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The Pragmatic Theory of Truth

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Pragmatic theories of truth are usually associated either with C.S. Peirce’s proposal that true beliefs will be accepted “at the end of inquiry” or with William James’ proposal that truth be defined in terms of utility. More broadly, however, pragmatic theories of truth focus on the connection between truth and epistemic practices, notably practices of inquiry and assertion. Depending on the particular pragmatic theory, true statements might be those that are useful to believe, that are the result of inquiry, that have withstood ongoing examination, that meet a standard of warranted assertibility, or that represent norms of assertoric discourse. Like other theories of truth pragmatic theories of truth are often put forward as an alternative to correspondence theories of truth. Unlike correspondence theories, which tend to see truth as a static relation between a truth-bearer and a truth-maker, pragmatic theories of truth tend to view truth as a function of the practices people engage in, and the commitments people make, when they solve problems, make assertions, or conduct scientific inquiry. More broadly, pragmatic theories tend to emphasize the significant role the concept of truth plays across a range of disciplines and discourses: not just scientific and fact-stating discourse but also ethical, legal, and political discourse as well.

Pragmatic theories of truth have the effect of shifting attention away from what makes a statement true and toward what people mean or do in describing a statement as true. While sharing many of the impulses behind deflationary theories of truth, pragmatic theories also tend to view truth as more than just a useful tool for making generalizations. Pragmatic theories of truth thus emphasize the broader practical and performative dimensions of truth-talk, stressing the role truth plays in shaping certain kinds of discourse. These practical dimensions, according to pragmatic theories, are essential to understanding the concept of truth.

As these references to pragmatic theories would suggest, over the years a number of different approaches have been classified as “pragmatic”. This points to a degree of ambiguity that has been present since the earliest formulations of the pragmatic theory of truth: for example, the difference between Peirce’s claim that truth is “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate” and James’ claim that truth “is only the expedient in the way of our thinking”. Since then the situation has arguably gotten worse, not better. The often-significant differences between various pragmatic theories of truth can make it difficult to determine their shared commitments, while also making it difficult to critique these theories overall. Issues with one version may not apply to other versions, which means that pragmatic theories of truth may well present more of a moving target than do other theories of truth. While few today would equate truth with expedience or utility there remains the question of what the pragmatic theory of truth stands for and how it is related to other theories. Still, pragmatic theories of truth continue to be put forward and defended, often as serious alternatives to more widely accepted theories of truth.

The history of the pragmatic theory of truth is tied to the history of classical American pragmatism. According to the standard account, C.S. Peirce gets credit for first proposing a pragmatic theory of truth, William James is responsible for popularizing the pragmatic theory, and John Dewey subsequently reframed truth in terms of warranted assertibility. More specifically, Peirce is associated with the idea that true beliefs are those that will withstand future scrutiny; James with the idea that true beliefs are dependable and useful; Dewey with the idea that truth is a property of well-verified claims.

The American philosopher, logician and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce is generally recognized for first proposing a “pragmatic” theory of truth. Peirce’s pragmatic theory of truth is a byproduct of his pragmatic theory of meaning. In a frequently-quoted passage in “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, Peirce writes that, in order to pin down the meaning of a concept, we must: Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

The meaning of the concept of “truth” then boils down to the “practical bearings” of using this term: that is, of describing a belief as true. What, then, is the practical difference of describing a belief as “true” as opposed to any number of other positive attributes such as “creative”, “clever”, or “well-justified”? Peirce’s answer to this question is that true beliefs eventually gain general acceptance by withstanding future inquiry. This gives us the pragmatic meaning of truth and leads Peirce to conclude, in another frequently-quoted passage, that: All the followers of science are fully persuaded that the processes of investigation, if only pushed far enough, will give one certain solution to every question to which they can be applied.…The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth.

