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James Stancil

ID#: 0142946


American Philosophy

William James and the Pragmatic Conception of Truth

“There are some people – and I am one of them – who think that the most practical and

important thing about a man is still his view of the universe”. With this quote from Chesterton,

William James enters the arena of American philosophy that we call pragmatism to address what he

believes to be the present dilemma in philosophy (P 3). The dilemma for James is the search for truth

amid the “clash of human temperaments” existing between the “tender-minded” and the “tough-

minded”; between the rationalist and the empiricist view of what we call reality (P 6).

In beginning our discussion of the pragmatic understanding of truth there are several basic

questions we are well served to pose at the outset. Is truth a principle or an end? An absolute or an

ultimate? A first or a last? To the rationalist the answer in each case is the former, to the pragmatist it

is the latter. For James the concept of truth is at heart a relationship between an idea and its object. As

such, it is a property of our ideas that must ultimately come into agreement with reality. Along these

lines the rationalist and the empiricist do not disagree. But what do we mean by agreement? How do

we define reality?

In his search for an understanding of what it means to say that something is true, we will find

that James has neither the time nor patience for the metaphysical. His truth must be understood in

terms of its concrete applicability to daily life and how it effects the lives and actions of the individual.

He pursues this by asking the pragmatic question: What difference will it make to say a thing be true

or false? What in actuality is truth's “cash value”?

A crucial point in determining answers to these questions will be his reliance on the validation

and verifiability of truth through personal experience. In this way James hopes to show that truth is not

something static and staid, but a living hypothesis constantly evolving alongside the ideas and objects

which it relates to. His truth, in essence, becomes rather than is. In doing so, he places himself firmly

at odds with the absolutism of the rationalists, choosing instead to argue for a future, ultimate view of


Truth and reality for the rationalist are beyond mutation. They are complete and ready made

from all eternity. The agreement of our ideas with this truth, if any agreement is to be found, is due to

the “unique, unanalyzable virtue” inherent within them. Truth exists a priori to experience and as such

is separate from “facts” or fact-relations. For the monist, our experience adds literally nothing to the

content of truth. That, in a nutshell, is the end of the rationalistic story. Truth simply is. There is no

further discussion .

The problem for James is that this epistemological view of truth points only backwards toward

an assumed absolute, toward an assumed past existence of the eternal. To accept this view is to place

ourselves in the position of existing as nothing more than an impotent spectator. The empirical mind of

the pragmatist will stand for no such silliness. If we merely revert to “principles” (which to James are

nothing more than named abstractions), then meaning consists solely in our owning an oracular

solution (PAR 126). We are not children and when seeking answers to our deepest questions, any

response which sounds this similar to a parent telling a child “because I said so” is completely


James bases his argument for the pragmatic view of truth on what he labels radical empiricism.

This entails forming a postulate with the understanding that the only things that are debatable among

philosophers are things which can be defined in terms drawn from experience. From this vantage point

we are able to make statements of fact and draw generalized conclusions. “True ideas are those that we

can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those we cannot” (PAR 114).
The ultimate difference between the rationalist and the empirisict view of truth thus becomes

the difference between one's perception of it as something “thought as” on the one hand versus

something “known as” on the other. Thinking is one thing, knowing quite another. In this way James

is able to postulate his conception of truth as something that “...happens to an idea ... becomes true, is

made true by events” (PAR 114). How does this happen? How is truth “made”? Through its verity in

the verification process; through its validity in the validation process. Truth is never anything less for

the pragmatist than a process. We cannot call a thing true unless we can verify it to be so.

For the pragmatist, the most basic reason for taking the time to consider what can be labeled

“true” is because it is expedient for us to do so. Truth must be appropriate to some purpose, must serve

to promote some interest. It must somehow work, and if it is to work, it must have what James calls

cash value. Is it possible to discover a truth that does not in some manner, way, shape or form,

“work”? Is there such a thing as an “unuseful” truth? “True is the name for whatever starts the

verification-process, useful is the name for its completed function in existence” (PAR 115). Therefore,

the statement that something is true because it is useful and the statement that something is useful

because it is true are, in the eyes of the pragmatist, equatable to stating the same thing. Truthfulness

and utility are synonymous. “The truth of a state of mind means this function of a leading that is worth

while” (PAR 116).

