The Concept of Truth that Matters

The Concept of Truth that Matters

Laura E. Weed

Abstract: This paper defends James’s pragmatic theory of truth from the two most prominent theories of truth in contemporary philosophy: the post-modern deconstructionist theory and the analytic deflationary theory. I argue that truth is an important concept, which can best be understood as framed by James’s radical empiricism. Paradigmatic examples such as court testimony, sincerity and personal integrity in speech, and accuracy of description of a recalcitrant reality, as it impacts a stream of consciousness, do a much better job of framing issues related to truth than do ‘cats on mats’ or the political ramifications of ‘schizophrenia.’ I argue that this pragmatic concept of truth differs sharply from the trivial correspondence embraced by the deflationist account and the texts-mirroring-texts account espoused by the deconstructionists. I also point out that James’s conception of truth is the best for explaining discoveries about language in contemporary neuroscience.
    William James argued a century ago for a conception of truth that establishes a clear middle way between the rigid logicism of contemporary analytical philosophy and the relativity of contemporary hermeneutics and deconstructionism. James argued for a humanistic and practical conception of truth, rooted in human experience and indexed to available evidence, and the perspective of human individuals or groups. In this paper I will argue that James’s conception of truth is still the most important conception of truth for both philosophy and human life, for it stresses the humanistic conception of truth that occurs in court rooms, relationships of trust and, ultimately, in rules for integrity in science. I will argue for this position against some contemporary analytical and hermeneutical philosophers, and will claim support from contemporary results in cognitive science. But I will begin with a very brief summary of James’s pragmatic view of truth.
1. James on Truth
a. Truth and Knowledge
    James distinguished between two ways of knowing things; one could know something intuitively, in direct experience, as one sees a paper or a desk that is immediately before one’s eyes, which he described as “an all around embracing” of the object by thought, or one could know through “an outer chain of physical or mental intermediaries connecting thought and thing,” as westerners know Indian tigers.1 James held that the intuitive form of knowledge was direct apprehension, unmediated by anything, and truth for intuitive knowledge was a matter of direct consciousness in the flow of experience. For conceptual or representative knowledge, in contrast, to know that a belief was true was to “…lead to it through a context which the world supplies.” 2 2
b. Truth and Theoretical Representations of Reality
     Hence, we are not free to postulate any theories or facts we please, because the readings take place in rebus; in concrete experience, of either an immediate and intuitive kind, or of an intellectual kind apprehending processes within the ‘context which the world supplies.’ The context for developing intellectual ideas includes processes in nature, representational systems developed by preceding groups of people for characterizing nature, a social world, and relationships between the stream of consciousness and all of the above, at least. The intellectual kinds of experiences, themselves, provide a process of verification, and become part of the process of verification for future truths, as well.

…[B]eliefs at any time are so much experience funded. But the beliefs are themselves parts of the sum total of the world’s experience, and become matter, therefore, for the next day’s funding operations. So far as reality means experienceable reality, both it and the truths men gain about it are everlastingly in process of mutation—mutation towards a definite goal, it may be—but still mutation. 3

James’s metaphor comparing the value of true knowledge with the value of banking operations highlights his claim that truth must be expedient—it must be fruitful and productive. Experiences funding truths are also interactive; they can not be isolated from one another, for each tends to ‘boil over’ and affect other experiences and facts. So, theories and facts are both continually being corrected and revised to account for unforeseen consequences of other facts. James described the pragmatic theory of truth in these words.

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.

… 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. 4

So, truth, for James, was not separable from the contexts of conscious experience, interaction with processes in the surrounding world, relationships among things and ideas, and representative theories that we hold about how the world works.
    According to James, there is a ‘tight squeeze’ between theories that work and facts that substantiate theories, and are verifiable. Sometimes, two distinct interpretations are equally compatible with the facts, but usually not. The discovery of enough wayward facts will necessitate a revision or revolution in theory and new theories lead people to look for facts not previously imagined or considered. 5 7
    Thus, James’s view does not fit neatly into either a correspondence or a coherence view of truth. It is not correspondence, because the terminal points of the truth-making relation are not propositional sentences and things, but experiences in the stream of consciousness, and processes of perception, representation or validation that verify the experiences.6 And it does not fit neatly into a coherence view of truth because truth has more in common with health and wealth than it has in common with internal consistency in a logic system.7 That is, the appeal of avoiding falsehood has a regulative power that parallels the appeal of avoiding high-calorie junk food and high-interest debt. It does not have a formal, conceptual appeal, except in the select cases of necessary truths. Indeed, James ridicules the logical coherence view, that the body of all of our truths forms a logically complete and consistent schema, as an insignificant triviality.8
c. Mistakes of Rationalism
    We get the regulative notion of an ‘Absolute Truth’ towards which all of these cognitive, perceptual, representational and inter-relational processes aim, according to James, by looking backward at the history of intellectual progress and seeing how many corrections and adjustments have already taken place in our thinking about facts and theories. Euclidean Geometry, Ptolemaic Physics and Astronomy, and Scholastic Logic and Metaphysics have all been replaced through the development of new systems of fact and theories. 9
    But, if we look forward, we can make the mistake of thinking that some absolute truth is already there, in completed form, just waiting for us to catch up with it. James retorts that any new theories will have to be made, just as the present ones were. Truths emerge from facts, but they also dip forward into facts and add to them; then the new facts again create new truths.9 10
    James argues that the rationalist claim that truth has nothing to do with practical reasoning is a mistake like the ‘sentimentalist fallacy’ about morality. Kant had argued that morality was a question of abstract, universal truths learned from pure reason via a ‘categorical imperative.’ A consequence of this point of view is that acts are only moral if they follow the logical rule, and never because they are motivated by loving feelings or done because positive consequences will result. Kant claimed that only logical coherence with a categorical imperative counts in establishing morality; experience is completely irrelevant.10 11
    Against Kant, James argues that a Kantian moralist could recite all kinds of empty platitudes about justice, but could never recognize it, or its absence, if he saw it in the street. Both truth and morality have to be matters of practice in experience, or they are meaningless, according to James.11 12
d. Truth is neither ‘what makes one happy’ nor ‘confirmation.’
   Bertrand Russell attacked James’s conception of truth, as claiming merely that the true is that which has good effects. But Hilary Putnam has recently defended James from the Russellian assault, by pointing out that Russell had taken James’s position out of context, and largely misunderstood it. Putnam points out that Russell misread James’s claim that truth is expedient as meaning that whatever makes someone happy is true. In contrast, Putnam argues that James was careful to specify that different kinds of expediency applied to differing types of claims. In the case of science, expediency means predictive value, simplicity, conservation of past discoveries and coherence with life’s demands, not making one happy. 12 13
    Further, Putnam argues that James did not confuse truth and methods of confirmation, as Morton White and Martin Gardiner claimed. James saw a clear connection between confirmation and truth, but did not reduce either to the other, as Putnam explains:

