Pragmatic Truth and Politics


I am teaching a course on Pragmatism this semester at my program for retirees. Right now we are taking up the pragmatism of William James after spending a few sessions on C. S. Pierce, the father of American pragmatism. James took Pierce’s theory of meaning and applied it to the concept of truth and came up with a definition that is both powerful and easily misinterpreted. Pierce gave us the idea, his Pragmatic Maxim, that the meaning of any concept was to be understood by thinking about all the conceivable outcomes of applying it in practical situations. The entire meaning of that concept was contained in the whole of those practical outcomes. Pierce saw this process, not as an individual exercise, but one in which a community of inquirers sought all the possible outcomes and could, ultimately, come to an agreement on the meaning. The inquiry was an essential part of the process.

Both men started with the idea that beliefs were the rules on which humans acted and both understood it was important to establish the condition by which our beliefs were “fixed” in Pierce’s word. Pierce’s conditions were based on an agreement among an interested group of inquirers. For him the validity of a proposition rested in a public process, much like the way that scientific findings are subject to peer review and acceptance by the whole scientific community. These fixed beliefs (Pierce did not use the word “true” to describe them) were always subject to being overturned by new experiences.

James, applying the Pierce’s Maxim to the concept of truth, but from a individual subjective viewpoint, defined truth as a belief that an individual found to be useful in practice, to have “cash value” in his words, not in the conceptual sense of Pierce, but in the actual experience of the believer. Where Pierce would have fixed a concept or proposition only after subjecting it to extensive public inquiry, James allowed for an individual to determine its truth based only on his or her experience with it.

The tersest definition among many in James’s works is, “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.” The tie to experience is clear. Truth is not some metaphysical idea, but the result of experience. He said further that “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.” For him, the only function of thought is to satisfy certain interests of the human organism; the truth consists in such thinking as satisfies these interests. He applied this understanding to experiences beyond the give and take of daily life, extending to moral and religious concepts, arguing, “if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is [pragmatically] true.”

This and similar statements have led to a serious misunderstanding of James’s pragmatism. The word “pragmatically” is usually omitted (I added it to the above quote from James.) when one says, “Well it works for me, therefore it is true and you should believe it also.” where “it” can be just about anything. James is clear that truth in his pragmatic sense has no necessary connection to the real world. His own belief in God does not mean that God actually exists. However, James’s statement “the true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.” has become corrupted to mean “Whatever beliefs we take to be good for us may, by virtue of that fact, be said to be true,” enabling false beliefs to be deemed to be “true.”

“Facts” are nothing more than beliefs presented as true. It matters little to you if the facts I take to be true work for me but do not agree with your set of truths/facts, unless we are to coordinate our lives in some way. Politics are fundamentally different. Politics ultimately entails a set of truths that will involve all our lives. It matters how these truths are established. and how they are valued by those that will practice them if they gain control of the polity. Ideologies are composed of truths based, more or less rationally, on a set of hypotheses coming from some theory or model of how the world has worked in the past. In science this has worked very well because the natural world continues to work much like it has in the past. However today, humans are exerting such significant influence over natural processes that this assumption is no longer always valid. Political ideologies, rules about how to govern, even if they have worked in the past, cannot be taken as true for the future because the world is always changing. New innovations change the way we work, national boundaries are always shifting, in terms of influence, if not topographically, the weather changes, and so on.

Pierce’s concepts of pragmatism are critical in this context. Even James said,“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.” The only way we can tell how a truth will turn out is by continually testing it, by observing what happens to it. Economics, in spite of its popular sense as a science, is little more than a bundle of competing ideologies. Not a single one is a true representation of how the world works, other than being pragmatically true. But to listen to the political rhetoric in the news, the ads, and the debates, we are led to believe that each side of the argument has God’s truth about the consequences of adopting one ideology or another. That’s the case even if the words come from one that knows that there is no basis in facts borne out by experience. The absence of such facts creates (at least for me) a context where I must discount anything that follows. Distorting or deliberately lying about facts has become a common practice these days. Governor Romney’s campaign manager said sometime ago that they had no obligation to be truthful, that whatever was true or not about the campaign was the job of the media to establish. An almost perfect example of the corrupted use of James’s notion that if something works for me, it is “true.”

Vaclav Havel wrote extensively about the truth in a political sense and the importance of living within it, “.…that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth …” `The US and the Czechoslovakia of Havel’s times are very different, but the necessity of living in truth is equally important.

There is very little different from the propaganda machines of his totalitarian state and the “propaganda machines” of today’s political advertising; both lead to worlds with little attention to the real facts of the human condition. It is obscene to read (in the current New Yorker) of the utter smallness of billionaire’s whining about being treated with less than royal deference. Their truths about the world are classically Jamesian, coming from a wholly personal experience that at most one in a thousand of us has lived. Romney’s shifting positions may be the result of his attempts to shift from his own privileged, personal way he has experienced the world and his consequent personal truths to one reflecting more of the way he believes we commoners see things. His awkwardness in communicating with ordinary Americans probably comes from the very different way he sees the world pragmatically than we do. At least, there is some authenticity in that.

But to keep shifting and adopting another set of ideological truths that can be said to be true only because they might be effective in winning an election is completely inauthentic and have little chance of dealing with the real problems the rest of us share. It would be wonderful if such ideas could be plucked out of some ideological basket, but that is simply not possible in the complex and ever-changing world. It’s OK and may be necessary to start with ideas coming from some theory, but only experience will tell us how they are working out. The argument that things are not working out as promised may be valid at any moment, but it is always true over time no matter who is in office. We can only ever argue over relative success or not, unfortunately. Our future depends on following Pierce’s, not James’s, pragmatism. It’s not the ideas that work for the politicians that are important; it is only those that work when measured by public results. That it might have been better to do this rather than that may be true, but can never be proven. I’ll take a Piercian (Obama) over a Jamesian (Romney) politician any day. For me the choice this time around is crystal clear.