Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking
by William James, 1907
Lecture II: What Pragmatism Means
Some years ago, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary
ramble to find everyone engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute, The corpus of
the dispute was a squirrel -a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a
tree-trunk; while over against the tree's opposite side a human being was imagined to
stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the
tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite
direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse
of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go
round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is
on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? In the unlimited leisure of the
wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Everyone had taken sides, and was
obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared, therefore
appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you
meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as
follows: "Which party is right," I said, "depends on what you practically
mean by 'going round' the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the
east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously
the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the
contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him then behind him,
then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to
go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly
turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and
there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according
as you conceive the verb 'to go round' in one practical fashion or the other."
Altho one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying
they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English
'round,' the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute.
I tell this trivial anecdote because it is a peculiarly simple example of what I wish
now to speak of as the pragmatic method. The pragmatic method is primarily a
method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the
world one or many? -fated or free? - material or spiritual? -here are notions either of
which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending.
The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its
respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if
this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be
traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.
Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that
must follow from one side or the other's being right.
A glance at the history of the idea will show you still better what pragmatism means.
The term is derived from the same Greek word pragma, meaning action, from
which our words 'practice' and 'practical' come. It was first introduced into philosophy
by Mr. Charles Peirce in 1878. In an article entitled 'How to Make Our Ideas Clear,' in
the 'Popular Science Monthly' for January of that year. Mr. Peirce,
after pointing out that our beliefs are really rules for action, said that, to develope a
thought's meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that
conduct is for us its sole significance. And the tangible fact at the root of all our
thought-distinctions, however subtle, is that there is no one of them so fine as to
consist in anything but a possible difference of practice. To attain perfect clearness in
our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a
practical kind the object may involve -what sensations we are to expect from it, and what
reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects, whether immediate or remote,
is then for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has
positive significance at all.
This is the principle of Peirce, the principle of pragmatism. It lay entirely unnoticed
by anyone for twenty years, until 1, in an address before Professor Howison's
philosophical union at the University of California, brought it forward again and made a special application of it to religion. By that date (1898) the times seemed ripe for its reception. The word 'pragmatism' spread, and at present it fairly spots the pages of the philosophic journals. On all bands we find the 'pragmatic movement' spoken of, sometimes with respect, sometimes with contumely, seldom with clear understanding. It is evident that the term applies itself conveniently to a number of tendencies that hitherto have lacked a collective name, and that it has 'come to stay.'
To take in the importance of Peirce's principle, one must get accustomed to applying it
to concrete cases. I found a few years ago that Ostwald, the illustrious Leipzig chemist,
had been making perfectly distinct use of the principle of pragmatism in his lectures on
the philosophy of science, tho he had not called it by that name.
"All realities influence our practice," he wrote me, "and that influence
is their meaning for us. I am accustomed to put questions to my classes in this way: In
what respects would the world be different if this alternative or that were true? If I can
find nothing that would become different, then the alternative has no sense."
That is, the rival views mean practically the same thing, and meaning, other than
practical, there is for us none. Ostwald in a published lecture gives this example of what
he means. Chemists have long wrangled over the inner constitution of certain bodies called
'tautomerous.' Their properties seemed equally consistent with the notion that an instable
hydrogen atom oscillates inside of them, or that they are instable mixtures of two bodies.
Controversy raged; but never was decided. "It would never have begun," says
Ostwald, "if the combatants had asked themselves what particular experimental fact
could have been made different by one or the other view being correct. For it would then
have appeared that no difference of fact could possibly ensue; and the quarrel was as
unreal as if, theorizing in primitive times about the raising of dough by yeast, one party
should have invoked a 'brownie,' while another insisted on an 'elf' as the true cause of
It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance
the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There
can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere -
no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete
fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and
somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite
difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this
world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.
There is absolutely nothing new in the pragmatic method. Socrates was an adept at it.
