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Understanding Of The Pragmatic Theory of Truth

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‘The true,’ to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight won’t necessarily meet all farther experiences equally satisfactorily. Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas. – William James, Pragmatism pg 100.

There are five main “theories of truth”: the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, and the pragmatic, redundancy and semantic theories. They all deal with truth and falsity as properties of what people say or think. At the same time they are confusing and difficult to follow as they do not distinctly address the questions – “How should the content of what we say or think be specified? What are the bearers of truth?” Pragmatic theory, one of the main representatives of which is William James, holds that the truth of a belief is a matter of whether it “works,” i.e. whether acting upon it pays off just like the experiences we have are matter of coherence with future experiences. Above quoted is one of the many similar theories of William James and his concept of truth. This essay is about the concept of truth and justification from a pragmatist’s point of view and what elements of truth and justification go and build up the belief or ideas of an individual by taking help from William James’s “Pragmatism” edited by Bruce Kuklick. In Pragmatism, James establishes the legitimacy of a pragmatist conception of truth already expressed by Schiller and Dewey. James also shows the mistake in the rationalist conception of truth.

James has given numerous though inter-related definitions for truth. Belief is the declaration of, or conviction regarding the truth of a proposition, especially when one does not have evidence sufficient enough to justify a claim that the proposition is known with certainty. The belief that a proposition is true when acting upon it yields satisfactory practical results. According to him, “truth in our ideas means their power to work” (30). Truth and belief are like hand and pocket. An idea is true as long as to believe it is worthwhile or profitable to our lives. Also “truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it. The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons” (37). Here he means that for definite flexible reasons the term truth is used for whatever proposition proves to be good in the way of a belief. The greatest enemy of our truths is our remaining beliefs that we consider to be true, as James quotes “it is better for us to believe is true unless the belief incidentally clashes with some other vital benefit.” (37) According to James everybody agrees with the theory that “truth is agreement with reality.” The differences and confusion arises when one gets into the details of that theory. The questions about what is meant by agreement and what is meant by reality are the main sources for those differences and confusion. Reality, according to James can be classified into matters of fact and matters of mind. Matters of fact include the objects that can be seen or sensed but no further verification is required. Matters of mind include the ideas and beliefs a person has, thinks or perceives virtually.

James describes the term fact. The concept of 1 + 1 making 2 and 2 + 2 making 4, comes under that category of truth “where relations among purely mental ideas form another sphere,” (95) where the beliefs are absolutely and unconditionally true. Such kind of beliefs are given the name ‘definitions’ or ‘principles’ and are called ‘facts’ as general. No further sense verification is required for these truths and they are everlastingly obvious at the first glance. But he further describes the circularity in the relation between truth and facts. For example, he talks of Newtonian philosophy where acceleration varies with distance and in reverse distance also varies with acceleration. According to him truth emerges from facts but facts are themselves made clearer and stronger by appending more truths to it. And these newly created facts again give rise to truths. This process is circular and goes indefinitely hence creating a confusion. Using the above example and James’s concept, the definition of fact (facts about the term ‘fact’) can be modified to include experience as a role player. If not always, but often statements of matter of fact are true if they are verified by experience or if we would expect their verification by experience. So James ties facts and true beliefs to be the ones that lead us to continue to believe them as the evidence continues to be accumulated.

