Victor Nuovo: The pragmatic meaning of truth

31st in a series

What is truth? How would you answer this question? You may find it a greater challenge than at first imagined, for truth is one of those words whose meaning we are sure we know until challenged to define it. In our everyday experience we have little difficulty distinguishing what is true from what is false, fact from fiction. The ease with which we do this may be key to our survival as a species. We are not easily fooled, but such is our nature and situation in life, that we sometimes allow or even will ourselves to be fooled. There is more in the previous sentence than can be explained in just another sentence, so I will hold it in reserve for later and return to the question. What is truth?

William James had an answer. To begin with, truth is a property of thoughts or beliefs. Knowledge is true belief, and a belief is true if it agrees with reality. For example, if I believe the sun is shining, and if in fact the sun is shining, then my belief is true. My beliefs are true if they agree with the facts, and false if they don’t. And facts are just the way things are. This is the fact of the matter of truth.

James subscribed to all of this, which he acknowledged is commonplace. But he was after much more. He wanted to understand the meaning of truth, and to explain its value for life. “Grant an idea or belief to be true, what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s life?” “We live in a world of realities that can be infinitely useful or infinitely harmful. Ideas that tell us which of them to expect count as true ideas … and the pursuit of them is a primary human duty.” The truth of an idea or belief is not a fixed property that we passively contemplate. Rather it goes with our nature as rational beings that in all our actions, including the most common of everyday life, we engage with reality by means of our beliefs, so that “they become true, they are made true by events” in which we are actively engaged, some of which we are the cause, and through these activities, these encounters with reality, our beliefs are verified or falsified, by our success or failure. “Verify” means to prove true; “falsify” means to prove false. James presents them as life processes.

This, in sum, is the pragmatic meaning of truth. “Truth for us is simply a name for verification processes, just as health, wealth, strength, etc. are name for other processes connected with life, and also pursued because it pays to pursue them. Truth is made, just as health, wealth, strength are made, in the course of experience,” in the course of a responsible life.

In another place, James wrote that the pragmatic meaning of truth is just their “cash value” in the course of life. It was an unfortunate choice of metaphor, for it gave the impression that Pragmatism is a vulgar, crude, commercial philosophy. It is not. Nevertheless, it was harshly criticized, and James spent the rest of his life defending it. 

At the beginning of this essay, I remarked that, although we are not easily fooled, we sometimes allow or even will ourselves to be fooled, that is, we allow or choose to believe what is evidently false. The aftermath of the 2020 Presidential election is evidence that this can and has happened to many Americans. The current state of our politics has caused an epidemic of willful believing and disbelieving. Likewise climate change and its deniers. James would not have been surprised by this, although he would have been troubled by it, for he considered most willful belief or unbelief to be silly, and, in cases like these, vile.

Yet he also defended the practice of voluntary belief. This is the theme of a collection of essays published in 1897 entitled “The Will to Believe.” Consider the question whether we exist in a moral universe, that is, a universe in which right and wrong, good and bad, and other moral values are as real and determinate as hot and cold, up and down, right and left, a universe in which telling the truth is a duty.

James did not suppose that we can be certain that this is such a universe; rather to verify it we must first believe it. He acknowledged the pragmatic value of believing it, and that, in a case like this, willing to believe seems to be the right thing to do, a moral duty. It is a live option, a choice about how responsibly to live a good life.

Still, James was a scientist before he was a philosopher, and he was skeptical of any passionate embrace of a doctrine that hadn’t undergone rational scrutiny. Yet he acknowledged that often a demand for rational scrutiny is willful, which lends a measure of credibility to Pascal’s appeal to reasons of the heart: “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.” But he insisted that passion must not overrule reason; we must keep an open and enquiring mind, and never fail to adhere to these two commands: Honor Truth! Avoid Error! One senses that James was struggling here; so am I.

But, because we are frail and fallible human animals, and because we are often in situations where we do not have the leisure to weigh the evidence, or where the truth is simply beyond our grasp, we must sometimes choose without knowing, or it may be that the truth we are seeking is of a nature that its truth becomes evident only through our deliberate action. Such is the nature of moral truth. And the moral life is the best life.

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