Three years ago, someone who was about to become a very close friend asked me if I believed in truth. This question, along with my state of mind at the time, led me on a search for truth and my philosophies on it. Part of my research involved William James' essays on pragmatism. Lately, I've been exploring my self and my philosophies...and this one has been brought up again and again. Thought I'd share my findings.
What is Truth?
Pragmatism and Truth
. . . if we take the universe of "fitting," countless coats "fit" backs, and countless boots "fit" feet, on which they are not practically fitted; countless stones "fit" gaps in walls into which no one seeks to fit them actually. In the same way countless opinions "fit" realities, and countless truths are valid, tho' no thinker ever thinks them.~ William James, in Philosophical Review (1908). The Pragmatist Account of Truth and Its Misunderstanders
The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.~ William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907).
Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their "agreement," as falsity means their disagreement, with "reality."~ William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907).
Truth is essentially a relation between two things, an idea, on the one hand, and a reality outside of the idea, on the other.~ William James, The Meaning of Truth (1909).
Truth is what works.~ William James
Against William James
And my thoughts:
Many people would claim that William James’ idea of truth indicates that truth is relative to the individual and to the situation. When first reading James’ lectures, I also believed that his account of truth seemed very subjective and was baffled as to how his views might support the idea that truth actually is absolute. However, upon more careful reading of “Lecture Six,” I was able to understand that William James actually supports an idea of absolute truth that, unlike the rationalist view of truth, allows functioning within truth even when later findings may discredit what beliefs we now hold.
James undoubtedly supports the idea that truth is absolute and even explains this in his lecture.
“The ‘absolutely’ true, meaning what no farther experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge. It runs on all fours with the perfectly wise man and with the absolutely complete experience; and, if these ideals are ever realized, they will all be realized together. Meanwhile we have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.” (p222-223)
In this passage, James explains that absolute truth is that which we may eventually come to find and towards which we are always working. An absolute truth does exist, according to James, but we must understand that we do not always have access to it because we are restricted to what we can verify, either directly or indirectly through exchange of information with others. Because we are constantly finding new facts and working them into our system of already held beliefs, we are constantly changing what we believe to be true. These approximations we call truth converge on that ideal vanishing point of which James speaks. Even though our current truths (or our approximations of the truth) may change, we still need a way to identify them as truths and James offers that by defining truth as the process of verification.
James makes a point of demonstrating that one does not simply choose truth based on what he desires by stating that truth must agree with those things we already hold true and new facts with which we are presented. He states that,
“We mustn’t now call Abel ‘Cain’ or Cain “Abel.’ If we do, we ungear ourselves from the whole book of Genesis, and from all its connections with the universe of speech and fact down to the present time. We throw ourselves out of whatever truth that entire system of speech and fact may embody.” (p214)
This indicates that we cannot choose what we wish to hold as true because it must agree with all other truths already present. This process of gaining new truths by connecting them with already-believed truths brings us closer to James’ absolute truth. The truth he speaks of is certainly not relative; it is the act of pursuing that which we hope to find cannot be altered by new truths. It is the act of moving toward that vanishing point.