PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday February 16, 2015




[3.3.] “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” (1907).[1]



[3.3.1.] Truth as “Agreement with 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” sounds like another way of saying that it corresponds with the world.[2]


So does James accept the correspondence theory? Not necessarily… “Agreement with concrete reality” does not necessarily mean “correspondence”:


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.’ Pragmatists and intellectualists both accept this definition as a matter of course. They begin to quarrel only after the question is raised as to what may precisely be meant by the term ‘agreement,’ and what by the term ‘reality,’ when reality is taken as something for our ideas to agree with (310).


He briefly tells us what he means by “realities”: “By ‘realities’ or ‘objects’ here, we mean either things of common sense, sensibly present, or else common-sense relations, such as dates, places, distances, kinds, activities.” (314)


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



I.  Agreement as Copying.


“The popular notion is that a true idea must copy its reality.”


Some ideas are copies. Specifically, our ideas of “sensible things” (things we can sense) are copies of those things. E.g., I look at a clock on the wall then close my eyes and call to mind a visual memory of the clock.


But not all of our ideas are copies:


[Y]our idea of [the clock’s] ‘works’ (unless you are a clock-maker) is much less of a copy, yet it passes muster, for it in no way clashes with the reality. Even though it should shrink to the mere word ‘works,’ that word still serves you truly; and when you speak of the ‘time-keeping function’ of the clock, or of its spring’s ‘elasticity,’ it is hard to see exactly what your ideas can copy (310-311).



James reaches the second concept of “agreement with reality” by applying the Pragmatic Method:


[W]hat concrete difference will [an idea’s] being true [i.e., its 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, emphasis added)



II. Agreement as Agreeable Leading.


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).[3]


But what exactly does James mean by “assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify”?


[“Verification” and “validation”] signify certain practical consequences of the verified and validated idea. . . . [True ideas] 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, emphases added).


An idea is true when it leads us in an “agreeable way” through our actions and our experiences.



[3.3.2.] True Beliefs are Not Inherently Valuable.


The possession of true beliefs is not an end in itself, not something that is valuable for its own sake.


Rather, true beliefs are “invaluable instruments of action” (312). We have “a duty to gain” true beliefs only for practical reasons, because they will benefit us in some way.


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


If I am lost in the woods and starved, and find what looks like a cow-path, it is of the utmost importance that I should think of a human habitation at the end of it, for if I do so and follow it, I save myself. The true thought is useful here because the house which is its object is useful. The practical value of true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us. Their objects are, indeed, not important at all times. I may on another occasion have no use for the house; and then my idea of it, however verifiable, will be practically irrelevant, and had better remain latent. Yet since almost any object may some day become temporarily important, the advantage of having a general stock of extra truths, of ideas that shall be true of merely possible situations, is obvious (312-313).



Here he is making the following points:

·         A true belief about X is valuable because X (the thing or things the belief is about) is important.

·         X may not be important to you today or in all situations.

·         Still, it is good for you to have true beliefs about X, because someday X might become valuable to you.



But consider this objection


James seems to think that true beliefs are true because they are useful. But this gets things backwards. In fact, true beliefs are useful because they are true.


But James says there is no difference between these two claims:


You can say of [a true belief] 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).



[3.3.3.] 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 a clock contains “wheels and weights and pendulums” (314) by opening it and seeing those things.


Indirect verification (“verifiability”) does not require direct sensory experience of the object(s) of that belief. It requires that the belief be consistent with everything else we believe.



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).


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


                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)



[3.3.4.] Restrictions on Which Beliefs Can Count as True.


James sounds very much like he accepts realism when he writes:


Between the coercions of the sensible order and those of the ideal order, our mind is . . . wedged tightly. Our ideas must agree with realities, be such realities concrete or abstract, be they facts or be they principles, under penalty of endless inconsistency and frustration (316).


