A Primer on Pragmatism: Truth

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.


In Part 1 I described Charles S. Peirce’s view of the pragmatic method. William James championed Peirce, and elaborated on his ideas in a series of lectures in 1906-7, published in a book titled Pragmatism: A New Name For Some Old Ways Of Thinking, available online here. In Lecture 2, James describes Peirce’s insights.

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can BE no difference any-where that doesn’t MAKE a difference elsewhere—no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. Emphasis in original.

As an example, consider the notions of appearance and reality. The issue is raised by a question: “How can people know the nature of reality when all that people have immediate access to are appearances?” The idea is like Plato’s cave wall. We don’t see reality itself, just the shadows cast on the walls of the cave we inhabit.* The linked article offers a number of replies to this dilemma. The pragmatist rejects it. What difference does this distinction make to any human being? What different behavior would a decision cause? Scientists have done wonders without worrying about the distinction. There isn’t a test to distinguish appearance from reality. No useful information comes from considering the question. True, it’s fun, and it’s interesting to understand the problem it presented to our ancestors. But contemplating this distinction will never produce anything that will make our lives better, or even different.**

The problem with this view is that it suggests some fixed and eternal reality outside human experience but that we can somehow grasp.


In Lecture VI, James defines truth as a property of our ideas: whether they agree with reality. Both pragmatists and others agree with this. James describes the dominant view of truth as the copy or correspondence theory. Our ideas are true if they copy or correspond with reality. But that raises two questions: what does copy or correspond mean in this sense? What exactly is the reality we are trying to copy?

Here’s my example: what does it mean for our ideas to agree with gravity? At one point in our history, it meant nothing. Gravity existed and we defied it at our peril, and there was nothing else to say about it. Was that true? Then Newton explained gravity with an equation that included a constant that was hard to measure. Was that true? Then Einstein showed us his equations of general relativity. Are those equations true? Does that mean Newton’s theory was false? That can’t be right, because Newton explains everything we need to function in our day to day lives, without the complexity of Einstein’s theory. And we still defy gravity at our peril.

James says that people who hold to the external reality view have a static view of truth. They think there is some objective truth out there somehow separate from and beyond our senses. Once they find that truth, they can construct a theory that would account for everything. It might be Marx, it might be some form of religion, it might be some economic theory. But it is static and cannot be affected by the growth of human understanding or anything else. They have the truth, and we must all accept it.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: TRUE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CAN ASSIMILATE, VALIDATE, CORROBORATE AND VERIFY. FALSE IDEAS ARE THOSE THAT WE CANNOT. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as. (Emphasis in original.)

For pragmatists, truth

… means, {Dewey and Schiller] say, nothing but this, THAT IDEAS (WHICH THEMSELVES ARE BUT PARTS OF OUR EXPERIENCE) BECOME TRUE JUST IN SO FAR AS THEY HELP US TO GET INTO SATISFACTORY RELATION WITH OTHER PARTS OF OUR EXPERIENCE, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena. Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true INSTRUMENTALLY. This is the ‘instrumental’ view of truth taught so successfully at Chicago, the view that truth in our ideas means their power to ‘work,’ promulgated so brilliantly at Oxford.*** Emphasis in original.

Truth is located in the ability of an opinion to work in the real world. In taking this view, James and other pragmatists are following along in the scientific consensus on truth. We take Newton’s theory of gravity as true because it works. Einstein’s theory of gravity adds more, without taking away the truth of Newton’s ideas under most circumstances. We take Darwin’s ideas as true because they explain our experiences of the real world. Darwin’s ideas enable us to make predictions we could not otherwise make and solve problems we didn’t even know existed. As problems arise, we modify our opinionx, but only as far as necessary to accommodate the new facts, the new opinions or the failure of our opinions to work. Thus, we follow a very conservative path from our current state to the next state.

The cash value, as James calls it, is obvious. We benefit from having opinions that work. They help us predict the future. They are tools to uncover things and processes we can manipulate to make our lives better. They dispel ideas that might cause us harm.

One more thing. James says that all of our oldest beliefs were formed in the same way, as opinions based on the impressions we get through our senses from reality.

Now Dewey and Schiller proceed to generalize this observation and to apply it to the most ancient parts of truth. … They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations. Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they ARE true, for ‘to be true’ MEANS only to perform this marriage-function. Emphasis in original.

In Part 3 I will offer some thoughts on these ideas.
* This is the image behind Marcy’s occasional references to the Twitter cave wall, an image I really like.

