Is Pragmatism True Pragmatically?

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In today’s court of philosophy, the pragmatism of William James holds a quiet but respectable place, and the pragmatic method is well-recognized as a legitimate epistemological tool. But far less accepted, or acceptable, is the theory that pragmatism espouses as to the nature and function of truth. Pragmatic truth is a seemingly-unusual concept that sits poorly with many, particularly anyone wearing the colors of a realist.

The easiest objection such a realist can make is that pragmatism’s view of truth is false, in the sense that it does not adequately describe what “truth” is (although it may or may not describe a different useful concept). This is, of course, little more than quibbling over definitions; realists may define it one way and pragmatists another, and they can merrily fight it out over beers. The trouble is that we are essentially asking whether or not a definition of truth is true—obviously a circular endeavor.

So, let us pass over the question of whether pragmatism is false by realist standards; it may or may not be, but that game is of little interest. A much more worthwhile question emits from the reverse side: is pragmatism true by pragmatic standards? That is, does the pragmatic theory of truth, when actually applied, bear out stronger under its own criteria than alternative theories—particularly the realist one? It is assumed so, just as it is assumed that all systems, to the extent that they self-refer, do so approvingly; but there is some question as to whether pragmatism might not fail here. If it does fail, then it seems it must be certainly a loser, because in that case it is of questionable merit no matter in what light it is viewed.

That is the issue I mean to explore here. First we will have to decide and agree upon what pragmatic truth really is, at least for James, and this will take some doing, because between the man’s own somewhat haphazard style and the obfuscations of the critics, the way is murky. After this, we will apply our new-found epistemological theory to several hypothetical cases of truth-seeking, and after all the chips are down we will decide whether it has availed us any better than a classically realist approach would have—under the truth-criteria provided by pragmatism itself.

Truth, Pragmatically Speaking

Reality exists. This is an important starting point, as any theory which countenances skepticism tends to have trouble getting any further. So both realists and pragmatists recognize this fact—there is an objective world of objects and relations, and it is perceivable to us.

What, then, is truth? When we speak of truth, it probably means something like a certain relationship between the aforementioned reality and ideas that we have in our heads. Anyone would agree that when an idea “accurately represents reality,” in that it portrays it correctly, or resembles it, it is true. The trouble here is that it is far from clear just what is meant by an idea—something in our head—resembling, say, a bar-stool. If the stool is brown, is the idea brown? That seems nonsensical (1). Perhaps in some cases we can get on with a sort of intuitive matching between the content of our ideas and their target, less formally-defined than simply naturalistic, but this fails too when we try to handle objects of any complexity, or even simpler things whose “facts” could be quibbled with (2).

So the question of truth is simply the question: what criterion will we use in order to determine whether a certain idea-to-reality relationship is the “true” kind, or whether it is another kind?

The answer I will present here is my understanding of James’s ideas, and will not be uncontroversial, as he is readily misunderstood; however, it is certainly close to an accurate representation, and if it deviates from others it probably does so only in its specific construction and emphasis.

The underlying pragmatic method essentially asks “what difference does it make?” (3) This being pragmatism, the question must be asked here too, and lays the first brick for our pragmatic theory of truth. “Grant an idea or belief to be true . . . what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life?” (4) If an idea does not at least satisfy this requirement—if it does not make some kind of real difference in the life of someone—then pragmatically it is neither true nor false, but simply meaningless.

That hurdle crossed, what then is the sort of difference in our lives that we mean? The main difference James is interested in is that the idea be satisfactory. True ideas are those that serve us well; they are useful, and effective at placing us in the right relationship to the world in order to achieve our interests. They lead us toward things in the world we desire, or at least, they have the capability of doing so—such satisfactoriness is fairly dispositional, and the utility of a notion will vary by context and individual (5). Yet,

To “agree” in the widest sense with a reality, can only mean to be guided either straight up into it or into its surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected with it better than if we disagreed. (6)
This is the essential property of truth. That an idea leads one into better fortune and a better position to manage one’s reality is the thing we mean when we say that it is true. It is an attribute often simplified to usefulness (a moderately accurate reduction that brings to mind utilitarianism), and it has a number of subordinate features in James’s model, but as far as I am describing things here, satisfaction sits at the top of the heap: it is what makes true things true.

Now, fitting the “satisfactory” lens into our eye-glasses, we can perceive a number of other elements which will generally also obtain in true beliefs.

Chief among these is verifiability. This is the notion that a belief will not generally be of any use unless it either has been or has the potential to be “verified”—to be empirically confirmed (7). The actual fact-checking here is, strictly speaking, still a subjective phenomenon; the verification of one belief is made by referencing it against another belief, where the latter is one formed through the senses (8). Nevertheless, if a belief lacks at least the potential to touch down in this way, it is somewhat doubtful that it can be seen as satisfactory, for it seems that any verified fact about reality could at least potentially be useful.

