William James, The Meaning of Truth, (New York: Longmans, 1914)
A Reading from Chapter VIII: Pragmatist Account of Truth
One of pragmatism’s merits is that it is so purely epistemological. It must assume realities; but it prejudges nothing as to their constitution, and the most diverse metaphysics can use it as their foundation. (215)
This reading will follow the structure of the chapter contained in The Meaning of Truth, taking up eight specific criticisms or objections to the Pragmatic Theory of Truth as outlined by James in Pragmatism. The ‘misunderstandings’ are direct quotations, whilst references to the remainder of the text are indicated in brackets.
1. Pragmatism is only a re-editing of positivism.
Positivism can be grouped with scepticism and agnosticism, insofar as these three approaches to epistemology maintain that truth is inaccessible and thus phenomenal truth – what we perceive directly – has to suit our purposes. For the pragmatist, this does not go far enough; rather, the question that needs to be answered is: what does the notion of truth signify ideally? James argues that greater problems are soluble by human intelligence i.e. truth is accessible and that a theory of truth that is speculative can cover both absolute and relative definitions of truth. The pragmatic theory of truth ‘is not a theory about any sort of reality, or about what kind of knowledge is actually possible; it abstract from particular terms altogether, and defines the nature of a possible relation between two of them’.  Thus, pragmatism could not be further from offering an account of truth that could be claimed as positivist.
2. Pragmatism is primarily an appeal to action.
James concedes that the choice of the name ‘pragmatism’ is unfortunate because it gives something for the critics to latch onto, and so to dismiss the pragmatist account as being merely practical. For James, this is a reduction of the pragmatic account. It is true that ideas are said to be working well, enabling us to gain some kind of practical advantage; but the pragmatist also argues that ideas also work indefinitely inside of the mental worldi.e. when there is no tangible effect in reality. The criticism could be interpreted as politically motivated, as a reflection on the average American man on the street, ‘who naturally hates theory and wants cash returns immediately’ . Pragmatism exhibits ideas as complementary factors of reality, which throw open ‘a wide window upon human action, as well as a wide license to originality in thought’. The problem with such misunderstandings as the above is that critics have confused the secondary achievement – positive action – with the primary aim.
3. Pragmatists cut themselves off from the right to believe in ejective realities
As an example, a critic might object that the pragmatist is unable to account for the truth of another person’s mental state, such as a headache. James argues that this criticism is down to confusion over the process of verifiability i.e. ‘beliefs consist in their verifiability in the way in which they do work for us’ . Moreover, satisfactoriness – the test of validity of a particular belief – entails believing in mental states as really existing in other people. It is true for the subject assumed in the pragmatist’s world of discourse and true for the pragmatist, thus it is true in the universe absolutely.
4. No pragmatist can be a realist in his epistemology.
This criticism leads on from the concept of satisfactoriness, for surely, the critic argues, if truth is validated by satisfactoriness, and the latter is a subjective feeling, then this means that truth also is subjective and manufactured. Against this criticism, James attempts to show that it is really the intellectualists – traditional epistemologists – that are guilty of advocating for an account that is removed from reality. In fact, any non-realistic interpretation of truth is forbidden under the pragmatist’s epistemologising for he argues that there is both a reality and a mind of ideas. The question is, what can make those ideas true of that reality?
For the intellectualists, an idea lays claim to truth to the extent that it corresponds or agrees with reality. James accuses the intellectualists of deliberately obscuring the issue at hand; for them, abstraction is equal to profundity. The pragmatist, on the other hand, attempts to get at the concrete aspect of the problem i.e. what does agreement with reality mean in detail? First, that ‘ideas must point to or lead towards that reality and no other’ (191) and second, that ‘pointings and leadings must yield satisfaction as their result’ (191). The pragmatist is anything but non-real, since concrete pointing and leading – ‘intermediary verifying bits of experience’ (191) – are the work of other parts of the universe to which reality and mind belong and hence to believe in other minds, independent realities and so on are concrete truth claims.
Further, the onus is actually on the critics, James argues, to show us a more concrete objective theory of truth that moves us beyond pointless abstractions such as correspondence. The critic may well retort that errors can be satisfactory too, and that it is the relation between reality and one belief that yield’s specific truth satisfaction ‘compared with which all other satisfactions are the hollowest humbug’ (194). But, as James argues, satisfactions are indispensible for truth building, but insufficient by themselves unless reality is also incidentally led to. There can be no truth unless there is something to be true about, and, correspondingly, realities are not true, they are, and beliefs are true of them.
5. What pragmatists say is inconsistent with their saying so.
This is a familiar objection against the sceptic, in that the sceptic is forced to contradict herself when she attempts to assert what scepticism entails. Against this, James argues that logical reasoning cannot kill off scepticism; rather, scepticism renews itself, for it is the ‘live mental attitude of refusing to conclude’ (198). The matter that the pragmatist utters is as follows: truth, concretely considered, is an attribute of out beliefs, and there are attitudes that follow satisfactions. Ideas are like hypotheses that challenge beliefs to take a stand upon them. And so, when you try to convert others to your way of thinking, you are merely demonstrating that you find the same belief satisfactory.
6. Pragmatism explains not what truth is, only how it is arrived at.
The main point here is that the how and the why cannot be torn apart: ‘the reasons why I find it satisfactory to believe that any idea is true, the how of my arriving at that belief, may be among the very reasons why the idea is true in reality’ (201). Consider, for example, the links of experience through which mediation between an idea and reality is possible. These links lead to a concrete relation of truth that may obtain between the idea and that reality. Whereas intellectualists posit the singularity of truth insofar as there is inherent truth in one series, the pragmatists assert that truth is plural i.e. a series of definite events.
On the issue of concreteness versus abstraction, James states that the pragmatist does make use of abstractions as they come in handy sometimes for their ‘emptiness’. He does not, however and unlike the intellectualists, ascribe a higher grade of reality to them. This is because the full reality of truth for James is always some process of verification, ‘in which the abstract property of connecting ideas with objects truly is workingly embodied’ (202-3). The anti-pragmatist values prior timeless relations as having dignity, to which the actual workings of our ideas bear nothing in comparison; whereas, for the pragmatist, full truth is truth that ‘energises and does battle’ (204). The former are guilty of ‘abstraction-worship’ (206) of a hypostatised truth that is ‘not alive enough ever to have been asserted or questioned or contradicted’ (206). For the pragmatists, by contrast, truth in posse ‘means only truth in act’ (206).
7. Pragmatist ignores the theoretic interest.
This misunderstanding again points to a confusion of the term ‘pragmatic’, stemming from ‘practical’; practical is to do with utility and is not mutually exclusive with theory. James defines pragmatic in a narrow, literal sense: experience is both practical and active. Moreover, in agreement with the intellectualists, James claims that there are always particulars in the act of verification, since vagueness and generality ‘serve to verify nothing’ (212).
8. Pragmatism is shut up to solipsism.
For the intellectualist, to know a reality, an idea must in some inscrutable fashion possess or be it entirely. For James, this coalescence is inessential. Actually, the pragmatic theory of truth relies upon the supposition of ‘some wider knower’ who will guarantee the reality of the termini towards which mind processes are oriented. Pragmatists say that we can be the absolute knower for our own universe of discourse, but ‘whether what they themselves say about that whole universe is objectively true i.e. whether the pragmatic theory of truth is true really, they cannot warrant – they can only believe it’ (n.213). This seems like a tacit admission of pragmatism’s proximity to solipsism, so James does not here convince us that the two really are poles apart, which he would presumably want to do since solipsism is the zenith of idealistic epistemology.