The Pragmatic Theory of Truth:
A Defense and Reconciliation
Essay First Submitted: PP450L: Pragmatism
Wilfrid Laurier University. 2013
The pragmatic theory of truth is unique amongst its peers as both one of the most innovative and subsequently criticized theories of truth currently formulated. Deriving from what is often seen by many philosophers as an extremely subjective philosophy, the pragmatic theory of truth states that a belief is true insofar as it fulfills some role or achieves some particular result, and that it remains true only insofar as it continues to yield beneficial results relative to our circumstances. Two major critics of the theory, Bertrand Russell and Hilary Putnam each raise independent objections to this assertion, each of particularly serious importance. Russell takes issue with the allegedly subjective aspects of the pragmatic theory of truth, inferring that there are numerous inherently untrue or even immoral actions that can be justified by the pragmatists lax definitions of truth. He also mentions the criticism raised by Putnam, that being that the necessity of relevant ‘consequences’ to an action or state of affairs means that there are numerous areas of the past that constitute potentially “essentially evidence-transcendent truths” Meanwhile, proponents and defenders of the theory, including William James and John Dewey, insist that the majority of these and other criticisms against the pragmatic theory of truth are simply misunderstandings regarding what is meant by pragmatic truth and how it relates to the rest of the world, including what is conventionally referred to as ‘the facts.’ It is this key division pragmatists insist upon between facts and truths, along with the emphasis that truths need to be relevant rather than independent to those formulating them that show the greatest strength of the pragmatic theory of truth: that of its ability to remain dynamic and fluctuating according to the real-world application of new knowledge and information, while allowing for realistic criterion for lasting, if not permanent, truths.
The pragmatic theory of truth has undergone several iterations in its lifespan, though certain elements remain consistent throughout all formulations. The first of these themes is one of the most critical elements of pragmatic truth as well as the overall philosophy: its roots in fallibilism and the evolution of truth as new and contradictory evidence comes to light. Fallibilism is simply the admission that, despite our best efforts, there is no single truth we can say to be true with total certainty until every single avenue of investigation has been exhausted, and until “the last man has had his say and contributed his share.” As such, pragmatists regard truth as an evolving project that, for all intents and purposes, is likely impossible to complete. This does not prevent relevant truths from being formulated however, as the purpose of a truth is now constructive rather than reflective of the base state of the world. James in particular praises the benefits of truth conceived as being on “a credit system,” as it ensures that any truth at any given time is given no greater assurance of continuation beyond its overcoming a particular issue at a given time. No idea or truth should be held in a way that precludes its potential to be proven false, otherwise we risk becoming dogmatic in our thinking, and refusing to abandon theories simply out of our familiarity with them, rather than on the merit of their ability to deal with the evidential realities of the world. While James holds that this aspect of intellectual conservatism regarding our beliefs is a natural part of the human psyche, it can become detrimental if allowed to overrule the primacy of empirical investigations in our thinking. James’ emphasis on the empirical is echoed by Dewey, who praises the experimental methods ability to break down any and all barriers, and leave every aspect of human endeavor and action open to re-examination and change. The fallibilist claims of pragmatism seem to be perfectly reasonable, if potentially worrisome claim based on the notable difficulty of securing lasting truths based on empirical measure. Even many empiricists relinquish the potentiality of knowing the world in its totality in their arguments. However, it is this fallibilism along with the second major claim that makes the pragmatic theory of truth so unpalatable.
The second key theme is the location of truth as an internal, human state rather than external objective quality of the world. James uses the example of constellations in the nights sky to demonstrate this point, stating that while the stars “suffer us” to impose our own unique order on their formations in the sky, these are never the less ideas that have relevance only relative to the human observer who takes them into account. As such, truth becomes something that is “known, thought or said about... reality, and consequently numerically additional to it.” The necessity for truths to have some form of agreement with reality is still a key aspect of the pragmatic definition of truth, as it is with all theories of truth, though it is clear that what is meant by pragmatists by this phrase is substantially different. Perhaps the most objectionable aspect of this theory comes from James’ own insistence that a reality independent of human thinking is not simply difficult to find, but impossible. Instead, the Pragmatists clearly differentiate truth from the facts of the matter, by examining whether the beliefs regarding the object or state of affairs in question will have any meaningful practical consequences for those who are addressing that state of affairs. As such, while the facts provide a frame of sorts for a given truth or belief, they are ultimately little more than a basis from which the truths regarding them come to fruition or ruin based on their ability to resolve the attendant goals relative to their circumstances. While internal to the pragmatic theory this point seems unproblematic. However, Bertrand Russell believes that it fails to offer sufficients grounds for refuting certain moral truths that he regards as standing on higher, universal grounds.