To say that truth is “correspondence to reality” is not false but empty, as long as nothing is said about what the “correspondence” is. If the “correspondence” is supposed to be utterly independent of the ways in which we confirm the assertions we make (so that it is conceived to be possible that what is true is utterly different from what we are warranted in taking to be true), than the “correspondence” is an occult one and our grasp of it is equally occult. 13

Thus, for James, truth was not reducible to confirmation or to practical effects, but neither was it radically divorceable from the processes and context from which it emerges. 15
e. Why Truth is a Process, and both Experience and the Practical Results of Representations in Theories Matter.
    Contemporary analytical philosophers contrast truth with falsity, and understand truth in terms of a two-sortal T/F logic system. But small children and uneducated people who have no conception at all of two-sortal logic, nevertheless have a very clear conception of what it means to tell the truth. The operative contrast, in the practical as opposed to the technical case, is not only with falsehood, in the abstract sense, but also with lies on the one hand and mistakes on the other hand. Mistakes are errors in truth that are forgivable, correctable and inevitable consequences of human failure to be omniscient. They are relatively small failures of accuracy that might occur through excessive vagueness or inattentiveness to details. Of course, mistakes can be deadly or costly, especially if they occur in a context in which accuracy is essential, such as medical or engineering activities. For these matters, accuracy is as important as avoiding lies. James agreed about the need for accuracy in science, but rightly pointed out that there are other ranges of human activity within which, “…[N]o bell in us tolls to let us know for certain that truth is in our grasp.” 14 16
    Lies, in contrast, are deliberate, malicious attempts to deceive, defraud, or manipulate another person as a victim. The abstract conception of falsehood glosses over the differential moral and practical experiential impact of mistakes and lies, and does not admit of degrees of error, through scaling either degrees of falsehood or degrees of truth. While there may be cases in which it is difficult to tell whether ‘mistake’ or ‘lie’ better characterizes a falsehood, there are clear cases of each. And it is the clear cases of each that most matter to humans, in our everyday lives. Enron executives lied, they did not make a mistake, when they told investors to buy the tanking stock that they, themselves, were dumping. This type of falsehood is a form of inter-human manipulation and deceit that matters very much, especially to its victims. In contrast, while a mistaken claim may cause harm, the rage typically generated by deceit is at least modified, if it occurs at all. Even small children make this distinction, very clearly, and for all people, while there is an interest in avoiding mistakes, whether made by oneself or another, the interest in not being lied to or manipulated is far stronger and much more compelling. Scientists and mathematicians may equate mistakes and lies. But most people, even those who are quite lazy about avoiding mistakes or about critically analyzing information for falsehoods, will become utterly enraged when they feel that they have been manipulated or deceived. 17
    James also considered truth-seeking a form of humanistic endeavor, rooted in human life, and in this sense, also, I believe he was correct. The moral, emotional and knowledge-seeking functions of human life can not be as radically divorced from one another as the Platonism inherent in math and science sometimes misleads abstractly-oriented people to believe. As Putnam also insists, there are no fact-free values and no value-free facts.15 All mistakes, lies, and truths are bound up in personal conscious experience, processes of verification in reality, and the practical results of theorizing in people’s daily lives. Abstract, two-sortal logic utterly fails to capture the immediacy and compelling moral force of the relationship among truths, mistakes and lies. 18
    Likewise, hermeneutical over-personalizations of truth fail to capture the compelling nature of experiential, process verified truths, mistakes and lies. For, if everyone is entitled to an interpretation, and interpretations are not grounded in anything other than one’s own imagination, no classification of any claim as a truth, a mistake, or a lie, can be correct. The Enron executives merely had their perspectives, and the duped investors had their perspectives, and no moral or factual distinction between the two perspectives obtains. But, again, it matters very much in human affairs whether someone’s perspective rates as true, a mistake, or a lie. The rating system is humanist, moral, and, sometimes, legal, and this is the conception of truth that matters most. The human rights investigators on a truth-seeking mission to the scene of the alleged atrocities should be the paradigmatic instance of seeking for truth. ‘Cats on mats’ and meanings for schizophrenia are both misleading cases to take as paradigmatic. 19
    In addition to being a western humanistic conception, James’s conception of truth is also close to the Chinese humanistic conception of truth as ‘sincerity.’ While A.C. Graham has argued that Chinese has no word that corresponds to the English word ‘truth,’ in the semantic or truth-functional sense, Hall and Ames have argued that sincerity (cheng) is a pragmatic equivalent. The concept of sincerity in Chinese covers personal integrity, community responsibility, willingness to work hard to develop one’s own talents and one’s community’s potential, as well as trustworthiness, or keeping one’s word. 16 20
2. The Tarski/ Soames Formalist Conception of Truth
a. Truth is a relationship between a proposition and a metalanguage.
    Alfred Tarski is famous for articulating a conception of truth for formal languages that could circumvent some of the paradoxes of truth that beset formal conceptual and logical systems. The type of paradox that he was out to resolve is the type of paradox that results from a story like the Cretan Liar story, of Epimenedes of Knossos: A man from Crete says, “All Cretans are liars.” If one tries to articulate the truth conditions for this story, it turns out that if the statement uttered is true, the man lied, because he is a Cretan, which results in the statement being false. And if the statement uttered is false, then, not all Cretans are liars, so possibly the speaker isn’t lying, which would result in his statement being true. So, the statement is true if it’s false, and false if it’s true. A simpler version looks at a sentence like: ‘This statement is false.’ This sentence, also, is true if it is false and false if it is true. 21
    Tarski saw that the problem with such statements is that they both use and evaluate truth concepts. He realized that by banning truth-evaluating concepts like ‘true’ and ‘false’ from a language in use, and exiling them to a ‘metalanguage’ in which the language of use is discussed, but not used, he could prevent the paradoxes.17 Hence, sentences like ‘This sentence is false’ could not be used, self-referentially, to refer to themselves, but could only be used in a metalanguage to refer to other sentences in the use language, such as “my desk is brown.” 22
b. Tarski’s Truth Schema and Deflationism
     Tarski’s truth schema, T, aligns a truth claim about a sentence in a metalanguage with a proposition in an ‘object language’ in the following way:

