Pragmatism and Truth

William James’ theory of Pragmatism – that good philosophy is philosophy we can use – rests upon a pragmatic theory of truth that is much more controversial. What is true, he says, is what is useful: no more, no less. If a fact does not help us in life, consider it false; if it does, consider it true.

This is a bold claim! Intuitively we like the “correspondence theory” of truth: that something is true if it corresponds to the real world. “The sky is blue” is a true statement, we say, if there is an actual sky and it is actually blue. Surely James can’t be disagreeing with this?

We must exercise a little philosophical charity here and assume that James does not actively disagree that if something obtains in the real world it is true. If for some reason it is useful to believe I have the ability to fly, it would still not be true (since I can’t). To criticize James on these grounds would probably be a straw man.

What James actually means, as he explains, is that the “correspondence theory” of truth is practically useless. How can we tell if the sky is actually blue? Our eyes often deceive us. More deeply, any claim mediated by language (read: any claim) is predicated on the accuracy of the language it uses. What is a ‘sky’, anyway? What is ‘blue’? There is no immediate easy answer to these questions.

In daily life, James thinks we already use a pragmatic theory of truth! We test beliefs by putting them into practice; if they work, we call them true, if they fail, we don’t. I believe that frying an egg is easier if you crack the egg onto a dollop of olive oil, not because I have thought through the properties of oil and egg, but because I’ve fried eggs and I know oil helps. I believe that water is refreshing and Coke isn’t because I’ve tried both when I’m thirsty and water works better. The “correspondence theory” of truth is something we do after the fact to justify our true beliefs.

James has been described as ‘what the analytic philosophers could get out of Nietzsche’, and with good reason. This theory of truth bears strong resemblance to Nietzsche’s theory of truth as an artistically constructed tool. Can you sign onto James’ Pragmatism and avoid the unpleasant conclusions about morality that Nietzsche arrives at?

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