PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday February 14, 2013


[3.2.6.] “The Problem of Maxima and Minima.”


The passage just quoted (pp.296-297, end of last notes) hints at the sort of usefulness that James thinks is required for truth: it helps us satisfy the goal of accommodating new experiences while changing what we already believe only as much as we absolutely have to.


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 no more than is absolutely necessary to put things aright.


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)


In other words, a “new truth” (a claim newly believed) is useful to the degree that it maximizes the degree of consistency and minimizes the degree of change in what we already believe. The job of doing this is what James calls “the Problem of Maxima and Minima.”


The role played by “older truths” (claims already believed) is of central importance:


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)


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 and begins singing an aria. Most people will not revise their old belief that dogs cannot sing opera (if you were to revise that belief, you would have to revise lots of others, as well); it will take a much less radical revision in your “older truths” to believe that you are dreaming, or to believe that someone has invented a very realistic robotic dog.


The more true a belief is, the more useful it is with regard to the goal of accommodating new experience with a minimum of change in our existing stock of 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 and grasp new fact; 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)



[3.2.7.] “The Trail of the Human Serpent.”


When a person accepts a new belief, she does so for “subjective reasons,” 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)


This is a thread of James’s account of truth that later pragmatists, including Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty, will emphasize.


James’s view seems to be that this is how “new truths” have always been integrated into “older truths.” Even the most long-standing beliefs of science, math, and common-sense came to be accepted for this same reason: they accommodated our new experiences with the least amount of change to our existing beliefs.


On the other hand, even beliefs we have held for centuries are not immune to revision based on new experience:


Truth independent; truth that we find merely; truth no longer malleable to human need; truth incorrigible, in a word; such truth exists indeed superabundantly—or is supposed to exist by rationalistically minded thinkers; but then it means only the dead heart of the living tree, and its being there means only that truth also has its paleontology, and its ‘prescription,’ and may grow stiff with years of veteran service and petrified in men’s regard by sheer antiquity. But how plastic even the oldest truths nevertheless really are has been vividly shown in our day by the transformation of logical and mathematical ideas, a transformation which seems even to be invading physics. The ancient formulas are reinterpreted as special expressions of much wider principles, principles that our ancestors never got a glimpse of in their present shape and formulation. (300)



[3.2.9.] Two Forms of Theism.


In the final section of “What Pragmatism Means,” James finally gets around to showing how pragmatism can point the way between the tough-minded (empiricist) and tender-minded (rationalist) temperaments with regard to religion.


He begins by describing two different ways of being a theist (i.e., of believing in God) (302-303):


old-fashioned theism: belief in a God that is “an exalted monarch, made up of a lot of unintelligible or preposterous ‘attributes’; but, so long as it held strongly by the argument from design, it kept some touch with concrete realities.” This is why those of the fact-loving, empiricist, tough-minded temperament can stomach it.

·         This was justified when, in order to explain the presence of a great variety of living species, we had to posit an all-powerful designer and creator. But Darwin has offered a powerful alternative explanation, one that does not require that we believe in a personal creator with “preposterous ‘attributes’” (e.g., his “necessariness,” “immateriality,” his “actualized infinity,” his “relations to evil being permissive and not positive,” and his “self-sufficiency”).[1]


absolute idealism: belief in a God—“Absolute Mind”—that is present everywhere and in all things, “working in things rather than above them.” This is a sort of secular, philosophical concept of God that played a role in the philosophical systems of many, many philosophers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is attractive to those of the rationalistic, tender-minded temperament.[2]

·         One aspect of this view 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.”[3]

·         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. Be they what they may, the Absolute will father them. Like the sick lion in Esop’s fable, all footprints lead into his den, but nulla vestigia retrorsum [no traces come out]. You cannot redescend into the world of particulars by the Absolute’s aid, or deduce any necessary consequences of detail important for your life from your idea of his nature.[4] 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 (“old-fashioned theism” and “absolute idealism”)


Now pragmatism, devoted though she be to facts, has no such materialistic 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)


So here is a standard by which James judges religious beliefs to be true: they are true to the degree that they have “a value for concrete life,” including (but not limited to) helping to “marry” existing beliefs to new experiences.



[3.2.10.] Tracing the Consequences of Absolute Idealism.


So on James’s view, 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?


