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.

Freedom And Inequality: Introduction and Index

Posts in this series:
Freedom and Inequality: Introduction and Index
Freedom and Inequality: Freedom From Domination Part I
Freedom and Equality: Freedom From Domination Part 2
Freedom and Equality: Relational Equality Against Social Hierarchies
Freedom And Equality: More On Equality.
Freedom and Equality: Anderson Against Libertarianism
Freedom And Equality: In The Workplace
A Primer On Pragmatism: Method
A Primer on Pragmatism: Truth
A Primer On Pragmatism: Applications
Egalitarianism And Markets
Private Government By Corporations
Inequality And Freedom
Inequality In Social Relations


This will be a series of discussions of freedom and inequality, based on works by Elizabeth Anderson, Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Michigan. I first heard about Anderson in this New Yorker article by Nathan Heller. Anderson explores the meaning of freedom and equality, especially in the context of work, the economy and the politics of both. Until recently, the dominant ideas were those of conservatives and libertarians, people like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and neoliberals of both parties.

The New Yorker article says that historically everyone thought that freedom and equality are at odds: exercise of freedom would naturally lead to increasing inequality. Political domination is a natural consequence of increasing inequality. If that is true, how can democracy survive? Anderson questions the view that freedom and equality are in conflict. The relevance of this idea to our current political environment is obvious. Republicans champion inequality as an exercise of freedom, and neoliberal democrats agree, but argue that some restraints on freedom must exist to prevent too much inequality. We need a new structure to step outside this duality and protect our democracy.

Again historically, people thought of freedom in two ways: negative freedom, that is, freedom from interference, and positive freedom, the range of options available to people. Anderson adds a third idea, freedom from domination. As we saw in the series on Ellen Meiksins Wood, one major Marxist criticism of capitalism is domination of the worker by the capitalist, aided by the state.* We saw in Pierre Bourdieu a detailed study of the way dominance is embedded in social relations.** We have also seen Michel Foucault’s view of power, an idea closely related to domination. I’ll discuss the concept of freedom from domination in this series.

From the New Yorker article:

As the students listened, [Anderson] sketched out the entry-level idea that one basic way to expand equality is by expanding the range of valued fields within a society. Unlike a hardscrabble peasant community of yore in which the only skill that anyone cared about might be agricultural prowess, a society with many valued arenas lets individuals who are good at art or storytelling or sports or making people laugh receive a bit of love.

I’m particularly fond of this idea. I made a living practicing law, and on the side, I did a lot of chorus singing, mostly classical and opera. I made room in my life for voice lessons and the unending rehearsals and performances that dominate the life of the singer. I used to say that among lawyers I was one of the best singers, which seems to me to be what this quote is saying.

The New Yorker article says that one of the major influences for Anderson is pragmatism, the distinctly American philosophy, generated by Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William James. It’s leading exponent in the 20th Century was John Dewey.*** A central idea of pragmatism is the definition of “truth”:

To a pragmatist, “truth” is an instrumental and contingent state; a claim is true for now if, by all tests, it works for now.

Ideas are tools, and the truth value of a tool is related to its usefulness. This description of truth throws off centuries of effort to find a fixed point of certainty in the world. It opens the possibility of finding our way through social and individual problems not by reference to some prior version of the truth, but by our own best understandings of our own social reality. I do not currently plan on a formal discussion of this description of truth, and will content myself with pointing it out in passing. But I share that view, and I think it is apparent in much of my thinking and writing.

Reading philosophy papers is difficult for a lay reader like me. Most are presented as arguments with one or more other philosophers. This is not necessarily a good way for a layman to get a positive statement of the views of the author, especially when there are many papers and many arguments. The New Yorker article seems to be a good introduction to the themes Anderson addresses.

Finding these academic papers online is harder than finding the books I’ve been writing about. I am fortunate to have access to a university’s online library, and I can’t find all of Anderson’s work there; I have no idea if readers can find the material I’m reading through their own public libraries, though I hope so. I’ll be giving the best links I can find, for what that’s worth. And as always, I’ll try to separate Anderson’s thinking and that of the authors she discusses separate from my own views.

I’ll update this post with links to all the posts in this series. Thanks for reading.

* Here’s an example. The index to these posts is here.

** See for example this post.

*** Lewis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club is an engaging account of the first three and their friends. Here’s a good introduction to the thought of John Dewey. Richard Rorty considered himself an heir to Dewey. For a fascinating discussion of the nature of truth in pragmatist thought, see Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty, Ch. 2. It’s worth the effort.