Metalanguage sentence + truth claim: “Snow is white.” Is true, if and only if
Object language proposition: Snow is white. 18
Scott Soames characterizes Tarski’s truth schema and related conceptions of truth by Gottlob Frege, Saul Kripke, Paul Horwich, Peter Strawson and himself as deflationary accounts, because they deflate the truth of a statement to a repetition of the statement, or to a claim that the truth of a proposition is redundant on the proposition itself. Soames says that as a general type of theory covering several more specific variants, deflationism admits of some degree of vagueness. But he attributes the following general philosophical perspective on truth to deflationists:

Still, it is fairly clear what sort of thing is to be ruled out. According to deflationism, sweeping philosophically contentious doctrines about reality and our ability to know it cannot be established by analyzing the notion of truth. Examples of such doctrines are the thesis that a statement is true iff it corresponds to a mind-independent fact that makes it true, and the rival thesis that a statement is true iff it would be rational for beings like us to believe it under ideal conditions of inquiry. These are independent doctrines that cannot be derived from an analysis of truth. The doctrines are compatible with deflationist analyses of truth. However, deflationism is neutral regarding them. 19

Soames argues that, though redundant and philosophically neutral on issues such as correspondence and rationality, deflationism is “…obvious, uncontentious, and. I suspect, without substantial philosophical consequences.” 20 But shortly thereafter he ends his book with this conclusion.

Truth is a central notion, and clarifying it can be expected to improve our grasp of related logical and semantic notions while indirectly illuminating a number of broader philosophical concerns. Throughout the history of philosophy the notion of truth has occupied a corner into which all manner of problems and confusions have been swept. One may take heart from the fact that we have at last begun to dispel those confusions.21

So, truth is an empty and contentless idea that is somehow central to philosophical reasoning. And it is a philosophically neutral conception with respect to contentious positions that, nevertheless, can improve our understanding of logic and semantics and indirectly illuminate a number of broader philosophical concerns. 26
c. Deflationary Truth vs. Pragmatic Truth
    For a pragmatist, the deflationary account mis-identifies the end terms of the truth relationship as propositional entities, one in a meta-language and one in an object language, when the end terms of the truth relationship should be understood as processes, as experiences in the stream of consciousness, and processes of perception that link an active agent, or a community of active agents, to a lived world.22 To do this, the word ‘truth’ must function adjectivally to identify a heuristic that describes useful methods for identifying knowledge-seeking processes within the stream of consciousness. Like ‘health’ and ‘wealth,’ ‘truth’23 must identify the habits, practices, expectations and behavior that tend to be more likely than not to produce beliefs that are neither inaccuracies nor lies. The deflationary account of truth has no capacity to identify those truth-seeking processes. 27
    Commonly, philosophers consider the habits, practices, expectations and behaviors that I cited in the last paragraph as matters of justification, rather than matters of truth. For Aristotle, clearly these are justification issues, in JTB, which, as Gettier pointed out, can be satisfied in cases in which truth remains evasive. 24 A natural rationalistic reaction to the dilemma posed by the independence of J and T in JTB is to come to envision a world description consisting of sets of propositions that exist completely independently of any human knowledge-producing capacities. But James would agree with Putnam that:

Of course, if metaphysical realism were right, and one could view the aim of science simply as trying to get our notional world to “match” the world in itself, then one could contend that we are interested in coherence, comprehensiveness, functional simplicity and instrumental efficacy only because these are instruments to bringing about this “match.” But the notion of a transcendental “match” between our representation and the world in itself is nonsense. 25

Again, the end terms of the relationship are mis-conceived. Rationalists represent the truth of propositions as being completely isolated and unrelated to any process of verification or validation, in exactly the way that Putnam and James argue truth cannot be so isolated. The God’s eye view of reality might exist in Plato’s heaven, but James and Putnam point out that we humans don’t live there, and have no access to the God’s eye vision independently of our individual or collective human experience. We would not value the truth-functionality of any heuristics independently of the consequences of following them, and it is explicitly the fact that experiential and perceptual success occurs consequent to some behaviors that we designate the successes with the laudatory expression ’empirically true.’ On the deflationary account, truth is utterly detached from experience, perspective-less, and without practical import, which for Putnam and James implies that either it is utterly unknowable or there is no reason to value it. 29
    But more pertinently to my concerns in this paper, deflationary accounts of truth can not distinguish degrees of accuracy nor distinguish between lies and mistakes. It has nothing to do with whether Enron executives cheated investors or whether the General committed the atrocities he is accused of having committed. It is not a matter that anyone should even care about, much less become enraged over, on Soames’ account. This sterilized and epistemologically neutered view of truth may play a role in a formal logic system, but it is completely impotent to explain truth in human affairs, much less why it matters, practically and morally. 23
    Logicians like Soames, Frege, Tarski, et al., however, are at least concerned with retaining some eviscerated vestige of a Jamesian conception of truth; the notion of truth-functionality in arguments. I think the deflationary view is too thin to even retain that vestige of the notion, but at least that is the task that the logicians see themselves as undertaking. Even that vestige of truth is gone from hermeneutical approaches to philosophy. I will now turn to the hermeneutical approach to truth to show how it fares even worse than the analytical approach on the issue of truth. 30
3. Foucault and Rorty on Truth as Power
a. Truth is an expression of social power
    Michel Foucault claimed that truth does not apply to objective facts of any kind, for there is no such thing as an objective fact. Just as there is no objective relationship between a proposition and a state of affairs or fact, there is also no such thing as an objective state of experience nor as an objective process of verification. All facts are, according to Foucault, constructed from human attitudes. The goal of such construction is always the negotiation of power relations among humans. Foucault speaks of language as having three planes of differentiation within which objects can be formed, and within which discourses, or words, may appear.26 For Foucault, first, words and bits of discourse emerge from enabling social structures, which he calls the “surfaces of their emergence.”27 Then the range of things to which the socially emerged discourse will refer is specified by “authorities of delimitation” who have the social power to establish the characteristics that a type of discourse is to exemplify.28 Finally, “grids of specification” are established by the authorities of delimitation, to socially mark the relevant subcategories and relations to comparable areas of discourse that a given discourse is to carry.29 So, for Foucault, reference, thought, and the function of language in either reference or thought is exclusively and exhaustively a function of social negotiations of power among various social groups who vie for the status of ‘authorities of delimitation,’ with respect to specific areas of discourse. 31
    The only possible meaning for the word true, in such a congeries of discourses, is correct usage according to the wishes of the respective social groups or institutions who are responsible for the system of discourse. Still worse, since the meanings of all discourses are merely conventional and infinitely flexible, and each individual is free to try to alter any discourse at will, meanings in language are really subject to a global form of anarchy. What any discourse means is only a function of what the currently most powerful speaker on the scene arbitrarily wishes for it to mean at the time. Under the reign of such a global anarchy, truth becomes a completely relativistic concept, and nothing can rate as either a mistake or a lie. 32
b. Rorty’s misleading claim to be a pragmatist
    Richard Rorty considers himself a pragmatist, but from his point of view, also, language is exhaustively a matter of social conventions reflecting established power relations among individuals and institutions. Rorty writes as if his position were close to that of William James,30 but both James’s appeal to the stream of conscious experience as a source of recalcitrant psychological truth, and his appeal to processes of verification as collaborators for theoretical and learned truth are missing from Rorty’s approach to the subject. In the following passage Rorty collapses all of the terms used by pragmatists into a very Foucault-like social category as his analysis of how James’s pragmatic conception of truth in praxis works:

If all awareness is a linguistic affair, then we are never going to be aware of a word on the one hand and a thing-denuded-of-words on the other and see that the first is adequate to the second. But the very notions of ‘sign’ and ‘representation’ and ‘language’ convey the notion that we can do something like that. 31

