Jamesian Truth: Comments on Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy

Jamesian Truth: Comments on Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy

John Capps

    Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy does a great service to both James and his readers. First of all, she’s untangled many of the threads that run through James’ work. She provides a sense of order, and a level of explanation, that is otherwise missing in James. Second, she’s made a forceful argument for a radically new approach to philosophy, one that she finds implicit in James even though he did not always seem prepared to accept it himself. This is a philosophical approach that emphasizes context and concrete, lived experience as opposed to the artificial certainties of empiricism and rationalism. Of course, Siegfried’s argument isn’t merely historical: in presenting this picture of James’ philosophy she is suggesting that contemporary philosophers would do well to follow James’ lead.
    For this reason I’d like to focus on one of the chapters I find most stimulating: the chapter simply entitled “Truth.” Of course, James’ theory of truth is a frequent object of attack.1 For example, whenever one wants to refute the pragmatic theory of truth, it is usually James’ version that comes under attack. Evidently, it’s all too easy, or too tempting, to argue against James’ apparent equation of truth with utility. (Even fans of James cringe when he writes of true beliefs: “you can say of it then either that ‘it is useful because it is true’ or that ‘it is true because it is useful.'”) So at the very least it’s refreshing to see James’ theory of truth explained and defended. In addition, it’s especially refreshing when we consider the current debate on truth: despite the continuing debate between and within various theories of truth (correspondence, minimalism, deflationism, etc.), and over the existence and nature of truth-makers, the pragmatic theory is rarely, if ever, discussed.
     To give some background, Seigfried defends James’ theory of truth by first pointing to the shortcomings of the correspondence theory of truth. As James argued, the correspondence theory only works in a limited number of circumstances: beyond a few clear paradigm cases it becomes increasingly difficult to understand either the details of the correspondence relationship or what, exactly, it is that corresponds to true beliefs. Instead, as Seigfried writes, “the pragmatist�does not ask with what true ideas agree but what concrete difference in actual life an idea’s being true will make” (293-294). The project is not so much to give a definition of the term “truth,” but instead to describe the function that this concept plays in our discourse.2
    From this standpoint “truth” is a term used to describe those beliefs that are capable of reliably guiding action to an expected outcome. We call a belief true when it successfully leads us to an anticipated experience. For example, my belief that there will be a full moon on the 30th of this month counts as true when, sure enough, I look at the sky that night and see a full moon. When that happens, we can certainly say this belief is now true, but we are naturally tempted to wonder if this belief was true a few weeks ago, when I first wrote these words. As I read James and Seigfried, it would not, strictly speaking, be correct to say that this belief was true until it is actually verified. Of course, there’s not much harm, in the abstract, in saying that a belief is true in advance of its verification: ordinarily, it would simply be a gesture of linguistic courtesy to call such a belief true even though it has not yet been verified. But that’s not to say that there’s no harm in saying this. 4
    Seigfried and James do argue that quite a bit of harm can be done when it is forgotten that calling an unverified belief true is just an act of courtesy. Doing this is to forget that truth depends primarily on the connections between a particular belief, a course of action, and an experience. When that connection is forgotten, or given second status, then it is all too easy to treat truth as an abstract, timeless relationship between a proposition and some state of affairs. Treating truth as a timeless, abstract relationship raises all sorts of philosophical and practical problems which Seigfried and James suggest are best resolved by reconstructing philosophy along new lines. 5
    I think James’ critique of the correspondence theory of truth is correct as far as it goes. But I also want to say a few words on his behalf against those who would argue that he has not gone far enough. By doing so I hope to add to the case that Seigfried has already made. I also hope that these comments will contribute to the project of reconstructing philosophy that both James and Seigfried endorse.
    Many philosophers would agree with James that the correspondence theory is unworkable. But some of these philosophers would also argue that an even more minimal theory of truth is called for. Some of these philosophers, such as Quine, endorse disquotationalism (as summed up in the Tarski schema “‘p’ is true iff p”).3 The advantage of disquotationalism is that it seems to be the sort of theory that no one can disagree with (besides certain technical problems which don’t concern us here). But it’s not the most illuminating theory of truth, either, hence the temptation to make additions to it. Correspondence theorists, for example, might say that disquotationalism tells us what “truth” means, but this needs to be supplemented with an account of what makes a statement true: and this, of course, is where correspondence comes in.
    I want to make a different point. While I see nothing wrong with disquotationalism, it also leaves important questions unasked and unanswered. In particular, it leaves us with an overly narrow understanding of why truth matters: in other words, that is, the importance of the concept of truth goes beyond its function in permitting “semantic ascent.” Here it’s worth returning to an important pragmatic (and Jamesian) question: what function does this word have in our discourse? What are we able to do with this word that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise? Looking at this from James’ perspective, it’s clear that calling a belief true stresses its connection to concrete experience. To say that a belief is true is to say that it has significance, that it is important, that it is reliable, and that it has proven itself in experience. If we didn’t have the word “true” we would have to invent some other term to pick out those beliefs that have demonstrated their value in these ways. Simply put, the truth matters, and it matters in ways that minimalist theories cannot obviously capture.4
    Here’s another way of reaching the same conclusion: while it might be the case that disquotationalism tells us, in some narrow sense, what truth means, it obviously doesn’t tell us how to distinguish true beliefs from false. That is, it doesn’t provide us with a criterion of truth. In contrast, it’s a strength of James’ approach that his theory of truth is specifically oriented around this question. Because, according to James, the key to understanding the concept of truth lies in its practical consequences, or in the connection between a true belief and concrete experience, it also follows that an adequate theory of truth will provide us with a basis for distinguishing true beliefs from false beliefs. 9
