due to something independent of all possible experience may or may not be true. There may or may not be an extra-experiential ’ding an sich’ that keeps the ball rolling, or an ’absolute’ that lies eternally behind all the successive determinations which human thought has made. But within our experience ITSELF, at any rate, humanism says, some determinations show themselves as being independent of others; some questions, if we ever ask them, can only be answered in one way; some beings, if we ever suppose them, must be supposed to have existed previously to the supposing; some relations, if they exist ever, must exist as long as their terms exist.

Truth thus means, according to humanism, the relation of less fixed parts of experience (predicates) to other relatively more fixed parts (subjects); and we are not required to seek it in a relation of experience as such to anything beyond itself. We can stay at home, for our behavior as exponents is hemmed in on every side. The forces both of advance and of resistance are exerted by our own objects, and the notion of truth as something opposed to waywardness or license inevitably grows up SOLIPSISTICALLY inside of every human life.

So obvious is all this that a common charge against the humanistic authors ’makes me tired.’ ’How can a deweyite discriminate sincerity from bluff?’ was a question asked at a philosophic meeting where I reported on Dewey’s Studies. ’How can the mere [Footnote: I know of no ’mere’ pragmatist, if MERENESS here means, as it seems to, the denial of all concreteness to the pragmatist’s THOUGHT.] pragmatist feel any duty to think truly?’ is the objection urged by Professor Royce. Mr. Bradley in turn says that if a humanist understands his own doctrine, ’he must hold any idea, however mad, to be the truth, if any one will have it so.’ And Professor Taylor describes pragmatism as believing anything one pleases and calling it truth.

Such a shallow sense of the conditions under which men’s thinking actually goes on seems to me most surprising. These critics appear to suppose that, if left to itself, the rudderless raft of our experience must be ready to drift anywhere or nowhere. Even THO there were compasses on board, they seem to say, there would be no pole for them to point to. There must be absolute sailing- directions, they insist, decreed from outside, and an independent chart of the voyage added to the ’mere’ voyage itself, if we are ever to make a port. But is it not obvious that even THO there be such absolute sailing-directions in the shape of pre- human standards of truth that we OUGHT to follow, the only guarantee that we shall in fact follow them must lie in our human equipment. The ’ought’ would be a brutum fulmen unless there were a felt grain inside of our experience that conspired. As a matter of fact the DEVOUTEST believers in absolute standards must admit that men fail to obey them. Waywardness is here, in spite of the eternal prohibitions, and the existence of any amount of reality ante rem is no warrant against unlimited error in rebus being incurred. The only REAL guarantee we have against licentious thinking is the CIRCUMPRESSURE of experience itself, which gets us sick of concrete errors, whether there be a trans-empirical reality or not. How does the partisan of absolute reality know what this orders him to think? He cannot get direct sight of the absolute; and he has no means of guessing what it wants of him except by following the humanistic clues. The only truth that he himself will ever practically ACCEPT will be that to which his finite experiences lead him of themselves. The state of mind which shudders at the idea of a lot of experiences left to themselves, and that augurs protection from the sheer name of an absolute, as if, however inoperative, that might still stand for a sort of ghostly security, is like the mood of those good people who, whenever they hear of a social tendency that is damnable, begin to redden and to puff, and say ’Parliament or Congress ought to make a law against it,’ as if an impotent decree would give relief.

All the SANCTIONS of a law of truth lie in the very texture of experience. Absolute or no absolute, the concrete truth FOR US will always be that way of thinking in which our various experiences most profitably combine.

And yet, the opponent obstinately urges, your humanist will always have a greater liberty to play fast and loose with truth than will your believer in an independent realm of reality that makes the standard rigid. If by this latter believer he means a man who pretends to know the standard and who fulminates it, the humanist will doubtless prove more flexible; but no more flexible than the absolutist himself if the latter follows (as fortunately our present-day absolutists do follow) empirical methods of inquiry in concrete affairs. To consider hypotheses is surely always better than to DOGMATISE ins blaue hinein.

