The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays

Chapter 6: A Short Catechism Concerning Truth[1]

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PUPIL. I am desirous, respected teacher, of forming an independent judgment concerning the novel theory of truth that you are said to profess. My eagerness is whetted because the theory as expounded to me by my old teacher, Professor Purus Intellectus, so obviously contravenes common sense, science, and philosophy that I do not understand how it can be advanced in good faith by any reasonable man.

Teacher. As you are already somewhat acquainted with the theory (or at least with what it purports to be), perhaps if you will set forth in order your objections, it will appear that the theory that you are acquainted with is not advanced by any reasonable persons, and that by understanding the theory as it is you will also be led to embrace it.

Pupil: 'Objection One. Pragmatism makes truth a subjective affair, namely the satisfaction afforded individuals by ideas, while everybody

(155)knows that the truth of ideas depends upon their relation to things.

Teacher: Reply. If I were to reply that I hold to existences independent of ideas, existences prior to, synchronous with, and subsequent to ideas, that might seem to you to express only my personal opinion and to have no logical connection with pragmatism. So I beg to remind you that, according to pragmatism, ideas (judgments and reasonings being included for convenience in this term) are attitudes of response taken toward extra-ideal, extra-mental things. Instinct and habit express, for instance, modes of response, but modes inadequate for a progressive being, or for adaptation to an environment presenting novel and unmastered features. Under such conditions, ideas are their surrogates. The origin of an idea is thus in some empirical, extra-mental situation which provokes ideas as modes of response, while their meaning is found in the modifications-the " differences "-they make in this extra-mental situation. Their validity is in turn measured by their capacity to effect the transformation they intend. Origin, content, and value-all alike are extra-ideational. The satisfaction upon which the pragmatist dwells is just the better adjustment of living beings to their environment effected by transformations of the environment through forming and applying ideas.


Pupil: Objection Two. But, as I understand it and as you have yourself confessed in your language, these external things, while they may be external to the particular idea in question, are empirical; they are just other experiences and so mental after all. You hold, I have been informed, that truth is an experienced relation, instead of a relation between experience and what transcends it; why then be mealy-mouthed (pardon my eagerness if it leads me astray) in admitting that the whole business is intra-mental?

Teacher: Reply. Your objection combines and confuses two things. To disentangle them is to answer the objection. (1) The notion of transcendence has a double meaning; first, it denotes that which lies inherently and essentially beyond experience. It is interesting to note that the opponents of pragmatism have been forced by the exigencies of their hostility to resuscitate a doctrine supposedly dead: the doctrine of unexperienceable, unknowable " Things in Themselves." And as if this were not enough, they identify Truth with relationship to this unknowable. Thereby in behalf of the notion of Truth in general, they land in scepticism with reference to the possibility of any truth in particular. The pragmatist is bound to deny such transcendence. (2) That he is thereby landed in pure subjectivism or the reduction of every existence to the purely mental, follows

(157) only if experience means only mental states. The critic appears to hold the Humian doctrine that experience is made up of states of mind, of sensations and ideas. It is then for him to decide how, on his basis, he escapes subjective idealism, or " mentalism." The pragmatist starts from a much more commonplace notion of experience, that of the plain man who never dreams that to experience a thing is first to destroy the thing and then to substitute a mental state for it. More particularly, the pragmatist has insisted that experience is a matter of functions and habits, of active adjustments and re-adjustments, of co-ordinations and activities, rather than of states of consciousness. To criticise the pragmatist by reading into him exactly the notion of experience that he denies and replaces, may be psychological and unregenerately " pragmatic," but it is hardly " intellectual."

Pupil: Objection Three. You remind me, curiously enough, of a contention of my old instructor to the effect that the pragmatist, when criticised, always shifts his ground. To avoid solipsism and subjectivism, he falls back on things independent of ideas, adducing them in order to pass upon the truth or falsity of the latter. But thereby he only covertly recognizes the intellectualistic standard. Thus he swings unevenly between a denial of science and a 'clamorous reiteration, in new phraseology, of what all philosophers hold.

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Teacher: Reply. Your words have indeed a familiar sound. Apparently, the average intellectualist has got so accustomed to taking truth as a Relation at Large, without specification or analysis, that any attempt at a concrete statement of just what the relationship is appears to be a denial of the relation itself; in which case, he interprets an occasional reminder from the pragmatist that the latter is, after all, attempting to specify the nature of the relation, to be a surrender of the pragmatist's own case, since it admits after all that there is some relation!

However that may be, the pragmatist holds that the relation in question is one of correspondence between existence and thought; but he holds that correspondence instead of being an ultimate and unanalyzable mystery, to be defined by iteration, is precisely a matter of co-respondence in its plain, familiar sense. A condition of dubious and conflicting tendencies calls out thinking as a method of handling it. This condition produces its own appropriate consequences, bearing its own fruits of weal and woe. The thoughts, the estimates, intents, and projects it calls out, just because they are attitudes of response and of attempted adjustment (not mere "states of consciousness"), produce their effects also. The kind of interlocking, of interadjustment that then occurs between these two sorts of consequences constitutes the

(159) correspondence that makes truth, just as failure to respond to each other, to work together, constitutes mistake and error-mishandling and wandering. This account may, of course, be wrong may involve a maladjustment of consequences but the error in the account, if it exists, must be specific and empirical, and cannot be located by general epistemological accusations.

