Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth (Works of William James) Paperback – 15 Apr 2011
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From the Back Cover
James attacks the transcendental, rationalist tradition in philosophy and tries to clear the ground for the doctrine he called radical empiricism. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
About the Author
William James (1842–1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher trained as a medical doctor. He wrote influential books on the young science of psychology, educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and the philosophy of pragmatism. He was the brother of novelist Henry James and of diarist Alice James. William James was born at the Astor House in New York City. He was the son of Henry James Sr., an independently wealthy and notoriously eccentric Swedenborgian theologian well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. The intellectual brilliance of the James family milieu and the remarkable epistolary talents of several of its members have made them a subject of continuing interest to historians, biographers, and critics. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The most controversial part of "Pragmatism" consisted of its theory of truth which James developed in Chapter VI. He argued that the truth of an idea was the use that could be made of it, or as he put it in the Preface of his book, "The Meaning of Truth," "true ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot." James's theory of truth appeared counter-intuitive to many people, philosophers and laymen alike, who believed that a true idea (or true statement, claim, proposition, etc) was one that corresponded in some sense to reality.
In order to explain further his view of truth and to respond to criticism, James gathered together thirteen of his published lectures and addresses on the subject. He added two additional lectures and a Preface and edited and published them in 1909 as a book "The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to "Pragmatism". These essays show the development of James's thinking about the nature of truth and attempt to rebut criticism of the theory set forth in "Pragmatism". "The Meaning of Truth" differs in style from its famous predecessor. Where "Pragmatism" is nontechical and written for a lay audience, "The Meaning of Truth" was, for the most part written for professional philosophers. It is much more difficult to read and to understand. Yet it is essential to James's thought.
James had another explicit goal in writing "The Meaning of Truth." In addition to developing the pragmatic method, James also was committed to a philosophical view he called radical pluralism which he expounded in his 1907 book, "A Pluralistic Universe." In "Pragmatism", James had said that pragmatism could be accepted as a method without accepting radical pluralism. In the Preface to "The Meaning of Truth", James said that a major advantage to his theory of truth was that it cleared the philosophical ground of absolutes and of fixed, monistic entities behind, in some strange sense, the world of ordinary experience. With the need for absolutes or transcendental theories disposed of, James said, the doctrine of radical empiricism would be supported. That doctrine argued for the contingency, rather than necessity, of much of experience, and held further that the only things that philosophers could sensibly discuss were matters definable in terms drawn from experience.
The essays in "The Meaning of Truth" were originally written between 1884 and 1909, and in them James foreshadows, explains, defends, and subtly modifies the theory articulated in "Pragmatism". The most important single section of the book is the Preface which James composed for the volume to explain where he had been in the theory of truth and where he was going. I will comment briefly on some of the key essays.
The first essay, "The Function of Cognition," written in 1884, explains the theory of truth in psychological terms -- some critics argue that throughout his writings James tended to confuse psychological with philosophical issues. Of the other essays in the book predating "Pragmatism", I found "The Essence of Humanism" written in 1905 most useful in stating James's position.
James's most sustained attempt to rebut critics of his doctrine was in his essay "The Pragmatist Account of Truth and its Misunderstanders" published in 1908. In this essay, James set forth what he deemed to be eight misunderstandings of pragmatism and struggled to answer these misunderstandings. This essay is essential in considering James's views. The essay "Two English Critics", first written for the volume attempts to answer Bertrand Russell's criticisms of James, and in the concluding "Dialogue" James tries to show how the pragmatic theory answers questions about which we have no experience -- say back in the early days of the earth before human beings appeared.