Aristotle used it methodically. Locke, Berkeley and Hume made momentous contributions to
truth by its means. Shadworth Hodgson keeps insisting that realities are only what they
are 'known-as.' But these forerunners of pragmatism used it in fragments: they were
preluders only. Not until in our time has it generalized itself, become conscious of a
universal mission, pretended to a conquering destiny. I believe in that destiny, and I
hope I may end by inspiring you with my belief
Pragmatism represents a perfectly familiar attitude in philosophy, the empiricist
attitude, but it represents it, as it seems to me, both in a more radical and in a less
objectionable form than it has ever yet assumed. A pragmatist turns his back resolutely
and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He
turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a
priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and
origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action, and
towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant, and the rationalist temper
sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma,
artificiality and the pretence of finality in truth.
At the same time it does not stand for any special results. It is a method only. But
the general triumph of that method would mean an enormous change in what I called in my last lecture the 'temperament' of philosophy. Teachers of the ultra-rationalistic type
would be frozen out, much as the courtier type is frozen out in republics, as the
ultramontane type of priest is frozen out in protestant lands. Science and metaphysics
would come much nearer together, would in fact work absolutely hand in hand.
Metaphysics has usually followed a very primitive kind of quest. You know how men have
always hankered after unlawful magic, and you know what a great part, in magic, words have
always played. If you have his name, or the formula of incantation that binds him, you can
control the spirit, genie, afrite, or whatever the power may be. Solomon knew the names of
all the spirits, and having their names, he held them subject to his will. So the universe
has always appeared to the natural mind as a kind of enigma, of which the key must be
sought in the shape of some illuminating or power-bringing word or name. That word names
the universe's principle, and to possess it is, after a fashion, to possess the
universe itself 'God,' 'Matter,' 'Reason,' 'the Absolute,' 'Energy,' are so many solving names. You can rest when you have them. You are at the end of your metaphysical quest.
But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word as closing
your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work
within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a
program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which
existing realities may be changed.
Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We
don't lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by
their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at
work. Being nothing essentially new, it harmonizes with many ancient philosophic
tendencies. It agrees with nominalism for instance, in always appealing to particulars;
with utilitarianism in emphasizing practical aspects; with positivism in its disdain for
verbal solutions, useless questions, and metaphysical abstractions.
All these, you see, are anti-intellectualist tendencies. Against rationalism
as a pretension and a method, pragmatism is fully armed and militant. But, at the outset,
at least, it stands for no particular results. It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its
method. As the young Italian pragmatist Papini has well said, it lies in the midst of our
theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may
find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith
and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body's properties. In a fourth a system
of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of
metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.
No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the
pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles,
'categories,' supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits,
So much for the pragmatic method! You may say that I have been praising it rather than
explaining it to you, but I shall presently explain it abundantly enough by showing how it
works on some familiar problems. Meanwhile the word pragmatism has come to be used in a
still wider sense, as meaning also a certain theory of truth. I mean to give a
whole lecture to the statement of that theory, after first paving the way, so I can be
very brief now.. But brevity is hard to follow, so I ask for your redoubled attention for
a quarter of an hour. If much remains obscure, I hope to make it clearer in the later
One of the most successfully cultivated branches of philosophy in our time is what is
called inductive logic, the study of the conditions under which our sciences have evolved.
Writers on this subject have begun to show a singular unanimity as to what the laws of
nature and elements of fact mean, when formulated by mathematicians, physicists and
chemists. When the first mathematical, logical and natural uniformities, the first laws,
were discovered, men were so carried away by the clearness, beauty and simplification
that resulted, that they believed themselves to have deciphered authentically the eternal
thoughts of the Almighty. His mind also thundered and reverberated in syllogisms. He also
thought in conic sections, squares and roots and ratios, and geometrized like Euclid. He
made Kepler's laws for the planets to follow; he made velocity increase proportionally to
the time in falling bodies; he made the law of the sines for light to obey when refracted;
he established the classes, orders, families and genera of plants and animals, and fixed
the distances between them. He thought the archetypes of all things, and devised their
variations; and when we rediscover any one of these his wondrous institutions, we seize
his mind in its very literal intention.
