William James' Pragmatic Conception Of Truth

William James developed a pragmatic conception of truth, whereby the meaning of truth in any assertion is in its functional power. He rejected the view that statements are, by themselves, true or false. Truth is not statically inherent in any idea or proposition. The truth of a statement must be verified experientially by the possible effects it might have in our practical existence. The pragmatist, according to James, must ask what difference a proposed true belief would have in one's life. He demands some kind of "cash value" and usefulness in what is said to be true. For James, every truth is useful in some way, either directly in one's life or indirectly by way of its usefulness in a larger system of truth statements. As a pragmatic philosopher, he doesn't see any use or meaning or reason to philosophize about that which has no bearing or difference in our lives.

Some readers might interpret James' insistence upon usefulness as too restrictive a requirement. It tends to sound overly materialistic. But I think James is using the concept of "usefulness" in a wider applicable sense, similar to Pierce, in that truths do not stand independent but have some use or consequence in relation to other statements and ideas, as well as activities. The "cash value" of an assertion is its verification as usefully true, and this value is found in its application within other ideas and other related activities of our inner and outer experience. The "workings" of a statement, or its "functional possibilities," either directly in life or within mental systems, constitute its truth or verification. Since the meaning of truth is functional and depends upon its working and consequences, James cannot be content with any simple correspondence theory of truth as required by empiricists who see truth statements as representing or copying some external reality. True beliefs are not mere copies of [true] things out there. Truth is more like a descriptive relation in some coherent system, rather than a correspondence to or image of something else.

James seems to equate usefulness with truth, but we need to be careful in our interpretation of his meaning. James is a bit sloppy in his statement that "It is useful because it is true" is the same as "It is true because it is useful." Obviously, the reverse of a proposition is not necessarily the same as the original proposition. Usefulness could be a necessary function of the truth, but I cannot believe that James would see truth as a function of usefulness. For the pragmatist, all truth is, by definition, useful. Truth necessarily has to be useful for it to be called truth. But what is useful does not necessarily imply truth.

I can't see how usefulness could be a sufficient condition for truth. Yet, maybe I'm wrong here! Maybe James IS saying that whatever is useful as an assertion Is the truth if, by definition, the truth is any belief which works well in some way. Of course, then, we would want to know how well it does work and by what standards we should judge this working ability. And what if an assertion works well for one person but not for others? (which can happen!) What then of a common truth?

Let us consider this further. James does not mean that truth produces usefulness, nor that usefulness produces truth. Instead, truth is and must be useful, and what is useful could be thought of as possessing (in some way and degree) truth. All truth is, therefore, useful, and a statement must be useful if it is to be true, because the truth of any statement is in its verification and its usefulness is the necessary proof or verification.

This seems to imply that if a belief were not true it would not be useful, which is undoubtedly false since many people have made good use of false ideas. So, one could make use of ridiculously false assertions, and even falsely believe that it is verified in some way. Does that mean these assertions are true? In common language they are not true, though useful, because they do not correspond correctly to facts. But James wants to undo the correspondence meaning of truth and replace it with this use-meaning of truth.

I think one could say, along with James, that usefulness is a necessary condition of truth, though the proof of this usefulness may as yet not be evident, so we might not yet know the usefulness and so not be fully certain as to the truth. But usefulness does not necessarily imply truth, anymore than satisfaction necessarily implies moral worth even if it is an outcome of morality. Therefore, I would rather say, as a pragmatist, that true ideas are useful. Ideas must be useful for them to be true. They must then be good or valuable; so, truth is of the good. And what is good, or useful, must possess truth, at least is some relative degree.

For James, truth is an event of verification. If an idea is not verified by some consequence or working relationship with other ideas, then it cannot as yet be said to be truth. Truth is a happening at the moment of verification, that is, when an idea is verified as useful, or working, then, and only then, can it be known as truth. How else, James would ask!? So, we could state the criteria of truth as both useful and verified, with these two requirements intrinsically related. But usefulness could mean workability in general, or it could mean what serves one's interests, or it could include both meanings. James is vague here, but it is clear that he does not want to exclude the usefulness of truth as being tied to personal interests.

