PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday February 11, 2015



[3.2.3.] Truth as a Kind of Usefulness.


James begins to apply his pragmatic method (“trace the practical consequences”) to the idea of truth:


For a belief to be true, it must be useful in a specific way.


What specific way? It must help us accommodate new experiences while changing what we already believe as little as possible.


Important note: James assumes that sense experiences cannot be true or false. When you have an experience of a tree, e.g., see the tree, hear the wind blowing through its leaves, and smell its blooms, the experience you are having is not the sort of thing that can be true or false. On the other hand, beliefs can be true or false. Your belief that the tree is in bloom or that the wind is blowing through the tree’s leaves is the kind of thing that can be true or false. (This is not an unusual view… most philosophers describe beliefs as true or false but do not describe experiences that way.)[1]


Consider how someone comes to accept a new belief (297):

·         he begins with “a stock of old opinions [beliefs]”;

·         “he meets a new experience that puts them [his current beliefs] to a strain,” e.g., “[s]omebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which [his current beliefs] cease to satisfy”;

·         “he seeks to escape [this inward trouble] by modifying his previous mass of opinions.”

·         But he wants to change his existing beliefs as little as possible while still putting things right.


So he tries to change first this opinion, and then that (for they resist change very variously), until at last some new idea comes up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum of disturbance of the latter, some idea that mediates between the stock and the new experience and runs them into one another most felicitously and expediently.

                This new idea is then adopted as the true one. It preserves the older stock of truths with a minimum of modification, stretching them just enough to make them admit the novelty, but conceiving that in ways as familiar as the case leaves possible. . . . New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact so as ever to show a minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity. We hold a theory true just in proportion to its success in solving this ‘problem of maxima and minima’ (297-298).


A “new truth” (a claim newly believed to be true) is useful to the degree that it maximizes the consistency among your beliefs and minimizes the change in what you already believe.


The job of doing this is what James calls “the Problem of Maxima and Minima.”


An example: Suppose you have an experience that is radically different from anything you’ve experienced before, e.g. you’re walking across campus and a dog comes up to you, addresses you by name (“Good afternoon, Fred!”) and begins singing “All About That Bass”. Most people will not revise their old belief that dogs cannot talk or sing; if you were to revise that belief, you would have to revise lots of others, as well (e.g., about the intelligence of dogs and perhaps other animal species; about the vocal cords and tongues of dogs and what they are capable of). It will take a much less radical revision in your “older truths” to believe that you are dreaming or hallucinating, or to believe that someone has invented a very realistic robotic dog.


“Older truths” (claims already believed to be true) play an important role:


Loyalty to [older truths] is the first principle—in most cases it is the only principle; for by far the most usual way of handling phenomena so novel that they would make for a serious rearrangement of our preconception is to ignore them altogether, or to abuse those who bear witness for them (298).


So this is the first way that a true belief is a useful belief: it helps us accommodate new experiences while making a minimum of change in our existing beliefs:


A new opinion counts as ‘true’ just in proportion as it gratifies the individual’s desire to assimilate the novel in his experience to his beliefs in stock. It must both lean on old truth [on what you already believe] and grasp new fact [accommodate new experiences]; and its success . . . in doing this, is a matter for the individual’s appreciation. . . . It makes itself true, gets itself classed as true, by the way it works; grafting itself then upon the ancient body of truth, which thus grows much as a tree grows by the activity of a new layer of cambium (299).[2]


[3.2.4.] The Human Aspect of True Belief.


When a person accepts a new belief, she does so for “human reasons.”


Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no rôle whatever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for ‘to be true’ means only to perform this marriage-function.

The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything (300).[3]


Even the most long-standing beliefs of science, math, and common-sense came to be accepted for human reasons—they were first adopted because they helped us to accommodate our new experiences with the least amount of change to our existing beliefs.



[3.2.5.] Against Truth as Correspondence with “an Absolute Reality”.


James rejects the idea that truth is “an absolute correspondence of our thoughts with an equally absolute reality” (301).