James's theory of truth is difficult and slippery, and he seems to change it subtly in response to critics. Several objections to the doctrine note its idealistic character in that James's theory seems to make true statements independent of the existence of reality -- of physical objects, say, existing independent of the knower. In "The Pragmatist Account of Truth", in the subsequent essays, and in the Preface, James tries to answer this objection by insisting that his pragmatism is committed to metaphysical realism -- to the existence of objects outside the knower and that his theory of truth works because it is about these objects. (In "A Pluralistic Universe", James's metaphysics seems more idealist in character.) Some readers take this response as qualifying James's pragmatic theory or even as giving away the game as it imparts a realist component to his epistemology that is over and above his theory of truth as what works, consistent with other beliefs. Ultimately it seems to me that James wants to have it both ways between a representational theory and a pragmatic theory.
Pragmatism as developed by James, Peirce, Dewey, and others is, in many forms and varieties, still much alive today. James laid the foundation for the doctrine in "Pragmatism" and in "The Meaning of Truth" but he did not say the last word. The former book is a grand introduction to the subject while the latter book is detailed and technical. Taken together the works will help the reader think about pragmatism and to understand a distinctive American contribution to philosophy.
Along with Charles Pierce and later on John Dewey , William James is the great creator of this philosophy.
However as could be expected by anyone who has studied Philosophy the exact meaning and intention of James, and the others is a subject for dispute and interpretation.
In one sense Pragmatism is a 'theory of truth' which is strangely echoed by someone who would seem very far from this American way of thinking, Wittgenstein when he said , "Ask the use, not the meaning'. For James one of the key phrases in the definition is in seeking the ' cash - value' of an idea.
What this means is I think, something like this. We ordinarily think of a statement as true if it corresponds to reality, or we believe it corresponds to reality. The test of the truth is in the correspondance. For James the test is not in this but rather in the consequences of the idea in the marketplace. The truth of the idea is its ' uses'.
In this way truth- seeking does not look to a prior reality but to a future one. And truth- seeking is not a passive spectator sport in which we simply ' see' the correspondence it is instead a creative activity.
The truth is in a sense the way we shape the future out of the present.
'Pragmatism'places an emphasis on future facts and empirical realities.
Now this said it is important to understand that James is in a sense contending with the whole of the philosophical tradition. He is saying that in its Rationalism and search for some kind of Prior Absolute Idea it is missing the truth that is being made in the marketplace of the world.
I believe that there is much which can be said that is ' critical' of this idea. But James would of course welcome such criticism and would contend with it in the marketplace of ideas.
'Pragmatism' is a real contribution to philosophical literature and it is important for anyone interested in the philosophical tradition of the West to know it.
The funny thing about reading this was my continued identification with James' critics. As I studied his ideas, I kept raising objections about his philosophy, only to have those objections countered by him later on in response to the critics (e.g. Russell). James continually makes reference to his difficulty in accepting that such intellectual and intelligent philosophers would so misunderstand his views. Part of the problem appears to be a) his continued redefinition of truth as not representing reality so much as it's working relation between subject and object, and b) his subtle modifications to his theory in response to criticism. Each of these prior points make for some confusion and hence seems to be the cause for much of the misunderstanding regarding his pragmatic philosophy.
Pragmatism holds a special use in epistemological inquiry given it's universality and pro-evolving character. As a philosophy it can encompass all fields of discovery and personal knowledge and is most open to change given sufficient reason (akin to the scientific method). However, in another sense it seems to longingly grasp for the universal as objections such as "Belief A may not be true but may still be useful" are not adequately dealt with by this philosophy. He actually at one point briefly mentions this objection and then brushes it off without further analysis.
I recommend this book for anyone looking for a heavy read into an alternate theory of truth. Absolutists will repeatedly cringe (and not always justifiably so) and relativists will delight (once again, not always justifiably so), but it is a thought-provoking look into how one can view the process of truth-verification.
In his Preface to Pragmatism, James stated, "The lectures that follow were delivered at the Lowell Institute in Boston in November and December, 1906, and in January, 1907, at Columbia University... They are printed as delivered, without developments of notes. The pragmatic movement, so-called---I do not like the name, but apparently it is too late to change it---seems to have rather suddenly precipitated itself out of the air. A number of tendencies that have always existed in philosophy have all at once become conscious of themselves collectively, and of their combined mission; and this has occurred in so many countries... that much unconcerted statement has resulted. I have sought to unify the picture as it presents itself to my own eyes, dealing in broad strokes, and avoiding minute controversy."