To say that something works means that we find no contradiction in it, that it does not frustrate

our endeavor, interest or purpose. Here James seems to be on very solid ground. It is undeniable to

state that our truths must possess a definable sense of worth, a tangible cash value. This categorizing of

objects, ideas and beliefs into classes of things that promote our self interest, through their ability to

prove useful, is thus imperative for us in determining what we choose to call true and what we choose

to discard as false. In deciding to strip an idea of its cash value, we devalue it to a point of uselessness

and toss it without further thought into the abyss of irrelevance. When an idea does not lead us to

some experience of value, to some state of usefulness, what then could possibly be its cash value in
terms of its truthfulness? It would simply not be a worthwhile endeavor.

This simple categorization of our ideas as things that are useful are, in James' mind, the

originals and prototypes of the truth-process. But here one has to ask a basic question. If something is

only true as far as its usefulness, what are we to say of the truth of colors? Is there a cash value for me

to say that the sky is blue? Perhaps. If my statement causes me to act, it then takes on ramifications

that may be classified as true or false. If I am claiming the sky to be blue as an indicator of current

weather conditions, then this obviously affects my course of action in choosing whether or not to carry

an umbrella for the day. However, if I am merely reflecting on issues of personal preference, my like

or dislike of what I see (thus deeming it of no importance to any of my immediate actions), there can be

no cash value in calling it true. This seems to suggest that for the pragmatist, aesthetics is not a subject

capable of defending itself using epistemological terms. If an argument were to pursue along the lines

of the truth of the color of the sky for identification purposes of weather (thus playing an active role in

the decision making process of the agent), it would indeed be an argument worth making. If on the

other hand it were merely a statement of personal preference, there would seem to be no worthwhile

leading toward action in experience and as such its truthfulness would be irrelevant. This is the test of

concrete consequences essential to the pragmatic theory of truth, in which a point of view must be

useful (PAR 99). “Our duty to agree with reality is seen to be grounded in a perfect jungle of concrete

expediencies” (PAR 129).

For the pragmatist, truth is a relationship between an idea and its object. It is a property of our

ideas which either agrees or disagrees with reality. But what does the pragmatist mean by agreement?

The rationalist assumes to know the mind of God. Therefore if his ideas are in “agreement” with this

supposed absolute knower, then those ideas are in his mind true. Not so for James. His understanding

of the term “agreement” is again a type of process, a function of leading toward a future comprehension

rather than an assumed existent past. For us to say that something is in agreement “all true processes

must lead to the fact of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere, which somebody's ideas
have copied” (PAR 121). Agreement comes from our analyzable sense experiences containing cash

value as they present their usefulness to our actions. To harp on a consistent phrase of James, this

process of agreement must be useful.

How does such a truth-process of leading to agreement work in our every day lives? Let's use a

practical example. If I were to ask someone to meet me at Polk Library on the campus of the University

of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, how would they know upon their arrival that they had in fact truly arrived?

The pragmatist would ask them to consider whether or not their experience of reality actually agreed

with their assumptions. Do they find themselves standing in front of a building labeled Polk Library?

Is that building on the campus of the University of Wisconsin? Is that University in the city of

Oshkosh? Are there books and reference material within that building which qualify it to be labeled a

library? If the agent finds no contradiction between his assumptions and his surroundings, then his

ideas are in agreement with reality and therefore true. He has validated an object which was expedient

for him to do and found concrete cash value in the agreements of his ideas with his surroundings.

The example above is one which shows a clear distinction between James' theories of validation

and verification. Is it necessary to completely verify that there are indeed books in the building I

assume to be a library labeled as such? Must I know the inner workings of a clock to be able to claim

that it truly is a reliable time keeping apparatus? In determining the validity of a blue sky, must I

consult all available meteorological data to determine whether or not I need an umbrella? Of course

not. There are many situations in which circumstantial evidence is just as sufficient as direct

verification. When the assumption being made causes no frustration or contradiction concerning my

immediate purpose, validation, rather than verification, serves the vital function of making economical

use of our time. “Our thoughts and beliefs 'pass' so long as nothing challenges them” (PAR 117). The

credit system of truth holds as long as concrete verification has been obtained somewhere, by someone.