** Roman Catholic theology is grounded in Plato and neo-Platonism, including Plato’s distinction between appearance and reality. The application of pragmatism to religion is far beyond the scope of this primer. James takes it up in Lecture VIII, but there is much more to be said. See also this comment by Drew on the previous post.

*** In this quote “they” refers to John Dewey and F.C.S. Schiller, described in the introduction to the book. Chicago refers to the University of Chicago, where Dewey taught. Schiller taught at Oxford.

27 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “[S]ome fixed and eternal reality outside human experience but that we can somehow grasp.”

    Shirley, that states a contradiction in terms. Humans think and reason by analogy. They perceive the new by reference to the old. Too stark a contrast and the mind is unable to grasp it. It shuts down, rationalizing it as only humans can.

    To some degree, I think that’s the dilemma faced by fundamentalist followers. When reality – modernity or the demands of feminism – is too much at odds with their received truth, they shut down to reduce the dissonance. They revert to followership, which allows their truths to remain self-evident.

    That coping mechanism works when it is blessed by a leader who reaffirms those truths. The dynamic tends to empower the demagogue, whether a millionaire preacher or a politician in the White House.

    [Followership in politics and religion has been well-studied. But it has analogues in other areas. The sociology of science captures it in the idea that progress proceeds one funeral at a time, as one dominant figure – and his views – give way only generationally.]

    • Drew says:

      Yes, Earl. Good description. An interesting thing about this “followership” which shuts down in the face of new realities it can’t handle: EVENTUALLY it does accommodate at least in part. I’ve watched fundamentalists and essentialist conservatives quite a bit and I have seen this happen. In the 1950s-1960s DIVORCE was totally unacceptable in conservative religious contexts (after all, Jesus prohibited it). However in the past 20-30 years it has become quite common, not only for lay people but also for clergy in the most reactionary denominations to be previously married, or even getting divorced, remarried and staying in the same pulpit. Likewise with women’s ordination. In my denomination it wasn’t approved until 1976–the conservatives were aghast, some left. However in 2004-2008 a pretty large group left over the acceptance of gay clergy & bishops, etc. However at least half those groups allow women to be ordained (& in one town near where I served, the radical anti-gay priest who split the church was a woman). A colleague attended a campus ministry conference a couple of weeks ago and ran into students from that conservative group of churches–they were perfectly ok with people being gay & out–some of them in fact may have been out & gay themselves and they seemed not at all aware that there was any problem or even irony. Go figure.

      Your observation that this rigidity finds its home in a demagogic figure is on target. And down the road, even if there is leadership/followership with another demagogic figure, things will change and adjust.

      • Viget says:

        Well said. I would add that the even bigger problem for the blind follower is that it is unlikely they have ever examined their belief systems before. Much like repetitive activity strengthens a skeletal muscle, repetitive firing of neurons in a circuit that reaffirm a certain belief system strengthens the magnitude of that output. To break, or modify that circuit, would require the ability to inject new inputs that are relatively weak at first, something that would take enormous motivation from an intense emotional state or enormous concentration and discipline, which is only available by practice.

        Those who haven’t examined their beliefs from time to time will have no experience of the latter, and thus be very susceptible to the former, especially if the new information results in similar outputs that they were preconditioned to believe.

        Lest you all think I’m making this up, see the research of Emily Falk at UPenn. This is exactly the sort of stuff she studies.

        What now frightens me, is how much of this is known by entities like PsyGroup and Cambridge Analytica. You don’t need a fMRI scanner to identify people who are likely to respond in a certain way to a certain stimulus, all you need are validated questionnaires or patterns in behavior to select for folks sympathetic to your candidate. Sound familiar?

        • MB says:

          Ouch! A targeted ad campaign tailored to the psychological profile of the “ideal” cult follower? That’s diabolical. Weaponization of ideas is everywhere these days…

        • Diggo says:

          Additionally, science has also shown us some are born more disposed toward belief from authority than belief from empirical evidence. Two contrary methods – one accepts proof from assertion by others, science on the other hand questions all assertions and beliefs, with the goal to disprove.

  2. HellenKellers says:

    “They think there is some objective truth out there somehow separate from and beyond our senses.”

    The typical human eye sees color because of cons and rods. Scientists posit that lack of parallel structures in other animals e.g. domestic cats means that cats do not see much color whereas most species of birds see far more colors than typical human eyes.

    So what about those with less senses? The blind or deaf? Is reality sensorial?

    If a deaf person rear-ends the Uber of a blind person who’s seated in the back, it *objectively* happened and is [subjectively] worse for the blind person as opposed to the Uber driver in the front (should there be no impact with another in the front). Two cars not three cars. Four senses.

