William James. “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth”. Lecture 6 in Pragmatism: A new name for some old ways of thinking. New York: Longman Green and Co (1907): 76-79 of 91
Pragmatism | William James | truth | stages of ideas
Classic stages of a theory
(77) the classic stages of a theory’s career.
First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd;
then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant;
finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.
A Pragmatist doctrine of Truth
(77) Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their ‘agreement,’ as falsity means their disagreement, with ‘reality.’ Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a matter of course. They begin to quarrel only after the question is raised as to what may precisely be meant by the term ‘agreement,’ and what by the term ‘reality,’ when reality is taken as something for our ideas to agree with.
The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it.
the great assumption of the intellectualists is that truth means essentially an inert static relation. When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter. You’re in possession; you know; you have fulfilled your thinking destiny. You are where you ought to be mentally; you have obeyed your categorical imperative; and nothing more need follow on that climax of your rational destiny.
Epistemologically you are in stable equilibrium.
Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says; “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life?
How will the truth be realized?
What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”
The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer:
True ideas are those that 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.
(78) This thesis is what I have to defend.
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 veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its valid-ation.
… the possession of true thoughts means everywhere the possession of invaluable instruments of action; and that our duty to gain truth, so far from being a blank command from out of the blue, or a ‘stunt’ self-imposed by our intellect, can account for itself by excellent practical reasons.
The importance to human life of having true beliefs about matters of fact is a thing too notorious.
We live in a world of realities that can be infinitely useful or infinitely harmful.
Ideas that tell us which of them to expect count as the true ideas in all this primary sphere of verification, and the pursuit of such ideas is a primary human duty.
The possession of truth, so far from being here an end in itself, is only a preliminary means towards other vital satisfactions.
If I am lost in the woods and starved, and find what looks like a cow-path, it is of the utmost importance that I should think of a human habitation at the end of it, for if I do so and follow it, I save myself. The true thought is useful here because the house which is its object is useful.
The practical value of true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us. Their objects are, indeed, not important at all times.
I may on another occasion have no use for the house; and then my idea of it, however verifiable, will be practically irrelevant, and had better remain latent. Yet since almost any object may some day become temporarily important, the advantage of having a general stock of extra truths, of ideas that shall be true of merely possible situations, is obvious. We store such extra truths away in our memories, and with the overflow we fill our books of reference.
(79) Whenever such an extra truth becomes practically relevant to one of our emergencies, it passes from cold-storage to do work in the world, and our belief in it grows active.
You can say of it then either that ‘it is useful because it is true’ or that ‘it is true because it is useful!
Both these phrases mean exactly the same thing, namely that here is an idea that gets fulfilled and can be verified.
True is the name for whatever idea starts the verification-process, useful is the name for its completed function in experience.
True ideas would never have been singled out as such, would never have acquired a class-name, least of all a name suggesting value, unless they had been useful from the outset in this way.
From this simple cue pragmatism gets her general notion of truth as something essentially bound up with the way in which one moment in our experience may lead us towards other moments which it will be worth while to have been led to.
Primarily, and on the common-sense level, the truth of a state of mind means this function of a leading that is worth while.
When a moment in our experience, of any kind whatever, inspires us with a thought that is true, that means that sooner or later we dip by that thought’s guidance into the particulars of experience again and make advantageous connexion with them.
This is a vague enough statement, but I beg you to retain it, for it is essential.