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The Meaning of Truth By William James Characters: 6943

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


[Footnote: Reprinted from the Journal of Philosophy, etc., August 15, 1907 (vol. iv, p. 464).]

Professor J. B. Pratt's paper in the Journal of Philosophy for June 6, 1907, is so brilliantly written that its misconception of the pragmatist position seems doubly to call for a reply.

He asserts that, for a pragmatist, truth cannot be a relation between an idea and a reality outside and transcendent of the idea, but must lie 'altogether within experience,' where it will need 'no reference to anything else to justify it'-no reference to the object, apparently. The pragmatist must 'reduce everything to psychology,' aye, and to the psychology of the immediate moment. He is consequently debarred from saying that an idea that eventually gets psychologically verified WAS already true before the process of verifying was complete; and he is equally debarred from treating an idea as true provisionally so long as he only believes that he CAN verify it whenever he will.

Whether such a pragmatist as this exists, I know not, never having myself met with the beast. We can define terms as we like; and if that be my friend Pratt's definition of a pragmatist, I can only concur with his anti-pragmatism. But, in setting up the weird type, he quotes words from me; so, in order to escape being classed by some reader along with so asinine a being, I will reassert my own view of truth once more.

Truth is essentially a relation between two things, an idea, on the one hand, and a reality outside of the idea, on the other. This relation, like all relations, has its fundamentum, namely, the matrix of experiential circumstance, psychological as well as physical, in which the correlated terms are found embedded. In the case of the relation between 'heir' and 'legacy' the fundamentum is a world in which there was a testator, and in which there is now a will and an executor; in the case of that between idea and object, it is a world with circumstances of a sort to make a satisfactory verification process, lying around and between the two terms. But just as a man may be called an heir and treated as one before the executor has divided the estate, so an idea may practically be credited with truth before the verification process has been exhaustively carried out-the existence of the mass of verifying circumstance is enough. Where potentiality counts for actuality in so many other cases, one does not see why it may not so count here. We call a man benevolent not only for his kind acts paid in, but for his readiness to perform others; we treat an idea as 'luminous' not only for the light it has shed, but for that we expect it will shed on dark problems. Why should we not equally trust the truth of our ideas? We live on credits everywhere; and we use our ideas far oftener for calling up things connected with their immediate objects, than for calling up those objects themselves. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the only use we should make of the object itself, if we were led up to it by our idea, would be to pass on to those connected things by its means. So we continually curtail verification-processes, letting our belief that they are possible suffice.

What CONSTITUTES THE RELATION known as truth, I now say, is just the EXISTENCE IN THE EMPIRICAL WORLD OF THIS FUNDAMENTUM OF CIRCUMSTANCE SURROUNDING OBJECT AND IDEA and ready to be either short-circuited or traversed at full length. So long as it exists, and a satisfactory passage t

hrough it between the object and the idea is possible, that idea will both BE true, and will HAVE BEEN true of that object, whether fully developed verification has taken place or not. The nature and place and affinities of the object of course play as vital a part in making the particular passage possible as do the nature and associative tendencies of the idea; so that the notion that truth could fall altogether inside of the thinker's private experience and be something purely psychological, is absurd. It is BETWEEN the idea and the object that the truth-relation is to be sought and it involves both terms.

But the 'intellectualistic' position, if I understand Mr. Pratt rightly, is that, altho we can use this fundamentum, this mass of go-between experience, for TESTING truth, yet the truth-relation in itself remains as something apart. It means, in Mr. Pratt's words, merely 'THIS SIMPLE THING THAT THE OBJECT OF WHICH ONE IS THINKING IS AS ONE THINKS IT.'

It seems to me that the word 'as,' which qualifies the relation here, and bears the whole 'epistemological' burden, is anything but simple. What it most immediately suggests is that the idea should be LIKE the object; but most of our ideas, being abstract concepts, bear almost no resemblance to their objects. The 'as' must therefore, I should say, be usually interpreted functionally, as meaning that the idea shall lead us into the same quarters of experience AS the object would. Experience leads ever on and on, and objects and our ideas of objects may both lead to the same goals. The ideas being in that case shorter cuts, we SUBSTITUTE them more and more for their objects; and we habitually waive direct verification of each one of them, as their train passes through our mind, because if an idea leads AS the object would lead, we can say, in Mr. Pratt's words, that in so far forth the object is AS we think it, and that the idea, verified thus in so far forth, is true enough.

Mr. Pratt will undoubtedly accept most of these facts, but he will deny that they spell pragmatism. Of course, definitions are free to every one; but I have myself never meant by the pragmatic view of truth anything different from what I now describe; and inasmuch as my use of the term came earlier than my friend's, I think it ought to have the right of way. But I suspect that Professor Pratt's contention is not solely as to what one must think in order to be called a pragmatist. I am cure that he believes that the truth-relation has something MORE in it than the fundamentum which I assign can account for. Useful to test truth by, the matrix of circumstance, he thinks, cannot found the truth-relation in se, for that is trans-empirical and 'saltatory.'

Well, take an object and an idea, and assume that the latter is true of the former-as eternally and absolutely true as you like. Let the object be as much 'as' the idea thinks it, as it is possible for one thing to be 'as' another. I now formally ask of Professor Pratt to tell what this 'as'-ness in itself CONSISTS in-for it seems to me that it ought to consist in something assignable and describable, and not remain a pure mystery, and I promise that if he can assign any determination of it whatever which I cannot successfully refer to some specification of what in this article I have called the empirical fundamentum, I will confess my stupidity cheerfully, and will agree never to publish a line upon this subject of truth again.

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