Nevertheless this probable flexibility of temper in him has been used to convict the humanist of sin. Believing as he does, that truth lies in rebus, and is at every moment our own line of most propitious reaction, he stands forever debarred, as I have heard a learned colleague say, from trying to convert opponents, for does not their view, being THEIR most propitious momentary reaction, already fill the bill? Only the believer in the ante-rem brand of truth can on this theory seek to make converts without self- stultification. But can there be self-stultification in urging any account whatever of truth? Can the definition ever contradict the deed? ’Truth is what I feel like saying’–suppose that to be the definition. ’Well, I feel like saying that, and I want you to feel like saying it, and shall continue to say it until I get you to agree.’ Where is there any contradiction? Whatever truth may be said to be, that is the kind of truth which the saying can be held to carry. The TEMPER which a saying may comport is an extra-logical matter. It may indeed be hotter in some individual absolutist than in a humanist, but it need not be so in another. And the humanist, for his part, is perfectly consistent in compassing sea and land to make one proselyte, if his nature be enthusiastic enough.

’But how can you be enthusiastic over any view of things which you know to have been partly made by yourself, and which is liable to alter during the next minute? How is any heroic devotion to the ideal of truth possible under such paltry conditions?’

This is just another of those objections by which the anti-humanists show their own comparatively slack hold on the realities of the situation. If they would only follow the pragmatic method and ask: ’What is truth KNOWN-AS? What does its existence stand for in the way of concrete goods?’–they would see that the name of it is the inbegriff of almost everything that is valuable in our lives. The true is the opposite of whatever is instable, of whatever is practically disappointing, of whatever is useless, of whatever is lying and unreliable, of whatever is unverifiable and unsupported, of whatever is inconsistent and contradictory, of whatever is artificial and eccentric, of whatever is unreal in the sense of being of no practical account. Here are pragmatic reasons with a vengeance why we should turn to truth–truth saves us from a world of that complexion. What wonder that its very name awakens loyal feeling! In particular what wonder that all little provisional fool’s paradises of belief should appear contemptible in comparison with its bare pursuit! When absolutists reject humanism because they feel it to be untrue, that means that the whole habit of their mental needs is wedded already to a different view of reality, in comparison with which the humanistic world seems but the whim of a few irresponsible youths. Their own subjective apperceiving mass is what speaks here in the name of the eternal natures and bids them reject our humanism–as they apprehend it. Just so with us humanists, when we condemn all noble, clean-cut, fixed, eternal, rational, temple-like systems of philosophy. These contradict the DRAMATIC TEMPERAMENT of nature, as our dealings with nature and our habits of thinking have so far brought us to conceive it. They seem oddly personal and artificial, even when not bureaucratic and professional in an absurd degree. We turn from them to the great unpent and unstayed wilderness of truth as we feel it to be constituted, with as good a conscience as rationalists are moved by when they turn from our wilderness into their neater and cleaner intellectual abodes. [Footnote: I cannot forbear quoting as an illustration of the contrast between humanist and rationalist tempers of mind, in a sphere remote from philosophy, these remarks on the Dreyfus ’affaire,’ written by one who assuredly had never heard of humanism or pragmatism. ’Autant que la Revolution, “l’Affaire” est desormais une de nos “origines.” Si elle n’a pas fait ouvrir le gouffre, c’est elle du moins qui a rendu patent et visible le long travail souterrain qui, silencieusement, avait prepare la separation entre nos deux camps d’aujourd’hui, pour ecarter enfin, d’un coup soudain, la France des traditionalistes (poseurs de principes, chercheurs d’unite, constructeurs de systemes a priori) el la France eprise du fait positif et de libre examen;– la France revolutionnaire et romantique si l’on veut, celle qui met tres haut l’individu, qui ne veut pas qu’un juste perisse, fut-ce pour sauver la nation, et qui cherche la verite dans toutes ses parties aussi bien que dans une vue d’ensemble ... Duclaux ne pouvait pas concevoir qu’on preferat quelque chose a la verite. Mais il voyait autour de lui de fort honnetes gens qui, mettant en balance la vie d’un homme et la raison d’Etat, lui avouaient de quel poids leger ils jugeaient une simple existence individuelle, pour innocente qu’elle fut. C’etaient des classiques, des gens a qui l’ensemble seul importe.’ La Vie de Emile Duclaux, par Mme. Em. D., Laval, 1906, pp. 243, 247-248.]