[Pragmatism] converts the absolutely empty notion of a static relation of ‘correspondence’ . . . between our minds and reality, into that of a rich and active commerce (that any one may follow in detail and understand) between particular thoughts of ours, and the great universe of other experiences in which they play their parts and have their uses (302).


James also associates the correspondence theory of truth with the tender-minded temperament and with rationalism. He seems to view the alleged correspondence relationship as something very abstract and as having nothing to do with actual human beings’ experiences and beliefs.





[3.2.6.] Overcoming the Dilemma.


James now explains how pragmatism can help overcome the dilemma of choosing between science and religion:


He begins by describing two different ways of believing in God (302-303):


old-fashioned theism

1.      God is “an exalted monarch, made up of a lot of unintelligible or preposterous ‘attributes’”, e.g., necessity, immateriality, self-sufficiency, being actually (not just possibly) infinite, and merely permitting (rather than causing) evil.[4]

2.      It accepts the argument from design: the only explanation for the presence of all the living beings on earth is that God exists… so, God must exist. By accepting this argument, “it kept some touch with concrete realities.” This is why those of the fact-loving, empiricist, tough-minded temperament can stomach it.

·         Darwin has offered a powerful alternative explanation for the variety of living things on earth, one that does not require that we believe in a personal creator with “preposterous ‘attributes’”.


absolute idealism

1.      “Absolute Mind” is present everywhere and in all things, “working in things rather than above them”.

2.      This is a sort of secular, philosophical concept of God that played a role in the philosophical systems of many philosophers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is attractive to those of the rationalistic, tender-minded temperament.[5]

·         One aspect of absolute idealism is that any event that seems to us to be terrible, like the suicide of an unemployed father because he can no longer support his wife and children, is actually part “of the perfection of the eternal order”—“The Absolute is the richer for every discord, and for all diversity which it embraces”.[6]

·         James says of absolute idealism:


It keeps no connexion whatever with concreteness. Affirming the Absolute Mind, which is its substitute for God, to be the rational presupposition of all particulars of fact, whatever they may be, it remains supremely indifferent to what the particular facts in our world actually are. . . . He gives you indeed the assurance that all is well with Him, and for his eternal way of thinking; but thereupon he leaves you to be finitely saved by your own temporal devices (302-303).


James believes that pragmatism can help to find an alternative the two forms of theism:


Now pragmatism, devoted though she be to facts, has no such materialistic[7] bias as ordinary empiricism labors under. Moreover, she has no objection whatever to the realizing of abstractions, so long as you get about among particulars with their aid and they actually carry you somewhere. Interested in no conclusions but those which our minds and our experiences work out together, she has no a priori prejudices against theology. If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. For how much more they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be acknowledged (303-304).


This means that even absolute idealism is true to the degree that “it performs a concrete function,” to the degree that it has “a value for concrete life”.


But what concrete function does this belief play? What value does it have for concrete life?


To find out, we need to “trace the consequences” of the belief in the Absolute:


What do believers in the Absolute mean by saying that their belief affords them comfort? They mean that since, in the Absolute finite evil is ‘overruled’ already, we may, therefore, whenever we wish, treat the temporal as if it were potentially the eternal, be sure that we can trust its outcome, and, without sin, dismiss our fear and drop the worry of our finite responsibility. In short, they mean that we have a right ever and anon [i.e., occasionally] to take a moral holiday, to let the world wag in its own way, feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business.

The universe is a system of which the individual members may relax their anxieties occasionally, in which the don’t-care mood is also right for men, and moral holidays in order,—that, if I mistake not, is part, at least, of what the Absolute is ‘known-as,’ that is the great difference in our particular experiences which his being true makes, for us, that is his cash-value when he is pragmatically interpreted (304).


But any newly-adopted belief must be consistent (must not “clash”) with our current store of beliefs, and those existing beliefs have their own benefits. “The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths”. (306)


James himself rejects the belief in the Absolute, because he finds it incompatible with some of his other beliefs that themselves are beneficial:


it clashes with other truths of mine whose benefits I hate to give up on its account. It happens to be associated with a kind of logic of which I am the enemy, I find that it entangles me in metaphysical paradoxes that are inacceptable, etc., etc. But as I have enough trouble in life already without adding the trouble of carrying these intellectual inconsistencies, I personally just give up the Absolute. I just take my moral holidays; or else as a professional philosopher, I try to justify them by some other principle.

