This is the second of a series of three mini-essays written for a course exploring various philosophical theories of ‘truth’:
For William James, turn-of-the-last-century adherent of Pragmatism, ‘truth’ was a working hypothesis; if something ‘works’ to enable us to move forward in our search for ‘truth’, then accept it as ‘true’ (for now). By contrast, if you wait until absolutely certain you have found ‘truth’ before calling it such, you will be forever disappointed. James believed that although ‘truth’ is capable of being known, we can never be certain whether or not we have reached it.
Besides, with constant advancement in science and technology, ‘truth’ changes over time. We are always aiming at a moving target.
Although James failed to specify where our target of ‘truth’ might reside and what might be its ultimate purpose, he obviously thought it worthwhile of pursuit. Not all would agree. For example, by the mid-20th century, Deflationists had concluded that there’s nothing special about truth so why bother with it? Despite such developments, James need never to have worried. The continuing 21st century popularity of The Varieties of Religious Experience, James’s epistemological study of the spiritual experience of men and women, suggests his brand of ‘truth’ remains in high demand.
In my view, those wishing to find ‘truth’, at least in an epistemological sense, should consider James’s approach. Pragmatism opens more doors than other theories of truth and keeps them open too. For example, correspondence theorists require ‘truth’ to be shoe-horned into a rigid set of factual constraints, leaving us bereft when the ‘facts’ in play are neither black nor white, but instead clothed in shades of grey. Equally, Coherence theorists narrow the field by requiring potential new ‘truths’ to either fit comfortably within an existing body of knowledge/understanding or be discarded.
Despite many upsides, Jamesian Pragmatism has downsides.
Although James was pluralistic (i.e. multiple versions of ‘truth’ exist), he was not a relativist, at least not in the sense that one man’s version of the truth is necessarily as good as the next (i.e. ‘anything goes’). Sometimes, however, in practical terms this distinction falls flat.
Consider Donald Trump and his claim regarding numbers attending his 2017 inauguration. Correspondence theorists would not consider this as ‘true’ because it fails to correspond to observable facts. Yet undoubtedly Trump’s ‘truth’ was useful to him, perhaps furthering one of his favourite pursuits, self-aggrandisement. James may also have considered Trump’s claim as useful and thus ‘true’ at least to the extent it furthers our understanding of human nature.
Accepting this ‘truth’ even as a working hypothesis appears dangerous. The challenges of a post-fact, post-truth White House are highlighted daily.
It is disturbing that some have suggested that the late philosopher, Richard Rorty, who actively aligned himself with Jamesian Pragmatism, actually prophesied the coming of ‘truth’ à la Trump.
Other downsides include: if no cares enough about a potential ‘truth’ to attempt to prove it, then it can never be considered as ‘useful’ or not. Equally, the approach may be so scientifically oriented as make it impractical when dealing with certain types of ‘truth’ such as moral imperatives or aesthetic values.