William James  One of the more original methods adopted in the battle against skepticism was the one set forth by the 19th century philosopher/psychologist, William James.  Rather than argue over whether truth can be known, James simply redefines the meaning of truth in his theory of pragmatism.  According to James, the problem with the dispute between skeptics and dogmatists is that the latter professes to know the truth while the former asserts that truth cannot be known (or that one should at least suspend judgment).  James counters both positions by asserting that truth is not a correspondence between belief and an actual state of affairs, but truth is that which ‘works’, or produces proper consequences.  In this post, I hope to demonstrate the incoherence and contradiction inherent in the pragmatic theory of truth.

In his famous lecture, “The Will to Believe”, James makes the following statement:

But please observe, now, that when as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself.  We still pin our faith in its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think.  Our great different from the scholastic [those who hold to a correspondence theory of truth] lies in the way we face.  The strength of his system lies in the principles, the origin, the terminus a quo of his thought; for us the strength is in the outcome, the upshot, the terminus ad quem.  Not where it comes from but what it leads to is to decide…if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he [the empiricist] means by its being true.

In this passage, James is arguing that truth is founded on consequence rather than correspondence.  The truth of a belief is based upon where it leads as opposed to what it agrees with.  In essence, truth is what ‘works’ for the person who believes it.  However, one of the primary problems with this theory is the ambiguity of what is meant by ‘works’.  Indeed the term ‘works’ can be used in a variety of ways.  Take the following three possibilities for example:

  • 1) A belief works if it is eventually verified through empirical observation
  • 2) A belief works if it helps an individual make it through the rigors and hardships of daily life.
  • 3) A belief works if it provides the greatest good for the individual who believes it.

Now consider the following scenario:  Bob has been studying philosophy for 10 years, and he believes that he will successfully defend his dissertation for a PHD in the subject which he is preparing.  Throughout his academic career, Bob’s belief that he would someday earn a PHD has helped him to endure great personal sacrifice.  However Bob’s thesis is eventually deemed unacceptable by the examining committee and he does not receive the degree.  The question is: did this belief work?  It seems to have worked according to (2) but not according to (1).  And who knows if the belief worked according to (3)?  Perhaps Bob would never have received a job after getting his degree or maybe he would have been miserable as a philosophy professor.  The sheer ambiguity of the term is astounding.

Indeed, the very fact that the truth of belief is determined by its consequences leads to problems as well.  According to pragmatism, for a person to hold a true belief, she must know that this belief is ultimately useful in her life.  Yet does not this lead to skepticism as well?  How does one know that a belief is useful or not?  The pragmatist may answer that a belief is useful if leads to the good.  Well then, how does one know what the good is? 

Ultimately, pragmatism seems to confuse metaphysics with epistemology.  I believe that it was Bertrand Russell who observed that pragmatism confuses a test for truthfulness (epistemology) with the meaning of truthfulness (metaphysics).  A doctor can test for the flu by checking someone for a high temperature, however it does not follow that the word “flu” means “that which causes an above average temperature in the body”.  While the usefulness of a scientific model may be a good indicator of its truth, one should not confuse this with the truth of the model itself.

Finally, pragmatism appears to be self referentially absurd.  If the truthfulness of a belief is determined by whether or not the belief is useful, what if I find pragmatism, itself, to not be useful?  What if pragmatism does not work for me?  It seems that, in a case like this, the theory of pragmatism cannot even satisfy its own criteria.  If one interprets ‘useful’ as a belief that is eventually empirically verified, how then does one ever empirically verify the theory of pragmatism itself?  What observations can be made?  What tests can be administered?  And even if one could empirically verify the theory, at what point would the theory be officially ‘verified’?  Would not there not always be the chance that new empirical observations would undo the aforementioned verification?  Indeed, it appears that pragmatism, rather than being a way out of skepticism, is just a more fanciful of getting there.