The Meaning of Truth
By William James

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VIII. The Pragmatist Account of Truth and Its Misunderstanders

[Footnote: Reprint from the Philosophical Review, January, 1908 (vol. xvii, p. 1).]

The account of truth given in my volume entitled Pragmatism, continues to meet with such persistent misunderstanding that I am tempted to make a final brief reply. My ideas may well deserve refutation, but they can get none till they are conceived of in their proper shape. The fantastic character of the current misconceptions shows how unfamiliar is the concrete point of view which pragmatism assumes. Persons who are familiar with a conception move about so easily in it that they understand each other at a hint, and can converse without anxiously attending to their P’s and Q’s. I have to admit, in view of the results, that we have assumed too ready an intelligence, and consequently in many places used a language too slipshod. We should never have spoken elliptically. The critics have boggled at every word they could boggle at, and refused to take the spirit rather than the letter of our discourse. This seems to show a genuine unfamiliarity in the whole point of view. It also shows, I think, that the second stage of opposition, which has already begun to express itself in the stock phrase that ’what is new is not true, and what is true not new,’ in pragmatism, is insincere. If we said nothing in any degree new, why was our meaning so desperately hard to catch? The blame cannot be laid wholly upon our obscurity of speech, for in other subjects we have attained to making ourselves understood. But recriminations are tasteless; and, as far as I personally am concerned, I am sure that some of the misconception I complain of is due to my doctrine of truth being surrounded in that volume of popular lectures by a lot of other opinions not necessarily implicated with it, so that a reader may very naturally have grown confused. For this I am to blame,–likewise for omitting certain explicit cautions, which the pages that follow will now in part supply.

First Misunderstanding: Pragmatism Is Only a Re-Editing Of Positivism.

This seems the commonest mistake. Scepticism, positivism, and agnosticism agree with ordinary dogmatic rationalism in presupposing that everybody knows what the word ’truth’ means, without further explanation. But the former doctrines then either suggest or declare that real truth, absolute truth, is inaccessible to us, and that we must fain put up with relative or phenomenal truth as its next best substitute. By scepticism this is treated as an unsatisfactory state of affairs, while positivism and agnosticism are cheerful about it, call real truth sour grapes, and consider phenomenal truth quite sufficient for all our ’practical’ purposes.

In point of fact, nothing could be farther from all this than what pragmatism has to say of truth. Its thesis is an altogether previous one. It leaves off where these other theories begin, having contented itself with the word truth’s DEFINITION. ’No matter whether any mind extant in the universe possess truth or not,’ it asks, ’what does the notion of truth signify IDEALLY?’ ’What kind of things would true judgments be IN CASE they existed?’ The answer which pragmatism offers is intended to cover the most complete truth that can be conceived of, ’absolute’ truth if you like, as well as truth of the most relative and imperfect description. This question of what truth would be like if it did exist, belongs obviously to a purely speculative field of inquiry. It is not a theory about any sort of reality, or about what kind of knowledge is actually possible; it abstracts from particular terms altogether, and defines the nature of a possible relation between two of them.

As Kant’s question about synthetic judgments had escaped previous philosophers, so the pragmatist question is not only so subtile as to have escaped attention hitherto, but even so subtile, it would seem, that when openly broached now, dogmatists and sceptics alike fail to apprehend it, and deem the pragmatist to be treating of something wholly different. He insists, they say (I quote an actual critic), ’that the greater problems are insoluble by human intelligence, that our need of knowing truly is artificial and illusory, and that our reason, incapable of reaching the foundations of reality, must turn itself exclusively towards ACTION.’ There could not be a worse misapprehension.

Second Misunderstanding: Pragmatism Is Primarily An Appeal To Action.

