William James: “The Meaning of Truth” (1909), and “Some Problems in Philosophy” (1911)

The great obstacle to radical empiricism in the contemporary mind is the rooted rationalist belief that experience as immediately given is all disjunction and no conjunction, and that to make one world out of this separateness, a higher unifying agency must be there. In the prevalent idealism this agency is represented as the absolute all-witness which “relates” things together by throwing “categories” over them like a net. The most peculiar and unique, perhaps, of all these categories is supposed to be the truth-relation, which connects parts of reality in pairs, making of one of them a knower, and of the other a thing known, yet which is itself contentless experimentally, neither describable, explicable, nor reducible to lower terms, and denotable only by uttering the name “truth.” (826–827)


The Meaning of Truth, by William James, was presented a year before his death as a sequel to his Pragmatism. Unlike some of his earlier books, this one was not a series of joined lectures, but a collection of essays published over the last half decade of his life. If you are reading his philosophical works together as I am, you find that they are really joined around an idea known as “radical empiricism,” which simply rejects the Truth claimed by idealists, but also attacked standard empiricism for basically coming down on the side of Truth (but using a different method to get there). In Pragmatism and A Pluralistic Universe (and Varieties of Religious Experience for that matter), James argues for a rejecting Truth and embracing a variety of truths, none of which can be pragmatically discounted and false. This is, of course, easy enough to prove with aesthetics. You cannot say that my preference for Beethoven over Mozart is reflecting Truth. As I understand it (I am saying this too much perhaps in this series), James would want to apply this same logic to other inquiries.

He talks about how we come to know a phenomenon, like a tiger. Our desire to hunt tigers is one phenomenon. The tiger skins we bring home are another. The tiger itself is yet another. All have a context that works in shaping our cognition. And as consciousness begins in cognition, we need to understand the process and context of our understanding of a phenomenon (“outer chain of physical or mental intermediaries connecting thought and thing”).

James argues that this position is highly humanistic, because it takes account for the diversity of various human perspectives. This seems to be a compelling argument for me as well. It certainly suggests that although human experiences are diverse and pluralistic, there are real reasons to think that humans interact in the world in ways that other creatures do not.

In one chapter, James puts forth a systematic response to all the major criticisms of pragmatism and radical empiricism. He takes them all on, but one that I do not find such a condemnation is the criticism that pragmatism is a “call to action.” It is that I think James’ philosophy demands action rather than thought that made me so attracted to it in the first place. As he clarifies, this criticism is that the philosophy appeals to technocratic types, who care only about applications without meditating on consequences of action. But, as James clarifies, the philosophy actually suggests a wide variety of actions, not the singular action of the technocrat.

To the charge that radical empiricism allows people to belief as truth in things that do not exist, James explains that things that do not have existence cannot have really good results that can be observed. Thus while you cannot get to God’s existence through his method, you can prove the existence of religious experiences. It is the same with historical figures, as he tries to explain with the question of the existence of Caesar. The radical empiricist has visible effects of Caesar’s life, including his books as evidence of his existence. The rationalist will actually have a much more difficult time proving his existence. (Now, perhaps this becomes more complicated with mythology, but I am not so troubled by the fact that people may think that Zeus or even Xena existed. At least I am not more troubled by that than the fact that people believe in God. In either case the existence is less important the experiences and the tangible results.

The book ends with a dialogue between a pragmatist and a non-pragmatist. It is a useful summary of his thought and it comes down to the pragmatist is interested in truth as it is made real in the world through various contexts. I cannot think of a more open-minded and democratic approach to truth without going off the wall into banal and useless relativism. It always us to have a conversation where the other does not assume that they look at the world in the same way as we do.

Part of the power of this perspective on truth is its practicality and flexibility. I cannot help to think that in general terms this is useful for libertarians attempting to construct free spaces in a variety of different cultural areas, each with their own ecology, in both urban and rural areas. It seems it be something that can inoculate such free spaces from being fill in (permanently at least) with bad ideas. Instead of allowing vile thoughts and practices from filling in a space under the guise of “truth.” It will judge ideas based on their results and observable goodness.

So, if you think I am being too easy on James, or misunderstanding his basic point, let me know. If you think rationalism is a better path for a libertarian epistemology, let me know. As my reading of James shows, I am easily convertible.

Published one year after William James’ death, Some Problems of Philosophy was presented to the public as a first chapter in an introduction to philosophy. It is certainly a pleasure to read this lighter fare after tackling and trying to understand his major works in the tradition of radical empiricism. Although light, the work is important, beginning with a strong defense of philosophy as a craft. Let me take his points one at a time.