                If I could restrict my notion of the Absolute to its bare holiday-giving value, it wouldn’t clash with my other truths. But we can not easily thus restrict our hypotheses. They carry supernumerary features [i.e., features that exceed what is required], and these it is that clash so. My disbelief in the Absolute means then disbelief in those other supernumerary features, for I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays. (306-307)


So, James’s pragmatic approach to theism compels him to reject absolute idealism.  Although he does not say so here, it is likely that his rejection of absolute idealism involves his disdain at its judgment that everything that happens, including the aforementioned sort of suicide (the suicide of an unemployed husband and father because he can no longer afford to support his wife and children), is part of the perfection of the universe.


Still, James does think that some sort of theism can turn out to be true on his pragmatic approach:


[Pragmatism’s] only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience’s demands, nothing being omitted. If theological ideas should do this, if the notion of God, in particular, should prove to do it, how could pragmatism possibly deny God’s existence? She could see no meaning in treating as ‘not true’ a notion that was pragmatically so successful. What other kind of truth could there be, for her, than all this agreement with concrete reality? (307, emphasis added)[8]



Stopping point for Wednesday February 11. For next time, finish reading “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” (pp.315-28).




[1] A more technical way of putting this point: beliefs are truth-bearers, but experiences are not. This is what James has in mind when he writes: “The simplest case of new truth is of course the mere numerical addition of new kinds of facts, or of new single facts of old kinds, to our experience—an addition that involves no alteration in the old beliefs. Day follows day, and its contents are simply added. The new contents themselves are not true, they simply come and are. Truth is what we say about them, and when we say that they have come, truth is satisfied by the plain additive formula” (299).

[2] James seems to be integrating into his account of truth something that sounds like…


the coherence theory of truth (df.): a true belief/proposition is one that belongs to a system of beliefs/propositions that is (a) consistent/coherent and (b) maximally complete.

·         “Consistent” and “coherent” mean that the system of beliefs/propositions contains no contradictions or propositions that are inconsistent with each other.

·          “Maximally complete” means that the system is as large as possible; it is not limited to, e.g., beliefs/propositions about physics and chemistry, but instead covers as much subject matter as possible.  Different versions of this theory will understand “maximally complete” in different ways. “At one extreme, coherence theorists can hold that the specified set of propositions is the largest consistent set of propositions currently believed by actual people. … According to a moderate position, the specified set consists of those propositions which will be believed when people like us (with finite cognitive capacities) have reached some limit of inquiry. ... At the other extreme, coherence theorists can maintain that the specified set contains the propositions which would be believed by an omniscient being. Some idealists seem to accept this account of the specified set” (James O. Young, “The Coherence Theory of Truth,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >).


This approach to explaining truth is associated with absolute idealists such as Georg Hegel (1770-1831) and F. H. Bradley (1846-1924). (Ironically, James rejects absolute idealism—more about this below.) The coherence theory still has a few defenders today.

On this account of truth, the truth of a belief or proposition has nothing to do with whether it corresponds to, or accurately represents, a mind-independent world. The truth of a belief/proposition depends on nothing but its relation to other beliefs/propositions. This is very different than the correspondence theory, according to which truth is nothing but a relationship between a belief/proposition and the world. In fact, the correspondence theory and the coherence theory are rivals.

                James is not explicitly accepting a version of the coherence theory. However, there is an element of coherentism in his characterization of “new truths” as those that help to integrate new experiences with “old truths”.


[3] This is a thread of James’s account of truth that some later pragmatists, including Richard Rorty, will emphasize. Rorty misquotes the “human serpent” line at pp.643 and 659.


[4] James discusses the Design Argument for the existence of God in “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered,” the third lecture in Pragmatism (PR 56-59; not in your textbook, but available online: . The “preposterous attributes” given here are from James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, 1911 [1901-2], 445; this work is available through Google Books; the relevant chapter is here: .