Verifiability is therefore very often an element of satisfaction; it is, however, still subservient, meaningful only because it tends to contribute to beliefs being satisfactory.

. . . the relationship between verifiability and satisfactoriness is only a contingent one. That empirical beliefs must be verifiable in order to be satisfactory is itself merely an empirical fact about the world (albeit a critically important one), and not a conceptual truth. If it were possible for a belief to have beneficial consequences without being verifiable, its truth would not be impugned. (9)

This sets up a tension between the final two noteworthy elements of satisfactory beliefs, which is the balance between mutual agreement and agreement with reality, or what might traditionally be considered the fight between correspondence and coherentist theories of truth. On the one hand, James makes clear that our world-view is created chiefly by the interaction between our interlocking web of beliefs, and a new belief will be judged acceptable or not mainly insofar as it fits into this web; the better it fits, the more likely it will be received as truth (10). As noted above, this is just as true for empirical beliefs about reality as any others (11).

For pluralistic pragmatism, truth grows up inside of all the finite experiences. They lean on each other, but the whole of them, if such a whole there be, leans on nothing. All “homes” are in finite experience; finite experience as such as homeless. Nothing outside of the flux secures the issue of it. It can hope salvation only from its own intrinsic promises and potencies. (12)
This may sound almost perversely coherentist, and perhaps James overstates himself somewhat in this quote, but unquestionably the practical workings of his epistemology are strongly in this direction.

The mistake is to assume that he is wholly subjectivist in this way—that his coherent structure touches down in reality not at all. Rather, James emphasizes repeatedly that he is effectively a realist about reality (13), and it is the facts of the objective world that are largely responsible for how our belief structures play out; certainly “some questions, if we ever ask them, can only be answered in one way” (14).

It is clear, then, that both coherence and appropriate correspondence are important aspects of a belief being satisfactory, and therefore being true. In some cases they may be at odds, but they are not antagonistic, and should be instead be seen as mutually-interacting; our experiences of reality are an important input to our belief structures (15). And in the end, it is still how the world affects us that makes the difference we dub “truth”—not some external quality of the world noted for its own sake.

So as we move forward, we will consider verifiability, as well as realism and coherence, when considering the pragmatic quality of a truth-claim. However, they will be mere markers; our sine qua non for truth will be satisfactoriness, and it will be considered necessary and sufficient. If a belief succeeds on this front but fails or flounders on one or more of the others, it will nevertheless be considered true in the way we mean.

Three Case Studies

I will now present a series of theoretical, yet plausible scenarios, each of which suggests a number of competing facts, and each of which can be viewed either in a “realist” sense—one that attempts to match beliefs to reality in as close and unimaginative a way as possible—or a “pragmatic” sense, which attempts to maximize satisfaction. Since the overall question is which view proves the more pragmatic, the so-called “pragmatic” option will in fact be a sort of short-sighted pragmatism, considering only the obvious and immediate satisfactions, whereas the final analysis will take place in the realm of omniscient pragmatism, where all possibilities can be seen, and the best beliefs chosen beforehand.

The Crevasse

Epistemic scenario (16): A man is escaping on foot through a vast wilderness. Exposed and near death, he comes to a crevasse in the ground, a gorge of tremendous depth, stretching in both directions as far as the eye can see. Not far on the other side is civilization, and safety; yet he will surely perish unless he can cross the gap. Its width is perhaps 10 feet, and our hero is a track-and-field athlete who happens to compete the long jump; he knows quite definitively that his very best jumps carry him approximately 9.9 feet.

This is no seat-of-the-pants estimate; our man is a competitive athlete who is keenly aware of his “personal best” long jumps over the years, and he not only knows his current ability to the tenth of an inch, he also knows that most days he will fall somewhat short of even that.

Analysis: Rationally speaking it seems impossible for our poor fellow to believe anything but that he will die—either die where he stands, or die splattered at the bottom of the crevasse, but either way he will not survive. It would take a leap not only equal to but slightly greater than the best he has ever made, and he is tired, weakened, and on uncertain terrain. While it is perhaps a theoretical possibility that he will make the jump, it is so extremely unlikely that any realist in the best faith would be obliged to say that he will fall.

The short-sighted pragmatist, it seems, would probably stop thinking about all of this immediately. All he needs to know is that there are no other options, and that there is at least a possibility of success. It is a straightforward consideration to understand that even a .001% chance of survival is superior to a 0% chance, and from that, he sees that he is obviously going to have to jump. Nobody would ever jump over a gorge without believing he could make the crossing, so the pragmatist will surely believe, to the best of his abilities, that he can jump 10 feet on this day.

