This paper was written by a student in Philosophy 310, Ideals of Scientific Explanation and the Nature of Its Objects, at Bryn Mawr College, spring 2003. Like other materials on Serendip, it is made available to encourage continuing exploration and conversation. Your thoughts and contributions are welcome.

Useful but not "True": William James’ Pragmatist Theory of Truth and Belief

Maryam Bastani


Pragmatism is a method for making the way through the often sticky tangle of facts and data that confront us in science, metaphysics, and everyday experience. James presents his pragmatism as an empirical attitude that turns away from the problematic abstract, absolutist, a priori attitudes of traditional philosophy and towards facts, practicality, and action.

In his lecture, What Pragmatism Means (from What is Pragmatism, 1904), William James explains the pragmatic method and its consequences, advocating its usefulness in understanding what we take to be true belief. Pragmatism holds that to have a belief is to have certain rules for action. Any and every notion has its own set of practical consequences. The meaning of a thought is said to be whatever course of action necessarily follow from it. In metaphysical disputes between false and true notions, the dispute must be settled by considering the practical consequences of the two notions. Any two notions that can be shown to have identical practical consequences are shown to be identical notions. Writes James, "Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right." (James, 2)

To have a clear and complete conception of an object is equivalent to considering the practical, empirical effects and properties of the object, and the conduct it will produce. James credits Charles Peirce for introducing this way of thinking about belief. James writes that it was Peirce’s notion that "To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve- what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare," and that further, "to develop a thought’s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance." (James, 2)

James gives an anecdote as an example of an instance in which the pragmatic method is helpful in resolving a metaphysical dispute. He describes a hypothetical situation in which a man is trying to see a squirrel that is clinging to a tree. No matter how quickly he goes round the tree, the man does not manage to move as quickly as the squirrel, who is also going around in the opposite direction, keeping the tree between himself and the man. Whether or not the man goes round the squirrel is a matter up for debate, and cannot be settled unless further distinction is made concerning how the verb "to go round" is defined. The truth of the matter is pragmatically defined to satisfy the requirements as they are thoroughly set out. An abstract true answer to the dispute over the man and the squirrel simply does not exist separate from the human constraint and requirements imposed on the circumstances.

Pragmatism sheds a new light on the place and purpose of scientific theory. For the pragmatist, theories are not ends in themselves, but a means to an end. Writes James, "Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.…Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work.."

James is careful to emphasize that pragmatism, as a method, has no principles that it privileges outside of its method. It has no specific results that it means to work towards. Pragmatism, writes James, "has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method," and "stands for no particular results…only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means."

Pragmatism has important consequences for the very notion of "truth." James writes that Pragmatism has two major aspects: "Such then would be the scope of pragmatism- first, a method; and second, a genetic theory of what is meant by truth." (James, 9) There is no room for abstract, objective truth in Pragmatism. Truth supervenes on human need, is receptive to changes in human need through time, and is therefore plastic and malleable. The metaphysical ramifications are eminent if when we discard the objective notion of truth. With it goes universals and universals principles- the very sorts of notions that metaphysics usually seeks out in what James calls its "primitive kind of quest." James writes that at the end of the "metaphysical quest" are universal principles, words, and names that the philosopher might rest his case upon. "’God’, ‘Matter,’ ‘Reason,’ ‘the Absolute,’ ‘Energy,’ are so many solving names. You can rest when you have them. You are at the end of your metaphysical quest." (James, 4) B

Universals are not the end of the quest for the pragmatist, however. Since the pragmatist rejects absolutes, and holds all truths as malleable and plastic, holding only as long as they remain practical, such a state of rest is never achieved, nor is it a reasonable goal in metaphysical inquiry. James writes that "if you follow the pragmatist method, you cannot look on any such (universal) word as closing your quest…it appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed." (James, 4)


While Pragmatism is a useful way of characterizing the only sorts of beliefs that we can demonstrate as useful, and gives a convincing account of why we would do just as well to call those useful beliefs "true," the argument for why we ought to dispense entirely with an abstract, objective existence of truth has not been demonstrated. James writes that "There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere …the whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.