This is surely enough to show that the humanist does not ignore the character of objectivity and independence in truth. Let me turn next to what his opponents mean when they say that to be true, our thoughts must ’correspond.’

The vulgar notion of correspondence here is that the thoughts must COPY the reality–cognitio fit per assimiliationem cogniti et cognoscentis; and philosophy, without having ever fairly sat down to the question, seems to have instinctively accepted this idea: propositions are held true if they copy the eternal thought; terms are held true if they copy extra-mental realities. Implicitly, I think that the copy-theory has animated most of the criticisms that have been made on humanism.

A priori, however, it is not self-evident that the sole business of our mind with realities should be to copy them. Let my reader suppose himself to constitute for a time all the reality there is in the universe, and then to receive the announcement that another being is to be created who shall know him truly. How will he represent the knowing in advance? What will he hope it to be? I doubt extremely whether it could ever occur to him to fancy it as a mere copying. Of what use to him would an imperfect second edition of himself in the new comer’s interior be? It would seem pure waste of a propitious opportunity. The demand would more probably be for something absolutely new. The reader would conceive the knowing humanistically, ’the new comer,’ he would say, ’must TAKE ACCOUNT OF MY PRESENCE BY REACTING ON IT IN SUCH A WAY THAT GOOD WOULD ACCRUE TO US BOTH. If copying be requisite to that end, let there be copying; otherwise not.’ The essence in any case would not be the copying, but the enrichment of the previous world.

I read the other day, in a book of Professor Eucken’s, a phrase, ’Die erhohung des vorgefundenen daseins,’ which seems to be pertinent here. Why may not thought’s mission be to increase and elevate, rather than simply to imitate and reduplicate, existence? No one who has read Lotze can fail to remember his striking comment on the ordinary view of the secondary qualities of matter, which brands them as ’illusory’ because they copy nothing in the thing. The notion of a world complete in itself, to which thought comes as a passive mirror, adding nothing to fact, Lotze says is irrational. Rather is thought itself a most momentous part of fact, and the whole mission of the pre-existing and insufficient world of matter may simply be to provoke thought to produce its far more precious supplement.

’Knowing,’ in short, may, for aught we can see beforehand to the contrary, be ONLY ONE WAY OF GETTING INTO FRUITFUL RELATIONS WITH REALITY whether copying be one of the relations or not.

It is easy to see from what special type of knowing the copy-theory arose. In our dealings with natural phenomena the great point is to be able to foretell. Foretelling, according to such a writer as Spencer, is the whole meaning of intelligence. When Spencer’s ’law of intelligence’ says that inner and outer relations must ’correspond,’ it means that the distribution of terms in our inner time-scheme and space-scheme must be an exact copy of the distribution in real time and space of the real terms. In strict theory the mental terms themselves need not answer to the real terms in the sense of severally copying them, symbolic mental terms being enough, if only the real dates and places be copied. But in our ordinary life the mental terms are images and the real ones are sensations, and the images so often copy the sensations, that we easily take copying of terms as well as of relations to be the natural significance of knowing. Meanwhile much, even of this common descriptive truth, is couched in verbal symbols. If our symbols FIT the world, in the sense of determining our expectations rightly, they may even be the better for not copying its terms.

It seems obvious that the pragmatic account of all this routine of phenomenal knowledge is accurate. Truth here is a relation, not of our ideas to non-human realities, but of conceptual parts of our experience to sensational parts. Those thoughts are true which guide us to BENEFICIAL INTERACTION with sensible particulars as they occur, whether they copy these in advance or not.