Outcome: Through an all-seeing pragmatic eye, there seems to be no comparison. The realist is unquestionably the more correct, but the realist will also probably die where he sits, and even if he convinces himself to jump he will be ponderously weighed-down by the knowledge of its futility. The pragmatist is an absolute fool, but his truth (such as it is) has put him in the best relationship to his situation, which is to make his leap immediately and with the very strongest of faiths. The pragmatic truth succeeds here, except for the rare individual who would rather be dead and “faithful to the facts” than the reverse.

The Mountaineer

Epistemic scenario (17): In the world of mountaineering, it is normal to traverse high snow- or ice-covered rock faces, where a constant danger exists of slipping and falling. A classic technique to resolve such falls is called “self-arrest,” a method of turning into the slope and digging in with one’s ice axe in order to stop one’s slide. Self-arrest is learned and practiced by most mountaineers, despite the fact that it is widely recognized as being only marginally effective—perhaps 50% of falls, likely far fewer, can successfully be halted with this technique, others being too fast, the slope too steep or hard, etc. The technique is more effective the more quickly and correctly it is applied, however, which means that it is more likely to succeed if the mountaineer learns it well and trains it thoroughly.

The main argument against self-arrest is that it “doesn’t work”—i.e. it has a fairly poor success ratio. The counter-argument is that, in such cases where you do fall and enter an uncontrolled slide, there exist very few alternatives. If you end up in such a situation, you might as well try it, as 50% is better than 0. The counter-counter argument is that by teaching self-arrest to aspiring mountaineers, they internalize the idea that they can fall and survive, and therefore take greater risks, making those falls more likely. Many of these climbers use the technique successfully, thereby increasing their belief—as long as they survive—that “it works,” perhaps making them adopt even greater risks. Those with full faith in it can climb very quickly, setting little “protection” (ropes and other safety gear), reduce their gear weight by carrying less equipment, and presumably have greater peace of mind.

Pragmatically, what is the best belief to hold here? “Self arrest works,” or “self arrest doesn’t work”?

Analysis: For the realist—and for any veteran climber who has seen the technique fail—there appears to be no debate, and self-arrest is unequivocally a loser. Yes, it works sometimes, but a safety procedure that leads to death more than half the time would be called an egregious failure in any other case—so while the realist might still give it a shot (should he fall despite his best efforts), up until then he must surely believe that the statement “self-arrest works” is a false one.

The pragmatic consequences of this belief would seem to be the following: the realist will climb with greater safety precautions, decreasing his risk of falling. He will have a rather harder time of it—carrying more gear, setting more protection, stepping more cautiously, and perhaps being constantly aware of the fact that, should he fall, he’s likely done for. On the other hand, this is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, for trusting in the technique less, he will not practice it or attempt it with the same confidence, and his chances of arresting are thereby decreased. In the end, his score stacks up: somewhat greater safety against somewhat greater inconvenience.

What of the pragmatist? It is far from clear what the truly pragmatic climber would believe, but we can at least consider one who is missing some of the facts. Suppose he were taught to self-arrest in good faith but without any information on its reliability; he believes it to indeed “work” very well. As a result, he enjoys all of the benefits we have seen, such as easy climbs and peace of mind; he believes he is well-protected and has nothing to worry about, so long as he can properly perform the technique. He is significantly more likely to fall than the realist, and hence more likely to die, although perhaps marginally more likely to successfully arrest. His score: somewhat diminished safety against somewhat greater inconvenience.

Outcome: It seems we have safety on one hand and convenience on the other. Both of these exert a pragmatic hold, as both can be seen to bear directly on one’s satisfaction. If we tilt the sliders around—less safety, less convenience, etc.—we can probably come to lopsided scenarios where everyone would agree on the conclusions, but as things stand, we are merely comparing apples to oranges.

So, who wins the pragmatic game, and which view should the all-knowing pragmatist prefer? Here it is altogether a personal preference, and will depend solely on whether a given individual weighs the safety he perceives as greater or less than the convenience he can gain. The case of the mountaineer is a tie.

The Scientist and the Charlatan

Epistemic scenario: A salesman of unimpeachable charisma is gaining notoriety for his unique system of curing human ailments. Via paid seminars and only-on-TV DVD sales, he teaches a method of modulated breathing, chanted mantras, and muscle manipulation, all of which he claims will force evil toxins out through the ears and draw healthful “gaia flux” into one’s body through its contact with the earth. He claims his system can cure almost any disease, and indeed, a significant number of his practitioners report relief from symptoms as wide-ranging as aches and pains, chronic migraines, and even forms of cancer.

