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Critique of William James's Pragmatic Theory of Truth

Critique of William James's Pragmatic Theory of Truth

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Published by Paul Horrigan
Critique of William James's Pragmatic Theory of Truth
Critique of William James's Pragmatic Theory of Truth

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Published by: Paul Horrigan on Apr 07, 2013
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CRITIQUE OF WILLIAM JAMES’S PRAGMATIC THEORY OF TRUTHPaul Gerard Horrigan, Ph.D., 2007.James’s Pragmatism and Pragmatic Theory of Truth
To be undertaken here will be a brief exposition and epistemological critique of the pragmatic theory of truth of Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James (born January11, 1842 - died August 26, 1910),
classical pragmatism’s most famous exponent, other two
Studies on William James: E. BOUTROUX,
William James
, Longmans, Green, London, 1912 ; H. V. KNOX,
The Philosophy of William James
, Constable, London, 1914 ; T. FLOURNOY,
The Philosophy of William James
, HenryHolt and Co., New York, 1917 ; J. E. TURNER,
 An Examination of William James’s Philosophy: A Critical Essay for the General Reader 
, B. H. Blackwell, Oxford, 1919 ; S. TISSI,
, Athena, Milan, 1924 ; H. M. KALLEN,
 Introduction to the Philosophy of William James
, Random House, New York, 1925 ; J. S. BIXLER,
 Religion in the Philosophy of William James
, Marshall Jones Co., Boston, 1926 ; R. B. PERRY,
The Thought and Character of William James
, 2 vols., Little, Brown, Boston, 1935 ; R. P. PERRY,
 In the Spirit of William James
, Yale UniversityPress, New Haven, 1938 ; M. C. OTTO (ed.),
William James: The Man and the Thinker 
, University of WisconsinPress, Madison, 1942 ; G. CASTIGLIONI,
, La Scuola, Brescia, 1945 ; R. B. PERRY,
The Thought and Character of William James: Briefer Edition
, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1948 ; L. MORRIS,
William James: The Message of a Modern Mind 
, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1950 ; C. H. COMPTON,
William James: Philosopher and Man
, The Scarecrow Press, New York, 1957 ; G. A. ROGGERONE,
 James e lacrisi della coscienza contemporanea
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 La filosofia di W. James
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William James
, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Philadelphia, 1963 ; T. R. MARTLAND,
The Metaphysics of William James and John Dewey: Process and Structure in Philosophy and Religion
, ThePhilosophical Library, New York, 1963 ; E. C. MOORE,
William James
, Washington Square Press, New York,1965 ; L. M. RAVAGNAN,
, Centro Editor de America Latina, Buenos Aires, 1968 ; J. D. WILD,
The Radical Empiricism of William James
, Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1969 ; R. B. MACLEOD (ed.),
William James: Unfinished Business
, American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., 1969 ; G. ARGERI,
Concetti fondamentali del pragmatismo nel James e nel Dewey
, Palermo, 1974 ; P. K. DOOLEY,
 Pragmatism as Humanism:The Philosophy of William James
, Littlefield, Adams & Co., Totowa, NJ, 1975 ; W. R. CORTI (ed.),
The Philosophy of William James
, Menier, Hamburg, 1976 ; C. H. SEIGFRIED,
Chaos and Context: A Study in William James
, Ohio University Press, Athens, 1978 ; L. BELLATALLA,
Uomo e ragione in W. James
, Turin, 1979 ; B.WILSHIRE,
William James and Phenomenology: A Study of ‘The Principles of Psychology,’ 
AMS Press, NewYork, 1979 ; R. J. VANDEN BURGT,
The Religious Philosophy of William James
, Nelson-Hall, Chicago, 1981 ; H.S. LEVINSON,
The Religious Investigations of William James
, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill,1981 ; E. K. SUCKIEL,
The Pragmatic Philosophy of William James
, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame,IN, 1982 ; M. P. FORD,
William James’s Philosophy: A ew Perspective
, University of Massachusetts Press,Amherst, 1982 ; J. BARZUN,
 A Stroll with William James
, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984 ; E.TAYLOR,
William James on Exceptional Mental States: The 1896 Lowell Lectures
, University of MassachusettsPress, Amherst, 1984 ; H. M. FEINSTEIN,
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, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1984 ;G. E. MYERS,
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, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1986 ; G. BIRD,
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(The Arguments of the Philosophers), Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1986 ; E. FONTINELL,
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, Indiana University Press, Indianapolis, 1987 ; N. FRANKENBERRY,
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, SUNY Press, Albany, 1987 ; D. W. BJORK,
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,Columbia University Press, New York, 1988 ; C. H. SEIGFRIED,
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, Southeast Asian ScienceFoundation, Manila, 1990 ; G. P. GRAHAM,
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, Peter Lang, New York,1992 ; T. L. S. SPRIGGE,
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, Open Court, Chicago, 1993 ; B.RAMSEY,
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, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993 ;E. TAYLOR,
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2 being John Dewey (though his pragmatist philosophy is described as “instrumentalism”) and F.C. S. Schiller (whose philosophical pragmatism is termed “humanism”). Though the term“pragmatism” as a theory of knowledge originated in modern times with Charles Sanders Piercein 1878, pragmatism was made famous as a philosophy and hugely popularized by the AmericanWilliam James, who died at the age of 68 in 1910. James as psychologist published his famous
The Principles of Psychology
in two volumes in 1890, while his main philosophical works cameafter this, namely:
The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy
TheVarieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human ature
 Pragmatism: A ew ame for Some Old Ways of Thinking 
 A Pluralistic Universe
The Meaning of Truth: ASequel to ‘Pragmatism’ 
Some Problems of Philosophy: A Beginning of an Introductionto Philosophy
(posthumously in 1911),
 Essays in Radical Empiricism
(posthumously in 1912).Though ultimately immanentist in methodology (something that James’ philosophyshares with rationalism and idealism), the classical pragmatism of James is a revolt against the
