Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

William James: PRAGMATISM - Lecture 6

What is truth? Without using a dictionary, most people think that truth is agreement with reality, and falsity is disagreement with reality. This is useful, as long as we all agree what reality is. Most of us equate reality with truth. James says that “The popular notion is that a true idea must copy its reality.” In other words, to have a “true idea” there needs to be something out there, somewhere, to make it a true idea rather than a false idea. There needs to be some measuring stick to measure how “true” something actually is.

James doesn’t think there is such a cosmic measuring stick. That’s fine for James. But Plato might argue: “When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter.” There’s nothing else to be said because you’ve rubbed up against The Real Thing. Some things are rock solid – eternal even – they never go away and they never change. True ideas are truer even than things we can see and taste and touch. That’s because all material things eventually go away or change – the sun goes down, milk turns sour, even mountains eventually erode. Plato seeks a Truth that won’t go away or change. For Plato, to really be True means a thing will have to stay the same as it is, now and forever.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, says that “True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those we can not.” This is a different definition. What does it mean exactly? James believes “The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. It’s…a process.” Truth? A process? This flatly contradicts Plato. For Plato, Truth isn’t a process; it’s more like home base. It’s the goal we aim for. Our goal in life is to adjust our conduct to conform to these True Ideas. Pragmatism defines the notion of truth as something we create as we go along. We make up what is true, for us, by our experience of living in the world, not by dreaming up some abstract changeless reality. Therefore, Plato is clearly mistaken.

Who’s right? Can we conduct a test and decide who wins? Not really. This is the kind of argument where people have to agree to disagree. Why? Because we can’t fully verify either claim. James concedes there are many “truths” we cannot personally experience, even in the real world. He even acknowledges that “unverified truths…form the overwhelmingly large number of the truths we live by.” There’s just not enough time for us to experience everything personally. For example, it’s better for us to “assume Japan to exist without ever having been there, because it works to do so.” This is the pragmatic method. It’s a working philosophy.

But some things we can verify: 1 + 1 = 2, for instance. This is true wherever we are, and for every possible ‘one’ that there can ever be. “Once true, always true” is something Plato approves. But James thinks that between concrete things in the “real world” and abstract things in our “mental world” our minds must function within two tightly controlled parameters. Reality in this view becomes the relationship between the concrete things that we perceive and the abstract thoughts that make connections between them. For us, that’s what “truth” is – the connections we make between concrete things and our abstract thoughts. These connections are “true” because they work for us. Abstract thoughts keep us searching for more truths; concrete things keep us grounded in the way things actually work. James warns that we need to keep clear in our minds what we are about in this world. “We mustn’t now call Abel ‘Cain’ or Cain ‘Abel.’ If we do, we ungear ourselves from the whole book of Genesis and from all its connexions with the universe…” In philosophy, as in life, it’s important that we all play by the same rules. And that’s something William James and Plato both should agree on.

-- RDP


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