Bertrand Russell’s objections to the pragmatic theory of truth can best be summarized as moral objections rather than metaphysical. In general, his criticism is twofold. The first prong is that James’ theory of truth allows for any belief to be held as true so long as it “pays to believe,” regardless of even the facts of the matter. This for Russell has unacceptable consequences for both moral standards, as simple factual statements. The moral objections are simply that, given the right combination of circumstances and enough consensus amongst a population, any idea can be found to be correct, even heinous doctrines such as those of the Nazi’s or other dictators. In this case Russell makes two mistakes. The first is the assumption that any human population of sufficient diversity would find creeds such as the Nazi’s correct in the the first place. James and contemporary Neo-Pragmatism Richard Rorty emphasizes that any pragmatic moral theory must necessarily encompass as many perspectives as possible in order to be truly workable in the long term way necessitated by any effective pragmatic truth. The second issue is that Russell makes a mistake in assuming that moral values have some source outside of the social moral codes that are created and enforced by a given community. He believes that a theory of truth such as pragmatism that appeals to social rather than objective grounds for morality is inherently doomed to result in a ‘might is right’ paradigm with no standards of ascertaining right from wrong. However, given the pragmatic requirement for any truth to be vetted by its continued functioning “in the long run and overall,” it seems unlikely that any moral theory based on the pragmatic theory of truth would fail to meet the criteria of serving the best interests of as many human beings as possible, and that those that do not would be swiftly abandoned, or else forced out of favour by those they fail to take account of. Despite these counter-arguments Russell feels there is a greater issue at the heart of pragmatic theories of truth.
While Russell’s moral arguments against the pragmatic theory of truth appear to be largely based on his own distaste with the idea of non objective morality, the underlying argument against pragmatism is that pragmatism allows for such a plurality of truths as to be functionally useless. For example, he states that despite the facts of the matter of any given case, such as the debate of the true identity of the writer of the plays credited to William Shakespeare, a pragmatist could easily see the argument both ways regarding the truth of the matter, despite there being an implicit premise that, at some point, either Shakespeare or Bacon must have written down these plays, independent of what anyone at present may think. He insists that pragmatists formulate the theory of truth without consideration of the facts of the matter. Further criticism from James’ own work expands Russell’s objections further, that if satisfaction of a desired end is all that is necessary to have a true belief, then how do we account for pleasing beliefs with erroneous facts, or dissatisfactory beliefs that coincide with facts? However, both of these argument rest on a similar mistake because pragmatism has never made that argument that truths are independent of facts, merely that truths are made relative to both the facts and our needs and interests. In the case of Russell’s objection, the pragmatist would respond that the only reason why both beliefs would be seen as equally valid is because there is no definitive fact which would otherwise invalidate one side as a candidate for truth, nor is there any great upshot to one belief over the other. In response to the latter two objections, James states that it is this same “inherent relation to reality of a belief that gives us that specific truth satisfaction,” and that any view that contradicts the factual basis of reality would be a belief that would not even survive its first test of validity on the empirical method. Thus Russell’s objection to Pragmatism on the grounds of its rejection of factual reality stems from a misunderstanding of how pragmatists define the relation of facts and truths.
While the issues raised by Russell are relatively easily clarified by the fact-truth division in pragmatism, Hilary Putman’s objections based on past truths require a more thorough evaluation of the Pragmatic Theory of Truth. Putnam’s criticism is formulated in two distinct ways, the first being that truths regarding the past are dependent on what beliefs are formed about them in the present. The second follows from the first, and is perhaps the most damaging: if truths are relative to the present observers, or at least what present observers can know about them, then it seems likely that there are numerous events and facts in the past that allow for essentially evidence transcendent truths. James and Dewey provide a similar answer to the first issue, arguing that Putnam’s mistake in this formulation is conflating truths about the past with the past things themselves. James states that so long as a belief about the past remains in keeping with what is known about the past object relative to the present, that belief is true. Dewey takes the implication a step further, insisting that the aim of any past relative judgement is still a present and/or future oriented goal. However, this slight differentiation brings out a conflict between the two pragmatists when addressing the second criticism. James insists that it is fundamentally impossible to have a truly evidence transcendent truth, and that in order for us to even conceive of a condition with a possible truth, it must at least in principle be somehow provable. Dewey by contrast contends that without any relevant consequences that persist into the present or future, then we are incapable to forming any beliefs regarding them to begin with, let alone evaluating truth values. Without a clear consensus between these two pragmatists, the response to the past truths criticism remains problematic, though from both perspectives a potential solution appears to emerge.