The name ’pragmatism,’ with its suggestions of action, has been an unfortunate choice, I have to admit, and has played into the hands of this mistake. But no word could protect the doctrine from critics so blind to the nature of the inquiry that, when Dr. Schiller speaks of ideas ’working’ well, the only thing they think of is their immediate workings in the physical environment, their enabling us to make money, or gain some similar ’practical’ advantage. Ideas do work thus, of course, immediately or remotely; but they work indefinitely inside of the mental world also. Not crediting us with this rudimentary insight, our critics treat our view as offering itself exclusively to engineers, doctors, financiers, and men of action generally, who need some sort of a rough and ready weltanschauung, but have no time or wit to study genuine philosophy. It is usually described as a characteristically American movement, a sort of bobtailed scheme of thought, excellently fitted for the man on the street, who naturally hates theory and wants cash returns immediately.

It is quite true that, when the refined theoretic question that pragmatism begins with is once answered, secondary corollaries of a practical sort follow. Investigation shows that, in the function called truth, previous realities are not the only independent variables. To a certain extent our ideas, being realities, are also independent variables, and, just as they follow other reality and fit it, so, in a measure, does other reality follow and fit them. When they add themselves to being, they partly redetermine the existent, so that reality as a whole appears incompletely definable unless ideas also are kept account of. This pragmatist doctrine, exhibiting our ideas as complemental factors of reality, throws open (since our ideas are instigators of our action) a wide window upon human action, as well as a wide license to originality in thought. But few things could be sillier than to ignore the prior epistemological edifice in which the window is built, or to talk as if pragmatism began and ended at the window. This, nevertheless, is what our critics do almost without exception. They ignore our primary step and its motive, and make the relation to action, which is our secondary achievement, primary.

Third Misunderstanding: Pragmatists Cut Themselves Off From The Right to Believe in Ejective Realities.

They do so, according to the critics, by making the truth of our beliefs consist in their verifiability, and their verifiability in the way in which they do work for us. Professor Stout, in his otherwise admirable and hopeful review of Schiller in Mind for October, 1897, considers that this ought to lead Schiller (could he sincerely realize the effects of his own doctrine) to the absurd consequence of being unable to believe genuinely in another man’s headache, even were the headache there. He can only ’postulate’ it for the sake of the working value of the postulate to himself. The postulate guides certain of his acts and leads to advantageous consequences; but the moment he understands fully that the postulate is true ONLY (!) in this sense, it ceases (or should cease) to be true for him that the other man really HAS a headache. All that makes the postulate most precious then evaporates: his interest in his fellow-man ’becomes a veiled form of self-interest, and his world grows cold, dull, and heartless.’

Such an objection makes a curious muddle of the pragmatist’s universe of discourse. Within that universe the pragmatist finds some one with a headache or other feeling, and some one else who postulates that feeling. Asking on what condition the postulate is ’true’ the pragmatist replies that, for the postulator at any rate, it is true just in proportion as to believe in it works in him the fuller sum of satisfactions. What is it that is satisfactory here? Surely to BELIEVE in the postulated object, namely, in the really existing feeling of the other man. But how (especially if the postulator were himself a thoroughgoing pragmatist) could it ever be satisfactory to him NOT to believe in that feeling, so long as, in Professor Stout’s words, disbelief ’made the world seem to him cold, dull, and heartless’? Disbelief would seem, on pragmatist principles, quite out of the question under such conditions, unless the heartlessness of the world were made probable already on other grounds. And since the belief in the headache, true for the subject assumed in the pragmatist’s universe of discourse, is also true for the pragmatist who for his epitemologizing purposes has assumed that entire universe, why is it not true in that universe absolutely? The headache believed in is a reality there, and no extant mind disbelieves it, neither the critic’s mind nor his subject’s! Have our opponents any better brand of truth in this real universe of ours that they can show us? [Footnote: I see here a chance to forestall a criticism which some one may make on Lecture III of my Pragmatism, where, on pp. 96-100, I said that ’God’ and ’Matter’ might be regarded as synonymous terms, so long as no differing future consequences were deducible from the two conceptions. The passage was transcribed from my address at the California Philosophical Union, reprinted in the Journal of Philosophy, vol. i, p. 673. I had no sooner given the address than I perceived a flaw in that part of it; but I have left the passage unaltered ever since, because the flaw did not spoil its illustrative value. The flaw was evident when, as a case analogous to that of a godless universe, I thought of what I called an ’automatic sweetheart,’ meaning a soulless body which should be absolutely indistinguishable from a spiritually animated maiden, laughing, talking, blushing, nursing us, and performing all feminine offices as tactfully and sweetly as if a soul were in her. Would any one regard her as a full equivalent? Certainly not, and why? Because, framed as we are, our egoism craves above all things inward sympathy and recognition, love and admiration. The outward treatment is valued mainly as an expression, as a manifestation of the accompanying consciousness believed in. Pragmatically, then, belief in the automatic sweetheart would not work, and is point of fact no one treats it as a serious hypothesis. The godless universe would be exactly similar. Even if matter could do every outward thing that God does, the idea of it would not work as satisfactorily, because the chief call for a God on modern men’s part is for a being who will inwardly recognize them and judge them sympathetically. Matter disappoints this craving of our ego, so God remains for most men the truer hypothesis, and indeed remains so for definite pragmatic reasons.]

