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Pragmatism: How Americans define truth

If something is "true," it needs to be shown to work in the real world.

Credit: Gene Gallin via Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • Pragmatism is an American philosophical movement that originated as a rebuke to abstract European philosophy.
  • The pragmatic theory of truth argues that truth and reality only can be understood in their relation to how things work in the real world.
  • The trouble is that the theory devalues the term "truth," such that it only applies to one particular moment in time. But Charles Sanders Peirce offers a clever way out.

Think of wine. Now take away from this idea every possible property it has. Take away its redness or whiteness, its intoxicating effect, its taste, the slosh it makes, and so on. What are you left with? Nothing. An empty phoneme of the mind. An invisible color. A silent noise. Do this with any concept, and the result is the same.

This is exactly the kind of consideration that led the American Pragmatic movement. The likes of William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce argued that all of our concepts, and the truth of anything, are determined solely by the practical effects they have and how these extend into the real world. The idea of truth, and even of having intelligible thoughts at all, cannot be understood without reference to what that something does or how it behaves in the real world.

Pragmatic theory of truth: a very American idea

Peirce was the first to coin the term Pragmatism as a particular school of American philosophy, and it was a conscious response to the more untethered and arcane metaphysics coming out of Europe. Across the pond, and especially in Germany, philosophers since Immanuel Kant seemed to be locked in a competition to make philosophy as inaccessible and polysyllabic as possible (reaching its apogee in Georg Hegel). Pragmatists wanted to bring philosophy back and make it more relevant.

American Pragmatism gave out an exasperated and down-to-earth plea for philosophy to stop being quite so abstract.

According to Peirce, there was not any truth “out there” in the “real world” that we somehow, magically, could unearth. Instead, truth was defined by how it works in our everyday lives. So, my belief in gravity is true because of its practicality — that is, it works every day. It is true and meaningful precisely because it makes my pen drop, my coffee cup smash, and pole-vaulters come crashing down. Likewise, we know something is hard if it does not scratch easily, or if it helps you break a window, or if it hurts like heck when you hit it with your toe.

In short, we measure things by how they work and what they do. The same goes for truth.

Of course, an immediate objection comes to mind: surely the truth will change from person to person or from time to time. For instance, the Aristotelian model of gravity and the Ptolemaic model of planetary motion worked quite well for millennia. Does that mean these scientifically disproven models were actually true?! William James would argue yes, but Peirce would say no — and he offered a nuanced way out.

The coalescence of inquiry

For Peirce, “truth” could eventually coalesce or converge by the idealized agreement of intelligent inquirers. That is to say, scientists, scholars, and society will one day be so informed about the world that their answers to “what works” will be the only, final, and universal “truth” or “reality.” As Peirce wrote, “The real, then, is that which, sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me and you.” And, elsewhere, he says reality is “what may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information.”

For instance, Ptolemy’s notion that the sun revolves around the Earth was never true but rather mistaken as true. What is true is defined by the end result of more advanced inquiry, such as that of Copernicus and Galileo. (Of course, we might still be mistaken today.) We cannot know if something is true until this perfected end point has been reached — the point when there are no alternative answers to the question, “What works best?”

Acceptance of error and self-correction

Most commentators today do not think Peirce meant there had to be an actual and future idealized end point where there would be no more debate and disagreement. Rather, Peirce’s Pragmatism speaks to two broader and much more widely accepted epistemic virtues: an openness to accept error and the willingness to correct it.

Under Peirce’s account, something is true or real insofar as it works within the world. This is not just for everyday experiences like gravity causing us to drop things. He meant that things must also work in the science laboratory as well.

Today, we practice science by presenting a hypothesis, which is then tested in experiments over and over again. Scientists are constantly calibrating the truth of hypotheses and theories based on how they work in the world. And, according to Peirce’s Pragmatism, “although the conclusion [of an experiment] at any stage of the investigation may be more or less erroneous, the further application of the same method must correct the error.”

So, we will get closer and closer to the truth as society becomes more and more informed. But this also means accepting that future societies will possibly, or even quite likely, correct what we today call truth.

The American way

Pragmatism has a certain intuitive appeal. Truth which is abstracted from how things operate in the real world often makes very little sense. The idea of a world “out there” beyond our minds — a world which is unseen, unknown, and unimaginable — is also unintelligible (as Kant pointed out) if it is not tied, in some way, both to how the world works and to what we humans can interact with.

People like Peirce should be praised for a very American Pragmatism that gave out an exasperated and down-to-earth plea for philosophy to stop being quite so abstract.

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    Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.

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