Brief Description of the conclusion of Chapter 2 and Chapters 3-7 of Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government

Chapter 2 of Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government ends with several plausible ways of dealing with the lack of freedom and equality* in the workplace. These are:

1. Exit: the employee can quit and find other work.
2. The Rule of Law: we could have a statutory scheme favorable to the freedom of working people.
3. Substantial “constitutional” rights: we could force corporate structures to allow greater worker freedom.
4. Voice: workers could be given greater rights to participate is making decisions about working conditions, as through unions or board positions, modeled by German codetermination in the form of board seats and Worker Councils.

The next four chapters are brief responses to Anderson’s argument. Ann Hughes offers deeper discussion of the history of dissenters such as the Levellers, which was helpful in understanding some of the history David Bromwich discusses the evolution of business away from the egalitarian ideals of the dissidents. Niko Kolodny suggests that being bossed around isn’t that big a deal. Tyler Cowan represents the neoliberal view, that loss of freedom in Anderson’s sense has to be balanced against the gains, and besides, businesses won’t abuse workers much. Anderson deals with the replies in Chapter 7.

I think the comments are interesting, but somehow less than satisfying. Anderson is talking about concepts of freedom and equality that are foreign to most of us. The reply of Tyler Cowan seems utterly unaware that freedom and equality are social goods, valuable in themselves for human flourishing. These benefits are simply irrelevant to economic efficiency, the traditional goal driving libertarian econmics. Kolodny is sympathetic to Anderson’s egalitarianism, but does not recognize these benefits either. Bromwich takes a more philosophical approach founded on Polanyi’s view that labor, money and land are fictitious commodities. But he offers little in the way of an alternative treatment of the turn away from egalitarianism on the left, and nothing suggesting what can be done.

Anderson’s replies are helpful, but she does not return to the fundamental definitions of freedom and equality. She simply takes the replies on their own terms and responds in the same terms. That is disappointing. I’ll offer my own thoughts in this series.

Additional Resources

1. Achieving Our Country by Richard Rorty. Anderson identifies as a pragmatist, and so does Rorty. He is controversial on a number of grounds, but I have learned a great deal from this and other works by Rorty. This is a short book, not theoretical and easy to read. It is an impassioned defense of small-d democracy as described by John Dewey and Walt Whitman. It counsels against despair of that ironic spectator variety of leftism, and argues for an agressive hopeful politics of the left.

2. Podcasts of the Partially Examined Life. This is a philosophy discussion group of some guys who planned to make a living at philosophy but thought better of it, as they say in their introduction. There are two that I think are of interest here. First there is a three part series including an interview with Elizabeth Anderson, Episode 199. There are several episodes devoted to Richard Rorty, listed here. I have listened to the first episode on Achieving our Country, Episode 157, and plan to listen to the rest.

3. In the posts on equality Anderson lays out egalitarian arguments against social hierarchies. For a counterpoint, Episode 157 of the podcast Partially Examined life discusses the Analects of Confucius. The second part is an effort to understand the justification for Chinese hierarchy. Confucius and his school are still influential in China today,and the discussion is a nice counterpoint to the very American ideas of Anderson and the pragmatists.

4. Elizabeth Andersonn wrote a book applying some of her ideas to the world of work. Private Government. Here’s a review in The New Yorker.

5. The Partially Examined Life discusses Peirce and James on Pragmatism in episodes 20 and 22. I have listened to the free part of Episode 20 and plan to listen to the rest.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Truth and Facts

Until the Enlightenment, everyone thought that there were Absolute Truths. It was the only way to understand the physical, social and psychological state in which humans existed. God spoke to humans and established the Absolute Truth. Those who trespassed against that Truth were burned at the stake, as Giordano Bruno, or exiled. That was true of all religions and all philosophers too.

That view has never died out. It’s the root of fundamentalisms of all denominations, and even among quasi-believers it is widely held. I think is is a core principle of conservatism, at least in practice. For example they all seem to believe in the Absolute Truth that tax cuts are always the solution to any perceived problem. And neoliberals assert it too, at least in their public statements; who knows what, if anything they actually believe or if there is an authentic neoliberal self that has a principle that doesn’t involve money or power.

It’s important to note that not all religions today teach that they are in possession of Absolute Truth. From its beginning, for example, the Jews did not name or describe the Almighty. They knew they were not like the Almighty, and thus could not expect to understand the nature of the Almighty. In the same way, Catholics who accept the teachings of Vatican II know that even the moral guidance of the Pope is subject to the considered judgment of the People of God. Catholics do not surrender their moral agency. Instead, dogma is guided by the lived experience of the faithful believer.

