The Meaning of Truth
By William James

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V. The Essence of Humanism

[Footnote: Reprinted from the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, vol. ii. No. 5, March 2, 1905.]

Humanism is a ferment that has ’come to stay.’ It is not a single hypothesis or theorem, and it dwells on no new facts. It is rather a slow shifting in the philosophic perspective, making things appear as from a new centre of interest or point of sight. Some writers are strongly conscious of the shifting, others half unconscious, even though their own vision may have undergone much change. The result is no small confusion in debate, the half-conscious humanists often taking part against the radical ones, as if they wished to count upon the other side. [Footnote: Professor Baldwin, for example. His address ’Selective Thinking’ (Psychological Review, January, 1898, reprinted in his volume, ’Development and Evolution’) seems to me an unusually well written pragmatic manifesto. Nevertheless in ’The Limits of Pragmatism’ (ibid; January, 1904), he (much less clearly) joins in the attack.]

If humanism really be the name for such a shifting of perspective, it is obvious that the whole scene of the philosophic stage will change in some degree if humanism prevails. The emphasis of things, their foreground and background distribution, their sizes and values, will not keep just the same. [Footnote: The ethical changes, it seems to me, are beautifully made evident in Professor Dewey’s series of articles, which will never get the attention they deserve till they are printed in a book. I mean: ’The Significance of Emotions,’ Psychological Review, vol. ii, 13; ’The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology,’ ibid; iii, 357; ’Psychology and Social Practice,’ ibid., vii, 105; ’Interpretation of Savage Mind,’ ibid; ix, 2l7; ’Green’s Theory of the Moral Motive,’ Philosophical Review, vol. i, 593; ’Self-realization as the Moral Ideal,’ ibid; ii, 652; ’The Psychology of Effort,’ ibid; vi, 43; ’The Evolutionary Method as Applied to Morality,’ ibid; xi, 107,353; ’Evolution and Ethics,’ Monist, vol. viii, 321; to mention only a few.] If such pervasive consequences be involved in humanism, it is clear that no pains which philosophers may take, first in defining it, and then in furthering, checking, or steering its progress, will be thrown away.

It suffers badly at present from incomplete definition. Its most systematic advocates, Schiller and Dewey, have published fragmentary programmes only; and its bearing on many vital philosophic problems has not been traced except by adversaries who, scenting heresies in advance, have showered blows on doctrines– subjectivism and scepticism, for example–that no good humanist finds it necessary to entertain. By their still greater reticences, the anti-humanists have, in turn, perplexed the humanists. Much of the controversy has involved the word ’truth.’ It is always good in debate to know your adversary’s point of view authentically. But the critics of humanism never define exactly what the word ’truth’ signifies when they use it themselves. The humanists have to guess at their view; and the result has doubtless been much beating of the air. Add to all this, great individual differences in both camps, and it becomes clear that nothing is so urgently needed, at the stage which things have reached at present, as a sharper definition by each side of its central point of view.

Whoever will contribute any touch of sharpness will help us to make sure of what’s what and who is who. Any one can contribute such a definition, and, without it, no one knows exactly where he stands. If I offer my own provisional definition of humanism now and here, others may improve it, some adversary may be led to define his own creed more sharply by the contrast, and a certain quickening of the crystallization of general opinion may result.

The essential service of humanism, as I conceive the situation, is to have seen that THO ONE PART OF OUR EXPERIENCE MAY LEAN UPON ANOTHER PART TO MAKE IT WHAT IT IS IN ANY ONE OF SEVERAL ASPECTS IN WHICH IT MAY BE CONSIDERED, EXPERIENCE AS A WHOLE IS SELF-CONTAINING AND LEANS ON NOTHING. Since this formula also expresses the main contention of transcendental idealism, it needs abundant explication to make it unambiguous. It seems, at first sight, to confine itself to denying theism and pantheism. But, in fact, it need not deny either; everything would depend on the exegesis; and if the formula ever became canonical, it would certainly develop both right-wing and left-wing interpreters. I myself read humanism theistically and pluralistically. If there be a God, he is no absolute all-experiencer, but simply the experiencer of widest actual conscious span. Read thus, humanism is for me a religion susceptible of reasoned defence, tho I am well aware how many minds there are to whom it can appeal religiously only when it has been monistically translated. Ethically the pluralistic form of it takes for me a stronger hold on reality than any other philosophy I know of–it being essentially a SOCIAL philosophy, a philosophy of ’CO,’ in which conjunctions do the work. But my primary reason for advocating it is its matchless intellectual economy. It gets rid, not only of the standing ’problems’ that monism engenders (’problem of evil,’ ’problem of freedom,’ and the like), but of other metaphysical mysteries and paradoxes as well.

