PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday April 2, 2013


[] Step Two: True Judgments Look Forward, Not Backward.


The second step that the pragmatist takes away from the traditional theories of truth follows directly from the first:


Our second step is to recognize that with this change propositions get a future outlook and reference, while the orthodox notion makes them refer to antecedent conditions. (347)


On both the coherence and correspondence views, truth is “ready made” in a true proposition:


·         According to the correspondence theory, truth is an abstract relationship between a belief (or proposition) and the world. Whether or not there is such a relationship between a given belief and the world does not depend on what the believer does with that belief. That relationship stands completely apart from the role that that belief plays in anyone’s life, apart from whether we confirm it or have experiences relevant to it at all.


·         According to the coherence theory, truth is an abstract relationship (coherence, or consistency) between a belief (or proposition) and other beliefs (propositions). As with correspondence, whether or not there is such a relationship among a given belief and other beliefs does not depend at all on what we do with that belief or on what sorts of effects it can have in our lives.


Thus, both theories make truth depend on “antecedent conditions”—conditions that existed even before anyone came to hold a given belief. On either theory, truth is independent of our actual practices of testing it and interacting with our environment in ways relevant to what it tells us. “What is done with the proposition, what happens from its use, the differences it makes in future experience—these are all irrelevant” to whether or not it is true. (347)


Dewey’s pragmatic account of truth does not base truth on pre-existing (past) conditions. Instead, it looks forward, to the future:


The pragmatist says that since every proposition [or judgment] is a hypothesis referring to an inquiry still to be undertaken (a proposal in short) its truth is a matter of its career, of its history [i.e., its future history]: that it becomes or is made true (or false) in process of fulfilling or frustrating in use its own proposal. (347)


“[T]he point of a proposition [or judgment] is to take something past, something done, in its bearings upon the future consequences which making the proposition[or judgment] helps us to reach.” (348)


Dewey illustrates this point with his analogy of the compass and the ship (but note well, before we look at the analogy: it is just an analogy. Dewey is not saying that the compass is a truth-bearer; i.e., he is not saying that the compass itself can be true or false. The compass is not an intellectual judgment—it’s a compass!).


Because the further course of a ship depends upon the way the compass-needle points, its direction is no mere brute fact, indifferent to a distinction of truth and falsity. The needle may be right or wrong, because something depends upon the particular way it is used, how it is employed as a means to an end. Antecedent conditions equally account for its pointing north, whether the pointing is due to magnetic attraction or to a defect in its own mechanism. But since the way the ship goes—and all the consequences that flow from this—is influenced by the needle’s record, its [the needle’s] position gets an entirely new type of value [viz., it is capable of being right or wrong]. It is no longer a mere effect of its past, but the effect [i.e., the needle’s position] is a sign of a possible future belonging to something else beside and beyond itself, namely: the ship. It is the sign of the progress of events toward their termination, their fulfilment, their consequences. (348-49, emphasis added)


·         Evaluating the direction of the compass needle as being right or wrong makes sense only because of the way the ship’s captain uses the compass in navigation. It is not right or wrong apart from how anyone uses the compass—it is right or wrong only relative to a given use.

·         analogue: Saying that a judgment is true or false makes sense only because of the way that the judgment is used by the person who makes it. It is not true or false because of any property it had (correspondence, coherence) before it was put to use. It is true or false only relative to a given use.


·         The needle pointing in one direction or another does depend on what has happened in the past (either the immediate past, in the case in which the needle is affected by the earth’s magnetism, or the more remote past, in the case in which the compass was broken and is now malfunctioning). But the rightness or wrongness of the needle’s direction does not derive from these earlier conditions.

·         analogue: We make the judgments we do because of how things have been in the past, including our own past experiences. But whether a given judgment is true or false does not depend on those past experiences or any other earlier conditions.


·         Instead, whether the compass is right depends on what the captain uses the needle to do and on the consequences of that use.

·         analogue: Whether a judgment is true depends only on what the person making it uses it to do and on the consequences of that use.


In summary of this second step, Dewey says: “Since ... the representation has intrinsically and necessarily reference to a future, its truth or falsity is a matter of failure or success in performing its mission.” (350)



[] Step Three: True judgments make a desired end, x, a part of the means for attaining x.