Peirce realized that his reference to “fate” could be easily misinterpreted. In a less-frequently quoted footnote to this passage he writes that “fate” is not meant in a “superstitious” sense but rather as “that which is sure to come true, and can nohow be avoided”. Over time Peirce moderated his position, referring less to fate and unanimous agreement and more to scientific investigation and general consensus. The result is an account that views truth as what would be the result of scientific inquiry, if scientific inquiry were allowed to go on indefinitely. In 1901 Peirce writes that: Truth is that concordance of an abstract statement with the ideal limit towards which endless investigation would tend to bring scientific belief.

Consequently, truth does not depend on actual unanimity or an actual end to inquiry: If Truth consists in satisfaction, it cannot be any actual satisfaction, but must be the satisfaction which would ultimately be found if the inquiry were pushed to its ultimate and indefeasible issue.

As these references to inquiry and investigation make clear, Peirce’s concern is with how we come to have and hold the opinions we do. Some beliefs may in fact be very durable but would not stand up to inquiry and investigation. For Peirce, a true belief is not simply one we will hold onto obstinately. Rather, a true belief is one that has and will continue to hold up to sustained inquiry. In the practical terms Peirce prefers, this means that to have a true belief is to have a belief that is dependable in the face of all future challenges. Moreover, to describe a belief as true is to point to this dependability, to signal the belief’s scientific bona fides, and to endorse it as a basis for action.

By focusing on the practical dimension of having true beliefs, Peirce plays down the significance of more theoretical questions about the nature of truth. In particular, Peirce is skeptical that the correspondence theory of truth—roughly, the idea that true beliefs correspond to reality—has much useful to say about the concept of truth. The problem with the correspondence theory of truth, he argues, is that it is only “nominally” correct and hence “useless” as far as describing truth’s practical value. In particular, the correspondence theory of truth sheds no light on what makes true beliefs valuable, the role of truth in the process of inquiry, or how best to go about discovering and defending true beliefs. For Peirce, the importance of truth rests not on a “transcendental” connection between beliefs on the one hand and reality on the other, but rather on the practical connection between doubt and belief, and the processes of inquiry that take us from the former to the latter: If by truth and falsity you mean something not definable in terms of doubt and belief in any way, then you are talking of entities of whose existence you can know nothing, and which Ockham’s razor would clean shave off. Your problems would be greatly simplified, if, instead of saying that you want to know the “Truth”, you were simply to say that you want to attain a state of belief unassailable by doubt.

For Peirce, a true belief is one that is indefeasible and unassailable—and indefeasible and unassailable for all the right reasons: namely, because it will stand up to all further inquiry and investigation. In other words, if we were to reach a stage where we could no longer improve upon a belief, there is no point in withholding the title “true” from it.

Peirce’s contemporary, the psychologist and philosopher William James, gets credit for popularizing the pragmatic theory of truth. In a series of popular lectures and articles, James offers an account of truth that, like Peirce’s, is grounded in the practical role played by the concept of truth. James, too, stresses that truth represents a kind of satisfaction: true beliefs are satisfying beliefs, in some sense. Unlike Peirce, however, James suggests that true beliefs can be satisfying short of being indefeasible and unassailable: short, that is, of how they would stand up to ongoing inquiry and investigation. James writes that: Ideas…become true just in so far as they help us get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena.

True ideas, James suggests, are like tools: they make us more efficient by helping us do what needs to be done. James adds to the previous quote by making the connection between truth and utility explicit:

Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally. This is the ‘instrumental’ view of truth.

While James, here, credits this view to John Dewey and F.C.S. Schiller, it is clearly a view he endorses as well. To understand truth, he argues, we must consider the pragmatic “cash-value” of having true beliefs and the practical difference of having true ideas. True beliefs, he suggests, are useful and dependable in ways that false beliefs are not: you can say of it then either that “it is useful because it is true” or that “it is true because it is useful”. Both these phrases mean exactly the same thing.