    Before moving on, though, I’d like to make one further point. One of the virtues of disquotationalism is that it sets no a priori boundaries on what sorts of statements can be true or false. Thus, disquotationalism is compatible with cognitivism in ethics: according to the disquotationalist it is obvious that ethical statements can be true or false since, after all, to say that it is true that “telling lies is wrong” is simply to say that “telling lies is wrong.” So, ironically, while disquotationalism permits ethical statements to have truth values, it fails to explain why we would care that these statements are true. This is a point I will return to shortly. 10
    Seigfried writes that James’ theory is so revolutionary that “his new wine bursts the old bottles” (294). I think that’s correct, and it leads to another point that is worth emphasizing: to the extent that James provides a criterion of truth he thereby avoids stating, in any deep sense, what makes a belief true. That is, he completely bypasses the contemporary question of “truth makers.”5 That he does so is, I think, entirely to his credit. To begin with, as James was well aware, it is notoriously difficult to specify truth makers for the wide range of statements we normally take to be either true or false. The normal candidates for truth-makers—facts and things—aren’t readily available when we say, for example, that it is true that one should not lie. While there are moral truths, it isn’t at all clear that there are moral facts.6 Worse, the absence of moral truth makers, or at least the difficulty of identifying such a class of truth makers, can lead to the regrettable tendency to doubt whether moral statements can be true or false, which in turn leads to a kind of moral skepticism regarding the point of moral discourse in general. For James, concerned as always with the practical implications of a philosophical theory, such an outcome would be catastrophic. 11
    Earlier I mentioned that one of the virtues of disquotationalism was its compatibility with cognitivism. The same is true of James’ theory. Because he does not attempt to specify those facts or things that make a statement true, he is able to preserve the common sense intuition that ethical statements are true or false. But is he justified in bypassing the question of truth-makers? I think he is, for the following reasons. 12
   First, it’s very difficult to identify truth-makers while staying within James’ concrete perspective. To use an example of Terence Horgan’s, what makes it true that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has four movements?7 It isn’t as if Beethoven’s Fifth exists as a discrete object in the same way that a table exists; likewise, attempting to identify Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with its many performances quickly becomes metaphysically inflationary. 13
    The second reason James is right to bypass truth-makers is that, as he was well aware, once we begin to identify possible truth makers in a particular context, the list quickly becomes unmanageable. To take an example, what makes it true that the best way from New York to Philadelphia is via the New Jersey Turnpike? Certainly, in some general sense, it is the world that makes this true: that New York and Philadelphia are located where they are and that there is a twelve lane superhighway that (sort of) connects them. If the New Jersey Turnpike didn’t exist, then obviously this statement would be false. But there are myriad other factors that we would also have to mention. One is our semantic norms: what we mean by “New Jersey Turnpike,” etc. Another factor, which James stresses, is that this is a statement that has been verified, and it has been verified because it matters to people how to get from New York to Philadelphia. In this light, part of what makes it true that the Turnpike is the best way from New York to Philadelphia is simply that people care enough to look into it. In contrast, I’d hazard that there’s no best way from, say, Banner, Mississippi to Helmer, Idaho (to take two towns at random) because this isn’t, I would guess, the sort of thing anyone has ever cared enough about. Finally, we also need to remember that what makes the Turnpike the best route depends partly on one’s goals. If one wants to make the best time then, at least ideally, the Turnpike is the best route. But if one instead wants to take a scenic route then the Turnpike is definitely not the best. Likewise if one want to travel from New York to Philadelphia by way of Graceland or Yosemite National Park. Obviously, the project of identifying truth makers can quickly spin out of control, in which case it isn’t clear how this helps us understand whether a particular statement is true or false.8 It’s much more straightforward to forego talk of truth-makers entirely and instead rely on James’ account that truth is primarily defined by the instrumental role that true beliefs play in guiding behavior. 14
    As always, these points come into clearer focus when we consider the role that normative statements play in our discourse and in our lives. It’s an odd fact that, when philosophers discuss the concept of truth, they normally do so in relation to descriptive physical object statements: statements like “snow is white,” “grass is green,” or “this ball is red.” The danger is that, by starting with statements like these, the resulting theory of truth will have difficulty with more practical (and moral) statements such as “one shouldn’t violate the Constitution for political gain.” I think it is an advantage of James’ approach that such practical and moral concerns are never far from his attention: as Seigfried shows, he was consistently motivated to develop a philosophy which would address a person’s real crises, which typically take a moral form, and to do so through an appeal to concrete experience. 15
    Let me then sum up. In these few pages I hope to have added to Seigfried’s defense of James’ theory of truth. What stands out, I believe, is how a Jamesian theory keeps the question of truth’s importance front and center: for James, the primary question is the function of this concept. In focusing on this question, a Jamesian theory not only bypasses correspondence theories, but it also goes beyond disquotationalism (and similar minimal theories) and, finally, questions the value of identifying substantive truth-makers for true statements. Bound up with this approach is a deep sensitivity, and commitment, to practical and moral issues: in fact, it could well be argued that this is exactly what motivates James to take the approach he does. As Seigfried argues, James’ commitment to “the unresolvable tensions at the center of being human” (394), points in the direction of a radically different, and profoundly necessary, direction for philosophy. 16
Rochester Institute of Technology


