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WHAT PRAGMATISM MEANS. William James (Second lecture in Jame’s 1906 series at the Lowell Institute). Purpose . James claims that Pragmatism is first a method of doing philosophy and second a theory of truth. (1) Method (2) Truth (Knowledge)  . Pragmatism as a Method.

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What pragmatism means


William James

(Second lecture in Jame’s 1906 series at the Lowell Institute)


  • James claims that Pragmatism is first a method of doing philosophy and second a theory of truth.

  • (1) Method

  • (2) Truth (Knowledge)  

Pragmatism as a method
Pragmatism as a Method

1. Pragmatism is a tool for solving scientific and metaphysical controversies

2. Clarifies the meaning of concepts.

3. It does NOT advance any particular theory or view of the world.

4. It is an attitude or orientation

Scientific controversies
Scientific Controversies

  • James claims pragmatism is a method that can help resolve scientific controversies.

  • He gives the mundane example of the controversy concerning whether the person went around the squirrel.

  • The man is facing the tree and the squirrel is on the tree facing the man but on the other side of the tree. When the man moved to his right the squirrel moved also until the man went around in a full circle, without ever seeing the squirrel.

  • Did the man go around the squirrel?

Yes and no
Yes and No

  • James claims that pragmatism can easily resolve this dispute.

  • The pragmatists would ask: “What do you mean by going around the squirrel?”

  • If you mean being north, west, south, east and then north again, then yes the man went around the squirrel.

  • If you mean first being in front of the squirrel, then on the squirrels’ left, then behind the squirrel, then on the squirrel’s right and finally in front of the squirrel again, then the man did NOT go around the squirrel.

Resolve metaphysical controversies
Resolve Metaphysical Controversies

  • Pragmatism can resolve philosophical controversies when these controversies are merely semantical in nature (they are merely verbal disagreement and not practical ones.)

  • This goes back to Peirce’s idea in “How to Make our Idea Clear”

Pragmatism has no content
Pragmatism has no Content

  • James claims that pragmatism has no content, meaning it is only a method, a way of doing philosophy and not a philosophical theory.

  • He introduces Papini’s analogy of the hotel corridor: pragmatism is to philosophy as a corridor is to hotel rooms. We use the corridor to get to our rooms.

  • We use pragmatism to develop our philosophies.

  • But just as each room is different, so are our philosophies.

Method as orientation
Method as Orientation

  • Pragmatism is an approach. This approach as certain characteristics: (1) empirical, (2) utilitarian, (3) nominalistic,(4) positivistic (5) disdains abstractions, (6) rejects certainty, (7) rejects apriori reasoning, (8) rejects absolutes.


  • “No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.”

Pragmatism as a theory of truth
Pragmatism as a theory of Truth

  • “Meanwhile the word pragmatism has come to be used in a still wider sense, as meaning also a certain theory of truth.”

    Part 1: Truth is Coherence )also correspondence)

    Part II:Truth is a species of the Good (what is good for you is true)

Part i
Part I

Truth and Coherence

What is truth
What is truth?

  • No scientific laws or theory is a an absolute transcript of reality.

  • Many can be useful as some point in time and insofar as they are they are true in that moment in time.

  • Scientific theories are a man-made language; they are constructions and mind dependent.

Truth as coherence
Truth as Coherence

  • A coherence theory of truth says that a belief or idea is true insofar as that it coheres well with an individual’s existing beliefs and ideas.

  • Objection: But how do we know that the beliefs and ideas of an individual have been developed properly? How do we know that they are justified? How do we know that they are true?

James defends dewey and schiller
James Defends Dewey and Schiller

  • Truth means “that ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience…”

  • Dewey holds an Instrumental View of Truth: A belief is true if it is works.

Truth as coherence1
Truth as Coherence

  • James seems to argue that a new idea or proposition that presents itself as a candidate for belief needs to fit in well (cohere) with not only one’s existing beliefs but also with one’s desires.

  • “Somebody contradicts them; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy.”

What is coherence
What is coherence?

  • A new belief is true if it coheres with existing beliefs and future beliefs.

  • It coheres to existing beliefs, first, if the new belief is CONSISTENT with the existing beliefs. Second, if the new belief evidentially supports some existing beliefs or some existing beliefs evidentially support the new belief.

  • Coherence is also forward looking because the new beliefs must cohere with future beliefs. (Mediation or marriage-function p. 300)

How does coherence work
How does coherence work?

  • “When a person encounters a new idea that does not cohere well, “The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of of opinions. He saves as much as of it as he can, for in this matter of belief we are all extreme conservatives. So he tries to change first this opinion, and then that (for they resist change very variously) until at last some idea come up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with minimum of disturbance of the latter, some idea that mediates between the stock and the new experience and runs them into one another most felicitously and expediently.”

Critique of james
Critique of James

(1) Coherence might be a necessary condition for truth but is it a sufficient condition. In other words, is it enough for a belief to cohere well with one’s existing beliefs for it to be true?

(2) James seems to give too much value to all existing beliefs regardless of their evidential support and how those beliefs were formed.

(3) James give too much weight to an individual’s satisfaction in the process of coherence.

Value of existing beliefs
Value of Existing beliefs

  • James says, “The point I now urge you to observe particularly is the part played by the older truths Failure to take account of it is the source of much of the unjust criticism leveled against pragmatism. Their influence is absolutely controlling. Loyalty to them is the first principle-in most cases it is the only principle;”

The process of truth s growth
The Process of Truth’s Growth

  • James describes how our beliefs grow and how we accept and adopt new beliefs to our existing body of beliefs.

  • This process amounts to the “growth of truth”.

  • This process depends on an individual’s satisfaction with the new belief. But this criterion seems arbitrator and not very evidentially valuable.

Individualism plasticity of truth
Individualism/Plasticity of Truth

  • James says, “ We say this theory solves it on the whole more satisfactorily than that theory; but that means more satisfactorily to ourselves, and individuals will emphasize their points of satisfaction differently. To a certain degree, therefore, everything here is plastic.”

Emphasis on the individual
Emphasis on the Individual

  • Coherence relies on an “individual's appreciation.”

  • “when old truth grows, then, by new truth’s addition, it is for subjective reasons.”

James defense
James’ Defense

  • James defends this view of truth on the grounds that it relies predominantly on concreteness and closeness to facts, and these are the things that are important.

  • He describes this attitude in contract to the intellectualists and rationalist who only deal in abstracts and absolutes, completely detached from the concrete world.

Part ii
Part II

Truth and Goodness

Truth god and good
Truth, God and Good

  • James argues that the belief in existence of God provides many useful consequences for individuals.

  • For instance, believing in God may allow people to relax their anxieties and provide them with some free time or “the don’t-care mood”.

  • He refers to this as a “moral holiday”

James argument
James’ Argument

  • The moral holiday is a good thing for people.

  • If it is a profitable belief insofar as it is GOOD for us, then it is TRUE.

  • “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons.”

James equate good with truth
James equate Good with Truth

  • What is good for us we should belief and is true.

  • What would be better for us to belief is what we ought to believe. This is the definition of truth.

  • James does add one condition: Unless it clashes with some other vital benefit (use of reality).