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Truth, pragmatic theory of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N061-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2022
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Bertrand Russell referred to the theory of truth as pragmatism’s ‘cardinal point’ (Russell 1994 [1910]). While having a distinctive view of truth has been a pragmatist calling card for over a century, there are actually different views of truth marching together under the banner of pragmatism. Disambiguating these views and considering their reception provides some insight into the permeable but persistent boundary between pragmatism and neo-pragmatism.

What pragmatist conceptions of truth have in common is that they take their direction from the pragmatic maxim, first articulated by Charles Sanders Peirce in 1878: ‘Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object’ (Peirce 1931–58 (hereafter CP): vol.5.§402). A later expression of the maxim, also from Peirce, exhorts us to ‘look to the upshot of our concepts in order to rightly apprehend them’ (CP 5.3). While the first expression of the pragmatic maxim seems to suggest that there is nothing more to our concepts than is revealed in their ‘effects’, the latter does not make this exclusive claim – and thus it is not surprising that one way in which pragmatist accounts of truth differ is precisely concerning whether there is more to say about truth beyond its pragmatic dimension.

The pragmatic maxim applied to the concept of truth has yielded at least two different accounts: Peirce’s pragmaticism and the instrumentalist view usually associated with William James. John Dewey’s account of warranted assertibility plausibly constitutes a third, though it might be considered an extension of instrumentalism.

The pragmatist approaches to truth developed by Peirce, James, and Dewey have had a lasting influence on Anglo-American philosophy. The subtle but real differences between the three views presented are often elided in attempts to present a simple and unified position as the pragmatist theory of truth. But what pragmatist theories of truth have in common is rather method, what Misak has called the ‘distinctively pragmatic enterprise […] of exploring truth’s role in assertion, belief, and inquiry’ (2004 [1991]: viii).

The classical pragmatists’ sustained engagement with the place of truth in philosophy and in human life has proved to be fertile ground. It provided inspiration for philosophers interested in humanistic accounts of meaning following the linguistic turn of the mid-twentieth century, as well as for those interested in an account of the domain of ethics that emphasizes human fallibilism and the social nexus of inquiry.

Citing this article:
Heney, Diana Beverly. Truth, pragmatic theory of, 2022, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N061-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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