Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Pragmatist Meaning of Truth

While it was C. S. Peirce who first formulated pragmatism, it was William James who popularized it. For James, pragmatism was not a way of fixing our beliefs cognitively—it is a way of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. He basically believed that truth is that which works, and there is no such thing as objective truth.

Here’s an excerpt from William James’s 1904 lecture, “What Pragmatism Means” (2nd lecture in his book, Pragmatism):

"The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?—fated or free?—material or spiritual?—here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other's being right.”

Further, he says:

“A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant and the rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretence of finality in truth.”

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