But as the sciences have developed farther, the notion has gained ground that most,
perhaps all, of our laws are only approximations. The laws themselves, moreover, have
grown so numerous that there is no counting them; and so many rival formulations are
proposed in all the branches of science that investigators have become accustomed to the
notion that no theory is absolutely a transcript of reality, but that any one of them may
from some point of view be useful. Their great use is to summarize old facts and to lead
to new ones. They are only a man-made language, a conceptual shorthand, as someone calls
them, in which we write our reports of nature; and languages, as is well known, tolerate much choice of expression and many dialects.
Thus human arbitrariness has driven divine necessity from scientific logic. If I
mention the names of Sigwart, Mach, Ostwald, Pearson, Milhaud, Poincaré, Duhem, Ruyssen, those of you who are students will easily identify the tendency I speak of, and will think of additional names.
Riding now on the front of this wave of scientific logic Messrs. Schiller and Dewey
appear with their pragmatistic account of what truth everywhere signifies. Everywhere,
these teachers say, 'truth' in our ideas and beliefs means the same thing that it means in
science. It means, they say, nothing but this, that ideas (which themselves are but
parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to 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. 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 taught so successfully at Chicago, the view that truth in our ideas means their
power to 'work,' promulgated so brilliantly at Oxford.
Messrs. Dewey, Schiller and their allies, in reaching this general conception of all
truth, have only followed the example of geologists, biologists and philologists. In the
establishment of these other sciences, the successful stroke was always to take some
simple process actually observable in operation-as denudation by weather, say, or
variation from parental type, or change of dialect by incorporation of new words and
pronunciations -and then to generalize it, making it apply to all times, and produce great
results by summating its effects through the ages.
The observable process which Schiller and Dewey particularly singled out for
generalization is the familiar one by which any individual settles into new opinions. The
process here is always the same. The individual has a stock of old opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain. Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers that they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy. The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions. He saves as much of it as he can, for in this matter of belief we are all extreme conservatives. So he tries to change first this opinion, and then that
(for they resist change very variously), until at last some new idea comes up which he can
graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum of disturbance of the latter, some idea that
mediates between the stock and the new experience and runs them into one another most
felicitously and expediently.
This new idea is then adopted as the true one. It preserves the older stock of truths
with a minimum of modification, stretching them just enough to make them admit the
novelty, but conceiving that in ways as familiar as the case leaves possible. An outrée
explanation, violating all our preconceptions, would never pass for a true account of
a novelty. We should scratch round industriously till we found something less excentric.
The most violent revolutions in an individual's beliefs leave most of his old order
standing. Time and space, cause and effect, nature and history, and one's own biography
remain untouched. New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It
marries old opinion to new fact so as ever to show a minimum of jolt, a maximum of
continuity. We hold a theory true just in proportion to its success in solving this
'problem of maxima and minima.' But success in solving this problem is eminently a matter
of approximation. We say this theory solves it on the whole more satisfactorily than that
theory; but that means more satisfactorily to ourselves, and individuals will emphasize
their points of satisfaction differently. To a certain degree, therefore, everything here
The point I now urge you to observe particularly is the part played by the older
truths. Failure to take account of it is the source of much of the unjust criticism
leveled against pragmatism. Their influence is absolutely controlling. Loyalty to them is
the first principle - in most cases it is the only principle; for by far the most usual
way of handling phenomena so novel that they would make for a serious rearrangement of our
preconceptions is to ignore them altogether, or to abuse those who bear witness for them.
