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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Reflections on Wm. James' Conception of Truth

"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."

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

This is a restatement of the correspondence theory of truth which claims that our ideas are true if they reflect something "real" in the physical world. Thus, what is "real" means "whatever exists." From this, we might infer that the content of "truth" and the content of "reality" are epistemologically identical. Of course, this raises a different kind of problem...viz., what ontological status do untrue ideas or beliefs hold? Do we say that our idea of Big Foot does not exist because our belief in it is untrue? No. Untrue beliefs must have some kind of reality because they exist as ideas in the mind. If this is so, then a simple correspondence theory about truth and reality is not a sufficient explanation. Since ideas exist by the very fact that someone is having those particular thoughts, then whether or not they represent something "real" (i.e., in the physical world) is not a test of their ontology (their "Being" as philosophers say). James is correct in suggesting that the popular linkage between truth and reality does not adequately explain the nature of our ideas. "Reality" is simply another word for "what is" or "what exists." Thus, we are led to the strange notion that all ideas are "real" insofar as they exist. But the property of "truth" attaches itself to some ideas and not to others.

What about ideas that existed in the past? Are they still real in the present? You have to conclude that unless an idea has passed completely into oblivion then it must endure as a memory. That brings up the question of whether ideas can exist outside of the mind. Plato certainly believed this was possible. But it is difficult to describe what kind of reality an idea has once separated from a living brain. Could you say that the idea (or datum) is preserved in a computer network or a manuscript, and thus continues to exist as a kind of contingent reality? Hmm.

"Where our ideas cannot copy definitely their object, what does agreement with that object mean?"

If ideas are only imperfect copies of their objects, then they cannot be strictly reliable. They give us only an approximation of the truth (or reality) which supports the idea. Nevertheless, the standard for truth must lie with reality, not with any test or principle of verification. The world exists whether or not it is inhabited by perceiving subjects. The problems with verification are primarily statements about perception, not the objects being perceived. Even if we agree with Descartes that mind and matter are intrinsically different, and that our knowledge is limited to what we (as perceiving subjects) can experience (or what God reveals), that still tells us nothing about the world itself.

"But the great assumption of the intellectualists is that truth means essentially an inert static relation."

Unless truth is static, it can no longer function as a standard by which to evaluate our actions. If truth is malleable, then it means one thing today, something else tomorrow, and perhaps something else again as it recedes into the distant past. An elastic truth is no truth at all. It is only a word, a mere sound in the air that our lips make, but with no fixed meaning. Do we really want to say that truth is just a state of mind, like being angry or happy or noble? Doesn't this remove truth from the concerns of philosophy and abandon it to the realm of psychology? Is truth just another empirical process to be studied like rats in a maze? Or is it more than that?

"How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?"

This is more a question about relevance than ontology. There are actually two questions that need to be answered: what is real? and How can we know (or verify) what is real? If truth and reality are epistemological synonyms, as I believe they are, then these concepts are interchangeable because the problems they raise are identical. Of course, in philosophy, knowledge is divided into two categories: "things we know for certain," and "things which we believe." Plato believed that truth corresponds only to certainty. Everything else is mere opinion, which is not a form of knowledge at all but only a pale reflection of truth. With James, the question of what we can know is delimited by the range of things (ideas) which can be verified. As you might expect, this is the methodology of science. Things which, by their very nature, cannot be verified are bracketed as unknowable (i.e., metaphysical, or beyond the realm of physics) and put aside. Everything else is subjected to the rigors of verification. Thus, the domain of truth is reduced from all of God's creation (the universe or "logos") to the much smaller realm of things which can be understood by human reason and verified by human perception.

This slimming down of reality (a kind of philosophical reductionism) is done for the sake of human progress, that is to say the expansion of scientific knowledge. It is a credo of pragmatists everywhere that as science progresses, so does humanity. And it cannot be denied that science (and technology) advances by focusing its attention on problems that (in theory at least) have practical solutions. This is only to say that the disciplines of philosophy and science have very different agendas.

For example:

If we say that A = B, and either A or B is clearly unknowable, then the proposition will not hold. Notice, however, that lacking a means of verification is not the same as saying that A = B is untrue. For James, the notion of relevance is connected with the notion of truth. If you cannot clearly state what difference it makes to you whether A = B or not, then the question is moot and not worth pursuing. Thus, the realm of truth now shrinks further, constrained as it is by the need to satisfy both the test of verification and the test for relevance. But what is not considered relevant for the purposes of science may still be highly relevant for the purposes of mankind. Should we abandon metaphysics and theology because they do not conform to a fetishistic desire for verification?

We infer the presence of truth in the world from our experience and from our reason, but we can never know it directly. Kant believed that some aspects of reality are demonstrable, even without the benefit of experience. He called such truths "a priori" (meaning prior to experience). Among these are mathematics, and the intuitions of time, space, and causality. These truths are apprehensible and universal. But they are not verifiable in the pragmatist fashion. Are there other aspects of reality that are worth pursuing even if they are not fit subjects for scientific inquiry?

"True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot."

This is not a statement of fact but rather a proposal to redefine "true ideas" as being equivalent to....

"The practical value of true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us."

"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."

Here we encounter the curious notion that truth is a temporary condition. Ideas which we characterize as "truth" may, at some future time, be recharacterized as lies or myths. So, truth has a quality about it like freshness. It might just as well have a date of expiration. I can't help but think of Orwell's "Ministry of Truth" when I hear truth described this way. If truth is merely instrumental, then it can be whatever we need it to be. Isn't this the same concept as propaganda? An idea which serves a political purpose and is valid only so long as it continues to serve that purpose.

"From this simple cue pragmatism gets her general notion of truth as something essentially bound up with the way in which one moment in our experience may lead us towards other moments which it will be worthwhile to have been led to."

I cannot disagree that experience leads us, willy-nilly, to things "worthwhile to have been led to." But this statement misses the point. If we allow the larger philosophical search for truth to be co-opted and assigned to the pragmatist's laboratory, we are settling for a much smaller, disposable version of reality than what is truly "out there." A truth that is deconstructed and dressed up can seem almost worthwhile. But having lost any meaningful frame of reference, we will no longer care what the truth is as long as it agrees with our current "evidence." No longer content to live in the old world (the enduring realm of Truth), we have embarked on the search for a new world of practical, post-modern values, where facts are king, and usefulness the law. Whether we will wash up on the shore of the Yahoos or the Houyhnhnm has yet to be determined.

[all quotations are taken from William James' Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Penguin Classics ]


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