“Philosophy and Its Critics”: In a time when humanities are under assault by a technocracy it is useful to re-read James’ introductory chapter. I do not think that scientists generally have it out for philosophy, but within institutions we certainly see the humanities being starved. In some of my recent discussions with scientists (generally around questions of how to deal with the anti-vaccination folks) there seemed to a be a sentiment that most of the public should shut up unless they are as well trained as the scientists, and that democracy and science are incompatible. I find this a troubling position. James felt he was in a similar situation at the end of his, of having to defend a philosophical life. Indeed, the bulk of this first chapter is devoted to taking on the objection that philosophy has no useful applications and cannot do anything that science cannot do better. His argument about how philosophy makes progress is important to read and perhaps too often forgotten by non-philosophers who think all philosophers do is read Plato.

“The Problems of Metaphysics”: In this short essay, James lays out the difference between the empiricist and the rationalist perspectives, for beginners. A quite clear introduction, useful for beginners.

“The Problem of Being”: The question of why there is existence is described by James as the “darkest in all philosophy,” in the sense that there is no clear reasonable answers deriving from fact or from reason. He describes efforts by rationalists to reduce the problem as well as efforts by empiricists to use evolutionary thought.

“Percept and Concept”: In a section of the book made up of three chapters, James explores the difference between thought and things. Of course, this is where the bulk of his own research was placed. Of course, we can start with the preference of rationalists for thought and the preference of empiricists for things. But concepts are not irrelevant for James, in so much as they “revalue” our lives by their use, but they also risk becoming our vision of the world in its entirety. In James’ view, conceptual systems are in themselves realms of reality (not really models of reality), in his oft-repeated position that thoughts shape action in verifiable ways.

“The One and the Many”: This essay reviews James’ work in A Pluralistic Universe, which argued against philosophical monism, while confessing that the world is “one” is some ways, if not in most. “The amount either of unity or plurality is in short only a matter of observation to ascertain and write down, in statements which will have to be complicated, in spite of every effect to be concise.” (1050)
He also sums up the faults and benefits of each. Monism cannot account for individual consciousness, it cannot explain evil, it is contrary to how we view the world, and it is fatalistic. Pluralism is more scientific, matches how we experience life, and is frankly easier to prove (any discontinuity destroys the monist project).

“The Problem of Novelty”: The final issue James’ introduces, in the last four essays, is the question of novelty, especially looking at to what degree novelty is even possible. We see two conflicting positions right away. One the one hand, novelty seems to be part of how we experience the world. On the other hand, infinity seems to violate the principle of novelty. Another tension in the question has to do with science. Science seems to rely on distinct phenomenon being not unique, but again that seems to run contrary to individual distinct consciousness.   This discussion veers into a discussion of change and the potential of change, given infinity. The dilemma in part is the impossibility of change given infinity (Zeno) and the more pragmatic realization that change actually does take place, even if it is often gradual and continual. (Now sometimes this is truly a problem as in the feeling that a train is moving when it is actually standing still.) In general, however, causality seems to be something we can perceive and understand. An overly rationalist view of cause is in effect a disastrous for those of us who actually function in the world.

Some Problems in Philosophy is what is advertises itself to be, an introduction to philosophical questions largely looking at reality from the perspective of either rationalist or an empiricist. In most cases, James defends his own empiricist worldview, but is fairly fair-minded about presenting both views.

There is not much more to say about this brief text. I am not sure it adds much, but exists as a nice enough introduction to some of James’ ideas. As a path toward a libertarian epistemology, it helps remind us that we need a philosophy that functions in this world as we perceive it, with all of its diversity, rather than an absolutist approach. Perhaps we should read James’ as an American philosopher in the sense that his philosophy is one that is naturally suspicious of authority and privileged points of view.


One response to “William James: “The Meaning of Truth” (1909), and “Some Problems in Philosophy” (1911)

  1. Until I read your reviews, it never occurred to me to connect pragmatism with anarchism. I had always seen the connection between absolutist philosophies, such as Platonism, with absolutist governments and religions, but never made the reverse connection.

    I admire the pragmatists. Their recognition that knowledge is partial and provisional fits in well with a political and economic system that recognizes nobody has a monopoly on knowledge, and everything is open to discussion and debate.

    Unfortunately, William James, John Dewey and their followers express themselves in such a way as to be misunderstood. They do not say that truth is independent of fact, or whatever is expedient is morally right, but many people think they do.

    Their philosophy is based on certain moral values, having to do with human dignity and worth, which they do not articulate because they want pragmatism to be a meta-philosophy, a process for evaluating all other philosophies.

    They do not deny that there are facts that are independent of human belief, but by making belief rather than truth the subject of their philosophy, they leave themselves open to this misunderstanding.

    These are serious shortcomings because they leave pragmatists intellectually disarmed when faced with the lies of Big Brother.

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