James attacks the Rationalists for defining truth as independent of practical interests and for building up abstract ideas devoid of any relation to our actual life experience. Some philosophers might then question whether James is making truth dependent upon personal interests, which would easily lead to a relativism, where each person could conceive of truth as whatever works for them or whatever interests them, and defend their ideas of truth according to the successfulness of their life. It is true, I believe and James would agree, that the ultimate judge of truth must be our own experience (though we can learn and accept other people's verification as well), because no other verification is as immediately direct as personal experience. We cannot adequately separate truth from personal interest or experience, because not only do we have an interest about the truth, but also statements of truth having no real difference or effect in our lives are really worthless chattering.

James says that ideas are "made true" or "become true" by events and "made in the course of experience." These statements can be confusing. James does not mean here that truth is made up by each person, or that there is no reality before it is made or becomes true, except in the sense that statements of truth are made true only as they become verified by experience. He does not mean in a metaphysical sense that nothing true exists before we make it up for our own interests. But in a linguistic or propositional sense truth, as a statement of fact, is not true as such until proven, and the proof for James is not within the statement itself, nor in its analysis of reason, but in its verification in the world by experience.

Truth is what "happens" to an idea or theory when verified by experience. And when we can verify it in this way we can truly say that it does make a difference in life whether or not it is true. The working experience of the idea in life "makes" it truth. The validation is an event or consequence, not just a reason or self-evident intuition. In this sense, truth is not fixed eternally, but is a progressive understanding or validation of theory. Also, a sincere declaration of truth would imply a willingness to act upon this belief. A true belief is a kind of trust in its effectiveness or in its consequences, so we could say that truth is a trust proven by action and experience.

For James, truth must be practical and "expedient." But expedient toward what end? If truth is verified by (or dependent upon) its functional use or its working in some purposeful way, then how did the purpose or goal come to be true? A certain truth would be useful in relation to some other truths or useful toward some end, but how do we know these other truths or ends to be true? Also we only know "it" works because something else (which "it" relates to or is a means to) works. How do we know this other "truth" works or has meaning? It too must be verified by its use. And where does the ideal of "what is working" come from? That too must have some useful consequence. The problem in this pragmatic conception of truth is that we have no fixed Forms or ideals or true starting points or physical/mental landmarks from which to ultimately base truth upon. If truth is a means to true ends, which are, by definition, means themselves, then where Does it all end (or begin), and is the verification (truth) infinitely evasive?

James is an empiricist because the proof or verification of a belief is experiential, but he is radical in that he does not limit such experience to scientific experiment and includes personal perceptions. For the empiricist ideas do not begin with universals and must be tested by experience and their meaning limited by experience. James is fully in agreement here, but he ventures further in requiring this verification through experience to be useful and of practical worth. Yet, he also seems to say that an assertion is useful if verified, so maybe he has gone no further, or maybe he has elucidated better the idea of verification?

In using "experience" as the main criteria of verification, James leaves himself open to being attacked as a relativist, since experience is ultimately subjective. Because he allows personal experiences as proof of the truth, one might question whether dreams, hallucinations and other kinds of fictional experiences can verify truth. He fails to distinguish objective experience from biased or delusionary experience, and he seems to imply that all direct experience is infallible and without conceptual filters. Certainly though, James wants to include all kinds of experience, not just one's own momentary experiences, such that one must take into account what others say and the social consensus. I think James is caught between the hard-line material empiricists, who only accept `hard' facts or percepts, and the soft, sentimental, transcendental idealists, who are too subjective in their verification.

I think my experience is the ultimate judge with full veto power on any idea, but I must also admit that my own experience is less than fully adequate and I have to allow for others to debate me and give consideration to what others experience. It may be that what is found to be useful for me, or by me, has no use or even negative use for you. So the question of truth as consensus comes up. One could solve(?) this by saying that there is truth (as I know it) and social truth and Absolute Truth, and truth wants to approach Truth. I should note that the certainty of Absolute Truth is finally impossible for James because future consequences and usefulness of any assertions might be unknown, so that just because the truth cannot be verified now does not mean that it cannot be later. In conclusion I think we can see how James has pushed the conception of pragmatic truth to its extreme, which helps us see the potential problems involved, which IS useful.