Similarly, in the case of relations among ideas, our theories are true if they continue to “mediate between all previous truths and certain new experiences” (98) and those truths include other theories. Truths, rather than Truth, are the emphasis in the pragmatic theory. “Absolute Truth”, defined as “what no farther experience will ever alter” (100), is an ideal point never reached. As an ideal point never reached, truth is not that which makes particular truths true. Particular beliefs come to be true in practice and continue to be true as they are maintained through practice. An idea being true is then like an individual being healthy. It allows for new successes and must be maintained to continue to be the case. As experience is a process in which no point of view can be the last one, pragmatism asks the question – “Grant an idea or belief to be true… what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” (92) An experience, perceptual or conceptual, must obey the rules of reality in order to be true. From a pragmatist’s point of view, truth should be in accordance with every part of life and combined experiences and demands without any exceptions. Agreement of ideas and beliefs with reality, even if the reality is concrete or abstract, can be considered as truth and vice versa, as truth always happens to an idea. We can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify ideas that are true but not that are false and are against reality. One can say “it is useful because it is true” or “it is true because it is useful.” (93) According to James both these phrases mean the same thing i.e., an idea that gets fulfilled and can be verified. His theory presents us with the question of whether the utility of an idea is defined by its truth, or whether the truth of an idea is defined by its utility. Both are correct, according to James’s theory. Truth is seen as equivalent to utility. Truth is a form of a verification process; if an idea or belief can be verified as a function of experience then it is true. If beliefs are loosely connected with reality and experiences, then that particular belief will always lead to falsity. James’s model of truth and pragmatism – http://www.emory.edu/EDUCATION/mfp/james Another aspect about truth is that, it gets verbally built out, stored up and is spread among everyone through the process of social communications. Our ideas are exchanged among other people everyday. Humans lend and borrow verifications. True ideas make us talk and think consistently by stabilizing the flow of human intercourse. They keep us occupied by keeping boredom and loneliness away. By expressing true ideas we are prevented from the frustration of barren and unfruitful thinking. Apart from being a collective name for verification processes, truth has also been compared to health, wealth and human strength. It is connected to life just like these other processes are. As James quotes, “Truth is made, just as health, wealth and strength are made, in the course of experience.” (98) As mentioned earlier James also gives the conception of truth from a rationalist’s point of view and shows the fallacy in their argument. Rationalism resides on the validity of propositions. “Truth is a system of propositions which have an unconditional claim to be recognized as valid.” (102). Judgments made by humans because of their vital duty is considered as truth by rationalists. Firstly, according to James, the word “proposition” seemed too explicit. It encouraged the confusion between truth as a property of opinions and truth as a property of the facts which the opinions assert. He thought that trying to understand our thoughts or belief or ideas in terms of propositions only leads to confusion. As he puts it, propositions were “mongrel curs that have no real place between realities on the one hand and the beliefs on the other.” Secondly, according to a rationalist truth is a property of ideas that obtain in virtue of their connection to reality. But rationalism doesn’t clear the doubts about what is this connection with reality. It cannot be simple copying, since many elements of reality have no image copies. A rationalist is against the argument of a pragmatist that truth is made and believes that truths are discovered. Then truth must obtain regardless of human notion and should exist whether discoverable or not. James presents a fallacy in rationalist’s theory. The rationalist takes certain features of truths, like their independence from human will and elevates them to the condition of truth. In general, the rationalist loses the ability to effectively support the claim that we should pursue truth over falsity. Truths are to be searched for to the extent, and only to the extent that they are to be required for our purposes as “an idea is true if it works.” If we weren’t doing any purpose, why would we need truthful ideas? So according to rationalism, to make the definition of truth entirely independent for our purposes, it either means to seek those truths that connect to our purposes, or to seek something beyond our purposes. According to James, “if theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. For how much more they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be acknowledged.” James has said that truth arises from truths. As we can only seek truth through other truths, and as we need to know which truths to seek, we always again return to the situation pragmatism emphasizes: the acceptance of an idea as true is precisely dependent on its ability to lead us forward in the future. This is the drawback in the rationalistic approach that it doesn’t clear what it emphasizes.

Coming back to the pragmatist theory, James further elaborates truth. Truth in our ideas and beliefs means the same thing that it means in science. It 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,” (30) just like science. As formulated by William James, the pragmatic theory promises a convergence of human opinions upon a stable body of scientific propositions that have been shown in experience to be successful principles for human action. Truth has also been compared to the credit system. Thoughts and beliefs are agreeable as long as nothing challenges them, just as bank bills pass as long as they are not refused. Without the so called direct face-to-face verifications somewhere or the other, the foundations of truth collapses like a financial system with no cash. Everybody trades on each other’s truth. But truth is a collective form of agreement. For a pragmatist those beliefs are true that guide us to “beneficial interaction” sensibly as they keep occurring.

“Absolute Truth,” defined as “what no farther experience will ever alter,” (100) is an ideal point never reached. As an ideal point never reached, truth is not that which makes particular truths true. One can admit that the absolutely true is that ideal vanishing-point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge. The best possible account of experience is not out there waiting for us to discover it, it is essentially tied to our own accounts and itself changes as those accounts change. Once held, it applies retroactively, but there is no sense in which it was settled to be true before it was actually held. Our interests determine what we talk about and thus what we use our words to refer to, but once meanings are in place, it is the world which determines what is true and what is false. The subjective contribution to truth has to do with determining thought and not with whether contextual thoughts are satisfied by the world.

William James explains a theory of truth according to which the truth of our thoughts is responsible both to our interests and to how these interests or ideas or beliefs build up the future. James claimed that a belief’s truth not only depended in its agreement with reality, but also over the nature of this agreement. James’s account of truth allows subjective factors to contribute to the truth of our beliefs. He characterizes the relationship between ideas and reality as “agreement.” He always argued that “truth becomes true, is made true by events.” James insisted on making experience the criterion for determining the value or the truth of a belief.

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