PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday February 19, 2013


[3.3.4.] “Wedged Tightly Between the Coercions.”


So far, some of the things James has said about truth make him sound like he does not accept realism. But he sounds very much like a realist when he writes:


Between the coercions of the sensible order and those of the ideal order, our mind is thus 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)


In other words, there are two types of constraint on what new beliefs we can come to accept:

·         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)


(A third constraint is “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 constraints 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)


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)[1]


What’s more, 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).[2]


[3.3.5.] “Truth” as Illegitimate Hypostasis.


James reiterates his view that truth is a matter of verification:


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.


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 quality of truth, obtaining ante rem [in the abstract], pragmatically means, then, the fact that in such a world innumerable ideas work better by their indirect or possible than by their direct and actual verification. Truth ante rem means only verifiability, then; or else it is a case of the stock rationalist trick of treating the name of a concrete phenomenal reality as an independent prior entity, and placing it behind the reality as its explanation. (320-321)


James’s view seems to be that the correspondence theory 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.[3]


But “wealth” does not denote anything apart from a person’s having money; “health” denotes nothing apart from the processes that make a person healthy; and “strength” does not denote some “pre-existing excellence” that explains how a person can lift so much weight. Similarly, “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.


A belief can be true even at a time when it is not leading you (just as you can be strong even at a time when you are not lifting anything); but the process of verification (of agreeable leading) is “the root of the whole matter.” (322) Without the process of verification, no belief would be true… just as, without the processes of digestion, sleep, etc., no person would have health.



[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...


And this sounds as if James is identifying truth with whatever 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 a different time. 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)


And 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 makes a distinction between beliefs which are absolutely true and those which 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)


By “absolutely true” belief, James seems to mean a belief that is epistemically certain, a belief that is true and that cannot possibly false. Here he strongly suggests, but does not explicitly say, that he is a fallibilist.[4]


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


But the matter is obscured by his talk of “temporarily true beliefs.” This phrase is ambiguous, and it is not clear which meaning James has in mind. 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 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)


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




Stopping point for Tuesday February 19. This class will not meet on Thursday 2/21 since I will be attending a conference. Your first exam in this course is one week from today.




[1] 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 = <>.


[2] This view is echoed in the works of analytic philosopher W. V. O. Quine, whose work we cover in PHIL 4150 (Analytic Philosophy). See for example section 7.3.6 of this set of lecture notes from the fall 2012 section of that course: .


[3] Charles Peirce called this process hypostatic abstraction. (“The Simplest Mathematics” (1902), in Peirce, Collected Papers, 4.227–323).


[4] James explicitly commits to fallibilism in his essay “The Will to Believe.”

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