The third step that Dewey’s pragmatic theory of truth takes away from the traditional theories is to recognize that a true judgment, as an instrument that helps us achieve a given goal, makes that goal, x, a part of the means by which we can reach x.


Let us go back to the ship’s compass and needle. The voyage is uncertain as to its issue or termination. The ship is not expected just to go anywhere at random; one landing place is not as good as any other; no landing at all is not as good as a port. But it being uncertain whether the desired haven will be reached, improved control of the means of assuring the end is a desideratum [i.e., is a thing to be desired]. In such a condition any device that brings the desired end into the means and enables it thereby to function as one of the means of its own attainment is an extraordinary gain. This is precisely what the needle does. What it “presents” is not its own antecedents; what it “presents” is the port that is to be attained. And it presents this in terms of the existing movement of the ship, thereby making the end a present factor in facilitating the gaining of the desired haven. (350, emphasis added)


The captain of the ship has a specific “end” or goal in mind: to reach some specific port.


At any time during the voyage, it will be uncertain whether the ship will indeed reach that port (i.e., there is no guarantee that the ship will actually reach it).


Anything that increases the likelihood that the ship will in fact reach the right port is a desideratum.


The needle does this (i.e., it increases the likelihood that the ship will reach the right port) by “presenting” the port to the captain. This is how the needle makes the port “one of the means of its own attainment,” i.e., one of the means by which the captain gets to the port.


But again, the compass story provides an analogy. It is not the compass itself that counts as a true judgment in this situation...


But the compass is itself a manufactured article; it has been shaped by a long series of past uses with the tests and rectifications they involved for precisely the sake of helping in this sort of a situation. It is an outcome, a deposit of intellectual propositions; it has no longer, as a direct means of or stimulus to action, an intellectual quality. Imagine the steersman trying to read the compass in order that he may make the response calculated to attain the desired consequences, and you have precisely the situation in which occur propositions (statements, reports, judgments) having a vital intellectual quality. (351)


It is the judgments made by the steersman in his use of the compass that are capable of being true or false. It is when, for example, the steersman judges that the compass needle is pointing north and adjusts the course of the ship accordingly that an intellectual judgment is being made.


It is this sort of provisional, tentative judgment that makes the desired port a part of the means of getting to that port (i.e., it makes the port a part of the means of reaching the port).



[4.3.4.] The Role of “Correspondence” in Dewey’s Theory.


At this point, Dewey proceeds to argue that his pragmatic theory of truth has all of the benefits of the correspondence and coherence theories but none of their drawbacks. He begins with the correspondence theory…


Dewey says that his pragmatic account of truth “locates and describes correspondence as a mark of truth.” (352)


At first, this might sound like Dewey is contradicting what he said earlier and admitting into his theory the sort of abstract correspondence relationship (between belief-that-represents and world-that-is-represented) that he had rejected earlier. But this is not what he is doing.


Instead, Dewey understands “correspondence” as something very different than the sort of abstract relationship required by the correspondence theory: the “correspondence” that, according to Dewey, is a mark of truth is a matter of fitting in with past conditions and with the end or goal that is being sought.


... the compass is responsible; it answers to something; it answers to a need, and also to other and antecedent conditions. Being itself used as a factor in reaching the desired end, the way it fits into, or corresponds with, other factors is a matter of prime moment. Were it not a factor at all (as it is not on either the consistency or correspondence theories) or were it the only factor, it would not be liable to correction or to verification; there would be no intelligible sense in which it would correspond. Having an office to perform, an office which is specific, and therefore depending upon cooperation with the activities of other independent factors, its own use is the way it corresponds with the other efficient conditions involved. It is brought to bear by the agent interested upon these other factors; it reacts upon them; they in turn act differently than they otherwise would (that is, than they would if it were not there as cooperating), and their reactions to it at once confirm, strengthen it, or nullify, frustrate it; or, more likely, do both and so modify it by reconstruction. In short, our definition of truth through reference to consequences, uses correspondence as a mark of a meaning or proposition [or judgment] in exactly the same sense in which it is used everywhere else; in the sense in which two friends correspond, that is, interact as checks, as stimuli, as mutual aids and mutual correctors, or as the parts of a machine correspond. The orthodox realistic theory, on the contrary, has to invent a unique and undefinable meaning for this particular case of correspondence.