But James clearly uses the notion of a representational theory of reality. He envisions language as connecting empirical processes of interaction between oneself and a world outside oneself, through experience as an individual stream of consciousness. In his arguments against Clifford in Will to Believe James explicitly distinguishes between scientific cases for which truth can and should wait for verification, and moral, legal, personal, and religious cases for which the costs of waiting for certainty outweigh the benefits.32 Rorty also misidentifies the pragmatist’s conception of truth, or James’s conception of truth, at any rate, in the following passage, from a discussion of Donald Davidson and Crispin Wright on the subject:

Content, pragmatists say on the basis of this argument, counts for vanishingly little in determining cognitivity, and defacto agreement on conventions for everything. That is why pragmatists think cognitivity a purely empirical, historico-social notion. But if conventions of representation can vary as blamelessly as sense of humor—or, more to the point, if the only relevant sort of blame is the sort that attaches to those who are insufficiently cooperative in achieving shared practical goals—then representationality, like convergence, is a broken reed. It is of no help in pinning down the nature of cognitivity or in offering a seriously didactic account of truth.33

But James was a physician and a scientist committed to empirical research first and foremost, who clearly considered representationality and the content of both representations and the stream of consciousness very important to determining the pragmatic conception of truth. I think that Rorty has elided ’empirical’ and ‘sociohistorical’ in the above passage to ignore the empirical stress in James’ conception of truth and replaced it with a far more Foucault-like sociohistorical concept, for which he then usurps the ‘pragmatist’ label. Likewise, Rorty runs together ‘shared practical goals,’ ‘representationality,’ and ‘convergence,’ as if all three were the same, either for pragmatists in general, or for James in particular. But James, at least, a) does not think that goals have to be socially shared to be legitimate, b) values representations, of both shared and individual types,34 and c) does not think that convergence necessarily follows from either of the other two. Indeed, James’s take on convergence would be that it is only appropriately to be expected in science, where the evidence for some claim is potentially complete. Unlike Rorty, James can clearly distinguish lies from mistakes, and truths, of both pragmatic and scientific types, from both of them. Rorty, like Foucault, cannot. I don’t think Rorty is entitled to call himself a pragmatist on the issue of truth, at least not of a Jamesian stripe. 35
c. Why claims that truth is power fail to identify the notion of truth that matters.
    On behalf of the socio-historical view of truth, however, I agree that there is an important dimension of discourse, especially political and social discourse, that is driven by power relations among groups. Foucault’s questions about who is allowed to speak and who becomes silenced by a manner of discourse are important questions for any conscientious truth-seeker to ask. In logic classes I often tell my students to look for what isn’t said in a discussion: for this may reveal more important information on the topic than what is said does. The suppressed, ignored, denied, or merely glossed over information may be more revealing of the character of the discussion than the actual words said. But I don’t think it follows from this platitude about discourse that truth is utterly unattainable, or bottomlessly murky. Indeed, the virtue of revealing the suppressed or denied pre-suppositions or pre-history of a discourse consists precisely in the cathartic value of that type of revelation in achieving a nearer proximity to the productive and useful truth. 36
    But if one limits ability to speak of the impact of a discourse to its socio-historic roots and its power relations in society, one has missed the representational dimension of language use that James considered tied to both our stream of consciousness and the empirical world. Both processes of consciousness in experience and processes in the world with which human consciousness interacts are ultimately independent of the wills or power control of humans. Both are recalcitrant, although constantly changing, facts of a reality that is in many respects, biologically, psychologically, and ontologically, independent of human wills or power-relations. We may create theoretical constructs of knowledge, but we create these conceptual constructs out of experiential data about our own and the world’s processes, which we do not create. Our own stream of consciousness and the world’s causal flow are both given to us in a recalcitrant sense that no capricious ‘will to power’ can override. The second-person, social world, and especially the types of example of coercive social roles discussed by Foucault, such as ‘homosexuality’ and ‘schizophrenia’ may well be as subject to power relations as Foucault claims. But the first-person world of the stream of consciousness, and the third-person world of science and empirical research, are not as flexible as Foucault and Rorty presume. Here, whether a representation has reality right or not matters, and matters very much. Reality will rebound and hit one in the head, if one does not deal with it honestly and realistically. And since the inner-personal, and outer social and physical worlds ultimately interrelate to one another, even the discourse text of the social world does not float freely in deconstructible imaginative space. The objectively existing unearthed tortured bodies and the testimony of the survivor of the atrocities can speak with the power of recalcitrant reality against even the dictatorial political and social power of the general who committed the atrocities. 37
    Harvey Cormier has also discussed the issue that I raised in this section of the paper, whether Putnam or Rorty is a better Jamesian, but, interestingly, Cormier concludes that Rorty is closer to James on truth issues than Putnam is. Cormier argues that Putnam, like Pierce, is still wedded to a Kantian notion of absolute truth and necessity,35 while Rorty shares with James,

…[D]efense of the individual person, individual experiences and individual freedom to act from the “vicious abstractionism” that James associated with the Hegelian view of truth.36