From the frequency of copying in the knowledge of phenomenal fact, copying has been supposed to be the essence of truth in matters rational also. Geometry and logic, it has been supposed, must copy archetypal thoughts in the Creator. But in these abstract spheres there is no need of assuming archetypes. The mind is free to carve so many figures out of space, to make so many numerical collections, to frame so many classes and series, and it can analyze and compare so endlessly, that the very superabundance of the resulting ideas makes us doubt the ’objective’ pre-existence of their models. It would be plainly wrong to suppose a God whose thought consecrated rectangular but not polar co-ordinates, or Jevons’s notation but not Boole’s. Yet if, on the other hand, we assume God to have thought in advance of every POSSIBLE flight of human fancy in these directions, his mind becomes too much like a Hindoo idol with three heads, eight arms and six breasts, too much made up of superfoetation and redundancy for us to wish to copy it, and the whole notion of copying tends to evaporate from these sciences. Their objects can be better interpreted as being created step by step by men, as fast as they successively conceive them.

If now it be asked how, if triangles, squares, square roots, genera, and the like, are but improvised human ’artefacts,’ their properties and relations can be so promptly known to be ’eternal,’ the humanistic answer is easy. If triangles and genera are of our own production we can keep them invariant. We can make them ’timeless’ by expressly decreeing that on THE THINGS WE MEAN time shall exert no altering effect, that they are intentionally and it may be fictitiously abstracted from every corrupting real associate and condition. But relations between invariant objects will themselves be invariant. Such relations cannot be happenings, for by hypothesis nothing shall happen to the objects. I have tried to show in the last chapter of my Principles of Psychology [Footnote: Vol. ii, pp. 641 ff.] that they can only be relations of comparison. No one so far seems to have noticed my suggestion, and I am too ignorant of the development of mathematics to feel very confident of my own view. But if it were correct it would solve the difficulty perfectly. Relations of comparison are matters of direct inspection. As soon as mental objects are mentally compared, they are perceived to be either like or unlike. But once the same, always the same, once different, always different, under these timeless conditions. Which is as much as to say that truths concerning these man-made objects are necessary and eternal. We can change our conclusions only by changing our data first.

The whole fabric of the a priori sciences can thus be treated as a man-made product. As Locke long ago pointed out, these sciences have no immediate connection with fact. Only IF a fact can be humanized by being identified with any of these ideal objects, is what was true of the objects now true also of the facts. The truth itself meanwhile was originally a copy of nothing; it was only a relation directly perceived to obtain between two artificial mental things. [Footnote: Mental things which are realities of course within the mental world.]

We may now glance at some special types of knowing, so as to see better whether the humanistic account fits. On the mathematical and logical types we need not enlarge further, nor need we return at much length to the case of our descriptive knowledge of the course of nature. So far as this involves anticipation, tho that MAY mean copying, it need, as we saw, mean little more than ’getting ready’ in advance. But with many distant and future objects, our practical relations are to the last degree potential and remote. In no sense can we now get ready for the arrest of the earth’s revolution by the tidal brake, for instance; and with the past, tho we suppose ourselves to know it truly, we have no practical relations at all. It is obvious that, altho interests strictly practical have been the original starting-point of our search for true phenomenal descriptions, yet an intrinsic interest in the bare describing function has grown up. We wish accounts that shall be true, whether they bring collateral profit or not. The primitive function has developed its demand for mere exercise. This theoretic curiosity seems to be the characteristically human differentia, and humanism recognizes its enormous scope. A true idea now means not only one that prepares us for an actual perception. It means also one that might prepare us for a merely possible perception, or one that, if spoken, would suggest possible perceptions to others, or suggest actual perceptions which the speaker cannot share. The ensemble of perceptions thus thought of as either actual or possible form a system which it is obviously advantageous to us to get into a stable and consistent shape; and here it is that the common-sense notion of permanent beings finds triumphant use. Beings acting outside of the thinker explain, not only his actual perceptions, past and future, but his possible perceptions and those of every one else. Accordingly they gratify our theoretic need in a supremely beautiful way. We pass from our immediate actual through them into the foreign and the potential, and back again into the future actual, accounting for innumerable particulars by a single cause. As in those circular panoramas, where a real foreground of dirt, grass, bushes, rocks and a broken-down cannon is enveloped by a canvas picture of sky and earth and of a raging battle, continuing the foreground so cunningly that the spectator can detect no joint; so these conceptual objects, added to our present perceptual reality, fuse with it into the whole universe of our belief. In spite of all berkeleyan criticism, we do not doubt that they are really there. Tho our discovery of any one of them may only date from now, we unhesitatingly say that it not only IS, but WAS there, if, by so saying, the past appears connected more consistently with what we feel the present to be. This is historic truth. Moses wrote the Pentateuch, we think, because if he didn’t, all our religious habits will have to be undone. Julius Caesar was real, or we can never listen to history again. Trilobites were once alive, or all our thought about the strata is at sea. Radium, discovered only yesterday, must always have existed, or its analogy with other natural elements, which are permanent, fails. In all this, it is but one portion of our beliefs reacting on another so as to yield the most satisfactory total state of mind. That state of mind, we say, sees truth, and the content of its deliverances we believe.