So much for the third misunderstanding, which is but one specification of the following still wider one.

Fourth Misunderstanding: No Pragmatist Can Be a Realist in His Epistemology.

This is supposed to follow from his statement that the truth of our beliefs consists in general in their giving satisfaction. Of course satisfaction per se is a subjective condition; so the conclusion is drawn that truth falls wholly inside of the subject, who then may manufacture it at his pleasure. True beliefs become thus wayward affections, severed from all responsibility to other parts of experience.

It is difficult to excuse such a parody of the pragmatist’s opinion, ignoring as it does every element but one of his universe of discourse. The terms of which that universe consists positively forbid any non-realistic interpretation of the function of knowledge defined there. The pragmatizing epistemologist posits there a reality and a mind with ideas. What, now, he asks, can make those ideas true of that reality? Ordinary epistemology contents itself with the vague statement that the ideas must ’correspond’ or ’agree’; the pragmatist insists on being more concrete, and asks what such ’agreement’ may mean in detail. He finds first that the ideas must point to or lead towards THAT reality and no other, and then that the pointings and leadings must yield satisfaction as their result. So far the pragmatist is hardly less abstract than the ordinary slouchy epistemologist; but as he defines himself farther, he grows more concrete. The entire quarrel of the intellectualist with him is over his concreteness, intellectualism contending that the vaguer and more abstract account is here the more profound. The concrete pointing and leading are conceived by the pragmatist to be the work of other portions of the same universe to which the reality and the mind belong, intermediary verifying bits of experience with which the mind at one end, and the reality at the other, are joined. The ’satisfaction,’ in turn, is no abstract satisfaction ueberhaupt, felt by an unspecified being, but is assumed to consist of such satisfactions (in the plural) as concretely existing men actually do find in their beliefs. As we humans are constituted in point of fact, we find that to believe in other men’s minds, in independent physical realities, in past events, in eternal logical relations, is satisfactory. We find hope satisfactory. We often find it satisfactory to cease to doubt. Above all we find CONSISTENCY satisfactory, consistency between the present idea and the entire rest of our mental equipment, including the whole order of our sensations, and that of our intuitions of likeness and difference, and our whole stock of previously acquired truths.

The pragmatist, being himself a man, and imagining in general no contrary lines of truer belief than ours about the ’reality’ which he has laid at the base of his epistemological discussion, is willing to treat our satisfactions as possibly really true guides to it, not as guides true solely for US. It would seem here to be the duty of his critics to show with some explicitness why, being our subjective feelings, these satisfactions can not yield ’objective’ truth. The beliefs which they accompany ’posit’ the assumed reality, ’correspond’ and ’agree’ with it, and ’fit’ it in perfectly definite and assignable ways, through the sequent trains of thought and action which form their verification, so merely to insist on using these words abstractly instead of concretely is no way of driving the pragmatist from the field,– his more concrete account virtually includes his critic’s. If our critics have any definite idea of a truth more objectively grounded than the kind we propose, why do they not show it more articulately? As they stand, they remind one of Hegel’s man who wanted ’fruit,’ but rejected cherries, pears, and grapes, because they were not fruit in the abstract. We offer them the full quart-pot, and they cry for the empty quart-capacity.

