And Another One (Pragmatist): William James (Part 1)

For Richard Rorty, William James played a special role in critizising the correspondence theory of truth. He writes:william_james_b1842c

William James said, “’The true’… is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just
as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving,” Elsewhere he said, “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for  definite,  assignable  reasons.”  His  point  in  analogizing  truth  to  rightness  and  to goodness was that once you understand all about the justification of actions, including the justification of assertions, you understand all there is to understand about goodness, rightness and truth.”

Unfurtunately, here again does Rorty quote some sentence completely out of context. But actually, James always struggled against the complaints that he would surrender the classical theory of truth. Espcially after his well known lectures about pragmatism. For example he wrote:

I will say here again, for the sake of emphasis, that the existence of the object, whenever the idea asserts it ‚truly,‘ is the only reason, in innumerable cases, why the idea does work successfully,…“

Even in the pragmatism lectures he writes:  „Copying is one genuine mode of knowing
(…)” And first of all, you should quote the well known formula of about ‘the truth’ with some more context:

‚The true,‘ to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‚the right‘ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion;  and  expedient  in  the  long  run  and  on  the  whole  course,  for  what  meets expediently all the experience in sight won’t necessarily meet all further experiences equally satisfactorily. Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas.

He is not giving any definition of “true” or similiar in this passage. A one sentence definition of something, like Rorty quotes it, would not suite James’ style of philosophy. A philosophy that can be put into one sentence is not worth its name, he once said. He is not searching for a definition of “truth” in isolation of any context. He is explaining the relations between  truth, justification, verification, utility and our social practices.

To be continued…


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