Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, December 11, 2006

William James: PRAGMATISM - Lecture 7

William James seems absolutely convinced that there’s no such thing as the truth. In fact, he claims that “what is the truth” isn’t even a real question because truth should be thought of as plural. This idea goes against the grain of what many people consider to be common sense. What if B claims: “I think James’ ideas are wacky, and that’s the truth.” B might think that here’s a sufficient refutation of James’ idea of many truths, because it states one truth. But what does James really mean when he claims that there may be any number of truths? Is B’s comment a refutation of James, or merely a statement of his own opinion about what James believes?

The problem seems to be in two different understandings of the meaning behind the word “truth.” B feels on solid ground when talking about the truth. And it seems solid enough, unless you start thinking about it in a different way. James points out that the number 27 can be seen as 9 x 3, or it can be 26 + 1, or 100 – 73…all of these are true statements, and many other expressions besides. These would all be true expressions, and none of them would be any truer than the other. However, B may respond that this misses the point entirely. The truth in this case is the number 27. All the various expressions are just different ways to point to the same truth. The number 27 is still solid, and true, no matter how many different ways you express it.

This seems like a trivial quarrel, until you consider the implications that can be drawn from your conclusion. If you agree with B, then things like truth, law, and language are constant (maybe even eternal) because they are true and can be counted on to be there when you need them. But if you agree with James, then “Truth, law, and language…make themselves as we go.” You can still count on them to be there when you need them, but for an entirely different reason: they’ve changed, just as you’ve changed, and have now evolved into a “truth” that is more adaptable and more up-to-date than the “truth” which B uses as a bedrock foundation.

What difference does it make? Perhaps a great deal of difference. Consider the
United States Constitution. Is it a living document that evolves and grows to adapt to the changing needs of a changing society? Or is it a bedrock foundation we can count on to give society ballast and to keep people in power from making up the rules as they go along? If you agree with James, then the Constitution can be interpreted in different ways as we progress. If you agree with B, then the Constitution is rock solid and means what it says. The only way to “change” the Constitution is to pass an amendment.

This notion of flexibility vs. firmness can be extended to other areas as well, but the alternatives show up particularly well when you use the examples of truth, law and language. Do you promise to tell the truth? Will the law be the same tomorrow as it is today? Do words really mean what they say? These aren’t trivial questions and this topic isn’t child’s play.

Even if you don’t agree with James, it’s worth considering what he has to say. He quotes Schiller’s application of Humanism: “Human motives sharpen all our questions, human satisfactions lurk in all our answers, all our formulas have a human twist.” The test of truth for a Pragmatist is what practical difference it makes to a specific human being in the present moment. If it works for me personally, then it’s true for me. If it doesn’t work, or if it can’t be tested, then it’s not true for me. Mr. B may be puzzled by that concept. He prefers to stand on solid ground whereas James sees a world that is constantly shifting and adapting to new circumstances. Mr. James is searching for adventure in a wild and wooly world; Mr. B. wants a nice comfortable world where he can be at home. In the end, who can say which one is right? They want different things from life, and they both find what they started out looking for in the first place.

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

The relativist position is self-defeating. If everything is subjective, then so is Dewey's claim that truth is a mere property of usefulness. And since pragmatism itself is only one "perspective" of reality, why should anyone believe it? Thus, relativism leads first to skepticism, then finally to nihilism. Why believe anything at all if everything is just a matter of personal preference. For a different perspective, see Boghossian's book entitled Fear of Knowledge.

12/11/2006 1:22 PM  

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