But here I think I hear some critic retort as follows: ’If satisfactions are all that is needed to make truth, how about the notorious fact that errors are so often satisfactory? And how about the equally notorious fact that certain true beliefs may cause the bitterest dissatisfaction? Isn’t it clear that not the satisfaction which it gives, but the relation of the belief TO THE REALITY is all that makes it true? Suppose there were no such reality, and that the satisfactions yet remained: would they not then effectively work falsehood? Can they consequently be treated distinctively as the truth-builders? It is the INHERENT RELATION TO REALITY of a belief that gives us that specific TRUTH-satisfaction, compared with which all other satisfactions are the hollowest humbug. The satisfaction of KNOWING TRULY is thus the only one which the pragmatist ought to have considered. As a PSYCHOLOGICAL SENTIMENT, the anti-pragmatist gladly concedes it to him, but then only as a concomitant of truth, not as a constituent. What CONSTITUTES truth is not the sentiment, but the purely logical or objective function of rightly cognizing the reality, and the pragmatist’s failure to reduce this function to lower values is patent.’

Such anti-pragmatism as this seems to me a tissue of confusion. To begin with, when the pragmatist says ’indispensable,’ it confounds this with ’sufficient.’ The pragmatist calls satisfactions indispensable for truth-building, but I have everywhere called them insufficient unless reality be also incidentally led to. If the reality assumed were cancelled from the pragmatist’s universe of discourse, he would straightway give the name of falsehoods to the beliefs remaining, in spite of all their satisfactoriness. For him, as for his critic, there can be no truth if there is nothing to be true about. Ideas are so much flat psychological surface unless some mirrored matter gives them cognitive lustre. This is why as a pragmatist I have so carefully posited ’reality’ AB INITIO, and why, throughout my whole discussion, I remain an epistemological realist. [Footnote: I need hardly remind the reader that both sense- percepts and percepts of ideal relation (comparisons, etc.) should be classed among the realities. The bulk of our mental ’stock’ consists of truths concerning these terms.]

The anti-pragmatist is guilty of the further confusion of imagining that, in undertaking to give him an account of what truth formally means, we are assuming at the same time to provide a warrant for it, trying to define the occasions when he can be sure of materially possessing it. Our making it hinge on a reality so ’independent’ that when it comes, truth comes, and when it goes, truth goes with it, disappoints this naive expectation, so he deems our description unsatisfactory. I suspect that under this confusion lies the still deeper one of not discriminating sufficiently between the two notions, truth and reality. Realities are not TRUE, they ARE; and beliefs are true OF them. But I suspect that in the anti-pragmatist mind the two notions sometimes swap their attributes. The reality itself, I fear, is treated as if ’true’ and conversely. Whoso tells us of the one, it is then supposed, must also be telling us of the other; and a true idea must in a manner BE, or at least YIELD without extraneous aid, the reality it cognitively is possessed of.

To this absolute-idealistic demand pragmatism simply opposes its non possumus. If there is to be truth, it says, both realities and beliefs about them must conspire to make it; but whether there ever is such a thing, or how anyone can be sure that his own beliefs possess it, it never pretends to determine. That truth-satisfaction par excellence which may tinge a belief unsatisfactory in other ways, it easily explains as the feeling of consistency with the stock of previous truths, or supposed truths, of which one’s whole past experience may have left one in possession.

But are not all pragmatists sure that their own belief is right? their enemies will ask at this point; and this leads me to the

Fifth Misunderstanding: What Pragmatists Say Is Inconsistent With Their Saying So.

A correspondent puts this objection as follows: ’When you say to your audience, “pragmatism is the truth concerning truth,” the first truth is different from the second. About the first you and they are not to be at odds; you are not giving them liberty to take or leave it according as it works satisfactorily or not for their private uses. Yet the second truth, which ought to describe and include the first, affirms this liberty. Thus the INTENT of your utterance seems to contradict the CONTENT of it.’