While James and Dewey disagree on how best to address the past truths issues, both present part of a potential solution. James appears to be correct in principle regarding evidence transcendent truths based on the nature of the fact truth divide as it applies to Russell’s criticisms. If a truth must correspond to attendant facts in some capacity, then there must be some sort of factual basis for the truth to be evaluated, or even effectively conceived. Just as even the most fanciful fictional creatures and setting contain familiar features (even the deliberate inversion of those features), so does the past, at least in principle, contain the puzzle pieces for inferring at least a part of the pattern to emerge. However, without at least a single piece, no inference can take place. This is addressed by Dewey’s interpretation of the issue. If there is nothing for us to discover, and therefore no attendant facts for us to make an evaluation regarding any potential truths, then there is nothing at issue for truth values to be applied to. Putnam’s own example of the Lizzie Borden murder case illustrates this issue perfectly, as well as serving as another example of the necessity of the fact/truth divide in order for pragmatic truth to function. Putnam states that judgements of the past may still contradict the facts based on the belief proves persuasive enough, and that the pragmatic theory of truth essentially allows no means of countering these factually mistaken beliefs. However, this is simply not the case. The facts of the past are, by almost universal definition, imprecise, and contentious historical debates are clear demonstrations of this. As such, instances in which all the factual information is either unavailable or obscured (in the case of a court decision in progress), or else lost to us (in the case of distant past events or objects), then we fashion our beliefs based on what evidence we have, to which one of the major tests to their ongoing status as truths will be their ability to assimilate new factual information pertaining to the cases as it appears. While truths may appear in a variety of shades, and only those that prove most effective at achieving goals survive, facts remain a binary of yes or no. Thus their relation to truths becomes that of the initial test: does x exist? if yes, we may formulate beliefs that can be true or false regarding it. If no, then we will be unable to proceed any further with any relevant investigation.
The Pragmatic Theory of Truth has a well known reputation for being problematic amongst philosophers. However, despite numerous objections, the theory’s merits and strengths are far better suited to overcoming the allegedly fatal issues raised by Bertrand Russell and Hilary Putnam. Thanks to key distinctions between facts and truths, and the necessary emphasis on fallibilism present throughout the pragmatic philosophy as well as the pragmatic theory of truth, the pragmatic theory of truth is able to maintain a cohesive view of the truth as a goal oriented view of the facts of the world, for which separate criteria for validity apply and which allows for a more realistic sense of what a true belief is versus other contemporary objective theories. Despite these advantages however, many remain skeptical that the pragmatic theory of truth is workable, particularly regarding the criticisms raised over its supposed inability to deal with truths regarding the past. There appears to be a similar vein of thought in both of the criticisms raised by Russell and Putnam: that of attempting to find fault with the pragmatic theory of truth based on an appeal to the allegedly absurd consequences it leads truth seekers to regarding moral and temporal truths respectively. However, these criticisms seem to be more emotional than substantive. If the above clarifications are indeed adequate to settle the problems with the Pragmatic Theory of Truth as having a unique, but perfectly serviceable relation with both the facts of the matter, and the past, then the basis of both arguments seems to be that the pragmatic theory of truth merely fails to meet the standards of objectivity its critics demand of it. One of the major strengths of the pragmatic theory of truth is its flexibility, which allows for truths to never be above the suspicions of knowledge and evidence that might prove contrary. In many respects this is also the source of some of the apparent discomfort for such critics. It seems therefore that the major fault with the pragmatic theory of truth is its inability to accommodate the standards of objective truths that older theories have promised, however problematic. Whether or not such a state of objectivity is possible, and it seems even pragmatism is able to at least admit that there are some truths that may indeed stand the test of time, it clearly has not been achieved yet. Finally, it is equally evident that the pragmatic theory of truth, as a theory that understands the role of human goals and interests in interpreting knowledge, and the continuing necessity of an open and expanding dialogue to find ever more useful truths in a changing world is well suited to this unique role.
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