a priorism
of the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant and especially the absolute idealism of G. W. F. Hegel, in favor of the empiricist schools of philosophy: the empiricism of early modern philosophy (Hume), the later empiricist inspired French positivism of the first half of thenineteenth century (Comte) and British utilitarianism of the second half of the nineteenth century(Mill). In his 1907 book 
, James describes the empiricist, nominalist, postivist andutilitarianist inspirations of his pragmatist philosophy, which in many places in his works hedescribes as a
radical empiricism
: “Pragmatism represents a perfectly familiar attitude in philosophy, the empiricist attitude, but it represents it, as it seems to me, both in a more radicaland in a less objectionable form than it has ever yet assumed. A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. Heturns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad
a priori
reasons,from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towardsconcreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power. That means theempiricist temper regnant and the rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretence of finality in truth. At thesame time it does not stand for any special results. It is a method only…Being nothingessentially new, it harmonizes with many ancient philosophic tendencies. It agrees withnominalism for instance, in always appealing to particulars; with utilitarianism in emphasizing practical aspects; with positivism in its disdain for verbal solutions, useless questions andmetaphysical abstractions…No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation,is what the pragmatic method means.
The attitude of looking away from the first things,
1997 ; L. SIMON,
Genuine Reality: A Life of William James
, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1998 ; R. GALE,
The Divided Self of William James
, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999 ; D. C. LAMBERTH,
William Jamesand the Metaphysics of Experience
, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999 ; R. B. GOODMAN,
Wittgenstein and William James
, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2002 ; W. PROUDFOOT (ed.),
William James and a Science of Religions
, Columbia University Press, New York, 2004 ; R. M. GALE,
The Philosophy of William James: An Introduction
, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005 ; R. D. RICHARDSON,
William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
, Houghton Mifflin, 2006 ; J. O. PAWELSKI,
The Dynamic Individualism of William James
, SUNY Press, Albany, NY, 2007 ; S. PIHLSTRÖM,
The Trail of the HumanSerpent is Over Everything: Jamesian Perspectives on Mind, World, and Religion
, University Press of America,Lanham, MD, 2008 ; M. R. SLATER,
William James on Ethics and Faith
, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,2009.
 principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits,consequences, facts
 Concerning James’s pragmatic theory of truth, Frank Thilly and Ledger Wood write:“Pragmatism is a method of determining the truth or falsity of propositions according as they door do not fulfill our purposes and satisfy our biological and emotional needs; a true proposition isone the acceptance of which leads to success, a false proposition is one which produces failureand frustration. In introducing a reference to satisfactoriness, expediency, practicality andinstrumentality in his definition of truth, James drastically alters the complexion of the pragmatism of Pierce’s more intellectualistic formulation.“The test, then, of a theory, a belief, a doctrine, must be its effects on us, its practicalconsequences. This is the
test. Always ask yourself what difference it will make inyour experience whether you accept materialism or idealism, determinism or free will, monismor pluralism, atheism or theism. On the one side, it is a doctrine of despair, on the other adoctrine of hope. ‘On pragmatic principles, if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily, in thewidest sense of the word, it is true.’ The test of truth, then, it its practical consequences; the possession of truth is not an end in itself, but only a preliminary means to other vitalsatisfactions. Knowledge is an instrument; it exists for the sake of life, not life for the sake of knowledge. James enlarges this pragmatic or instrumental conception so as to include in the ideaof practical utility logical consistency and verification. True ideas are those we can assimilate,validate, corroborate, and verify. Ideas that tell us which of the realities to expect count as trueideas. We can, therefore, say of truth that it is useful because it is true, or that it is true because itis useful. Truth in science is what gives us the maximum possible sum of satisfaction, tasteincluded, but consistency both with previous truth and novel fact is always the most imperiousclaimant.”
 In pragmatism truth is ‘produced,’ ‘manufactured,’ ‘made’ by means of postulation andexperimentation. For the pragmatist, something is true if it is able to satisfy some human need; itis ‘false’ if it fails to do so. In the words of the noted pragmatist, the advocate of humanism F. C.S. Schiller: “Pragmatism essays to trace the actual ‘making of truth,’ the actual ways in whichdiscriminations between the true and the false are effected, and derives from these itsgeneralizations about the method of determining the nature of truth. It is from such empiricalobservations that it derives its doctrine that when an assertion claims truth,
its consequences arealways used to test its claim
. In other words, what follows from its truth for any human interest,and more particularly in the first place, for the interest with which it is directly concerned, iswhat establishes its
truth and validity…Human interest, then, is vital to the existence of truth: to say that a truth has consequences and that what has none is meaningless, means that ithas a bearing upon some human interest. Its ‘consequences’ must be consequences to some onefor some purpose.”
 For pragmatism, “truth” is not permanent, necessary, universal, objective or absolute;instead, “truth,” for the pragmatist, is essentially relative, particular, provisional, transformable,
, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1907, pp. 51 ff.
 A History of Philosophy
, Henry Holt and Co., New York, 1957, p. 639.
Studies in Humanism
, Macmillan, London, pp. 4-6.

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