Of course, if you take the satisfactoriness concretely, as something felt by you now, and if, by truth, you mean truth taken abstractly and verified in the long run, you cannot make them equate, for it is notorious that the temporarily satisfactory is often false. Yet at each and every concrete moment, truth for each man is what that man ’troweth’ at that moment with the maximum of satisfaction to himself; and similarly, abstract truth, truth verified by the long run, and abstract satisfactoriness, long-run satisfactoriness, coincide. If, in short, we compare concrete with concrete and abstract with abstract, the true and the satisfactory do mean the same thing. I suspect that a certain muddling of matters hereabouts is what makes the general philosophic public so impervious to humanism’s claims.

The fundamental fact about our experience is that it is a process of change. For the ’trower’ at any moment, truth, like the visible area round a man walking in a fog, or like what George Eliot calls ’the wall of dark seen by small fishes’ eyes that pierce a span in the wide Ocean,’ is an objective field which the next moment enlarges and of which it is the critic, and which then either suffers alteration or is continued unchanged. The critic sees both the first trower’s truth and his own truth, compares them with each other, and verifies or confutes. HIS field of view is the reality independent of that earlier trower’s thinking with which that thinking ought to correspond. But the critic is himself only a trower; and if the whole process of experience should terminate at that instant, there would be no otherwise known independent reality with which HIS thought might be compared.

The immediate in experience is always provisionally in this situation. The humanism, for instance, which I see and try so hard to defend, is the completest truth attained from my point of view up to date. But, owing to the fact that all experience is a process, no point of view can ever be THE last one. Every one is insufficient and off its balance, and responsible to later points of view than itself. You, occupying some of these later points in your own person, and believing in the reality of others, will not agree that my point of view sees truth positive, truth timeless, truth that counts, unless they verify and confirm what it sees.

You generalize this by saying that any opinion, however satisfactory, can count positively and absolutely as true only so far as it agrees with a standard beyond itself; and if you then forget that this standard perpetually grows up endogenously inside the web of the experiences, you may carelessly go on to say that what distributively holds of each experience, holds also collectively of all experience, and that experience as such and in its totality owes whatever truth it may be possessed-of to its correspondence with absolute realities outside of its own being. This evidently is the popular and traditional position. From the fact that finite experiences must draw support from one another, philosophers pass to the notion that experience uberhaupt must need an absolute support. The denial of such a notion by humanism lies probably at the root of most of the dislike which it incurs.

But is this not the globe, the elephant and the tortoise over again? Must not something end by supporting itself? Humanism is willing to let finite experience be self-supporting. Somewhere being must immediately breast nonentity. Why may not the advancing front of experience, carrying its immanent satisfactions and dissatisfactions, cut against the black inane as the luminous orb of the moon cuts the caerulean abyss? Why should anywhere the world be absolutely fixed and finished? And if reality genuinely grows, why may it not grow in these very determinations which here and now are made?

