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.