General scepticism has always received this same classic refutation. ’You have to dogmatize,’ the rationalists say to the sceptics,’ whenever you express the sceptical position; so your lives keep contradicting your thesis.’ One would suppose that the impotence of so hoary an argument to abate in the slightest degree the amount of general scepticism in the world might have led some rationalists themselves to doubt whether these instantaneous logical refutations are such fatal ways, after all, of killing off live mental attitudes. General scepticism is the live mental attitude of refusing to conclude. It is a permanent torpor of the will, renewing itself in detail towards each successive thesis that offers, and you can no more kill it off by logic than yon can kill off obstinacy or practical joking. This is why it is so irritating. Your consistent sceptic never puts his scepticism into a formal proposition,–he simply chooses it as a habit. He provokingly hangs back when he might so easily join us in saying yes, but he is not illogical or stupid,–on the contrary, he often impresses us by his intellectual superiority. This is the REAL scepticism that rationalists have to meet, and their logic does not even touch it.

No more can logic kill the pragmatist’s behavior: his act of utterance, so far from contradicting, accurately exemplifies the matter which he utters. What is the matter which he utters? In part, it is this, that truth, concretely considered, is an attribute of our beliefs, and that these are attitudes that follow satisfactions. The ideas around which the satisfactions cluster are primarily only hypotheses that challenge or summon a belief to come and take its stand upon them. The pragmatist’s idea of truth is just such a challenge. He finds it ultra-satisfactory to accept it, and takes his own stand accordingly. But, being gregarious as they are, men seek to spread their beliefs, to awaken imitation, to infect others. Why should not YOU also find the same belief satisfactory? thinks the pragmatist, and forthwith endeavors to convert you. You and he will then believe similarly; you will hold up your subject-end of a truth, which will be a truth objective and irreversible if the reality holds up the object-end by being itself present simultaneously. What there is of self-contradiction in all this I confess I cannot discover. The pragmatist’s conduct in his own case seems to me on the contrary admirably to illustrate his universal formula; and of all epistemologists, he is perhaps the only one who is irreproachably self-consistent.

Sixth Misunderstanding: Pragmatism Explains Not What Truth Is, But Only How It Is Arrived At.

In point of fact it tells us both, tells us what it is incidentally to telling us how it is arrived at,–for what IS arrived at except just what the truth is? If I tell you how to get to the railroad station, don’t I implicitly introduce you to the WHAT, to the being and nature of that edifice? It is quite true that the abstract WORD ’how’ hasn’t the same meaning as the abstract WORD ’what,’ but in this universe of concrete facts you cannot keep hows and whats asunder. The reasons why I find it satisfactory to believe that any idea is true, the HOW of my arriving at that belief, may be among the very reasons why the idea IS true in reality. If not, I summon the anti-pragmatist to explain the impossibility articulately.

His trouble seems to me mainly to arise from his fixed inability to understand how a concrete statement can possibly mean as much, or be as valuable, as an abstract one. I said above that the main quarrel between us and our critics was that of concreteness VERSUS abstractness. This is the place to develop that point farther.

In the present question, the links of experience sequent upon an idea, which mediate between it and a reality, form and for the pragmatist indeed ARE, the CONCRETE relation of truth that may obtain between the idea and that reality. They, he says, are all that we mean when we speak of the idea ’pointing’ to the reality, ’fitting’ it, ’corresponding’ with it, or ’agreeing’ with it,–they or other similar mediating trains of verification. Such mediating events make the idea ’true.’ The idea itself, if it exists at all, is also a concrete event: so pragmatism insists that truth in the singular is only a collective name for truths in the plural, these consisting always of series of definite events; and that what intellectualism calls the truth, the inherent truth, of any one such series is only the abstract name for its truthfulness in act, for the fact that the ideas there do lead to the supposed reality in a way that we consider satisfactory.