1 A typical critique of the pragmatic theory of truth can be found in Frederick Schmitt’s Truth: A Primer (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995). For a sympathetic and insightful discussion of James see Harvey Cormier The Truth is What Works (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000).

2 Cheryl Misak makes a similar point in her updating of Peirce’s theory of truth. The goal is not to give an analytic definition of the concept of truth in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions for a propositions being true. Instead, she proposes a “pragmatic elucidation” of the concept of truth which describes the consequences of calling a belief true (Truth Politics, Morality: Pragmatism and Deliberation (New York, Routledge, 2000), pp. 58-9).

3 For more on disquotationalism see Hartry Field’s Truth and the Absence of Fact (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). Paul Horwich’s “minimal” or “deflationary” theory is a close cousin to disquotationalism (Truth, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)).

4 Michael Lynch has also addressed this issue in True to Life: Why Truth Matters (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2004).

5 D.M. Armstrong’s Truth and Truthmakers defends the concept of truthmakers by working out the implications for a wide range of statements including negative, modal, and general truths (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

6 I have in mind here the argument given by Mark Timmons in Morality Without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), especially Chapter 4.

7 Timmons, op. cit., refers to this example on pp. 118-119.

8 I would argue that this is especially the case when the truths in question have an explicitly normative dimension: the best route, the wrong act, etc. It’s noteworthy in this regard that Armstrong (see note 5 above) does not tackle these sorts of truths. James, I believe, would argue that these are actually the most important and most interesting.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.