The things to which the meaning or statement [or judgment] is applied, upon which it is used, therefore constitute an indispensable factor in the way it works out, whether to failure or success, and so of its being made true or false, instead of remaining doubtful or conditional. (352-353)


Dewey’s view is that correspondence is involved with truth, but it is “correspondence” in a much more familiar and usual sense than the sense employed by the correspondence theorist. It is not an abstract relationship but instead the kind of correspondence we have in mind when we say that the parts of a machine correspond with each other, or that friends “correspond”: here correspondence means something like interacting in harmonious ways so as to bring about some desirable end.


In an endnote, Dewey makes it explicit that the correspondence involved in truth is not a matter of having a copy or duplicate of reality in one’s mind:


... pragmatism holds that the idea or proposition is framed with reference to [existing conditions]; but with reference to using them in a certain way, not with reference to reduplicating them in a knowledge order separate and ultimate. (360-61, n.4)[1]



[4.3.5.] Dewey’s Definition of Truth.


At this point Dewey comes as close as ever to giving us a straightforward definition of truth. He translates the correspondence theorist’s description of truths as “present[ing] things as they really are” as follows:


Truth is “the way of presenting things which is actually, not merely potentially, effective in securing the consequences with reference to which the things are causes.” (354)


So a true judgment is one that presents things in a way that actually helps the person making the judgment attain consequences of those things.




S makes a true judgment about x =

S makes a judgment about x, and

that judgment presents x to S in a way that actually helps S attain consequences of x .


For example, suppose I judge that The drawer handle on a chest of drawers will open a bottle of beer. This judgment is true if and only if it presents the drawer handle to me in such a way that it enables me to “secure the consequences” caused by the drawer handle, e.g., the consequence that my beer bottle gets opened.


But it is not only judgments that can be true on this definition. Any number of other things can be true, as well: “the pragmatist has no occasion to blush when he meets a true poem, a true man, plants that breed true, a true formula of algebra or of physics.” (354)



Stopping point for Tuesday April 2. For next time, begin reading Rorty’s “Pragmatism, Relativism, Irrationalism” (read pp.635-43).



[1] Dewey attempts to clarify the point by tracing the development of pragmatism from its inception with Peirce:


Mr. Peirce’s original contribution was to the theory of meanings or definitions. He asked what is the way to arrive at the meaning, the conceptual significance, of anything. His reply was: “Consider the consequences that that thing produces; the specific differences its existence will make in other things.” Clearly the existence of the thing defined and the existence of its mode of efficiency are presupposed. Mr. James then used the method ... as a way of getting at the meaning (not the truth) of philosophic concepts, and especially as a way of finding out the significance (or whether there is any question save a verbal one) of philosophical disputes.


Dewey takes himself to be extending Peirce’s and James’ pragmatism by saying the following (361 n.4):


1.       “meanings are actually formed (judgments made) only when the issue of a situation [i.e., the situation’s consequences, its outcome] is still indeterminate or problematic

2.       “meaning (or judgment) introduces a method of dealing with this situation so as to try to guide or shape it in a desired direction

3.       “the success of the meaning or judgment in performing this office (which of course is a matter in actu [a matter of practice]), constitutes the worth or truth of the meaning or judgment.”


Because it makes these three claims, Dewey’s account of truth “involve[s]” “antecedent and ‘external’ subject matter”—and this, says Dewey, is something frequently ignored or over-looked by pragmatism’s critics. This is somewhat similar to James’s claiming that truth is “agreement with concrete realities” (which at first sounds like the correspondence theory) but then going on to explain agreement as “a rich and active commerce” between one’s mind and the world... something other than the static, unchanging relationship that many correspondence theorists have had in mind. Still, Dewey goes beyond James by emphasizing that intellectual judgments (those that do not assert their own truth) are made in problematic situations, as a way of dealing with those situations, and those judgments become true only when they in fact help to deal with those situations.


Analytic Philosophy Homepage | Dr. Lane's Homepage | Phil. Program Homepage

This page last updated 4/2/2013.

Copyright © 2013 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.

UWG Disclaimer