In a general sense this is what James calls generic unity; an abstraction which lends itself to an

economy of time in deciding from day to day, moment to moment, what is true. “Things exist in kinds,
there are many specimens in each kind, and what the 'kind' implies for one specimen, it implies also for

every other specimen of that kind ... logic works by predicating of the single instance what is true of all

its kind” (P 139). Subsequently James assures us that “you are sure to get truth if you can but name the

kind rightly” (P 118).

This would seem to be unarguable for those truths which we hold to be concrete, but what of

abstractions? How does one come into agreement with things not tangible? Do they hold no value?

Not so, according to James, if they lead us somewhere useful. Here again James denies that there

exists any absolute truth which is not an abstraction from the facts of truth which are found in our

pluralistic experiences of them. Just as the law is a compilation of many laws, all absolute truths are

abstractions based on pluralities generalized. As he so eloquently states:

Distinctions between the lawful and the unlawful in conduct, or between

the correct and incorrect in speech, have grown up incidentally among the

interactions of men's experiences is detail; and in no other way do distinct-

tions between the true and the false in belief ever grow up (P 241).

Take for example an abstraction such as mathematics. The verification of basic mathematics

becomes petrified in our minds as an eternal fact which we then use to create new truths of abstraction.

The usefulness of a truth presents itself first, not the abstraction. And these useful conclusions are the

only ones worth arriving at. To do otherwise is merely to play parlor games.

Interestingly enough, his concept of a truth's usefulness allows James to throw an olive branch

to the religious minded of his critics. In allowing for a truth to be considered true so far as it proves

useful, the absolutist view is beneficial, even if false, for its ability to provide the individual moral

holidays and respite from anxiety. “We cannot keep separate the notion of what is better for us and

what is true for us” (PAR 109).

In every imaginable situation, we find James directing us to use a process of leading through

verification to a point of agreement in which we can state with certainty that our truths are useful.
As an empiricist, James is bound to follow the conceptual philosophy of Darwinian evolutionary

thought. The rationalistic truth of first principles assumes a starting point and continually refers

backwards toward it. Empirical thinking starts from the present observable moment, reverse engineers

and then postulates forward to newer horizons; constantly evolving in line with the maturation process

evident all around us. As something mutable, truth can be nothing less than a definable process for the

pragmatist; a process that happens, rather than is. And it is this process which allows James to argue

for his definition of Reality.

This is the true prize to be won on the field of philosophical debate between the absolutist's

monism and the empiricist's pluralism. Does our reason give rise to a fixed “one” reality or to an

evolving “many”? In speaking then of the difference between rationalism and pragmatism “the

essential contrast is that for rationalism reality is ready-made and complete from all eternity, while for

pragmatism it is still in the making, and awaits part of its complexion from the future” (P 257). The

rationalist states an unfounded absolute truth to tether his tossing ship to while the pragmatist feels

utterly secure amid the uncertainties of the open sea of experiencable sense perceptions. To assume a

perfect world is to stagnate oneself, while to assume an imperfect and evolving world is to progress and

discover through our own creation, new truths that do not avail themselves to the inert mind. Again,

James is seeking to find complete and definite meaning in what we say when we speak of things being

true, of being real. Rather than positioning himself as dogmatic and unbending, he proposes

pragmatism as a mediator between the tender and the tough minded soul. “If something works, it will

have some truth that ought to be held to...” (P 270).

Reality for the rationalist is either that which he assumes to exist in the mind of the absolute, a

priori, or merely the copy-view understanding of his surroundings. For James, experience is the true

nature of reality. We discover and create our reality as we go, doing so by following along the lines of

truths that pay us in terms of their cash value. Truth is an abstract name that we attach to results in

hindsight, not a priori.