In point of fact it actually seems to grow by our mental determinations, be these never so ’true.’ Take the ’great bear’ or ’dipper’ constellation in the heavens. We call it by that name, we count the stars and call them seven, we say they were seven before they were counted, and we say that whether any one had ever noted the fact or not, the dim resemblance to a long-tailed (or long- necked?) animal was always truly there. But what do we mean by this projection into past eternity of recent human ways of thinking? Did an ’absolute’ thinker actually do the counting, tell off the stars upon his standing number-tally, and make the bear-comparison, silly as the latter is? Were they explicitly seven, explicitly bear-like, before the human witness came? Surely nothing in the truth of the attributions drives us to think this. They were only implicitly or virtually what we call them, and we human witnesses first explicated them and made them ’real.’ A fact virtually pre-exists when every condition of its realization save one is already there. In this case the condition lacking is the act of the counting and comparing mind. But the stars (once the mind considers them) themselves dictate the result. The counting in no wise modifies their previous nature, and, they being what and where they are, the count cannot fall out differently. It could then ALWAYS be made. NEVER could the number seven be questioned, IF THE QUESTION ONCE WERE RAISED.

We have here a quasi-paradox. Undeniably something comes by the counting that was not there before. And yet that something was ALWAYS TRUE. In one sense you create it, and in another sense you FIND it. You have to treat your count as being true beforehand, the moment you come to treat the matter at all.

Our stellar attributes must always be called true, then; yet none the less are they genuine additions made by our intellect to the world of fact. Not additions of consciousness only, but additions of ’content.’ They copy nothing that pre-existed, yet they agree with what pre-existed, fit it, amplify it, relate and connect it with a ’wain,’ a number-tally, or what not, and build it out. It seems to me that humanism is the only theory that builds this case out in the good direction, and this case stands for innumerable other kinds of case. In all such eases, odd as it may sound, our judgment may actually be said to retroact and to enrich the past.

Our judgments at any rate change the character of FUTURE reality by the acts to which they lead. Where these acts are acts expressive of trust,–trust, e.g., that a man is honest, that our health is good enough, or that we can make a successful effort,–which acts may be a needed antecedent of the trusted things becoming true. Professor Taylor says [Footnote: In an article criticising Pragmatism (as he conceives it) in the McGill University Quarterly published at Montreal, for May, 1904.] that our trust is at any rate UNTRUE WHEN IT IS MADE, i. e; before the action; and I seem to remember that he disposes of anything like a faith in the general excellence of the universe (making the faithful person’s part in it at any rate more excellent) as a ’lie in the soul.’ But the pathos of this expression should not blind us to the complication of the facts. I doubt whether Professor Taylor would himself be in favor of practically handling trusters of these kinds as liars. Future and present really mix in such emergencies, and one can always escape lies in them by using hypothetic forms. But Mr. Taylor’s attitude suggests such absurd possibilities of practice that it seems to me to illustrate beautifully how self- stultifying the conception of a truth that shall merely register a standing fixture may become. Theoretic truth, truth of passive copying, sought in the sole interests of copying as such, not because copying is GOOD FOR SOMETHING, but because copying ought schlechthin to be, seems, if you look at it coldly, to be an almost preposterous ideal. Why should the universe, existing in itself, also exist in copies? How CAN it be copied in the solidity of its objective fulness? And even if it could, what would the motive be? ’Even the hairs of your head are numbered.’ Doubtless they are, virtually; but why, as an absolute proposition, OUGHT the number to become copied and known? Surely knowing is only one way of interacting with reality and adding to its effect.

The opponent here will ask: ’Has not the knowing of truth any substantive value on its own account, apart from the collateral advantages it may bring? And if you allow theoretic satisfactions to exist at all, do they not crowd the collateral satisfactions out of house and home, and must not pragmatism go into bankruptcy, if she admits them at all?’ The destructive force of such talk disappears as soon as we use words concretely instead of abstractly, and ask, in our quality of good pragmatists, just what the famous theoretic needs are known as and in what the intellectual satisfactions consist.