Says James, to find out “we need only apply the pragmatic method.” (304); that is, we need only trace the actual, experiential 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 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)[5]



[3.3.] “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” (1907).


This is the sixth lecture in James’s book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, a collection of lectures that James gave at the Lowell Institute in Boston (Dec. 1906) and at Columbia University in New York (Jan. 1907). In this lecture, James expands upon the account of truth he gave in “What Pragmatism Means.”



[3.3.1.] “Agreement with Concrete Reality.”


At the end of “What Pragmatism Means,” James used the phrase “agreement with concrete reality” (307) to describe truth.


This calls to mind the correspondence theory of truth, according to which the truth of a belief is its correspondence with the world. To say that a belief “agrees with concrete reality” certainly sounds like just another way of saying that it corresponds with the world.[6]


But as we have already seen, James seems to reject the correspondence theory.


So what’s going on? Is he just being inconsistent?


Not necessarily… there is a possible explanation of these seemingly inconsistent comments…


James draws a distinction between two ways of talking about “truth as agreement with reality”



[3.3.2.] Agreement as Correspondence or Copying.


The first is the rationalist (tendered-minded) way: truth = “agreement with reality” = “absolute correspondence of our thoughts with an equally absolute reality (“What Pragmatism Means,” 301).

·         This is an “absolutely empty notion of a static relation of ‘correspondence’ . . . between our minds and reality” (“What Pragmatism Means,” 302)


In describing this way of thinking about truth as agreement-with-reality, James calls to mind what we have called the Traditional View of knowledge and truth:


[T]he great assumption of the intellectualists is that truth means essentially an inert static relation. When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter. You’re in possession; you know; you have fulfilled your thinking destiny. You are where you ought to be mentally; you have obeyed your categorical imperative; and nothing more need follow on that climax of your rational destiny. Epistemologically you are in stable equilibrium. (311)


Despite his talk of “truth as (concrete) agreement,” James does not accept the correspondence theory. His view is that the “agreement” required for truth is sometimes taken to mean an abstract relation of correspondence… but we shouldn’t understand it that way.



[3.3.3.] Agreement as Agreeable Leading.


The second way of understanding “truth as agreement with reality” is the pragmatist way: truth = “active” agreement with “concrete reality” (“What Pragmatism Means,” 307).


[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. (“What Pragmatism Means,” 302)


What does this “active agreement with concrete reality” consist of?


He applies his pragmatic method to answer this question. He asks: “what concrete difference will [an idea’s] being true [agreeing with concrete reality] make in any one’s actual life?  How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” (311)


He answers as follows:


True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we can not. 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. (311, emphasis added)[7]


The words “assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify”


...signify certain practical consequences of the verified and validated idea. ... They lead us, ... through the acts and other ideas which they instigate, into or up to, or towards, other parts of experience with which we feel all the while … that the original ideas remain in agreement. The connexions and transitions come to us from point to point as being progressive, harmonious, satisfactory. This function of agreeable leading is what we mean by an idea’s verification. (312, emphasis added)


To ‘agree’ in the widest sense with a reality can only mean to be guided either straight up to 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. Better either intellectually or practically! And often agreement will only mean the negative fact that nothing contradictory from the quarter of that reality comes to interfere with the way in which our ideas guide us elsewhere. To copy a reality is, indeed, one very important way of agreeing with it, but it is far from being essential. The essential thing is the process of being guided. Any idea that helps us to deal, whether practically or intellectually, with either the reality or its belongings, that doesn’t entangle our progress in frustrations, that fits, in fact, and adapts our life to the reality’s whole setting, will agree sufficiently to meet the requirement. It will hold true of that reality. (317, emphasis added)


So on James’s view, an idea is true when it leads us in an “agreeable way.” True thoughts are “invaluable instruments of action” (312). Truths are not ends in themselves. They are “only a preliminary means towards other vital satisfactions.” This is why we have “a duty to gain truth”: for practical reasons. True beliefs are those that will help us in some way.


He illustrates this claim with the cow-path example (312). In this example,

·         the true belief about X is valuable because X is important;

·         X may not be important in all situations;

·         still, it is good to have true beliefs about X, because someday X might become important—a true belief about X might eventually be valuable to you even though X itself is not important to you today; X might become important to you in the future, and then it will matter to you that you have true beliefs about X.