You doubtless wish examples of this process of truth's growth, and the only trouble is
their superabundance. The simplest case of new truth is of course the mere numerical
addition of new kinds of facts, or of new single facts of old kinds, to our experience - an addition that involves no alteration in the old beliefs. Day follows day, and its contents are simply added. The new contents themselves are not true, they simply come and are. Truth is what we say about them, and when we say that they have come, truth is satisfied by the plain additive formula.
But often the day's contents oblige a rearrangement. If I should now utter piercing
shrieks and act like a maniac on this platform, it would make many of you revise your
ideas as to the probable worth of my philosophy. 'Radium' came the other day as part of
the day's content, and seemed for a moment to contradict our ideas of the whole order of
nature, that order having come to be identified with what is called the conservation of
energy. The mere sight of radium paying heat away indefinitely out of its own pocket
seemed to violate that conservation. What to think? if the radiations from it were nothing
but an escape of unsuspected 'potential' energy, pre-existent inside of the atoms, the
principle of conservation would be saved. The discovery of 'helium' as the radiation's
outcome, opened a way to this belief So Ramsay's view is generally held to be true,
because, altho it extends our old ideas of energy, it causes a minimum of alteration in
I need not multiply instances. A new opinion counts as 'true' just in proportion as it
gratifies the individual's desire to assimilate the novel in his experience to his beliefs
in stock. It must both lean on old truth and grasp new fact; and its success (as I said a
moment ago) in doing this, is a matter for the individual's appreciation. When old truth
grows, then, by new truth's addition, it is for subjective reasons. We are in the process
and obey the reasons. That new idea is truest which performs most felicitously its
function of satisfying our double urgency. It makes itself true, gets itself classed as
true, by the way it works; grafting itself then upon the ancient body of truth, which thus
grows much as a tree grows by the activity of a new layer of cambium.
Now Dewey and Schiller proceed to generalize this observation and to apply it to the
most ancient parts of truth. They also once were plastic. They also were called true for
human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were
novel observations. Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of
giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played
no rôle whatever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for 'to be true' means only to perform this marriage-function.
The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything. Truth independent; truth that
we find merely; truth no longer malleable to human need; truth incorrigible, in a
word; such truth exists indeed superabundantly- or is supposed to exist by
rationalistically minded thinkers; but then it means only the dead heart of the living
tree, and its being there means only that truth also has its paleontology and its
prescription,' and may grow stiff with years of veteran service and petrified in men's
regard by sheer antiquity. But how plastic even the oldest truths nevertheless really are
has been vividly shown in our day by the transformation of logical and mathematical ideas,
a transformation which seems even to be invading physics. The ancient formulas are
reinterpreted as special expressions of much wider principles, principles that our
ancestors never got a glimpse of in their present shape and formulation.
Mr. Schiller still gives to all this view of truth the name of 'Humanism,' but, for
this doctrine too, the name of pragmatism seems fairly to be in the ascendant, so I will
treat it under the name of pragmatism in these lectures.
Such then would be the scope of pragmatism -first, a method; and second, a genetic
theory of what is meant by truth. And these two things must be our future topics.
What I have said of the theory of truth will, I am sure, have appeared obscure and
unsatisfactory to most of you by reason of its brevity. I shall make amends for that
hereafter. In a lecture on 'common sense' I shall try to show what I mean by truths grown
petrified by antiquity. In another lecture I shall expatiate on the idea that our thoughts
become true in proportion as they successfully exert their go-between function. In a third
I shall show how hard it is to discriminate subjective from objective factors in Truth's
development. You may not follow me wholly in these lectures; and if you do, you may not
wholly agree with me. But you will, I know, regard me at least as serious, and treat my
effort with respectful consideration.