For example, man begins his primitive existence acknowledging a fear of natural phenomena

which he assigns the name of an absolute truth, an absolute reality, delivered to him via a “sky god”

that he assumes must be its source. This absolute truth is overtaken in time by the truth which we

create through the pragmatic process of verifying meteorological weather systems. And we choose to

do so because it pays for us to do so. Where the rationalist sees the work of the absolute, the

pragmatist sees the process of interaction. “Human motives sharpen all our questions, human

satisfactions lurk in all our answers, all our formulas have a human twist” (P 242). Quoting Taylor,

James tells us that “reality is in general what truths have to take account of” (P 244).

Reality here consists of three parts. Initially we understand and recognize the flux inherent in

our sensations. These are neither true nor false; they simply are. What could be true or false about

them? In determining this the pragmatist asks us to consider several things. First, what can we actually

say about them? What are our theories of their source and nature? And what are the remote relations

between ourselves and them?

Secondly, we must consider the relationships existing between our various sensations (or

between their copies in our minds). They are either mutable and accidental based on things such as

date and place, or they are fixed. Fixed ideas are labeled essential because they are grounded upon the

inner nature of their terms. In both cases we call these matters of immediate perception facts. Our

inner relations are eternal. They are perceived whenever their sensible terms are compared, such as

things mathematical or logical in thought.

Finally, we must acknowledge the previous truths of which every new inquiry takes account.

These three parts of reality then control the formation of our beliefs about it. We are free to

choose the sensation that we wish to attend to. Based on our selection, different truths will develop as

we examine the situation. Thus the importance of understanding the role that our perspective plays in

deciding what reality is for the individual cannot be understated. It is our experience with the living

hypotheses of our immediate situation that determine what our reality is at any given moment. “We
receive in short the block of marble, but we carve the statue ourselves” (P 246). Ultimately, the Truth

is what the human mind makes it out to be.

So how do we “agree” with these three types of reality? Through our use of what we call facts

or fact-relations. Once again, this is a process. In this instance a process of being “guided either

straight up to it” (the fact of the matter or the agreement of same with our expectations) “or into its

surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected

with it better than if we disagreed” (PAR 119). This guiding toward an agreement which proves itself

to be so timelessly reliable, to the point that we no longer question its validity in relation to its

usefulness, allows us to label it factual.

In the process of verifying the usefulness of facts that we collect along the way, we create a

general stock of extra truths to have at the ready when we encounter situations which require this or

that specific expedient truth. The most immediate of these we retain in our memories while filling our

libraries and reference books with the overflow. Thus the truth of the good or ill of my kitchen stove

comes from my memory of past use and the recipe for a souffle I'd like to prepare from my cookbook.

Again, the idea of an absolute truth evolving over time from the primordial sea of experiential facts

which we accumulate and label as such because of their proven usefulness to us. “Previous truth; fresh

facts: - and our mind finds a new truth” (P 241).

Here I think that James would have been better suited to his cause had he substituted the word

“create” or “make” in place of “finds”. In using the term “finds”, doesn't he run the risk of finding

himself on the side of the rationalist? Wouldn't the absolutist excitedly proclaim 'Yes! Your truth did

not merely “happen”, it existed all along! You simply stumbled upon it!' It would seem a plausible

argument on behalf of the rationalist to say that to discover something is not equivalent to creating it; to

making “truth happen”.

But James does have an answer. These truths “make themselves as they go” to us as we

uncover them based on their usefulness along our evolving path toward what he calls the Ultimate.
James has no contentious notions about the possibility of an absolute. He, in fact, seems to feel it to be

an inevitability. But to claim an absolutist view of knowledge simply on the basis of an instinct, hunch,

or gut feeling is not a reason to believe it, even if it eventually turns out to be so. Even a blind squirrel

is capable of finding a nut every so often.