It seems odd that anyone would claim to speak for the Almighty, but people always have and still do. Some claim to know the will of the Almighty from an ancient text or because they heard it from someone who they believe speaks for the Almighty in our time. Still others claim the authority to interpret those texts as a guide to living in a society vastly different from that in which they were first written down.

It’s a small step from believing that one knows the will of the Almighty to believing that some social practice is ordained by the Almighty. It’s another small step to believe some theory of society or economics or politics reflects the will of the Almighty. It’s easy to see how this practice infects and affects vast numbers of people.

The struggle among these people is for dominance in the definitions of Absolute Truth. It isn’t just preachers and religious leaders who try to create Absolute Truths, there are plenty of politicians and others whose interests are served by linking their projects to Absolute Truth. Obviously this struggle doesn’t take place in the realm of reason, because absolutes are not subject to reason, or to argument, or to persuasion of any external kind. The truth is a whole, and the believers hold that whole. As an example, the Nazis tried to root out “Jewish Physics”, embodied by Albert Einstein, as anti-Aryan. Einstein was a theorist, not an experimenter, and the guy driving this absurd idea was an Aryan experimenter.

In contrast to the absolutists, a lot of people began to lose that certainty at the time of the Enlightenment. By the early 1900s, most thinking people were trying to come to grips with the absence of certainty. The members of the Frankfurt School certainly did not believe in Absolute Truth. Here’s Martin Jay:

… Dialectics probed the “force-field,” to use an expression of Adorno’s, between consciousness and being, subject and object. It did not, indeed could not, pretend to have discovered ontological first principles. It rejected the extremes of nominalism and realism and remained willing to operate in a perpetual state of suspended judgment.

Hence the crucial importance of mediation (Vermittlung) for a correct theory of society. No facet of social reality could be understood by the observer as final or complete in itself. There were no social “facts,” as the positivists believed, which were the substratum of a social theory. Instead, there was a constant interplay of particular and universal, of “moment”* and totality.
P. 54, emphasis added..

One way to think about this point of view is to recognize that scientific theories are subject to massive revision. That’s the point of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s a painful process, but necessary for science. If that’s true for our best and most focused practical thinking, it’s impossible to imagine that there are Absolute Truths about human beings and their intricate social relations and their personal projects and desires. Dialectics, mediation, neither will uncover universal truths.

This general view has been common for some time among academics. Here’s a nice example provided by Andrew Bacevich. It’s a speech given by Carl Becker in his capacity as president of the American Historical Association in 1931. Becker defines history as “… the memory of things said and done.” Those memories may include things witnessed or said or done by a person, and it may include other people’s memories passed along in writing or otherwise, and it may include true, false and mixed memories. He explains that “For all practical purposes history is, for us and for the time being, what we know it to be.”

Throughout the speech, he compares the professional historian to Mr. Everyman, the average person in the street.

In constructing this more remote and far-flung pattern of remembered things, Mr. Everyman works with something of the freedom of a creative artist; the history which he imaginatively recreates as an artificial extension of his personal experience will inevitably be an engaging blend of fact and fancy, a mythical adaptation of that which actually happened.

We can see this process when we look at how the myths of slavery and the Confederacy were generated purposefully by those with something to gain, as Ibram Kendi shows in Stamped From The Beginning. The process continues today as the true believers on the Texas School Board work to erase from our collective memory the vicious brutality of slavery and to replace it with the absurd view that slaves were happy under the whip of their white owners.

The Frankfort School teaches that all our ideas and theories should be tested by what Jay calls the tribunal of reason. According to Jay, they didn’t have a clear definition of “reason” or of “truth”. As he explains, the dialectic is great for attacking existing ideas, but it won’t establish any truths itself.

Jay says that the Frankfurt School “…remained willing to operate in a perpetual state of suspended judgment.” That’s fine for analysis, but at some point, you have to act. It seems to me he is saying that the role of reason is to make sure that when you act you are making the best possible choice about the act, and about the goal of the act. And that is a good description of praxis.

I won’t go further, because the contributions of the Frankfurt School in understanding society and working towards a better society do not depend on it. One such contribution, the concept of the Authoritarian Personality, deals directly with the true believers.

Security, Territory and Population Part 1: Introduction

Security, Territory and Population is a collection of lectures given by the French thinker Michel Foucault at the College of France in 1977-8. Foucault describes the lectures as a work of philosophy, defined as “the politics of truth” (p. 3), a term which itself seems to require a definition. This creates two difficult problems for the reader. First, philosophy is hard. It involves carefully picking things apart, examining each element, putting the pieces back together, and then picking them apart from some other perspective, examining the new set of pieces and reassembling. It’s hard work, and it makes for difficult reading.