You will probably be surprised to learn, then, that Messrs. Schiller's and Dewey's
theories have suffered a hailstorm of contempt and ridicule. All rationalism has risen
against them. In influential quarters Mr. Schiller, in particular, has been treated like
an impudent schoolboy who deserves a spanking. I should not mention this, but for the fact
that it throws so much sidelight upon that rationalistic temper to which I have opposed
the temper of pragmatism. Pragmatism is uncomfortable away from facts. Rationalism is
comfortable only in the presence of abstractions. This pragmatist talk about truths in the plural, about their utility and satisfactoriness, about the success with which they 'work,' etc., suggests to the typical intellectualist mind a sort of coarse lame second-rate makeshift article of truth, Such truths are not real truth. Such tests are merely subjective. As against this, objective truth must be something non-utilitarian, haughty, refined, remote, august,
exalted. It must be an absolute correspondence of our thoughts with an equally absolute
reality. It must be what we ought to think, unconditionally. The conditioned ways
in which we do think are so much irrelevance and matter for psychology. Down with
psychology, up with logic, in all this question!
See the exquisite contrast of the types of mind! The pragmatist clings to facts and
concreteness, observes truth at its work in particular cases, and generalizes. Truth, for
him, becomes a class-name for all sorts of definite working-values in experience. For the
rationalist it remains a pure abstraction, to the bare name of which we must defer. When
the pragmatist undertakes to show in detail just why we must defer, the
rationalist is unable to recognize the concretes from which his own abstraction is taken.
He accuses us of denying truth; whereas we have only sought to trace exactly why
people follow it and always ought to follow it. Your typical ultra-abstractionist fairly
shudders at concreteness: other things equal, he positively prefers the pale and spectral.
If the two universes were offered, he would always choose the skinny outline rather than
the rich thicket of reality. It is so much purer, clearer, nobler.
I hope that as these lectures go on, the concreteness and closeness to facts of the
pragmatism which they advocate may be what approves itself to you as its most satisfactory
peculiarity. It only follows here the example of the sister-sciences, interpreting the
unobserved by the observed. It brings old and new harmoniously together. It converts the
absolutely empty notion of a static relation of 'correspondence' (what that may mean we
must ask later) between our minds and reality, into that of a rich and active commerce
(that anyone may follow in detail and understand) between particular thoughts of ours, and
the great universe of other experiences in which they play their parts and have their
But enough of this at present? The justification of what I say must be postponed I wish
now to add a word in further explanation of the claim I made at out last meeting, that
pragmatism may be a happy harmonizer of empiricist ways of thinking, with the more
religious demands of human beings.
Men who are strongly of the fact-loving temperament, you may remember me to have said,
are liable to be kept at a distance by the small sympathy with facts which that philosophy from the present-day fashion of idealism offers them. It is far too intellectualistic. Old fashioned theism was bad enough, with its notion of God as an exalted monarch, made up of a lot of unintelligible or preposterous 'attributes'; but, so long as it held strongly by the argument from design, it kept some touch with concrete realities. Since, however, darwinism has once for all displaced design from the minds of the 'scientific,' theism has lost that foothold; and
some kind of an immanent or pantheistic deity working in things rather than above
them is, if any, the kind recommended to our contemporary imagination. Aspirants to a
philosophic religion turn, as a rule, more hopefully nowadays towards idealistic pantheism
than towards the older dualistic theism, in spite of the fact that the latter still counts
But, as I said in my first lecture, the brand of pantheism offered is hard for them to
assimilate if they are lovers of facts, or empirically minded. It is the absolutistic
brand, spurning the dust and reared upon pure logic. It keeps no connexion whatever with
concreteness. Affirming the Absolute Mind, which is its substitute for God, to be the
rational presupposition of all particulars of fact, whatever they may be, it remains
supremely indifferent to what the particular facts in our world actually are. Be they what
they may, the Absolute will father them. Like the sick lion in Esop's fable, all
footprints lead into his den, but nulla vestigia retrorsum. You cannot redescend
into the world of particulars by the Absolute's aid, or deduce any necessary consequences
of detail important for your life from your idea of his nature. He gives you indeed the
assurance that all is well with Him, and for his eternal way of thinking; but thereupon he
leaves you to be finitely saved by your own temporal devices.