An evolving universe can only begin pluralistically and can not attain a state of absolute unity

until “ultimately” it has all the facts gathered over time through experience. Because we can find

numerous examples of “disunion” in our world, evolutionary “fits and starts”, we are not yet in a

position to claim an absolute position of truth on things which necessitate faith. We live in a “common

sense world of things partly joined and partly disjoined” (P 161). We suffer from incomplete

knowledge and therefore must choose the observable pluralistic view over the unobservable absolute.

“Our knowledge grows in spots... the knowledge never grows all over” (P 167).

This is the most basic understanding of our common sense notions of how we gain our truths.

We are ever wary of our need for conservatism in ideas and we are reticent to allow new knowledge to

spread any more quickly than our old knowledge will allow. “We patch and tinker more than we

renew” (P 169). It is not just possible to acknowledge the ambiguity within truth, but paramount for us

to do so. This is accomplished through another process; the verification process.

By its very nature, verification requires a verifier and an experience to be verified. This applies

to both the tangible as well as to the abstract. “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” (MT 214). And we, not

some metaphysical absolute, are that thinker of thoughts.

What would James make of the metaphysical question debating the sound made or not made by

a tree falling in the woods outside the presence of an audible agent? Perhaps he would begin with

stating that such a hypothetical was pointless, as it can be of no use to answer either in the affirmative

or the negative. Then again, he may use it as an excellent analogy of a “knower” to what can be

“known”. Without the marriage of each to one another, how could there be truth? Wouldn't this prove
his point? Truth cannot live in isolation. It needs, actually requires an audience. For truth to exist

otherwise would be as mere fruit rotting on the vine, wasting away into nothingness without some

existent creature in search and need of it for a purpose.

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 attrib-

ute a superior degree of glory to it seems little more than a piece of perverse

abstraction-worship (MT 205).

By not accounting for the logical context of an idea, a concept or an object, what use is there in

our calling it true? This can only be done through the process of verification, which comes about a

posteriori, after the fact, and never a priori or before. In ascribing this functionality of verification to

our ideas as true or false, we find that what we call our true thoughts are in essence invaluable

instruments of action. Truth directs our actions; it helps us use the fire for warmth and cooking while

avoiding pain and injury.

For James, this is the “milk in the coconut”, the proof of his pudding. If we are to say that

something is true, it must pay for us to do so. It must pay through the process of verification. For the

pragmatist, truth is nothing more than a collective name for the verification-process, connected to our

existential sense experiences and pursued simply because it is expedient to pursue them. This is how

“truth happens”. “Truth is made... in the course of experience” (MT 122). The evolutionary process of

our thoughts does not allow us to ascertain truths prior to the verification-process.

Our truth is thus a product of double influence. “Truths emerge from facts; but they dip forward

into facts again and add to them; which facts again create or reveal new truth (the word is indifferent)

and so on indefinitely” (PAR 125).

So which came first? The chicken or the egg? The one absolute truth or the pluralistic many?
According to James the oracular “idol” of the truth is nothing more than youthful naiveté'. While

pounding our chests crying the existence of the absolute oneness of truth, James reminds us that the

truth is forever nothing more than an abstraction from the facts of truths in the plural, culled from our

accumulating experiences. The pragmatist is obligated to the truth as far as the cash value of past

verification presses him between it and the cash values of the present, all the while evolving toward the

future. And because the weight of our present and future verifications is all the greater than our past

convictions, which must daily bear the burden of the new contradictions which we encounter, is it any

wonder that our truths find themselves in a state of evolutionary mutation? With every new truth, we

discover not only that new truth, but a piece of the ultimate truth which in the end will serve to verify

our desire for what we can only at the moment imagine to be an absolute.

There are those who would tell us to be content standing motionless on the ground while

looking up to the heavens and questioning nothing, but assuming all. What is true simply is so; our

participation is neither requested nor warranted. We are invited to be an impotent observer and nothing


Or we can climb the ladder of evolving truth offered by William James. We can choose to

actively participate in the truth-process by validating that which is expedient for us to do so based on

the concrete cash value to our lives that they entail. We can seek agreement of our thoughts, ideas and

beliefs as we examine their usefulness as discovered by his verification-process. We can define our

reality. We can make our truth happen.

It seems a simple choice.