James would do better to refrain from a discussion of "abstract truths." While it may be that philosophy "ought to" operate on a pragmatist’s theory of truth as that which is useful and practically applicable, he has given no argument that has consequences for the actual existence of abstract truth, he has only given an account of how we are to determine and make use of relevant ones. There is no reason given to think Pragmatism as applicable to anything more than those facts that are relevant to human practice and activity. To make the claim about abstract truths is an unqualified overextension that weakens the Pragmatist stance.

This point is illustrated in the anecdote James uses to demonstrate the pragmatic method at the beginning of the article. When James claims that the dispute over the man and the squirrel raises the issue of truth as indeterminate unless qualified as practical, he has mischaracterized the ambiguity at hand.

It is misleading to say that for truth to be asserted, there must be a determinate answer for every question that could conceivably arise from a situation. Putnam almost got it right in his article " Is There Still Anything to Say About Reality and Truth?" when he pointed out that the very question "What is a thing really like?" makes no sense without qualification. If a question is posited for which no determinate truth can be provided, it is the question that is in error. There is no fact of the matter, in the case of the man and the squirrel, about which being is going around which. The question itself has no answer. But that does not mean that there are no absolute, non-plastic truth claims to be made about the situation.

There are many questions that have no answers. What is the opposite of a shovel? There is no correct answer, but that doesn’t mean that there are no truth claims to be made about shovels or the concept of "opposites." We can say that shovels are for digging, and are made of hard materials, etc. We can say that certain objects and concepts have opposites, but that not all do, and we may even provide criteria for what sorts of things can be said to have opposites. Green is, in truth, the opposite of red, happiness is the opposite of melancholy, greed is the opposite of charity, etc. However, it makes no sense to ask, "what is the opposite of a shovel?" Or, "what is the opposite of a dog?" because these things would not meet the criteria of those things that can be said to have opposites. In the case of the man and the squirrel, it makes no sense to ask "is the squirrel going around the man or not?" for the same reasons that it makes no sense to ask, "what is the opposite of a dog?" We can still assert truths about the situation, i.e., that it involves a man, a squirrel, and a tree, that it took place on a certain date, at a certain time, etc. The example that James takes to be a "simple" case of the utility of the pragmatic method really doesn’t hold.


James’ pragmatism is a fruitful theory on many practical levels. For James, pragmatism leads to an essentially instrumentalist account of truth that uses effectiveness the chief criterion of truth and falsity. This view of truth is accurate in the way it describes many of the instances in which we are confronted with different, conflicting metaphysical notions that aren’t supported by any independent, universal principles.

Pragmatism is also supported by the observable process of individuals evaluating their beliefs and revising their opinions of what is true and false. As James himself points this out, the pragmatic method is really a familiar process that is radically conservative in many ways but still allows for novel ideas and notions to be incorporated and unsatisfactory old ones to be discarded as experience proves necessary.

But the pragmatic account of truth is not strong enough. While a dynamic notion of truth is attractive and solves some of the major problems that arise out of insisting on a static notion of absolute truth that endures through time, the effort to dismiss the existence of the "antiquated" notion of objective truth will take a stronger effort.

James makes things easier for pragmatism as he circumvents examples that might prove to be absolute truths. In his demonstrative anecdote, he employs one element of the situation that gives rise to a question that is irrelevant and without a determinate truthful answer. Would other, less ambiguous elements of the story bode as well for the pragmatist picture of truth? Are there not aspects of the situation and are not up for debate, and may qualify as determinate, objective truths? While these potentially objective truths would probably fit well into the pragmatist picture on the whole, since they are of course useful beliefs as the pragmatist would necessitate, they call into question the anti-rationalist aspect of pragmatism that rejects absolutist claims of any kind.


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