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In the early twentieth century Peirce’s writings were not yet widely available. As a result, the pragmatic theory of truth was frequently identified with James’ account—and, as we will see, many philosophers did view it as obviously wrong. James, in turn, accused his critics of willful misunderstanding: that because he wrote in an accessible, engaging style his critics “have boggled at every word they could boggle at, and refused to take the spirit rather than the letter of our discourse”. However, it is also the case that James tends to overlook or intentionally blur—it is hard to say which—the distinction between giving an account of true ideas and giving an account of the concept of truth. This means that, while James’ theory might give a psychologically realistic account of why we care about the truth his theory fails to shed much light on what the concept of truth exactly is or on what makes an idea true. And, in fact, James often seems to encourage this reading. In the preface to The Meaning of Truth he doubles down by quoting many of his earlier claims and noting that “when the pragmatists speak of truth, they mean exclusively something about the ideas, namely their workableness”. James’ point seems to be this: from a practical standpoint, we use the concept of truth to signal our confidence in a particular idea or belief; a true belief is one that can be acted upon, that is dependable and that leads to predictable outcomes; any further speculation is a pointless distraction.

What then about the concept of truth? It often seems that James understands the concept of truth in terms of verification: thus, “true is the name for whatever idea starts the verification-process, useful is the name for its completed function in experience”. And, more generally:

Truth for us is simply a collective name for verification-processes, just as health, wealth, strength, etc., are names for other processes connected with life, and also pursued because it pays to pursue them.

James seems to claim that being verified is what makes an idea true, just as having a lot of money is what makes a person wealthy. To be true is to be verified:

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.

Like Peirce, James argues that a pragmatic account of truth is superior to a correspondence theory because it specifies, in concrete terms, what it means for an idea to correspond or “agree” with reality. For pragmatists, this agreement consists in being led “towards that reality and no other” in a way that yields “satisfaction as a result”. By sometimes defining truth in terms of verification, and by unpacking the agreement of ideas and reality in pragmatic terms, James’ account attempts to both criticize and co-opt the correspondence theory of truth. It appears James wants to have his cake and eat it too.

John Dewey, the third figure from the golden era of classical American pragmatism, had surprisingly little to say about the concept of truth especially given his voluminous writings on other topics. On an anecdotal level, as many have observed, the index to his 527 page Logic: The Theory of Inquiry has only one reference to “truth”, and that to a footnote mentioning Peirce. Otherwise the reader is advised to “See also assertibility”.

At first glance, Dewey’s account of truth looks like a combination of Peirce and James. Like Peirce, Dewey emphasizes the connection between truth and rigorous scientific inquiry; like James, Dewey views truth as the verified result of past inquiry rather than as the anticipated result of inquiry proceeding into an indefinite future. For example, in 1911 he writes that:

From the standpoint of scientific inquiry, truth indicates not just accepted beliefs, but beliefs accepted in virtue of a certain method.…To science, truth denotes verified beliefs, propositions that have emerged from a certain procedure of inquiry and testing. By that I mean that if a scientific man were asked to point to samples of what he meant by truth, he would pick…beliefs which were the outcome of the best technique of inquiry available in some particular field; and he would do this no matter what his conception of the Nature of Truth.

Furthermore, like both Peirce and James, Dewey charges correspondence theories of truth with being unnecessarily obscure because these theories depend on an abstract (and unverifiable) relationship between a proposition and how things “really are”. Finally, Dewey also offers a pragmatic reinterpretation of the correspondence theory that operationalizes the idea of correspondence:

Our definition of truth…uses correspondence as a mark of a meaning or proposition in exactly the same sense in which it is used everywhere else…as the parts of a machine correspond.

Dewey has an expansive understanding of “science”. For Dewey, science emerges from and is continuous with everyday processes of trial and error—cooking and small-engine repair count as “scientific” on his account—which means he should not be taken too strictly when he equates truth with scientific verification. Rather, Dewey’s point is that true propositions, when acted on, lead to the sort of predictable and dependable outcomes that are hallmarks of scientific verification, broadly construed. From a pragmatic standpoint, scientific verification boils down to the process of matching up expectations with outcomes, a process that gives us all the “correspondence” we could ask for.