Far be it from me to deny the majesty of this conception, or its capacity to yield
religious comfort to a most respectable class of minds. But from the human point of view,
no one can pretend that it doesn't suffer from the faults of remoteness and abstractness.
It is eminently a product of what I have ventured to call the rationalistic temper. It
disdains empiricism's needs. It substitutes a pallid outline for the real world's
richness. It is dapper; it is noble in the bad sense, in the sense in which to be noble is
to be inapt for humble service. In this real world of sweat and dirt, it seems to me that
when a view of things is 'noble,' that ought to count as a presumption against its truth,
and as a philosophic disqualification. The prince of darkness may be a gentleman, as we
are told he is, but whatever the God of earth and heaven is, he can surely be no gentleman. His menial services are needed in the dust of our human trials, even more than his dignity is needed in the empyrean.
Now pragmatism, devoted tho she be to facts, has no such materialistic bias as ordinary
empiricism labors under. Moreover, she has no objection whatever to the realizing of
abstractions, so long as you get about among particulars with their aid and they actually
carry you somewhere. Interested in no conclusions but those which our minds and our
experiences work out together, she has no a priori prejudices against theology. If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for
pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. For how much more they are true, will
depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be acknowledged.
What I said just now about the Absolute of transcendental idealism is a case in point.
First, I called it majestic and said it yielded religious comfort to a class of minds, and
then I accused it of remoteness and sterility. But so far as it affords such comfort, it
surely is not sterile; it has that amount of value; it performs a concrete function. As a
good pragmatist, I myself ought to call the Absolute true 'in so far forth,' then; and I
unhesitatingly now do so.
But what does true in so far forth mean in this case? To answer, we need only
apply the pragmatic method. What do believers in the Absolute mean by saying that their
belief affords them comfort? They mean that since in the Absolute finite evil is
'overruled' already, we may, therefore, whenever we wish, treat the temporal as if it were
potentially the eternal, be sure that we can trust its outcome, and, without sin, dismiss
our fear and drop the worry of our finite responsibility. In short, they mean that we have
a right ever and anon to take a moral holiday, to let the world wag in its own way,
feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business.
The universe is a system of which the individual members may relax their anxieties
occasionally, in which the don't-care mood is also right for men, and moral holidays in
order -that, if I mistake not, is part, at least, of what the Absolute is 'known-as,' that
is the great difference in our particular experiences which his being true makes for us,
that is part of his cash-value when he is pragmatically interpreted. Farther than that the
ordinary lay-reader in philosophy who thinks favorably of absolute idealism does not
venture to sharpen his conceptions. He can use the Absolute for so much, and so much is
very precious. He is pained at hearing you speak incredulously of the Absolute, therefore,
and disregards your criticisms because they deal with aspects of the conception that he
fails to follow.
If the Absolute means this, and means no more than this, who can possibly deny the truth of it? To deny it would be to insist that men should never relax, and that holidays are never in order.
I am well aware how odd it must seem to some of you to hear me say that an idea is
'true' so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives. That it is good, for
as much as it profits, you will gladly admit. If what we do by its aid is good, you will
allow the idea itself to be good in so far forth, for we are the better for possessing it.
But is it not a strange misuse of the word 'truth,' you will say, to call ideas also
'true' for this reason?
To answer this difficulty fully is impossible at this stage of my account. You touch
here upon the very central point of Messrs. Schiller's, Dewey's and my own doctrine of
truth, which I cannot discuss with detail until my sixth lecture. Let me now say only
this, that truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a
category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it. The true is the name of whatever
proves itself to be good in the way of belief and good, too, for definite, assignable
reasons. Surely you must admit this, that if there were no good for life in
true ideas, or if the knowledge of them were positively disadvantageous and false ideas
the only useful ones, then the current notion that truth is divine and precious, and its
pursuit a duty, could never have grown up or become a dogma. In a world like that, our
duty would be to shun truth, rather. But in this world, just as certain foods are
not only agreeable to our taste, but good for our teeth, our stomach and our tissues; so
certain ideas are not only agreeable to think about, or agreeable as supporting other
ideas that we are fond of, but they are also helpful in life's practical struggles. If
there be any life that it is really better we should lead, and if there be any idea which,
if believed in, would help us to lead that life, then it would be really better for us
to believe in that idea, unless, indeed, belief in it incidentally clashed with
other greater vital benefits.