    Why is it so easy to “understand” i.e. pragmatically rationalize “truth” that the “five special senses” are the ceiling? And those claiming additional sense(s) are lying (fMRIs be damned/fooled) or worse “confused” or “crazy”?

    Imagine this thing called evolution is forking humans with additional senses -who have a compelling reality of their own – from typical humans.

    Can you handle that? I didn’t think so. Neon signs of self-acclaimed “fortune” tellers are often swindlers putting on a show. There is no razzle dazzle in sensorial truth as sense-making is natural.

    Do those living *naturally* with extra senses pay a premium for disclosing their divergence?

    Shunned. Tortured. Shamed. Tested. Ridiculed.

    Free will is action at a social cost. Plainly, free will isn’t free.

    The better question is: how long will our collective un-truths serve us? When can we embrace the practical limits of sensorial-based knowledge to accept current limits?

    When will genocide end?

  3. skua says:

    ” the scientific consensus on truth. We take Newton’s theory of gravity as true because it works. Einstein’s theory of gravity adds more, without taking away the truth of Newton’s ideas under most circumstances.”
    This is not what (AIUI) scientists currently have as a consensus view on truth.
    Popper’s idea of falsification seems to be the current model of scientific progress espoused by most scientists.
    In this model, falsification of a hypothesis shows that it was incorrect and it should therefore be rejected. In this view science is not in the business of ascertaining truth – only testing current hypotheses and replacing/refining those that are falsified.

  4. Alaska reader says:

    I only wish to thank all for this ‘philosophical’ discussion and express my wish for more of the same. I truly appreciate the insights shared here and I’ll be ‘sharing’ what I’ve gleaned from reading thus far.

  5. Peacerme says:

    Non-judgment as a thought experiment, (as practiced spiritually or through zen) is interesting because it doesn’t require that you know truth. It instead creates a disciplined reckoning for when you don’t know truth. I make judgments, because all humans do. (Perhaps an invariant that we must??) The outcome of practicing non judgement, is instead practicing the humility to recognize when you do not know truth, as you might have thought. This in turn creates the dialectic that puts you closer to truth.

    We need this discussion more than ever. It’s not that truth doesn’t exist, but that when we interact with each other and maintain a focus that truth is sacred, perspective shifts. It expands consciousness from black and white to technicolor. That this struggle must include some awareness of what we do not know but theorize about. Distinguishing between self evident truths and theories yet to be determined as fact, changes the perspective significantly.

    Love these posts. I don’t always comment, but enjoy them immensely.

    • timbo says:

      Here we enter the shadow world of whether or not dialectics themselves exist… have we left one realm and entered another? Or is it that it is all one realm and that we want dialectics themselves to exist? Anyways, it’s time to eat my lasagna—that much I know is true for me at this moment right now. It is now my hope that the lasagna still exists as a cohesive set of impressions…

  6. Richard says:

    Dilemmas, like the cave wall shadows, have value in mediation. For example, Koans have value in mediation and pragmatist would call them a dilemma.
    What is the sound of one hand clapping?

    I hope to apply your writing to the Climate Emergency messaging.
    Thank you

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The ultimate pragmatist seems to be moonlighting as a writer for the next George Lucas film. To wit, if the Trump regime persist in stonewalling Congress regarding the latest whistleblower, Ms. Pelosi promises:

    “[T]hey will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.”

    The emperor trembles as the rebels grasp this New Hope.


  8. Savage Librarian says:

    Organisms seek to survive. Patterns proliferate exponentially. I’ve learned from a (British?) TV game show that of the 11M bits of data bombarding us, we can only process 40. My 40 are definitely different than yours.

    Part of this bombarding, I assume, is us bumping into each other with presence and, sometimes, ideas. The only truth I have been able to discern is that we are all subject to electro-biochemical mechanical processes.

    These processes are in continuous flux. But there are critical juncture points that place us into entities of the majority or minority. These entities read embedded code to determine how to persist in their existence.

    Sometimes, a messenger breaks ranks to introduce a new pattern, inconsistent with the past. It may take a good number of these messengers to enable a change or evolution. These messengers themselves are then subject to the same process in some future time.

    I read a comment by an astrobiologist last year. She was asked what she thought about the prospect of evidence of life ever having been on Mars. She said that if it was so, it would be found because it is really very difficult to destroy that kind of evidence. Just like it is difficult to destroy disease.

    I don’t really think the astrobiologist was comparing humans to disease. And I’m betting that the majority of us prefer disease to be destroyed. It can be in the body politic just as it can be in any other body.

