Posts Tagged ‘Coherence Theory of Truth’

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 3)

October 22, 2012

First, we see that James dedicates his Pragmatism to J. S. Mill, so it would seem he leans towards the empiricist position.  He writes that the difference between the empiricist and the rationalist is that, “’empiricist’ meaning your lover of facts in all their crude variety, ‘rationalist’ meaning your devotee to abstract and eternal principles.”[1]  He then defines the pragmatic approach as “THE ATTITUDE OF LOOKING AWAY FROM FIRST THINGS, PRINCIPLES, ‘CATEGORIES,’ SUPPOSED NECESSITIES; AND OF LOOKING TOWARDS LAST THINGS, FRUITS, CONSEQUENCES, FACTS.”  This would seem to make pragmatism either synonymous for “empiricism,” or at most a variation of it.  However, James offers his theory as not just one form of empiricism to oppose rationalism, but as a mediating position between the two.  How can this be?

The first six of James’ eight lectures seem to tilt far to the empiricist side.  He agrees that knowledge starts with the senses and that the rationalist impulse for “absolute unity” or “monism” can be understood as an aspirational horizon at most, but not an established truth.  Instead, he defends the pluralistic “truths” of empiricism over the absolute and universal “truth” of rationalism.  He writes:


Pragmatism, pending the final empirical ascertainment of just what the balance of union and disunion among things may be, must obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side. Some day, she admits, even total union, with one knower, one origin, and a universe consolidated in every conceivable way, may turn out to be the most acceptable of all hypotheses. Meanwhile the opposite hypothesis, of a world imperfectly unified still, and perhaps always to remain so, must be sincerely entertained. This latter hypothesis is pluralism’s doctrine. Since absolute monism forbids its being even considered seriously, branding it as irrational from the start, it is clear that pragmatism must turn its back on absolute monism, and follow pluralism’s more empirical path.  This leaves us with the common-sense world, in which we find things partly joined and partly disjoined. [2]



So pragmatism follows “pluralism’s more empirical path.”  It is inductive, a posteriori, drawing from human experience rather than deducing from a priori principles as the rationalist does; the rationalist’s claim that logically everything is One must yield to the experience of reality as at least partly disunited.  For the empiricist, generally (since general inductive truths are the only truths for empiricists, they would be the only ones true about empiricists too), “truth” means “reflects factual reality.”  A true statement is one that corresponds to the state of the world.  James identifies this with the “common sense,” “popular” and “dictionary” understanding of truth:  “Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their ‘agreement,’ as falsity means their disagreement, with ‘reality.’ “[3]  James writes that pragmatism has several problems with this definition.  For one, what if there is no precise “object” to be copied?  Perhaps, for example, you have only an imperfect understanding of your object.  I say “there is a clock on the wall,” without knowing how the thing looks on the inside; it looks like a clock and tracks the time and that is enough for me.  Also, some words and statements refer to abstract concepts.  In that case, what exactly is being copied by our knowledge?  How do we judge whether they are “true”?  James gives this answer:


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?”



To the empiricist and the rationalist alike, says James, “When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter.”  You pursue truth in order to know it; once you know it, you’re done.  Pragmatism is intentional.  Truth must be relevant to a particular situation.  It must be useful.  While intellectualists claim there is a “categorical imperative” to pursue truth, James writes:


A truth must always be preferred to a falsehood when both relate to the situation; but when neither does, truth is as little of a duty as falsehood. If you ask me what o’clock it is and I tell you that I live at 95 Irving Street, my answer may indeed be true, but you don’t see why it is my duty to give it. A false address would be as much to the purpose.


So James cannot wholeheartedly adopt the copy-theory of truth.  He begins with experience, but he does not end with it.  As James puts it, “…all our theories are INSTRUMENTAL, are mental modes of ADAPTATION to reality, rather than revelations or gnostic answers to some divinely instituted world-enigma.”[5]  All knowledge begins with some person or persons encountering reality and trying to achieve some purpose.  We invent categories and rules to help us better handle reality.  By “we,” I mean some particular person or persons initially makes some discovery that treating reality in a particular way will be particularly useful.  If that way is indeed useful, it spreads among humanity and through time.  Eventually, this truth-claim becomes so universally accepted that it seems as if everyone has always believed it.  At that point, we label it “common sense.”  And as long as these categories serve us to solve the problems we face, we do not challenge them.  When a new, novel fact comes along that does threaten to undermine our store of established categories and rules, we attempt to assimilate it into our established understanding with as little alteration to the rest of our beliefs as possible.  My new belief must not only be useful; it must also be consistent with my other beliefs. My other beliefs have their own benefits; to give them up would be to lose the benefits of those beliefs.  Therefore, my new beliefs must be reconcilable with old beliefs.   As he writes, “In other words, the greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths. Truths have once for all this desperate instinct of self-preservation and of desire to extinguish whatever contradicts them.”[6]   It is a pragmatic version of the coherence theory of truth.  To the rationalist like Descartes, there were certain truths that were indubitable; other truth claims have to be derivable from or at least consistent with those bedrock truths. To the pragmatist, there are no utterly fixed, immutable truths; every truth is tested for its “cash value,” and those that have real use are adopted.  But according to James, those truths must not only be useful; they must also learn to live together.  Thus, the new truths I accept will be as compatible as possible with the old truths that still serve me well and which I hold dear.  They must be coherent, perhaps requiring some adjustment but not wholesale jettisoning of the body of truth by which I live my life.

To be continued….

[1] William James, Pragmatism:  A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking; 1907; The Project Gutenberg,   accessed 10/1/12; lecture 1, “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy.”


[2] Pragmatism, lecture IV, “The One and the Many.”

[3] Pragmatism, lecture VI, “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth.”

[4] Pragmatism, lecture VI

[5] Pragmatism, lecture V, “Pragmatism and Common Sense.”

[6] Pragmatism, Lecture II, “What Pragmatism Means.”