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.

A Primer on Pragmatism: Method

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

This series is based on the work of Elizabeth Anderson, a philosopher who describes herself as a pragmatist. The next three posts will address basic ideas of pragmatism.* The texts for this post are two papers by Charles Sanders Peirce: The Fixation of Belief, and How To Make Our Ideas Clear, both by Charles Peirce, published in Popular Science in 1877 and 1878. Peirce (pronounced “Purse”) is one of the founders of pragmatism, and one of America’s great original thinkers. Here’s his Wikipedia entry, which explains why.

In Part III of the first paper, Peirce begins talking about the main subject of the paper, belief and doubt. From my very limited knowledge, this separates pragmatism from prior philosophical thought, which turned on truth and falsity. There is no reason to define belief and doubt, except to note that they arise in all human beings individually, as opposed to truth and falsity which are somehow independent of human beings, even though they are human words.

Peirce tells us that we know the difference “between the sensation of doubting and that of believing”. Beliefs guide our actions, as a habit does. Doubts make it hard for us to act. Belief is a comfortable, untroubled state of mind. Doubts are uncomfortable. They give rise to a struggle to settle them into belief. Peirce calls this struggle “inquiry, though it must be admitted that this is sometimes not a very apt designation”.

He says that the irritation created by doubt is the only thing that will drive us to inquiry. I’d guess that’s because inquiry can be really hard work, which we humans avoid when possible. We hold strongly to our beliefs, and don’t want to change them. We go to great lengths to avoid doubt, because it would entail actual work.

We may think we want a true opinion, but Peirce disagrees.

But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false. And it is clear that nothing out of the sphere of our knowledge can be our object, for nothing which does not affect the mind can be the motive for mental effort. The most that can be maintained is, that we seek for a belief that we shall think to be true. But we think each one of our beliefs to be true, and, indeed, it is mere tautology to say so.

We have ideas, habits of the mind. We think they are true because we use them to guide our actions.** If it turns out well, we don’t have to think about it anymore. But there is no reason to think we’ll get it right the next time either; often what passes for inquiry is trial and error, and we hold to the new belief until it becomes painful and we are forced to work again. This is a cleansing idea. We could possibly learn to hold less firmly to our opinions so as to remain open to new ideas. We won’t, though.

In Part V, Peirce describes four methods of settling doubt. First, tenacity. We cling to our first belief and refuse to acknowledge any doubt. This is really hard to do, because we are social creatures, and rub up against other humans in ways that cannot but create doubts about some of our certainties. Or so Peirce says. Observing my fellow citizens, I’m not so sure.

Second, some entity could settle all questions by legislating and enforcing approved propositions. That will work if the number of propositions subject to authority is limited, but eventually it will fail.

Third, the a priori method. People sit around and talk in good faith about what they think, and truth emerges. It might sound good, but garbage in garbage out. And with that, Peirce dismisses metaphysics.

Finally, there is the appeal to reality, a permanence outside our thought processes and unaffected by them. Peirce proposes the scientific method.

Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion.

That’s exactly the approach to human beings and their habits of thought that attracts me to pragmatism. I note that it works really well for the physical sciences, but it is much harder to apply it to human constructs like institutions and governments, and to social interactions.

The second paper is devoted to a discussion of reality. It’s main point is that

… reality, like every other quality, consists in the peculiar sensible effects which things partaking of it produce. The only effect which real things have is to cause belief, for all the sensations which they excite emerge into consciousness in the form of beliefs. Part IV.

All of our senses produce effects in the mind when stimulated. When we find regularities, we formulate theories based on those regularities Theories that seem to work form our beliefs.

Beyond those things available to the senses, there is nothing of interest in the physical world. Humans invent tools to increase the range of sensations, such as microscopes, UV sensors, and radio detectors. Those things do not change the nature of reality. They simply reveal more of it to our senses.

This approach discards centuries of philosophical thought on matters like the distinction between appearance and reality. These and many other long-standing philosophical issues disappear in Peirce’s theory. They are useless because they do not raise doubts as to how we should act, or raise doubts about our beliefs.

Then Peirce explains how this method enables us to settle our opinions. We use different methods to come to agreement on specific issues, always subject to change or even rejection. He gives the example of the speed of light, offering a number of different methods of estimating it. As different people work out different methods, the answers begin to converge and we get better estimates. At the end there is always an error factor, so the measurement may never be perfect. But no one thinks the answer is a fiction. We assign an error factor and use the best estimate in further calculations and for future efforts to plumb reality.

We could use a similar process to form new beliefs. As William James puts it in his book Pragmatism available online here:

No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. THE ATTITUDE OF LOOKING AWAY FROM FIRST THINGS, PRINCIPLES, ‘CATEGORIES,’ SUPPOSED NECESSITIES; AND OF LOOKING TOWARDS LAST THINGS, FRUITS, CONSEQUENCES, FACTS. Lecture II
(Emphasis in original.)

Pragmatists work from observable facts. They ignore “first principles”, for example, the Natural Law or the principles of Galen or the categories of Aristotle. Sacred texts and religious dogmas are irrelevant. Classifications of reality must stand the test of usefulness for identifiable purposes.

In the next post I’ll discuss James’ views of truth in pragmatism. then I’ll take up some partial conclusions.
* H/T to for links to Peirce and James. The podcast discusses these works in Episodes 20 and 22.
** This idea sounds a lot like Bourdieu’s term “habitus”.