There are three restrictions or limits on which beliefs can count as true:

·         our sensory perceptions of the world, i.e., what we experience by way of our senses; the a posteriori; and

·         the logical relations among our ideas, i.e., definitions, or principles that are logically true; the a priori (e.g., that 1+1=2, that 2+1=3, “that white differs less from gray than it does from black; that when the cause begins to act the effect also commences.” 315)

·         what we already believe: “the whole body of other truths already in our possession” (317). (Recall James’s view that true beliefs help solve “the problem of maxima and minima.”)


That there are such restrictions suggests that which beliefs are true is out of our control, and that it is not up to us:


We can no more play fast and loose with these abstract relations than we can do so with our sense-experiences. They coerce us; we must treat them consistently, whether or not we like the results. The rules of addition apply to our debts as rigorously as to our assets. The hundredth decimal of p, the ratio of the circumference to its diameter, is predetermined ideally now, tho no one may have computed it. [This is one of the most realist things that James says!] If we should ever need the figure in our dealings with an actual circle we should need to have it given rightly, calculated by the usual rules; for it is the same kind of truth that those rules elsewhere calculate (316, emphasis added).


But what does it mean to say that true beliefs agree with these realities? Again, it is sometimes a matter of copying. But it does not always require this…


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).[4]



[3.3.5.] “Truth” as Illegitimate Hypostasis.


James compares truth to health, wealth and strength: all of them are “made, in the course of experience”. Each is the name of a process that we experience and live through.


Truth for us is simply a collective name for verification-processes, just as health, wealth, strength, etc., are names for other processes connected with life, and also pursued because it pays to pursue them. Truth is made, just as health, wealth and strength are made, in the course of experience. (320)


And he then considers an objection to this view:


“Truth is not made,” [the rationalist] will say; “it absolutely obtains, being a unique relation that does not wait upon any process, but shoots straight over the head of experience, and hits its reality every time. Our belief that yon thing on the wall is a clock is true already, altho no one in the whole history of the world should verify it. The bare quality of standing in that transcendent relation is what makes any thought true that possesses it, whether or not there be verification. You pragmatists put the cart before the horse in making truth’s being reside in verification-processes. These are merely signs of its being, merely our lame ways of ascertaining after the fact, which of our ideas already has possessed the wondrous quality. The quality itself is timeless, like all essences and natures. Thoughts partake of it directly, as they partake of falsity or of irrelevancy. It can’t be analyzed away into pragmatic consequences” (320, emphases added).


The objection is this:

·         A true belief is true only because of a relation between that belief and the world (we might say a relation of correspondence).

·         Truth does not depend on actual verification; true beliefs are true—they have that special correspondence relation with reality—whether or not anyone ever verifies them.

·         Pragmatism gets things backwards when it says that a belief’s being true is a matter of its being verified; in actuality, that a belief is verified is simply an indication that it is true already.


James’s response:


Saying that truth is something apart from processes of verification is like saying that wealth is something apart from having money, or that health is something apart from processes of good digestion, circulation, etc., or that strength is something apart from what someone can do with her muscles.


The idea that truth is something over-and-above the processes in which true ideas are involved results from an illegitimate act of hypostasis:


hypostasis (df.): the process of converting an adjective or other part of a predicate into a substance or entity; e.g., one would do this if, from the fact that x is A, one were to infer that there is such an entity as A-ness, e.g., to go from the claim that a banana is yellow to the claim that there is such a thing as yellowness, or to go from the claim than a belief is true to the claim that there is such a thing as truth.[5]


“Truth” does not denote anything apart from an actual person’s belief being true, i.e., from that belief having led him or her agreeably or having the potential to do so.



[3.3.6.] “The Expedient in the Way of Our Thinking.”


At this point, James summarizes his view of truth:


‘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 . . . (322)


And this sounds as if James is identifying true belief with whatever belief works.


If he were doing so, he would be moving away from a realist view of truth and towards a relativist view of truth. What works for one person might not work for another, and it might not work for that same person at all times. So if a true belief is simply whatever works for some person at some time, truth seems to be relative to individuals and to times—what is true for one person may not be true for another; what is true for me today may not be true for me tomorrow.


