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6th June, 2013: American Pragmatism


Barry Rafe introduced the audience to American Pragmatism.

For over 2000 years philosophers have been arguing about the nature of Truth and Knowledge. The American pragmatists claim that most of these arguments are abstract and 'empty'.

American Pragmatism is a philosophical movement originally developed by Charles  Peirce and William James. It is  distinguished by the doctrine that the meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequence. The pragmatic method is a way of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise seem insoluble.



American Pragmatism


American pragmatism is a philosophical movement started by William James and Charles Sanders Pierce. This discussion focuses primarily on James and his ideas and how pragmatism evolved.

James wanted to resolve a dilemma that was troubling many philosophers at the time. The dilemma was that there seemed to be a conflict between truths of science and truths of religion and morality. James described the scientifically mind as the 'tough minded'. The 'tender minded' were those who attempted to find principles that explained 'truth' that were in the mind or were objectively defined in various sources e.g. holy books. James observed that the tender minded tended to be idealists, optimistic and were often more religious than the tough minded. The tough minded were fatalistic and sceptical. James wanted to develop a philosophical view that reconciled the empiricist with moral and religious optimism. In effect, he wanted to show that science, morality and religion were not in competition.

 Williams James in his second lecture on pragmatism in 1906 provides a story that illustrates the pragmatic method. He says that he stumbled into an argument between a group of campers about a squirrel and a tree. The argument was that a man was standing by a tree with a squirrel hanging on at the other side of the tree. The issue is that the man moves around the tree but never gets to see the squirrel because the squirrel keeps moving to be opposite the man. The questions is, does the man go around the squirrel if he goes around the tree. On the one hand, he goes around the tree and the squirrel is on the tree and therefore he does, on the other hand, the fact that he never sees the squirrel means that he does not go around the squirrel.

In responding to the argument, James determines that it depends on what is meant by 'goes around'. On the one hand, the fact that the squirrel always has his belly facing the man means that he doesn't go around. But if 'goes around' means that first north of the squirrel, then east, then south then west then the man does go around the squirrel.

This seems a trivial anecdote but it is an example of the pragmatic method in practice. The pragmatic method is a way of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise seem insoluble.

Solution exists in its practical consequences.

Other classic metaphysical arguments include, do we have free will? Are there moral facts about the world that can be discovered? Are numbers real? Can we discover the world as it is.

To evaluate any of these statements, need  to trace the practical consequences. What practical difference would one notion make over another. If no practical difference then the dispute is idle.

In effect in determining if an argument can be resolved need to establish in what respect would the world be different if it were one way or another. If not then there is no practical reason to pursue the discussion.

James has applied the pragmatic question to religion and provides a more concrete and satisfying response.

Pragmatism is a theory of truth and the pragmatic method requires the need to bring out the practical cash value of a claim and set it to work in our practical experience. Therefore, pragmatism is looking away from first principles, categories etc and looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts. There are other theories of truth and I will also discuss these briefly.

The correspondence theory of truth asserts that truth statements are true if and only if the truth claim corresponds with an actual fact in the world. For this to be established it is necessary to take a Realist view of the world. For the purposes of this essay I mean by Realism that there is a world that exists independently of the mind. In effect therefore a sentence that makes a truth claim would be required to correspond with a fact in the world. For example the proposition that ‘the earth circles the sun’ would be true if and only if the earth did actually circle the sun. A ‘Gods eye view’ is required to assess these facts. This approach would allow all true propositions to be lined up with all the facts in the world. A belief in a true proposition would therefore be a correct belief. The other way of considering this theory is to state that all facts of the world can be presented as a proposition of the same structure.

Clearly therefore, truth propositions require that there be a clear idea of what the facts are. All facts require a justification. Setting the bar on justification high results in no fact being known for certain. The correspondence theory of truth therefore suffers from the attack of the sceptic. In effect who can ever be sure of what the facts are. Can we trust our senses, are the only facts, logical or mathematical facts.