The pragmatist himself has no objection to abstractions. Elliptically, and ’for short,’ he relies on them as much as any one, ending upon innumerable occasions that their comparative emptiness makes of them useful substitutes for the overfulness of the facts he meets, with. But he never ascribes to them a higher grade of reality. The full reality of a truth for him is always some process of verification, in which the abstract property of connecting ideas with objects truly is workingly embodied. Meanwhile it is endlessly serviceable to be able to talk of properties abstractly and apart from their working, to find them the same in innumerable cases, to take them ’out of time,’ and to treat of their relations to other similar abstractions. We thus form whole universes of platonic ideas ante rem, universes in posse, tho none of them exists effectively except in rebus. Countless relations obtain there which nobody experiences as obtaining,–as, in the eternal universe of musical relations, for example, the notes of Aennchen von Tharau were a lovely melody long ere mortal ears ever heard them. Even so the music of the future sleeps now, to be awakened hereafter. Or, if we take the world of geometrical relations, the thousandth decimal of ’pi’ sleeps there, tho no one may ever try to compute it. Or, if we take the universe of ’fitting,’ countless coats ’fit’ backs, and countless boots ’fit’ feet, on which they are not practically FITTED; countless stones ’fit’ gaps in walls into which no one seeks to fit them actually. In the same way countless opinions ’fit’ realities, and countless truths are valid, tho no thinker ever thinks them.

For the anti-pragmatist these prior timeless relations are the presupposition of the concrete ones, and possess the profounder dignity and value. The actual workings of our ideas in verification- processes are as naught in comparison with the ’obtainings’ of this discarnate truth within them.

For the pragmatist, on the contrary,–all discarnate truth is static, impotent, and relatively spectral, full truth being the truth that energizes and does battle. Can any one suppose that the sleeping quality of truth would ever have been abstracted or have received a name, if truths had remained forever in that storage- vault of essential timeless ’agreements’ and had never been embodied in any panting struggle of men’s live ideas for verification? Surely no more than the abstract property of ’fitting’ would have received a name, if in our world there had been no backs or feet or gaps in walls to be actually fitted. EXISTENTIAL truth is incidental to the actual competition of opinions. ESSENTIAL truth, the truth of the intellectualists, the truth with no one thinking it, is like the coat that fits tho no one has ever tried it on, like the music that no ear has listened to. It is less real, not more real, than the verified article; and to attribute a superior degree of glory to it seems little more than a piece of perverse abstraction-worship. As well might a pencil insist that the outline is the essential thing in all pictorial representation, and chide the paint-brush and the camera for omitting it, forgetting that THEIR pictures not only contain the whole outline, but a hundred other things in addition. Pragmatist truth contains the whole of intellectualist truth and a hundred other things in addition. Intellectualist truth is then only pragmatist truth in posse. That on innumerable occasions men do substitute truth in posse or verifiability, for verification or truth in act, is a fact to which no one attributes more importance than the pragmatist: he emphasizes the practical utility of such a habit. But he does not on that account consider truth in posse,–truth not alive enough ever to have been asserted or questioned or contradicted, to be the metaphysically prior thing, to which truths in act are tributary and subsidiary. When intellectualists do this, pragmatism charges them with inverting the real relation. Truth in posse MEANS only truths in act; and he insists that these latter take precedence in the order of logic as well as in that of being.

Seventh Minunderstanding: Pragmatism Ignores the Theoretical Interest.

This would seem to be an absolutely wanton slander, were not a certain excuse to be found in the linguistic affinities of the word ’pragmatism,’ and in certain offhand habits of speech of ours which assumed too great a generosity on our reader’s part. When we spoke of the meaning of ideas consisting “in their ’practical’ consequences”, or of the ’practical’ differences which our beliefs make to us; when we said that the truth of a belief consists in its ’working’ value, etc.; our language evidently was too careless, for by ’practical’ we were almost unanimously held to mean OPPOSED to theoretical or genuinely cognitive, and the consequence was punctually drawn that a truth in our eyes could have no relation to any independent reality, or to any other truth, or to anything whatever but the acts which we might ground on it or the satisfactions they might bring. The mere existence of the idea, all by itself, if only its results were satisfactory, would give full truth to it, it was charged, in our absurd pragmatist epistemology. The solemn attribution of this rubbish to us was also encouraged by two other circumstances. First, ideas ARE practically useful in the narrow sense, false ideas sometimes, but most often ideas which we can verify by the sum total of all their leadings, and the reality of whose objects may thus be considered established beyond doubt. That these ideas should be true in advance of and apart from their utility, that, in other words, their objects should be really there, is the very condition of their having that kind of utility,–the objects they connect us with are so important that the ideas which serve as the objects’ substitutes grow important also. This manner of their practical working was the first thing that made truths good in the eyes of primitive men; and buried among all the other good workings by which true beliefs are characterized, this kind of subsequential utility remains.