Dewey eventually came to believe that conventional philosophical terms such as “truth” and “knowledge” were burdened with so much baggage, and had become so fossilized, that it was difficult to grasp the practical role these terms had originally served. As a result, in his later writings Dewey largely avoids speaking of “truth” or “knowledge” while focusing instead on the functions played by these concepts. By his 1938 Logic: The Theory of Inquiry Dewey was speaking of “warranted assertibility” as the goal of inquiry, using this term in place of both “truth” and “knowledge”. In 1941, in a response to Russell entitled “Propositions, Warranted Assertibility, and Truth”, he wrote that “warranted assertibility” is a “definition of the nature of knowledge in the honorific sense according to which only true beliefs are knowledge”. Here Dewey suggests that “warranted assertibility” is a better way of capturing the function of both knowledge and truth insofar as both are goals of inquiry. His point is that it makes little difference, pragmatically, whether we describe the goal of inquiry as “acquiring more knowledge”, “acquiring more truth”, or better yet, “making more warrantably assertible judgments”.

Thanks to Russell and others, by 1941 Dewey was aware of the problems facing pragmatic accounts of truth. In response, we see him turning to the language of “warranted assertibility”, drawing a distinction between “propositions” and “judgments”, and grounding the concept of truth in scientific inquiry. These adjustments were designed to extend, clarify, and improve on Peirce’s and James’ accounts. Whether they did so is an open question. Certainly many, such as Quine, concluded that Dewey was only sidestepping important questions about truth: that Dewey’s strategy was “simply to avoid the truth predicate and limp along with warranted belief”.

Peirce, James, and Dewey were not the only ones to propose or defend a pragmatic theory of truth in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Others, such as F.C.S. Schiller, also put forward pragmatic theories (though Schiller’s view, which he called “humanism”, also attracted more than its share of critics, arguably for very good reasons). Pragmatic theories of truth also received the attention of prominent critics, including Russell, Moore, Lovejoy among others. Several of these criticisms will be considered later; suffice it to say that pragmatic theories of truth soon came under pressure that led to revisions and several successor approaches over the next hundred-plus years.

Historically Peirce, James, and Dewey had the greatest influence in setting the parameters for what makes a theory of truth pragmatic—this despite the sometimes significant differences between their respective accounts, and that over time they modified and clarified their positions in response to both criticism and over-enthusiastic praise. While this can make it difficult to pin down a single definition of what, historically, counted as a pragmatic theory of truth, there are some common themes that cut across each of their accounts. First, each account begins from a pragmatic analysis of the meaning of the truth predicate. On the assumption that describing a belief, claim, or judgment as “true” must make some kind of practical difference, each of these accounts attempts to describe what this difference is. Second, each account then connects truth specifically to processes of inquiry: to describe a claim as true is to say that it either has or will stand up to scrutiny. Third, each account rejects correspondence theories of truth as overly abstract, “transcendental”, or metaphysical. Or, more accurately, each attempts to redefine correspondence in pragmatic terms, as the agreement between a claim and a predicted outcome. While the exact accounts offered by Peirce, James, and Dewey found few defenders—by the mid-twentieth century pragmatic theories of truth were largely dormant—these themes did set a trajectory for future versions of the pragmatic theory of truth.

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The Pragmatic Theory of Truth. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 24, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-pragmatic-theory-of-truth/
“The Pragmatic Theory of Truth.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-pragmatic-theory-of-truth/
The Pragmatic Theory of Truth. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-pragmatic-theory-of-truth/> [Accessed 24 May 2023].
The Pragmatic Theory of Truth [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2023 May 24]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-pragmatic-theory-of-truth/
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