There are other categories of truth claims where the correspondence theory of truth creates more fundamental justification problems for instance truth claims regarding moral beliefs, social norms or aesthetic claims. In these cases there may be no ‘fact’ of the matter that can be identified that exists in the form of an incontrovertible statement. In other words whilst we may make a claim that the earth is round (approximately at least) and there is a physical fact that supports this whether or not this is known at the time of the utterance, the claim will ultimately be proven correct. For a belief however, e.g. is there a God or it is morally wrong to have an abortion, there are no facts that may be established by science, that can back these claims. Many of these claims would stand or fall on the norms of the culture in which they are uttered. It is difficult to establish how these claims could be framed for assessment by the correspondence theory of truth.

It is out of these justification problems with truth statements that the pragmatist developed their own theories of truth. The pragmatic method effectively meant that the individual would asses the statement to see if its practical effects were good. If they were then they would take the statement as true until proved otherwise. This meant that truth was measured by its utility. By taking this approach, the pragmatist developed a view of truth that was more practical. Dewey, for example, considered truth to be warranted assertability.

To illustrate this, we currently believe that the earth does circle the sun, our ancestors would have thought otherwise and been just as convinced based on their knowledge at the time. This false belief would not have had any effect on the way they went about their daily lives and the pragmatist would be justified in saying that either view could have been taken as true at the time because there was no value in one over the other to the way humans lived their lives.

The pragmatist’s mantra is to establish what is needed for action. This by implication left many metaphysical discussions ‘empty’ because, irrespective of their truth there was no practical content in the truth claim. Pragmatism was therefore interested only in developing a method to assess truths that had practical consequences and to turn away from generalizations that did not have any practical value. In fact, for the pragmatist truths and beliefs can be used interchangeably.

The pragmatist’s genetic theory of truth is what the pragmatist counts for truth. Truth is the best assessment of the current system of knowledge knowing that it is revisable within our total set of beliefs. This is a fallibilist approach because it requires that our actions can continue as if the belief were true. This recognises that any of our beliefs can be revisable and this shouldn’t be seen as unusual and our expectation should be that belief revision is constantly occurring.

Initial critique of the pragmatic approach was based on the fact that a pragmatist would assign a truth-value to a claim that something is good for life even though it may be demonstrable false. The criteria of justification of being good for life, or having maximum utility, doesn’t guarantee that more direct analysis would show that the claim was false.

The pragmatist wouldn’t deny that beliefs may be false, but they argue that there is a discipline around how to assess truths. Peirce’s notion of scientific inquiry implies that the community has a role in validating truths. This development recognised the frustration that existed with the metaphysical discussions related to truth. In particular, how these had abstracted away from the common sense approach that, as humans, we require to make decisions and decide on actions. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution added momentum to the hypothesis that humans had an innate ability to be able to develop a belief system that maximised the species chances of survival.

Pragmatists recognise that people could not survive if they had a habit of reviewing all of their beliefs whenever some were challenged. The pragmatic concept is that we are always in the ‘middle of things’. Our beliefs are built up through the way we are educated, the society that we live in, our individual experiences and the way we use language.

There is a holistic perspective that more closely describes how humans deal with truth. In particular, whereas the correspondence theory of truth lines up propositions with facts on an individual basis, it is more realistic to consider all of our beliefs as an entire system. Whereas we may have some beliefs that may not match actual truth, it is likely that our beliefs as a whole are broadly true, or true enough for us to make the decisions we need to survive. Quine talks about this as a ‘field of force’. In effect we have a collection of beliefs, some of which are core or fundamental beliefs that we hold very strongly vs. others that are less well held and more likely to be varied. We assess all statements through the lens of our current beliefs. Using reason, if we discover that there is an inconsistency in our beliefs or some experience has meant that we need to revise the beliefs then it is in our nature to vary our beliefs to cause minimal disruption to our belief system as a whole. On this basis we are not able to assess statements on an individual basis