It gets rid, for example, of the whole agnostic controversy, by refusing to entertain the hypothesis of trans-empirical reality at all. It gets rid of any need for an absolute of the bradleyan type (avowedly sterile for intellectual purposes) by insisting that the conjunctive relations found within experience are faultlessly real. It gets rid of the need of an absolute of the roycean type (similarly sterile) by its pragmatic treatment of the problem of knowledge. As the views of knowledge, reality and truth imputed to humanism have been those so far most fiercely attacked, it is in regard to these ideas that a sharpening of focus seems most urgently required. I proceed therefore to bring the views which I impute to humanism in these respects into focus as briefly as I can.


If the central humanistic thesis, printed above in italics, be accepted, it will follow that, if there be any such thing at all as knowing, the knower and the object known must both be portions of experience. One part of experience must, therefore, either

(1) Know another part of experience–in other words, parts must, as Professor Woodbridge says, [Footnote: In Science, November 4, 1904, p. 599.] represent ONE ANOTHER instead of representing realities outside of ’consciousness’–this case is that of conceptual knowledge; or else

(2) They must simply exist as so many ultimate THATS or facts of being, in the first instance; and then, as a secondary complication, and without doubling up its entitative singleness, any one and the same THAT in experience must figure alternately as a thing known and as a knowledge of the thing, by reason of two divergent kinds of context into which, in the general course of experience, it gets woven. [Footnote: This statement is probably excessively obscure to any one who has not read my two articles ’Does Consciousness Exist?’ and ’A World of Pure Experience’ in the Journal of Philosophy, vol. i, 1904.]

This second case is that of sense-perception. There is a stage of thought that goes beyond common sense, and of it I shall say more presently; but the common-sense stage is a perfectly definite halting-place of thought, primarily for purposes of action; and, so long as we remain on the common-sense stage of thought, object and subject FUSE in the fact of ’presentation’ or sense-perception- the pen and hand which I now SEE writing, for example, ARE the physical realities which those words designate. In this case there is no self-transcendency implied in the knowing. Humanism, here, is only a more comminuted IDENTITATSPHILOSOPHIE.

In case (1), on the contrary, the representative experience DOES TRANSCEND ITSELF in knowing the other experience that is its object. No one can talk of the knowledge of the one by the other without seeing them as numerically distinct entities, of which the one lies beyond the other and away from it, along some direction and with some interval, that can be definitely named. But, if the talker be a humanist, he must also see this distance-interval concretely and pragmatically, and confess it to consist of other intervening experiences–of possible ones, at all events, if not of actual. To call my present idea of my dog, for example, cognitive of the real dog means that, as the actual tissue of experience is constituted, the idea is capable of leading into a chain of other experiences on my part that go from next to next and terminate at last in vivid sense-perceptions of a jumping, barking, hairy body. Those ARE the real dog, the dog’s full presence, for my common sense. If the supposed talker is a profound philosopher, altho they may not BE the real dog for him, they MEAN the real dog, are practical substitutes for the real dog, as the representation was a practical substitute for them, that real dog being a lot of atoms, say, or of mind-stuff, that lie WHERE the sense-perceptions lie in his experience as well as in my own.


The philosopher here stands for the stage of thought that goes beyond the stage of common sense; and the difference is simply that he ’interpolates’ and ’extrapolates,’ where common sense does not. For common sense, two men see the same identical real dog. Philosophy, noting actual differences in their perceptions points out the duality of these latter, and interpolates something between them as a more real terminus–first, organs, viscera, etc.; next, cells; then, ultimate atoms; lastly, mind-stuff perhaps. The original sense-termini of the two men, instead of coalescing with each other and with the real dog-object, as at first supposed, are thus held by philosophers to be separated by invisible realities with which, at most, they are conterminous.