My disagreement with Cormier, as Putnam’s with Rorty, seems to be a matter of stress on two facets of James’s thought. Putnam and I are stressing the scientific bent in James, while Cormier and Rorty stress the individualist strain in his thought. I won’t pursue this issue now more than I already have, although it might be interesting to revisit in another paper.         I will now turn to some contemporary cognitive science, to support my argument for a Jamesian, pragmatic view of truth. 39
4. Cognitive Science returns to James’s Stream of Consciousness & Notion of Truth
a. Varela and Mangan on mental duration and the fringe in consciousness
    Although James’s Principles of Psychology remained a popular textbook for much of the twentieth century, his conceptions of how language works and how thinking takes place in a stream of thought was largely eclipsed by behaviorism in psychology37 and logicism or deconstructionism in philosophy of language. All three intellectual movements claimed to be more ‘scientific’ than James was, despite the fact that he was a clinical physician and scientific researcher in his own right. But as the twenty-first century gets underway, science is moving in a direction that James and his view of truth would find more ambient than those twentieth century movements. I will point out some research in contemporary Cognitive Science that is revealing that James was on the right track in his theories about the functioning of the brain and its relationships to thought and language production. 40
    Francisco J. Varela and Bruce Mangan have been doing research on temporal duration in phenomenal consciousness and the experience of conscious states ‘between’ the consciousness of objects or events, that they, following James, refer to as fringe consciousness. 38 Unlike reductivists, such as Daniel Dennett and Paul Churchland, who follow behaviorism to argue that all consciousness is reducible to neurological functioning which is ultimately describable in objective, third-person, scientific or syntactical language, Varela and Mangan argue that time, as experienced by humans, is deeply, pragmatically rooted in the intentionality, the emotional tone, and the dynamics of a lived life. The very conception of an object is a result of the interaction of sensations, intentions and emotions within a flow of experiential time, primed by dispositions to action.39 Varela’s studies have demonstrated that the flow of time in phenomenal consciousness is complex and non-linear, 40 and not reducible to physical-computational temporal elapse.41 Varela explains phenomenal time as follows:

Even under a cursory reduction, already provided by reflections such as those of Augustine and James, time in experience is quite a different story from a clock in linear time. To start with, it does not present itself as a linear sequence, but as having a complex texture (whence James’ ‘specious present’ is not a ‘knife-edge’ present), and its fullness is so outstanding that it dominates our existence to an important degree. In a first approximation this texture can be described as follows: There is always a centre, a now moment with a focused intentional content (say, this room with my computer in front of me on which the letters I am typing are highlighted.) This centre is bounded by a horizon or fringe that is already past. (I still hold the beginning of the sentence I just wrote) and it projects towards an intended next moment (this writing session is still unfinished.) These horizons are mobile: this very moment which was present (and hence, was not merely described but lived as such) slips towards an immediately past present. Then it plunges further out of view: I do not hold it just as immediately and I need an added depth to keep it at hand.42

What Varela calls object-events are the lived experience of an intentional focusing within this Jamesian ‘specious present’, and they produce what Varela calls a non-isomorphic neurophenomenology. A triple-braid of neuro-biological events, formal descriptive tools derived from nonlinear dynamics, and lived temporal experience, in combination, constitute his new way to describe human thinking.43 But, in its debts to James, the new phenomenological approach is a far cry from the reductivism of the recent past, especially as pursued by many analytical philosophers. Two key presumptions of the reductivist approach are rejected by Varela’s neurophenomenology: that thought consists of atomistic propositions and that a third-person behaviorist approach is adequate to explain the functioning of a mind and its thoughts. 42
    For issues related to truth, the new approach indicates that any propositional analysis, given in terms of linear mathematical or logical functions, such as Tarski’s or Soames’s, must be mistaken. The locus for the representation that will be judged true or false is not specific enough to be restricted to a propositional form. The locus of representation is dynamically spread out in time, on a continuum of which the specious present is too insubstantial a slice to provide a static propositional form. The representation itself connects a conscious experience, of a non-linear sort to a holistic world-as-experienced; so the presumption inherent in the Soames/Tarski model that an isomorphism can be drawn between two static items, whether one is a proposition and the other is a world, or a representative proposition and itself, misrepresents the nature of the human representational relationship. Further, a Jamesian “stream of thought” representation will contain many elements explicitly ruled out as psychologism by the Fregian44 Platonization of thought; emotional connections, connections by association, and intentionality, embodied relations to a moving body and its kinesthetic relations to space, time, and its environment, social expectations, and the like. The redundancy theory of truth, and its Fregian ancestry, was explicitly designed to renounce these elements of thought for the sake of constructing an abstract logic system unencumbered by human psychology. The human elements impose logical opacity, which is undesirable for a logic system, but uneliminable from representations in a stream of thought. 43
    But, because thinking involves specific processes rooted in brain chemistry, and is designed to do representative tasks directed at intentional and affective goals, truth is not a deconstructible free-floater, either. Someone’s thoughts and feelings must be tied to their biochemistry, representational capacity, and motives, in important, specific ways. Contemporary cognitive science is also pointing out how brain biology imposes limits on what theorists can claim for human capacities, whether the capacities are ethical, psychological, or epistemological. 44
    For example, the studies of the brain damage of Phineas Gage have revealed that ethical reasoning is rooted in the ventro-medial pre-frontal region of the brain,45 and is essentially connected with capacity to show emotional valence. Antonio Damasio claims, “The immune system, the hypothalamus, the ventro-medial frontal cortices and the Bill of Rights have the same root cause.” 46 Since this is the last section of the brain to develop, and is not fully developed until 21 years of age, cognitive science is indicating that holding young teens fully morally accountable may be unreasonable. It seems likely in light of contemporary studies of the brain that epistemological theories like Plato’s,47 which claimed that reasoning improved when emotions were suppressed or transcended, were equally unrealistic. Damasio has shown that an emotionless person is one who can not think or plan at all, not one with clearer and more pure reasoning. 45
    Bruce Mangan explains that the various threads of Varela’s braid can be thought of as various types of restraints and limits on what consciousness can do to focus intentionality. He discusses these constraints and limitations in the following terms:

What then is the operative limitation on the trade-offs in consciousness? At this point the answer should be evident: Articulation capacity. At the deepest level consciousness IS the limited but infinitely plastic capacity to articulate experience. This overall capacity is conserved during a large number of phenomenological transformations. Normally, when something becomes clear, something else becomes vague—the sum of total articulation remains more or less constant. 48

So, intentionality, biology and representational capacity all aim in a specific direction; that is, the direction of articulating experience arising within a stream of consciousness. This is neither a free-floating imaginative capacity, nor a deterministic rule ordered mechanism, but rather is a multiply constrained set of specific processes directed at articulating the human experiences from which they arose. So, in this sense, truth is very personal, and a product of consciousness. But it is not a result of capricious willfulness, imagination or power seeking, nor a mechanistic result of brain chemistry, as understood in behavioristic reductivism. 47
    Varela et al., do not discuss the processes in the world that would provide the context for mind-independent truth. But since the Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics presumed to be true of the mind is so undermined by their research, we might presume it will vanish from the context and environment of thought as well. And, indeed, Lakoff and Johnson argue that it does. 48
b. Lakoff and Johnson on processes in embodied consciousness and truth
    George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have recently pointed out that both the analytical notion of truth as correspondence between a proposition and an externally existing, independent reality and the hermeneutical notion of truth as a construction of a free-floating imagination depend on the Cartesian conception of a mind as a disembodied entity. Descartes, of course, was recycling some very Platonic and Aristotelian ideas of pure spirit or form, polluted matter, and mechanical causation. Since contemporary cognitive science has shown how dependent on the structure and function of our brains and the processes in the world our knowledge is, Lakoff and Johnson argue that both the scientistic realism and the postmodern anti-realism of 20th century philosophy have been empirically discredited. They present their view of embodied realism, which looks quite Jamesian, in this way:

Since embodied realism denies, on empirical grounds, that there exists one and only one correct description of the world, it may appear to some to be a form of relativism. However, while it does treat knowledge as relative—relative to the nature of our bodies, brains and interactions with our environment—it is not a form of extreme relativism because it has an account of how real, stable knowledge, both in science and in the everyday world, is possible. That account has two aspects. First there are the directly embodied concepts such as basic level concepts, spatial relation concepts and event-structure concepts. These concepts have an evolutionary origin and enable us to function extremely successfully in our everyday interactions with the world. They also form the basis for our stable scientific knowledge.

Second, primary metaphors make possible the extension of these embodied concepts into abstract theoretical domains. The primary metaphors are anything but arbitrary social constructs, since they are highly constrained both by the nature of our bodies and brains and by the reality of our daily interactions. 49

In the Lakoff and Johnson view of knowledge, as on James’ view, conscious processes in an active, dynamic mind interact with a dynamic and changing environment, so there is nothing static on either end of the knower-known relationship that could be the terminal points for a correspondence relationship. Further, since they claim that truth is situational and depends on a person’s understanding of the situation,50 there is a strong need for understanding of the perspectives of various individuals and groups to understand what is true. 50
    Much of what drives the perspectives in thought, for Lakoff and Johnson, are embodied metaphors, many of which operate at a sub-conscious level. The authors argue that metaphorical thinking is basic in reasoning, and most abstract thought is built on these basic, embodied metaphors. Logic is wholly inadequate to capture the embodied nature of thought because it rejects the basic metaphorical structure on which most thought is built. Their conclusions about the basic nature of human truth are:

Reason and our conceptual structure are shaped by our bodies, brains, and modes of functioning in the world. Reason and concepts are therefore, not transcendent… Much of everyday metaphysics arises from metaphor. 51

So, for these authors, as for Varela and Shear, language does not even have the structure it would need to have to be the type of thing that either analytical philosophers or post-modern philosophers describe it as being. Rather, language is a tool for understanding that emerges from a stream of consciousness, which is characterizable as having certain functional psychological constraints. The relationship of language to the world is that processes in the world seem describable by certain apt metaphors and projections of psychological processes, and empirical reiteration and study of these relations over time reinforces the value of some, which become established as scientific truths, while discounting the aptness or usefulness of other metaphorical or projected understandings, which are then discarded as counter-productive. Both individuals and society as a whole go through these learning processes. 52
5. Conclusion: Truth, Consciousness and Reality
    In this paper I have given a brief summary of James’s conception of truth, and shown how many of James’s key themes, such as the process-oriented aspects of truth, the dynamic and changing aspects of truth, its perspectival nature, and its rootedness in human consciousness, emotions, life and practical goals, are reflected in contemporary Cognitive Science, especially as articulated by Varela, Mangan, Lakoff and Johnson and Damasio. 53
    I have argued that the deflationist view of truth in contemporary analytical philosophy can not capture the meaning of truth because it has cut its materials too thin in restricting considerations related to truth to very narrowly conceived logical considerations concerning propositions, and by shutting itself off from experience of the emotional and intentional aspects of a lived life. And I have argued that the socio-historical view of truth espoused by Foucault, Rorty and other hermeneutical philosophers cannot capture the meaning of truth because they do not consider the roles of a) stable functions of consciousness, and b) practical interactions with a recalcitrantly existent environment, in their considerations of the nature of truth. While James did not have all of what we need for a complete analysis of truth, he was on the right track. Cognitive science is learning from James, as one can see in references to his work in a wide variety of contemporary theorists. In addition to the ones that I have already mentioned, Bernard Baars is also relying heavily on James as a resource.52 James’s theories of truth could also be used to a greater extent than they currently are to clear up confusions that abound in Philosophy of Language. James had the concept of truth that matters. 54
Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies
The College of St. Rose