But James continues:


. . . .Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight won’t necessarily meet all farther experiences equally satisfactorily. Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas (322).


This indicates that James does not think that whether a belief is true is relative to a given person or time.



[3.3.7.] Absolute Truths and Temporary Truths.


James distinguishes beliefs that are absolutely true and those that are temporarily true:


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 to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready to-morrow to call it falsehood (322, emphases added).


His use of the notion of absolute truth suggests that he does not think that whether a belief is true is relative to persons or times.


But the matter is obscured by his talk of “temporary truths”. This phrase is ambiguous. It could mean:

·         beliefs that are held to be true at one time, but eventually turn out to have been false all along. If this is what James means, this might pull him away from relativism and toward realism.

·         beliefs that are true at one time and that become false at a later time. If this is what he means, then it does seem that, for him, whether a belief is true is relative to time or person, and this idea pulls him away from realism and toward relativism.


The following passage shows how unclear James is as to what a “temporary truth” is:


                When new experiences lead to retrospective judgments, using the past tense, what these judgments utter was true, even tho no past thinker had been led there. [This suggests the first, realist interpretation.] We live forwards, a Danish thinker [viz. Kierkegaard] has said, but we understand backwards. The present sheds a backward light on the world’s previous processes. They may have been truth-processes for the actors in them. They are not so for one who knows the later revelations of the story [this suggests the second, relativist interpretation] (322).[6]



[3.3.8.] “An Impudent Slander.”


At the end of this lecture, James addresses those who have criticized the pragmatist conception of truth (his, as well as Schiller’s):


A favorite formula for describing Mr. Schiller’s doctrines and mine is that we are persons who think that by saying whatever you find it pleasant to say and calling it truth you fulfil every pragmatistic requirement (327).


James suggests that this is an “impudent slander” and says that it amounts to reading “the silliest of possible meanings into” the statements of the pragmatists. And he once again emphasizes the realist aspect of his view:


Pent in, as the pragmatist more than any one else sees himself to be, between the whole body of funded truths squeezed from the past and the coercions of the world of sense around him, who so well as he feels the immense pressure of objective control under which our minds perform their operations? (327, emphasis added)




Stopping point for Monday February 16. This class will not meet on Wednesday 2/18 since I will be attending a conference.


On Monday February 23, we will finish our coverage of James and review for your first exam (which is Wednesday February 25). Come to class on 2/23 having already prepared for your exam and be ready to ask any questions that have come up about the course material.



[1] 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.”


[2] 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) ...” < >.


[3] 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...


[4] James applies this same point to scientific theories: “Our theories are wedged and controlled as nothing else is” (319). But James stops sounding so much like a realist when he says that scientific theories are not always to be taken literally: “It is . . . as if reality were made of ether, atoms or electrons, but we mustn’t think so literally. The term ‘energy’ doesn’t even pretend to stand for anything ‘objective’” (319). Here again, James anticipates the view within contemporary philosophy of science known as instrumentalism. See Ilkka Niiniluoto, “Scientific Progress,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

                When two competing scientific theories “are equally compatible with all the truths we know . . . we choose between them for subjective reasons.” (319, emphasis added) For example, we might choose between two competing theories, each of which is compatible with all of the available evidence, because one of them is simpler than the other. But James does not take this to mean that the simpler theory is more likely to correspond with reality. This preference for simplicity is only a matter of “scientific taste” (319). This view is echoed in the works of analytic pragmatic philosopher W. V. O. Quine, whose work we cover in PHIL 4150 (Analytic Philosophy). See for example section 7.3.4 of this set of lecture notes from the fall 2014 section of that course: .


[5] Charles Peirce called this process hypostatic abstraction. (“The Simplest Mathematics” (1902), in Peirce, Collected Papers, 4.227–323; not in your textbook).


[6] Further confusing the issue is James’s reference to temporary truths as “half-truths” (323).


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