The second misleading circumstance was the emphasis laid by Schiller and Dewey on the fact that, unless a truth be relevant to the mind’s momentary predicament, unless it be germane to the ’practical’ situation,–meaning by this the quite particular perplexity,–it is no good to urge it. It doesn’t meet our interests any better than a falsehood would under the same circumstances. But why our predicaments and perplexities might not be theoretical here as well as narrowly practical, I wish that our critics would explain. They simply assume that no pragmatist CAN admit a genuinely theoretic interest. Having used the phrase ’cash-value’ of an idea, I am implored by one correspondent to alter it, ’for every one thinks you mean only pecuniary profit and loss.’ Having said that the true is ’the expedient in our thinking,’ I am rebuked in this wise by another learned correspondent:

’The word expedient has no other meaning than that of self-interest. The pursuit of this has ended by landing a number of officers of national banks in penitentiaries. A philosophy that leads to such results must be unsound.’

But the word ’practical’ is so habitually loosely used that more indulgence might have been expected. When one says that a sick man has now practically recovered, or that an enterprise has practically failed, one usually means I just the opposite of practically in the literal sense. One means that, altho untrue in strict practice, what one says is true in theory, true virtually, certain to be true. Again, by the practical one often means the distinctively concrete, the individual, particular, and effective, as opposed to the abstract, general, and inert. To speak for myself, whenever I have emphasized the practical nature of truth, this is mainly what has been in my mind. ’Pragmata’ are things in their plurality; and in that early California address, when I described pragmatism as holding that the meaning of any proposition can always be brought down to some particular consequence in our future practical experience, whether passive or active, expressly added these qualifying words: the point lying rather in the fact that the experience must be particular than in the fact that it must be active,–by ’active’ meaning here ’practical’ in the narrow literal sense. [Footnote: The ambiguity of the word ’practical’ comes out well in these words of a recent would-be reporter of our views: ’Pragmatism is an Anglo-Saxon reaction against the intellectualism and rationalism of the Latin mind.... Man, each individual man is the measure of things. He is able to conceive one but relative truths, that is to say, illusions. What these illusions are worth is revealed to him, not by general theory, but by individual practice. Pragmatism, which consists in experiencing these illusions of the mind and obeying them by acting them out, is a PHILOSOPHY WITHOUT WORDS, a philosophy of GESTURES AND OF ACTS, which abandons what is general and olds only to what is particular.’ (Bourdeau, in Journal des. debats, October 89, 1907.)] But particular consequences can perfectly well be of a theoretic nature. Every remote fact which we infer from an idea is a particular theoretic consequence which our mind practically works towards. The loss of every old opinion of ours which we see that we shall have to give up if a new opinion be true, is a particular theoretic as well as a particular practical consequence. After man’s interest in breathing freely, the greatest of all his interests (because it never fluctuates or remits, as most of his physical interests do), is his interest in consistency, in feeling that what he now thinks goes with what he thinks on other occasions. We tirelessly compare truth with truth for this sole purpose. Is the present candidate for belief perhaps contradicted by principle number one? Is it compatible with fact number two? and so forth. The particular operations here are the purely logical ones of analysis, deduction, comparison, etc.; and altho general terms may be used ad libitum, the satisfactory practical working of the candidate–idea consists in the consciousness yielded by each successive theoretic consequence in particular. It is therefore simply idiotic to repeat that pragmatism takes no account of purely theoretic interests. All it insists on is that verity in act means VERIFICATIONS, and that these are always particulars. Even in exclusively theoretic matters, it insists that vagueness and generality serve to verify nothing.

Eighth Misunderstanding: Pragmatism Is Shut Up to Solipsism.