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1 William James, “The Tigers of India,” in Pragmatism and Four Essays from the Meaning of Truth, New American Library, New York, 1974, (reprint of Pragmatism 1907 and The Meaning of Truth 1909), p.227.

2 Ibid. author’s emphasis.

3 William James, “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth”, in The Works of William James, Pragmatism, eds. Fredson Bowers & Ignas Skrupskelis, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1975, p. 107.

4 Ibid., p. 97.

5 Ibid., p. 104.

6 William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 1, Dover Publications, Mineola, NY, (Holt and Company, 1890) p. 240.

7 “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth,” p. 104.

8 Ibid., p. 109.

9 Ibid., p. 108.

10 Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis W. Beck, Bobbs-Merrill Co. Indianapolis, IN, 1959, p. 34.

11 “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth,” p. 110.

12 Hilary Putnam, Pragmatism, Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge, MA, 1995 p. 8-10.

13 Ibid. p. 10 (author’s emphasis)

14 William James, The Will to Believe, in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, Longmans, Green and Co. New York, NY, 1903, p. 30

15 See Hilary Putnam, “Fact and Value”, Chap. 6 in Reason, Truth and History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1981.

16 David L Hall, and Roger T Ames, Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1998, p. 162-163.

17 Jay L. Garfield, and Murray Kiteley, eds., Meaning and Truth, Paragon Issues in Philosophy, Paragon House, NY, 1991, p. 53.

18 Ibid., p.73.

19 Scott Soames, Understanding Truth, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1999 p. 231.

20 Ibid., p. 255.

21 Ibid.

22 William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 1, Dover Publications, Mineola, NY, (Holt and Company, 1890) p. 240.

23 “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth,” p. 104.

24 Gettier, Edmund, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” Analysis v. 23, 1963, p. 121-123. Many thanks to a blind reviewer of William James Studies for pointing out the need for this discussion in this paper.

25 Hilary Putnam, “Fact and Value,” reprinted in Pragmatism, a Reader, ed. Louis Menand, Vintage Press, Random House, NY, 1997, p. 345.

26 Michel Foucault, “The Formation of Objects” in The Archeology of Knowledge, and the Discourse on Language trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith, Pantheon Books, NY, 1972, p. 40.

27 Ibid., p. 41.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., p. 42.

30 Rorty, Richard, “Is Truth a Goal of Inquiry? Donald Davidson vs. Crispin Wright,” in Lynch, Michael P., ed., The Nature of Truth, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge MA, 2001p. 260.

31Richard Rorty, “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing: An Essay on Derrida” in Pragmatism, a Reader, ed. Louis Menand, p. 316-317.

32 William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, Longmans, Green and Co. New York, NY, 1903, pgs. 25-26

33 Rorty, Richard, “Is Truth a Goal of Inquiry? Donald Davidson vs. Crispin Wright,” in Lynch, p. 271-272

34 See, for example, James’ treatment of individual experiences and their representations in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

35 Harvey Cormier, The Truth is What Works, William James, Pragmatism and the Seed of Death, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Maryland, 2001, p. 149.

36 Ibid., p.159.

37 See Eugene Taylor, William James on Consciousness beyond the Margin, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1996 for an insightful history of how James’ philosophy and psychology were marginalized by behaviorism in the twentieth century.

38 Francisco Varela, and Jonathan Shear, (eds.) The View From Within, First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness, Imprint Academic, UK, 1999 pgs. 11-140 and 249-252.

39 Ibid., p. 125.

40 Ibid., p. 128.

41 Ibid., p. 112.

42 Ibid., p. 112-113.

43 Ibid., p. 137.

44 See Gottlob Frege, “On Sense and Nominatum” in Garfield and Kitely p. 35 f.

45 Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes’ Error, Quill/Harper Collins Books, 1994, pgs. 8-10 and 32.

46 Ibid., p.263.

47 Plato, The Theatetus, and the Phaedo, in Plato, the Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1973.

48 Bruce Mangan, “The Fringe, a Case Study in Explanatory Phenomenology,” in Shear and Varela, p. 251.

49 George Lakoff, and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, Basic Books, Perseus Book Group, New York, NY, 1999 p. 96.

50 Ibid., p. 102.

51 Ibid., p. 128.

52Baars led a seminar on James’ psychology at Tucson 2006, Toward a Science of Consciousness at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and has devised a web course on James.


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