    So, truth as I see it based on my 40 bits, is that we have an opportunity for messengers to break ranks and create new patterns. Whether or not that will happen, time will tell. But my senses tell me it may already be in the works, regardless of obstacles. After all, organisms seek to survive. The body politic is no different. I’m placing my bets on democracy prevailing.

    • timbo says:

      I am reminded of a geopolitical game I played one weekend in college. The lesson I learned was that I needed to think outside the artificial rules of our game masters in order to reach a better conclusion for all concerned. This was pointed out by one of the players with lesser political power (as assigned by the game) than I. My lesson was that I was blinded by the fact that I had more assigned power within the structure of the rules than I believed that I had outside of that structure. The revelation was that that was not true and but a construct. And that that construct was, by its very nature, dangerous to our survival as a species.

      So, what is a disease and what is a boon is not necessarily what we tell ourselves constantly just to be reconfirmed with one another. It is sometimes the state of mind and mind structure that we and others set for ourselves uncritically.

      And realizing that, there is always hope of some form to search out and consider/recondsider.

  9. OldTulsaDude says:

    “The problem with this view is that it suggests some fixed and eternal reality outside human experience but that we can somehow grasp.”

    The problem I have with this statement is that reality exists regardless of human concerns. Reality was here before us and will be here long after we have burned our planet to a crispy critter. And reality doesn’t really care if we humans believe in it, try to explain it, or pretend it’s not there.

    • Ed Walker says:

      There is a reality out there, which is not affected by our thoughts. It’s the real physical universe, which includes us humans. But all we can or need to know is what we get from our senses, and what we can work out from sensory input. But that reality extends only to a physical world. It doesn’t include the abstract ideas we invent, like truth, or honor, or decency, or domination or the patriarchy or the divine right of kings, or any of the other ideas we invent to describe the social world we inhabit, or to try to understand the world. Those are human ideas unconnected with the physical world.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Nicely put. One aspect of that is that economics describes social preferences, not universal laws the tinkering with which by governments can only worsen outcomes for all.

        The tinkering affects who is penalized or subsidized, which is an expression of power, not universal law.

        • timbo says:

          Hmm. This sort of opinion is also a construct too. That is, one cannot assign and unassign value to things at will. The situation is more complex than that it seems. One must ask the question: What exactly is deep meaning or deep value vs what is important at the moment or practical at the moment?

  10. skua says:

    The difference seems to be in phrasing and word choice.
    As I understand it, the difference is that most modern scientists take a stance in which they are not claiming that scientific knowledge is truth.
    They avoid, in this context, using the concept “truth”.

    Rather the majority, in my estimation, in their public statements describe current scientific knowledge as the best available, though provisional and subject to possible revision or rejection in the future, model or understanding.

    In short the majority (in my estimation) take an approach which is incompatible with the quoted consensus around truth. Models and understandings are removed from what is real in the same way that the “shadows on the wall” are AIUI.

    What real-world difference does this different languaging make?
    There are many understandings of what truth entails – not all of them as adaptable and low-emotion as the pragmatic approach you describe. Using “truth” as a descriptor of scientific knowledge may have evoked too many of the problematic understandings in the past. By not using it now scientists may be more dispassionate in their personal evaluations and discussions with colleagues. Additionally science communication has to be effective with the public’s understanding of “truth”. And again there are many understandings of “truth” in the public – some of which have changes in truth as proof of incompetence or/and deceit.

    • Vicks says:

      Agree about word choice.
      Without a higher power confidently stamping things true or untrue for us I think using the word “truth” to try and evaluate everything from a persons belief systems to the color of a car involved in an accident will have you going in circles.
      I’m thinking the best we can do is label things that can be counted measured or confirmed by a security camera video, “accurate” and admit that the truthiness of everything else will either be on a sliding scale because it involves humans or be described as something along the lines of “the truth as we know it” to allow for the fact that new information will always be out there

    • Ed Walker says:

      This seems about right to me. One of the terms sometimes used is True For Now, meaning that we are going to act as if something is true. Dewey, I think, calls it warranted assertion. I also like Vicks’ term accurate in the context of measurement.

    • timbo says:

      This is the thing that Trump exploits to the hilt. He sets himself of the ‘arbitror’ of truth and finds those who hunger for the direction, those susceptible to questioning his direction more than they are interested in contesting any particular assertion of truth. We are devoured by the All Father in this way.

  11. Mainmata says:

    William James, the father of modern psychology, was also a well-known pragmatist. I suspect that most of the early 20th century progressives were also pragmatists (LaFolette and others).

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