Abolish, now, one of the percipients, and the interpolation changes into ’extrapolation.’ The sense-terminus of the remaining percipient is regarded by the philosopher as not quite reaching reality. He has only carried the procession of experiences, the philosopher thinks, to a definite, because practical, halting- place somewhere on the way towards an absolute truth that lies beyond.

The humanist sees all the time, however, that there is no absolute transcendency even about the more absolute realities thus conjectured or believed in. The viscera and cells are only possible percepts following upon that of the outer body. The atoms again, tho we may never attain to human means of perceiving them, are still defined perceptually. The mind-stuff itself is conceived as a kind of experience; and it is possible to frame the hypothesis (such hypotheses can by no logic be excluded from philosophy) of two knowers of a piece of mind-stuff and the mind-stuff itself becoming ’confluent’ at the moment at which our imperfect knowing might pass into knowing of a completed type. Even so do you and I habitually conceive our two perceptions and the real dog as confluent, tho only provisionally, and for the common-sense stage of thought. If my pen be inwardly made of mind-stuff, there is no confluence NOW between that mind-stuff and my visual perception of the pen. But conceivably there might come to be such. confluence; for, in the case of my HAND, the visual sensations and the inward feelings of the hand, its mind-stuff, so to speak, are even now as confluent as any two things can be.

There is, thus, no breach in humanistic epistemology. Whether knowledge be taken as ideally perfected, or only as true enough to pass muster for practice, it is hung on one continuous scheme. Reality, howsoever remote, is always defined as a terminus within the general possibilities of experience; and what knows it is defined as an experience THAT ’REPRESENTS’ IT, IN THE SENSE OF BEING SUBSTITUTABLE FOR IT IN OUR THINKING because it leads to the same associates, OR IN THE SENSE OF ’POINTING TO IT THROUGH A CHAIN OF OTHER EXPERIENCES THAT EITHER INTERVENE OR MAY INTERVENE.

Absolute reality here bears the same relation to sensation as sensation bears to conception or imagination. Both are provisional or final termini, sensation being only the terminus at which the practical man habitually stops, while the philosopher projects a ’beyond,’ in the shape of more absolute reality. These termini, for the practical and the philosophical stages of thought respectively, are self-supporting. They are not ’true’ of anything else, they simply ARE, are REAL. They ’lean on nothing,’ as my italicized formula said. Rather does the whole fabric of experience lean on them, just as the whole fabric of the solar system, including many relative positions, leans, for its absolute position in space, on any one of its constituent stars. Here, again, one gets a new IDENTITATSPHILOSOPHIE in pluralistic form.


If I have succeeded in making this at all clear (tho I fear that brevity and abstractness between them may have made me fail), the reader will see that the ’truth’ of our mental operations must always be an intra-experiential affair. A conception is reckoned true by common sense when it can be made to lead to a sensation. The sensation, which for common sense is not so much ’true’ as ’real,’ is held to be PROVISIONALLY true by the philosopher just in so far as it COVERS (abuts at, or occupies the place of) a still more absolutely real experience, in the possibility of which, to some remoter experient, the philosopher finds reason to believe.

Meanwhile what actually DOES count for true to any individual trower, whether he be philosopher or common man, is always a result of his APPERCEPTIONS. If a novel experience, conceptual or sensible, contradict too emphatically our pre-existent system of beliefs, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it is treated as false. Only when the older and the newer experiences are congruous enough to mutually apperceive and modify each other, does what we treat as an advance in truth result. In no case, however, need truth consist in a relation between our experiences and something archetypal or trans-experiential. Should we ever reach absolutely terminal experiences, experiences in which we all agreed, which were superseded by no revised continuations, these would not be TRUE, they would be REAL, they would simply BE, and be indeed the angles, corners, and linchpins of all reality, on which the truth of everything else would be stayed. Only such OTHER things as led to these by satisfactory conjunctions would be ’true.’ Satisfactory connection of some sort with such termini is all that the word ’truth’ means. On the common-stage of thought sense- presentations serve as such termini. Our ideas and concepts and scientific theories pass for true only so far as they harmoniously lead back to the world of sense.

I hope that many humanists will endorse this attempt of mine to trace the more essential features of that way of viewing things. I feel almost certain that Messrs. Dewey and Schiller will do so. If the attackers will also take some slight account of it, it may be that discussion will be a little less wide of the mark than it has hitherto been.


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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