'What would be better for us to believe'! This sounds very like a definition of truth.
It comes very near to saying 'what we ought to believe'; and in that definition none of you would find any oddity. Ought we ever not to believe what it is better for us to believe? And can we then keep the notion of what is better for us, and what is
true for us, permanently apart?
Pragmatism says no, and I fully agree with her. Probably you also agree, so far as the
abstract statement goes, but with a suspicion that if we practically did believe
everything that made for good in our own personal lives, we should be found indulging all
kinds of fancies about this world's affairs, and all kinds of sentimental superstitions
about a world hereafter. Your suspicion here is undoubtedly well founded, and it is
evident that something happens when you pass from the abstract to the concrete, that
complicates the situation.
I said just now that what is better for us to believe is true unless the belief
incidentally clashes with some other vital benefit. Now in real life what vital
benefits is any particular belief of ours most liable to clash with? What indeed except
the vital benefits yielded by other beliefs when these prove incompatible with
the first ones? In other words, the greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the
rest of our truths. Truths have once for all this desperate instinct of self-preservation
and of desire to extinguish whatever contradicts them. My belief in the Absolute, based on
the good it does me, must run the gauntlet of all my other beliefs. Grant that it may be
true in giving me a moral holiday. Nevertheless, as I conceive it,-and let me speak now
confidentially, as it were, and merely in my own private person,-it clashes with other
truths of mine whose benefits I hate to give up on its account. It happens to be
associated with a kind of logic of which I am the enemy, I find that it entangles me in
metaphysical paradoxes that are inacceptable, etc., etc. But as I have enough trouble in
life already without adding the trouble of carrying these intellectual inconsistencies, I
personally just give up the Absolute. I just take my moral holidays; or else as a
professional philosopher, I try to justify them by some other principle.
If I could restrict my notion of the Absolute to its bare holiday-giving value, it
wouldn't clash with my other truths. But we cannot easily thus restrict our hypotheses.
They carry supernumerary features, and these it is that clash so, My disbelief in the
Absolute means then disbelief in those other supernumerary features, for I fully believe
in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays.
You see by this what I meant when I called pragmatism a mediator and reconciler and
said, borrowing the word from Papini, that she unstiffens' our theories. She has in fact
no prejudices whatever, no obstructive dogmas, no rigid canons of what shall count as
proof She is completely genial. She will entertain any hypothesis, she will consider any
evidence. It follows that in the religious field she is at a great advantage both over
positivistic empiricism, with its anti-theological bias, and over religious rationalism,
with its exclusive interest in the remote, the noble, the simple, and the abstract in the
way of conception.
In short, she widens the field of search for God. Rationalism sticks to logic and the
empyrean. Empiricism sticks to the external senses. Pragmatism is willing to take
anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most
personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they have practical
consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact - if that
should seem a likely place to find him.
Her only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience's demands, nothing being omitted. If theological ideas should do this, if the notion of God, in particular, should prove to do it, how could pragmatism possibly deny God's existence? She could see no meaning in treating as 'not true' a notion that was pragmatically so successful. What other kind of truth could there be, for her, than all this agreement with concrete reality?
In my last lecture I shall return again to the relations of pragmatism with religion.
But you see already how democratic she is. Her manners are as various and flexible, her
resources as rich and endless, and her conclusions as friendly as those of mother nature.
William James. Pragmatism: A new name for some old ways of thinking. Published in New York by Longman Green and Co. (1907). The text of this document is in the public domain and reproducible without permissiosn.