As the charlatan’s fame grows due to more and more happy patients, a scientist fumes in his lab. He is completely certain that this man is tricking people with a concocted story—there is no evil, no flux, and no sense to any of this. Nevertheless, he cannot deny the successful results that many experience, which include measurable and objective data such as diminished tumor sizes and improvements in blood pressure. He wants to investigate the regimen scientifically and determine what physiological mechanisms it works by. When he tells this to the happy users of the system, they are confused: “But why? We know it works! Isn’t that good enough?” He replies that by understanding how it works, they can strip out the nonsense to the bare essentials, develop those further to enhance their functioning, and expand the useful elements into even more impressive treatments and a greater understanding of the human body. They remain uninterested and continue to cheerfully chant their mantras.

Analysis: As is probably clear, the scientist represents the realist in this case. He believes that the fact of the matter is that the charlatan is lying, and his regimen a fraud. (As it turns out he is right in my fictional scenario, but that actually makes no difference.) The blithe patients represent the short-sighted pragmatists; they care very little for some higher truth, all they know is that their lives have been radically improved by doing certain things. If believing in mysterious energies can give them succor, they willingly go that way.

Outcome: The interesting thing in this case is that, at least provisionally, both parties seem to be pragmatically correct. This is an example of when pragmatic truth can truly be pluralist—because the two sides here are literally after different things, they can both be equally “right,” in the pragmatic sense, without any contradiction. The scientist is pragmatically correct—by examining the mechanisms that underly the regimen, using rigorous science, greater benefits can be reached for everyone. This would surely not have been possible had he not cherished a realist notion of truth; only be rejecting the charlatan’s nonsensical explanations, and pursuing his gilt-edged ideal of a “real truth” rather than settling for “good enough,” were higher levels of knowledge possible.

But are the duped patients wrong? Pragmatically they are not wrong. They are doing the best thing by far in their own cases, and adopting the beliefs that lead to their greatest satisfaction. Their interests prioritize immediate relief over future advances in medicine, which is a perfectly reasonable approach. Only if we reach a point where they would be better served if they had taken a longer view might we say that they had pragmatically erred—but of course a good pragmatist should keep his eye towards the future as well (18).


If I had the space to investigate a larger number of cases, I would; but with the three here we have covered a fair gamut. We have one obvious win for pragmatism, one “tie” where value judgments will have to be applied, and one subjective plurality where everyone is right in their own context.

As far as proving the potential legitimacy of pragmatism on pragmatic grounds, we have at least done that; the crevasse case, if nothing else, established one indubitable victory. More interesting is how often we found that the final pragmatic weighing must take into account the subjective element. While very few people would want to die in a crevasse, it would be altogether possible for someone to prefer better mountain ascents over safer ones, and insofar as pragmatism is a personal tool we must simply say that what works for one may not work for another, even at this level of analysis.

The closest pragmatism came to failing its own pragmatic tests was for the scientist. But even there we could only award a win to realism in the “big picture” sense—the short-sighted pragmatists were not wrong in their personal contexts—and pragmatists should fare well there too as long as they recognized the value of theoretical pursuits.

So in the end, we are left with a pragmatic theory of truth that seems to survive. In some cases it may be that a realist attitude will yield the most pragmatic results for a given individual or situation, but I have seen nothing in James’s work that suggests otherwise; the theory is not greedy and one can indeed be a realist as well as a pragmatist. No matter how it is managed, the same end conditions apply: what matters for a belief is what it can do for us.


1. James, William. The Meaning of Truth. 92.

2. ———. Pragmatism. 96.

3. ibid. 28

4. ibid. 97.

5. ibid. 98.

6. ibid. 102.

7. ibid. 99.

8. Suckiel, Ellen Kappy. The Pragmatic Philosophy of William James. 98.

9. ———. Heaven’s Champion. 79.

10. James, William. The Meaning of Truth. 58.

11. ibid. 59. See list item #2 and footnote.

12. ———. Pragmatism. 125.

13. ——— The Meaning of Truth. 106.

14. ibid. 45.

15. ibid. 60. “Vaguely and in general, we take account of a reality by preserving it in as unmodified a form as possible. But, to be then satisfactory, it must not contradict other realities outside of it which claim also to be preserved. That we must preserve all the experience we can and minimize contradiction in what we preserve, is about all that can be said in advance.”

16. This general thought experiment has seen a number of progenitors, including William James. I cannot provide its original source.

17. This example is the product of an emailed discussion with A. Walls in January of 2009, as well as some general background research on my part. Although it ought to be a reasonably accurate representation, it is not definitive account of the state of modern mountaineering, and should probably be understood as purely hypothetical.

18. See both The Meaning of Truth 111 and Pragmatism 128–129.