Truth, pragmatic theory of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N061-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

2. Instrumentalism

William James always claimed to accept the definition of truth embodied in correspondence theories of truth, namely that a true belief or statement is one that ‘agrees with reality’ (see James, W. §5). But, for James, the reality to which true ideas must agree is mind-dependent: ‘By “reality” humanism [one of James’s names for his philosophy] means nothing more than the other conceptual or perceptual experiences with which a given present experience may find itself in point of fact mixed up’. And, ‘we are not required to seek [truth] in a relation of experience as such to anything beyond itself’. And, ‘reality is an accumulation of our own intellectual inventions’. These inventions include ‘the notions of one Time and of one Space as single continuous receptacles; the distinction between thoughts and things, matter and mind; between permanent subjects and changing attributes; the conception of classes with sub-classes within them; the separation of fortuitous from regularly caused connexions’. Unlike Kant, however, James does not think that these constructs are built into our minds. Rather, these constructs are inventions of our ancestors. They made the world this way, by so conceiving of it. Why did they choose to structure the world with these features and not some other features? James’s answer is that they found it more useful to organize the world in this manner. The last quotation continues:

surely all these were once definite conquests made… by our ancestors in their attempts to get the chaos of their crude individual experiences into a more shareable and manageable shape. They proved of such sovereign use as denkmittel [instruments of thought] that they are now a part of the very structure of our mind.

(James 1909: 42)

James also wants to give the word ‘agree’, in the phrase ‘agrees with reality’, a different sense from the typical correspondence theorist. Given that reality is just useful mental constructs of the collection of past and present minds, a belief agrees with reality by proving useful to those who believe it. The examples James offers suggest that useful beliefs are those which: (1) enable us to manipulate the objects of the world; (2) allow us to communicate successfully with our fellows; (3) provide good explanations for other occurrences; and (4) lead to accurate predictions.

It should be kept in mind, if for no other reason than to forestall overly facile counterexamples, that James identifies truth with beliefs that are useful over the long run and all things considered:

‘“The true”, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as “the right” is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight will not necessarily meet all farther experiences equally satisfactorily’

(James 1907: 106)

Still, opponents of instrumentalism would insist, it might be useful throughout a person’s life for them to believe that they are better at their job than anyone else (because, for example, the increased confidence it gives them pays huge dividends.) And this can be the case even if they are not in fact better at their job than anyone else. James, however, denied that there can be any cases in which the truth and the facts are disjoint, and the reason for his denial lies in his ontology: if the facts are themselves just mental constructs which have proved useful, then there cannot be a case of a useful belief that does not agree with the facts.

So, both Peirce and James can happily accept what have been called ‘T-sentences’ – sentences of the form ‘"p is true" if and only if p’. But for both of them, this coordination of truth and reality is itself an incidental side effect which distracts from, rather than reveals, the essential nature of truth.

Citing this article:
Kirkham, Richard L.. Instrumentalism. Truth, pragmatic theory of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N061-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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