From a first person perspective then, we have a set of beliefs and these beliefs are justified to ourselves. The level of justification will depend on how important these beliefs are to our ability to make the judgements required to function in life. In fact, many of these fundamental beliefs will have had no justification other than just being learnt without any empirical evidence. On this basis it could be argued, as Rorty appears to, that truth is therefore just justification. This is because the criteria we use to judge truth are simply the justifications we have. In practice however there are differences in the way we use the term ‘justification’ and ‘truth’ and Price would argue that there is a norm of truth that isn’t justification but depends on how the term truth is used. Rorty would agree that there are norms of truth but that there are different uses of truth and the norms are just the level of justification. In effect, truth and justification are terms we use in discursive practices and are embedded in the community in the way we use a shared language. The concept of an ‘absolute’ truth within a correspondence theory definition is potentially just a delusion created by the way we use our language. Discussions about truth are fundamentally linked to how we use the grammar and vocabulary of language. Interestingly, this applies both to the individual and the community. From an individual perspective we use language in how we think and reflect on ideas and it is these activities that lie at the heart of how we frame our personal beliefs.

The pragmatic view of truth could be confused with the more traditional coherence theory of truth. Under this theory truths can be judged to the extent that they cohere with other truths. In the traditional context however there was still a view that there were big ‘T’ truths, ie ultimate truths. That meant that truths in the system are slowly revealed as more truths were discovered. The pragmatist’s view is that there is no requirement for an ideal set of ultimate truths.

As a complex biological animal we reassess beliefs a small number at a time. Our biological mechanism appears to favour dealing with ambiguity and falsehoods than with a life of constant scepticism. We appear to be programmed to accept statements that cohere with our stock of beliefs and will result in a ‘good’ outcome. Good in this sense is an outcome that enables us to take an action that meets a desire to improve our ability to survive.

Extending on from the discussion about beliefs and truths contemporary pragmatists including Quine also consider that we can hold beliefs about abstract concepts to the extent that this helps to explain a system of broader beliefs. These abstract concepts will have no link to experience, an example maybe a mathematic or logic system. Clearly physics and other sciences rely on the use of mathematics. These mathematical principles can be accepted under the pragmatists’ view without the need to decide if numbers, maths or logic actually exists or not. It is a useful belief because it helps with the understanding of other of our beliefs.

It is possible to extend the concept of beliefs from the first person to the broader community. The pragmatist’s have traditionally relied on the scientific method as a process to interrogate truths. Peirce initially described the process where ‘experts’ used the scientific process as a formalised construct to assess truth statements. In effect whereas James took the approach that truth was primarily an individual judgment based on empirical evidence including feelings, generally defined, it is now more evident that humans are social animals and most of our beliefs are arrived at in our role as a member of a society. In this role the society needs a mechanism to assess truths. The scientific method, rather than just science itself, was a formalised process of open community debate and peer review that enabled the broader community to assess the more significant beliefs that were held by the community.  The scientific method in a community is often linked to a democratic society where individuals are free to participate in various discourses. These societies encourage open debate and enable the community to develop a set of shared beliefs and establish norms.

Rorty in particular sees the importance of pragmatism in the evolution of philosophy. To Rorty, philosophy needs to have a moral and political agenda. This questioning of fundamental metaphysical questions at the level of the community has revealed some of the dynamics leading to the establishment of norms. As an example there has been a history of philosophical debate regarding the metaphysics of ethics. The pragmatic approach however is that there is no fundamental truth of ethics other than what an open community accepts as ethical norms. 

In this discussion I have explained the correspondence theory of truth and indicated that this provides little of use to people who need a set of beliefs to exist. The pragmatic approach to truth is to focus on the ‘cash value’ of the truth statements. Truth statements that do not contribute to any action that we make are considered abstract and are ignored. We generally accept beliefs until these are proven wrong within our total belief system. Beliefs that are challenged are reassessed with the objective of creating as little disruption as possible to our total belief system. The concept of truth is closely tied to the way we use language and a view of the big ‘T’ truth is considered as a delusion that isn’t required for the pragmatist to accept the truth of a statement. A contemporary view of truth is that an open democratic society is able to establish mechanisms to establish truth including establishing norms around ‘truth’ statements of ethics, beauty, morality etc. 


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