Sometimes this “agreement” amounts to copying... but a belief or idea need not copy reality in order to be true.  Some true ideas do copy reality (e.g., your visual memory of a clock), but not all true ideas do so (e.g., your concept of a clock’s time-keeping function, or of the elasticity of its springs… exactly what would those ideas be copies of?) [As we will see below, copying plays an even more important role in James’s account than he is letting on at this point…]


So: for a belief to be verified is for it to lead us in a valuable way: “The practical value of true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us.” (312-313)


But suppose we make the following objection


James is right that true beliefs are useful, that they guide us successfully. But he seems to take this to be what truth is. That is, he seems to think that a true belief is true because it is useful, when in fact a true belief is useful because it is true.


But this objection would not sway James:


You can say of [truth] then either that ‘it is useful because it is true’ or that ‘it is true because it is useful.’ Both these phrases mean exactly the same thing, namely that here is an idea that gets fulfilled and can be verified. True is the name for whatever idea starts the verification-process, useful is the name for its completed function in experience. (313, emphasis added)



[3.3.4.] Direct vs. Indirect Verification.


James distinguishes between direct and indirect verification of a belief…


direct verification requires direct sensory experience of the object(s) of that belief: I can directly verify my belief that Japan exists by going to Japan and seeing (hearing, etc.) it; you can directly verify your belief that the clock on the wall contains “wheels and weights and pendulums” (314) by opening the clock and seeing those things.


indirect verification (“verifiability”) does not require direct sensory experience of the object(s) of that belief; what it requires is that the belief work for the person who believes it…


Just as we here assume Japan to exist without ever having been there, because it works to do so, everything we know conspiring with the belief, and nothing interfering, so we assume that thing to be a clock. We use it as a clock, regulating the length of our lecture by it. The verification of the assumption here means its leading to no frustration or contradiction. (314)


…and this “work” includes helping to solve the Problem of Maxima and Minima (i.e., the problem of accommodating new experiences to existing beliefs while maximizing consistency and minimizing the degree of change in the old beliefs).


On James’s view, the vast majority of an individual’s true beliefs are never directly verified…


                Truth lives, in fact, for the most part on a credit system. Our thoughts and beliefs ‘pass,’ so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them. But this all points to direct face-to-face verifications somewhere, without which the fabric of truth collapses like a financial system with no cash-basis whatever. You accept my verification of one thing, I yours of another. We trade on each other’s truth. But beliefs verified concretely by somebody are the posts of the whole superstructure. (315, emphasis added)


So there is a sense in which the verifiability of a given true belief depends on the actual verification of that belief by someone at some time. The whole system of true beliefs depends on there being some ideas that do copy reality:


The untrammeled flowing of the leading-process, its general freedom from clash and contradiction, passes for its indirect verification; but all roads lead to Rome, and in the end and eventually, all true processes must lead to the face of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere, which somebody’s ideas have copied. (318)




Stopping point for Thursday February 14. For next time, finish reading “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” (pp.315-28).



[1] 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], p.445; this work is available through Google Books; the relevant chapter is here: .


[2] Contemporary philosopher 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).


[3] 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.


[4] This criticism of absolute idealism by James recalls Peirce’s rejection of “God made it so” as an explanation of mind-body interaction: that claim implies nothing further about what we will experience, so it is impossible to “check” it against that experience. (See p.70 of your textbook.)

[5] In the last lecture/chapter of Pragmatism, entitled “Pragmatism and Religion,” James gets a bit more specific about the sort of religious view of which pragmatism approves. He calls is 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” (op. cit.), and pessimism, according to which “the salvation of the world is impossible” (op. cit.). Optimism is associated with the tender-minded (rationalist, absolute idealist) temperament, while pessimism is associated with the tough-minded (empiricist) temperament.

[6] In her entry on “The Correspondence Theory of Truth” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Marian David writes that “[t]he basic idea [of that theory] has been expressed in many ways, giving rise to an extended family of theories and, more often, theory sketches. Members of the family employ various concepts for the relevant relation (correspondence, conformity, congruence, agreement, accordance, copying, picturing, signification, representation, reference, satisfaction) ...” < >.

[7] The usual meaning of the word “verify” is something like “prove conclusively to be true.” It comes from the Latin verus, which means true. So if James were to stop here, his account of truth would run the risk of being circular. Happily, he goes further than this...


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