He outlines, "the pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many? fated or free? material or spiritual? Here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle." 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." (Pg. 28) He elaborates, "[Pragmatism] has no objection whatever to the realizing of abstractions, so long as you get about particulars with their aid and they actually carry you somewhere... she has no a priori prejudices against theology. If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. For how much more they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to other truths that also have to be acknowledged." (Pg. 40-41)
He argues, "[Pragmatism] has in fact no prejudices whatever, no obstructive dogmas, no rigid canons of what shall count as proof... She will entertain any hypothesis, she will consider any evidence. It follows that in the religious field she is at a great advantage both over positivistic empiricism, with its anti-theological bias, and over religious rationalism... In short, she widens the field of search for God... Pragmatism... will could mystical experiences if they have practical consequences... Her only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience's demands... If theological ideas should do this, if the notion of God ... should prove to do it, how could pragmatism possibly deny God's existence?" (Pg. 44)
He observes, "Free-will pragmatically means novelties in the world, the right to expect that in its deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past... persons in whom knowledge of the world's past has bred pessimism... may naturally welcome free-will as a melioristic doctrine. It holds up improvement as at least possible, whereas determinism assures us that our whole notion of possibility is born of human ignorance, and that necessity and impossibility between them rule the destinies of the world. Free-will is thus a general cosmological theory of PROMISE, just like the Absolute, God, Spirit, or Design... Free-will has no meaning unless it be a doctrine of RELIEF. As such, it takes its place with other religious doctrines... Other than this practical significance, the words God, free-will, design, etc., have none...Pragmatism alone can read a positive meaning into it, and for that she turns her back upon the intellectualist point of view altogether. `God's in his heaven; all's right with the world!'---THAT'S the real heart of your theology, and for that you need no rationalist definitions." (Pg. 60-62)
He says, "True ideas are those we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known as... The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth HAPPENS to an idea. It BECOMES true, is MADE true by events. Its verity IS in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself... Its validity is the process of valid-ATION." (Pg. 97)
He states, "On pragmatistic principles, if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true... experience shows that it certainly does work, and that the problem is to build it out and determine it, so that it will combine satisfactorily with all the other working truths... I have written a book on men's religious experience, which on the whole has been regarded as making for the reality of God... I firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets to do the whole of human life... You see that pragmatism can be called religious, if you allow that religion can be pluralistic or merely melioristic in type. But whether you finally put up with that type of religion or not is a question that only you yourself can decide." (Pg. 143-144)
He asserts, "Whether knowledge be taken as ideally perfected, or only as true enough to pass muster for practice, it is hung on one continuous scheme. Reality, however remote, is always defined as a terminus within the general possibilities of experience: and what knows it is defined as an experience that `represents' it, in the sense of being substituted for it in our thinking because it leads to the same associates, or in the sense of `pointing to it' through a chain of other experiences that either intervene or may intervene." (Pg. 241)
He explains, "My account of truth is realistic, and follows the epistemological dualism of common sense. Suppose I say to you `The thing exists'---is that true or not? How can you tell? Not till my statement has developed its meaning farther is it determined as being true, false, or irrelevant to reality altogether. But if now you ask `what thing?' and I reply `a desk'.., if moreover I say `I mean that desk,' and then grasp and shake a desk which you see just as I have described it, you are willing to call my statement true... This notion of a reality independent of either of us, taken from ordinary social experience, lies at the base of the pragmatist definition of truth. With some such reality any statement, in order to be counted true, must agree. Pragmatism means `agreeing' to mean certain ways of `working,' be they actual or potential.
Pragmatism is perhaps the quintessentially "American" philosophy; although some readers (e.g., Bertrand Russell) may choose to dismiss or ridicule it, this book will give one a clear statement of the philosophy, from one of its founders.