[5] Timothy Sprigge (1932-2007) states the central thesis of absolute idealism this way: “there is one unitary world consciousness or experience which includes everything else which exists”. (“James, Empiricism, and Absolute Idealism,” in Shook and Margolis, eds., A Companion to Pragmatism, Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2006, p.166; Ingram Library owns a copy of this reference book, and you can also access an electronic copy through GALILEO, but only if you are on campus). Sprigge reports that “absolute idealism was the dominant philosophy in the English-speaking world throughout the period in which James worked out his ideas” (op. cit.). Among the philosophers who defended various forms of absolute idealism were Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854), Georg Hegel (1770–1831), and, in James’s lifetime, Josiah Royce (1855-1916), T. H. Green (1836-1882), F. H. Bradley (1846-1924), and Bernard Bosanquet (1848-1923). Sprigge himself defended a version of absolute idealism in his books The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1984) and The God of Metaphysics (2006).


[6] The first quotation is from Josiah Royce, The World and the Individual, quoted by James in the unexpurgated version of “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy” (PR 21; not in your textbook). The second quotation is from F. H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality, also quoted by James (op. cit.). The example of the unemployed father is one that James himself describes in “The Present Dilemma”; he takes it from Morrison I. Swift, Human Submission, Liberty Press, Philadelphia, 1905.


[7] In “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered,” the third lecture/chapter of James’s book Pragmatism [not in your textbook], he sheds light on what he means by “materialism”: “The mention of material substance naturally suggests the doctrine of ‘materialism,’ but philosophical materialism is not necessarily knit up with belief in ‘matter,’ as a metaphysical principle. One may deny matter in that sense, as strongly as Berkeley did, one may be a phenomenalist like Huxley, and yet one may still be a materialist in the wider sense, of explaining higher phenomena by lower ones, and leaving the destinies of the world at the mercy of its blinder parts and forces. It is in this wider sense of the word that materialism is opposed to spiritualism or theism. The laws of physical nature are what run things, materialism says. The highest productions of human genius might be ciphered by one who had complete acquaintance with the facts, out of their physiological conditions, regardless whether nature be there only for our minds, as idealists contend, or not. Our minds in any case would have to record the kind of nature it is, and write it down as operating through blind laws of physics. This is the complexion of present day materialism, which may better be called naturalism. Over against it stands ‘theism,’ or what in a wide sense may be termed ‘spiritualism.’ Spiritualism says that mind not only witnesses and records things, but also runs and operates them: the world being thus guided, not by its lower, but by its higher element” (PR 48-49). This entire lecture is available here: .


[8] In the final lecture of Pragmatism, titled “Pragmatism and Religion”, James is more specific about the sort of religious view of which pragmatism approves. He calls it meliorism: “Meliorism treats salvation as neither inevitable nor impossible. It treats it as a possibility, which becomes more and more of a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become.” (PR 137; not in your textbook). Meliorism lies “between” the extremes of optimism, according to which “the world’s salvation is inevitable”, and pessimism, according to which “the salvation of the world is impossible” (ibid). Optimism is associated with the tender-minded (rationalist, absolute idealist) temperament, while pessimism is associated with the tough-minded (empiricist) temperament. James also indicates explicitly what it is that makes a belief in God true:


On pragmatistic principles, if the hypothesis works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true. Now whatever its residual difficulties may be, experience shows that it certainly does work, and that the problem is to build it out and determine it [make it more determinate—more detailed and less vague], so that it will combine satisfactorily with all the other working truths. . . .

                You see that pragmatism can be called religious, if you allow that religion can be pluralistic or merely melioristic in type. But whether you will finally put up with that type of religion or not is a question that only you yourself can decide. Pragmatism has to postpone dogmatic answer, for we do not yet know certainly which type of religion is going to work best in the long run. . . .

                [I]f you are neither tough nor tender in an extreme and radical sense, but mixed as most of us are, it may seem to you that the type of pluralistic and moralistic religion that I have offered is as good a religious synthesis as you are likely to find. Between the two extremes of crude naturalism on the one hand and transcendental absolutism on the other, you may find that what I take the liberty of calling the pragmatistic or melioristic type of theism is exactly what you require (Pragmatism 143-144; not in your textbook).


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