Second, these are lectures, not a polished work prepared for publication with the aid of editors and the time it takes to smooth out analysis. Foucault says that these lectures are part of a long program of study, of which other books and sets of lectures are parts. The earlier books include Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality for certain, and others as well. These are polished works, and they give an idea of the general program.

In this book, Foucault wants to talk about what he calls “bio-power” which he describes as “… the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object ofa political strategy, of a general strategy of power….” Note that I did not use the word “define”, but the word describe. We should understand this book and The Birth of Bio-Power which I plan to take up next, as tentative explorations, and not as a formal philosophical explication.

I haven’t written about Discipline and Punish or The History of Sexuality (except briefly), but I don’t think that will be a problem. The last three books I’ve written about, The Great Transformation, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Theory of Business Enterprise, raise a similar set of issues. In each one of these books, we saw a massive change in the lives of the working people in Western Europe and the US beginning with the Industrial Revolution. These changes have produced amazing wealth for a few people, and have completely revamped the day-to-day lives of the vast group of working people. How exactly did these changes happen? Was there some great clamor for 12 hour work days in deep-pit mines? Did working people spontaneously decide to put their children to work in spinning mills at the age of 8? Was the demand for coal and cheap shirts so great that these things seemed like fair exchanges to the people whose lives were affected?

Polanyi seems to suggest that the changes were driven by economic duress both from the early capitalists and from the government. Arendt talks about the collapse of earlier social structure, and a combination of economic insecurity and random violence coupled with an appeal to nationalism and scape-goating of the Jews. Veblen doesn’t directly discuss the mechanisms of change but he does say that the industrial age demanded new structures to achieve maximum efficiency. Polanyi says that society resists these massive changes, and Veblen seems to agree. Arendt says that the people can be changed by a combination of force and rhetoric. I realize these are gross simplifications, but they are offered to show that these writers lead us to the problem Foucault wants to talk about. Foucault says that he is not interested in a theory of power, but that his investigations have the potential to expand into a discussion of major social trends.

Third, the analysis of these power relations may, of course, open onto or initiate something like the overall analysis of a society. The analysis of mechanisms of power may also join up with the history of economic transformations, for example. P. 2.

Human beings are a species, and in large groups can be understood and manipulated by those who have studied the species. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault gives us an early example:

[T]he ideas of crime and punishment must be strongly linked and ‘… follow one another without interruption…. When you have thus formed the chain of ideas in the heads of your citizens, you will then be able to pride yourselves on guiding them and being their masters.’ Foucault, Discipline and Punish, at 102, quoting J. M. Servan, Discours sur l’administration de la justice criminelle, 1767.

It reads just like Ivan Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning. We are much more refined than that now, of course. Almost every day we read a new theory about ourselves as a species. These insights are used by business to boost sales, by politicians to gain their own ends, and by each of us for our own purposes. For some of us, it is enough to know that. For Foucault, it was a signal that we need to think more clearly about power.

One good question might be, how did neoliberalism become the dominant discourse, not just of general societal power but of control over the self. Freedom is the most important thing in neoliberal rhetoric, but if we have to work to live, how free are we? If we have to take whatever is on offer as wages and employment, how free are we? People have internalized neoliberalism as a tool of self-discipline, and at such a deep level that they cannot even recognize it as an ideology. They think it is the natural way life should be, and anyone who questions it is anathema. This leads us to think about governmentality, which I discussed very briefly here, and which Foucault discusses in some detail in this book.

I believe that theory is important. The right wing is winning because so many people believe in neoliberalism, including a large number of Democrats. Kuhn points out that scientists can’t even do analysis without a theory with which to understand the observations they are making. I don’t think theories about societies or individual human behavior can ever have the kind of certainty we can get in the physical sciences, because as humans, any theory becomes an object of study and then of change. Even so, we can’t understand our society without some kind of theory. Foucault says that philosophy is about the politics of truth. Is neoliberalism a truth? What are the points about it where we can push back against the idea that it is a truth? Identifying those points is one of the goals of this series of lectures and of the next set, collected as The Birth of Bio-Politics.

In this post, I suggested the beginnings of a theory for the left. The same kind of analysis can and should be applied to that proposal. But that’s for the future. As I work my way through these books, I will try to remember that every proposal has points of struggle, as Foucault calls them, points that are contested. Let’s start with the recognition that for many people, neoliberalism has successfully concealed the points of struggle from the people whose minds it has colonized.