Are they not all mere matters of CONSISTENCY–and emphatically NOT of consistency between an absolute reality and the mind’s copies of it, but of actually felt consistency among judgments, objects, and habits of reacting, in the mind’s own experienceable world? And are not both our need of such consistency and our pleasure in it conceivable as outcomes of the natural fact that we are beings that do develop mental HABITS–habit itself proving adaptively beneficial in an environment where the same objects, or the same kinds of objects, recur and follow ’law’? If this were so, what would have come first would have been the collateral profits of habit as such, and the theoretic life would have grown up in aid of these. In point of fact, this seems to have been the probable case. At life’s origin, any present perception may have been ’true’–if such a word could then be applicable. Later, when reactions became organized, the reactions became ’true’ whenever expectation was fulfilled by them. Otherwise they were ’false’ or ’mistaken’ reactions. But the same class of objects needs the same kind of reaction, so the impulse to react consistently must gradually have been established, and a disappointment felt whenever the results frustrated expectation. Here is a perfectly plausible germ for all our higher consistencies. Nowadays, if an object claims from us a reaction of the kind habitually accorded only to the opposite class of objects, our mental machinery refuses to run smoothly. The situation is intellectually unsatisfactory.

Theoretic truth thus falls WITHIN the mind, being the accord of some of its processes and objects with other processes and objects– ’accord’ consisting here in well-definable relations. So long as the satisfaction of feeling such an accord is denied us, whatever collateral profits may seem to inure from what we believe in are but as dust in the balance–provided always that we are highly organized intellectually, which the majority of us are not. The amount of accord which satisfies most men and women is merely the absence of violent clash between their usual thoughts and statements and the limited sphere of sense-perceptions in which their lives are cast. The theoretic truth that most of us think we ’ought’ to attain to is thus the possession of a set of predicates that do not explicitly contradict their subjects. We preserve it as often as not by leaving other predicates and subjects out.

In some men theory is a passion, just as music is in others. The form of inner consistency is pursued far beyond the line at which collateral profits stop. Such men systematize and classify and schematize and make synoptical tables and invent ideal objects for the pure love of unifying. Too often the results, glowing with ’truth’ for the inventors, seem pathetically personal and artificial to bystanders. Which is as much as to say that the purely theoretic criterion of truth can leave us in the lurch as easily as any other criterion, and that the absolutists, for all their pretensions, are ’in the same boat’ concretely with those whom they attack.

I am well aware that this paper has been rambling in the extreme. But the whole subject is inductive, and sharp logic is hardly yet in order. My great trammel has been the non-existence of any definitely stated alternative on my opponents’ part. It may conduce to clearness if I recapitulate, in closing, what I conceive the main points of humanism to be. They are these:–

1. An experience, perceptual or conceptual, must conform to reality in order to be true.

2. By ’reality’ humanism means nothing more than the other conceptual or perceptual experiences with which a given present experience may find itself in point of fact mixed up. [Footnote: This is meant merely to exclude reality of an ’unknowable’ sort, of which no account in either perceptual or conceptual terms can be given. It includes of course any amount if empirical reality independent of the knower. Pragmatism, is thus ’epistemologically’ realistic in its account.]

3. By ’conforming,’ humanism means taking account-of in such a way as to gain any intellectually and practically satisfactory result.

4. To ’take account-of’ and to be ’satisfactory’ are terms that admit of no definition, so many are the ways in which these requirements can practically be worked out.

5. Vaguely and in general, we take account of a reality by preserving it in as unmodified a form as possible. But, to be then satisfactory, it must not contradict other realities outside of it which claim also to be preserved. That we must preserve all the experience we can and minimize contradiction in what we preserve, is about all that can be said in advance.

6. The truth which the conforming experience embodies may be a positive addition to the previous reality, and later judgments may have to conform to it. Yet, virtually at least, it may have been true previously. Pragmatically, virtual and actual truth mean the same thing: the possibility of only one answer, when once the question is raised.


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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