William James's idea of Pragmatism
William James: Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907, Harvard University Press 1978 paperback edition
Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their ‘agreement’, as falsity means their disagreement, with ‘reality’. …Where our ideas cannot copy definitely their object, what does agreement with that object mean?
Pragmatism…asks its usual question. ‘Grant an idea or belief to be true,’ it says, ‘what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will 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?
The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. This is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known as.
This thesis is what I have to defend. The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its valid-ation.
But what do the words verification and validation themselves pragmatically mean? They again signify certain practical consequences of the verified and validated idea.
Between the coercions of the sensible order and those of the ideal order, our minds is thus wedged tightly. Our ideas must agree with realities, be such realities concrete or abstract, be they facts or be they principles, under penalty of endless inconsistency and frustration.
True ideas leads us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability and flowing human intercourse. …all processes must lead to the face of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere, which somebody’s ideas have copied.
So, James is stating that there is a communal eternal reality that is available to us to experience via our bodily senses. What is true is events, objects and interactions, processes that occur that someone, somewhere can experience with their sense or had done so. Then there are ideas that describe those experiences, those events and to explain them. Those ideas can themselves be verified. Then finally there are ideas that can make a difference in our lives that we cannot verify but they make a difference in how we live our lives. These are ideas of faith, religious ideas and ideals. They make a difference to us and they thus have a sense of truth in their utility to assist us to lead meaningful lives.
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