I have already said something about this misconception under the third and fourth heads, above, but a little more may be helpful. The objection is apt to clothe itself in words like these: ’You make truth to consist in every value except the cognitive value proper; you always leave your knower at many removes (or, at the uttermost, at one remove) from his real object; the best you do is to let his ideas carry him towards it; it remains forever outside of him,’ etc.

I think that the leaven working here is the rooted intellectualist persuasion that, to know a reality, an idea must in some inscrutable fashion possess or be it. [Footnote: Sensations may, indeed, possess their objects or coalesce with them, as common sense supposes that they do; and intuited differences between concepts may coalesce with the ’eternal’ objective differences; but to simplify our discussion. here we can afford to abstract from these very special cases of knowing.] For pragmatism this kind of coalescence is inessential. As a rule our cognitions are only processes of mind off their balance and in motion towards real termini; and the reality of the termini, believed in by the states of mind in question, can be guaranteed only by some wider knower [Footnote: The transcendental idealist thinks that, in some inexplicable way, the finite states of mind are identical with the transfinite all-knower which he finds himself obliged to postulate in order to supply a fundamentum far the relation of knowing, as he apprehends it. Pragmatists can leave the question of identity open; but they cannot do without the wider knower any more than they can do without the reality, if they want to prove a case of knowing. They themselves play the part of the absolute knower for the universe of discourse which serves them as material for epistemologizing. They warrant the reality there, and the subject’s true knowledge, there, of it. But whether what they themselves say about that whole universe is objectively true, i.e., whether the pragmatic theory of truth is true really, they cannot warrant,–they can only believe it To their hearers they can only propose it, as I propose it to my readers, as something to be verified ambulando, or by the way is which its consequences may confirm it]. But if there is no reason extant in the universe why they should be doubted, the beliefs are true in the only sense in which anything can be true anyhow: they are practically and concretely true, namely. True in the mystical mongrel sense of an Identitatsphilosophie they need not be; nor is there any intelligible reason why they ever need be true otherwise than verifiably and practically. It is reality’s part to possess its own existence; it is thought’s part to get into ’touch’ with it by innumerable paths of verification.

I fear that the ’humanistic’ developments of pragmatism may cause a certain difficulty here. We get at one truth only through the rest of truth; and the reality, everlastingly postulated as that which all our truth must keep in touch with, may never be given to us save in the form of truth other than that which we are now testing. But since Dr. Schiller has shown that all our truths, even the most elemental, are affected by race-inheritance with a human coefficient, reality per se thus may appear only as a sort of limit; it may be held to shrivel to the mere PLACE for an object, and what is known may be held to be only matter of our psyche that we fill the place with. It must be confessed that pragmatism, worked in this humanistic way, is COMPATIBLE with solipsism. It joins friendly hands with the agnostic part of kantism, with contemporary agnosticism, and with idealism generally. But worked thus, it is a metaphysical theory about the matter of reality, and flies far beyond pragmatism’s own modest analysis of the nature of the knowing function, which analysis may just as harmoniously be combined with less humanistic accounts of reality. One of pragmatism’s merits is that it is so purely epistemological. It must assume realities; but it prejudges nothing as to their constitution, and the most diverse metaphysics can use it as their foundation. It certainly has no special affinity with solipsism.

As I look back over what I have written, much of it gives me a queer impression, as if the obvious were set forth so condescendingly that readers might well laugh at my pomposity. It may be, however, that concreteness as radical as ours is not so obvious. The whole originality of pragmatism, the whole point in it, is its use of the concrete way of seeing. It begins with concreteness, and returns and ends with it. Dr. Schiller, with his two ’practical’ aspects of truth, (1) relevancy to situation, and (2) subsequential utility, is only filling the cup of concreteness to the brim for us. Once seize that cup, and you cannot misunderstand pragmatism. It seems as if the power of imagining the world concretely MIGHT have been common enough to let our readers apprehend us better, as if they might have read between our lines, and, in spite of all our infelicities of expression, guessed a little more correctly what our thought was. But alas! this was not on fate’s programme, so we can only think, with the German ditty:–

   “Es waer’ zu schoen gewesen, Es hat nicht sollen sein.”


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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