Pupil: Objection Four. Well, even admitting this version of pragmatism, you cannot deny it still contravenes common sense; for, according to you, the correspondence that constitutes truth does not exist till after ideas have worked, while common sense perceives and knows that it is the antecedent agreement of the ideas with reality that enables them to work. If you make the truth of the existence of a Carboniferous age, or the landing of Columbus in 1492, depend upon a future working of an idea about them, you commit yourself to the most fantastic of philosophies.

Teacher: Reply. May I recall to your attention the accusation of "shifting ground" when hard pressed? The intellectualist began, if I remember correctly, with conceiving truth as a relation of thought and existence; has he not, in your last objection, substituted for this conception an identification of the bare existence or event with truth? Which does he mean? How will he have it? The existence of the Carboniferous age, the

( 160) discovery of America by Columbus are not truths; they are events. Some conviction, some belief, some judgment with reference to them is necessary to introduce the category of truth and falsity. And since the conviction, the judgment, is as matter of fact subsequent to the event, how can its truth consist in the kind of blank, wholesale relationship the intellectualist contends for? How can the present belief jump out of its present skin, dive into the, past, and land upon just the one event (that as past is gone forever) which, by definition, constitutes its truth? I do not wonder the intellectualist has much to say about " transcendence " when he comes to dealing with the truth of judgments about the past; but why does he not tell us how we manage to know when one thought lands straight on the devoted head of something past and gone, while another thought comes down on the wrong thing in the past?

Pupil: Well, of course, knowledge of the past is very mysterious, but how is the pragmatist any better off ?

Teacher: The reply to that may be inferred from what has already been said. The past event has left effects, consequences, that are present and that will continue in the future. Our belief about it, if genuine, must also modify action in some way and so have objective effects. If these two sets of effects interlock harmoniously, then the

(161) judgment is true. If perchance the past event had no discoverable consequences or our thought of it can work out to no assignable difference anywhere, then there is no possibility of genuine judgment.

Pupil: You have, perhaps, anticipated my next objection, which was that upon the pragmatic theory (by which truth is constituted by future consequences) there are no truths about what is past and gone, since in respect to that ideas can make no difference. For, I suppose, you would say that the difference made is in the effects that continue, since ideas may work out to facilitate or to confuse our relations to these effects. Nevertheless, I am not quite satisfied. For when I say it is true that it rained yesterday, surely the object of my judgment is something past, not future, while pragmatism makes all objects of judgment future.

Teacher: Reply. You confuse the content of a judgment with the reference of that content. The content of any idea about yesterday's rain certainly involves past time, but the distinctive or characteristic aim of judgment is none the less to give this content a future reference and function.

Pupil: Objection Five. But your argument requires an absurd identification of truth and verification. To verify ideas is to find out that they

(162) were already true; or possessed of the truth relation prior to its discovery in verification. But the pragmatist holds that the act of finding out that ideas are true creates the thing that is found. In short, you confuse the psychology of finding out with the reality found out.

Teacher: Reply. Many intellectualists have now gone so far as to admit that verification is the testing of a judgment by the consequence it imports, the difference it makes-its working. But they still deny any organic connection between the " antecedent " truth property of ideas and the verification (or " making true ") process. Surely they admit either too much or too little. (i) If an idea about a past event is already true because of some mysterious static correspondence that it possesses to that past event, how in the world can its truth be proved by the future consequences of that idea? Why is it that the intellectualist has not produced any positive theory about the relation of verification to his notion of truth? (ii) Moreover, if verification consists in the experimental working out of a belief, the intellectualist thereby admits that his own theory of truth can be known to be true only as it is verified by its workings. But if the theory that truth is a readymade static property of judgments is true, how in the world can it be verified by making any specific differences in the course of events? Every-

( 163) -where we have to proceed as if the pragmatic theory were the right one. (iii) If he admits that the pragmatic theory of verification is true, what meaning remains to the statement that the idea had the truth property in advance? Why, simply that it had the property of ability to work -an ability revealed by its actual working. How can a given fact be an objection to the pragmatic theory when that fact has a definitely assignable meaning on the pragmatic theory, while upon the anti-pragmatic theory it just has to be accepted as an ultimate, unanalyzable fact?

As to your remark about verification being merely psychological, I have something to say. Colleagues of mine are steadily at work in various laboratories on various researches, forming hypotheses, experimenting, testing, corroborating, refuting, modifying ideas. One of them, for example, recently put an immense pendulum in place in order to repeat and test Foucault's experiment with reference to the earth's rotation. Do you regard such verification processes as merely psychological?

Pupil: I don't know. Why do you ask?

Teacher: Because if the objector means that such experimental provings are merely psychological, he has of course relegated to the merely psychological (wherever that may be) all the technique of all the physical sciences-a rather high

(164) price to pay for the confutation of the pragmatist. The intellectualist is thus in the dilemma either of conceding to the pragmatist 'the whole sphere of concrete scientific logic or else of himself regarding all science as merely subjective? Which horn does he choose?

Pupil: Objection Six. I noticed a moment ago that you spoke of the pragmatic theory of truth being true. Surely the pragmatist does not live up to his reputation of having a sense of humor when he claims assent to his theory on the ground that it is true. What is this but to admit intellectualism?

Teacher: Reply. My son, we are evidently nearing the end. Naturally, the pragmatist claims his theory to be true in the pragmatic sense of truth: it works, it clears up difficulties, removes obscurities, puts individuals into more experimental, less dogmatic, and less arbitrarily sceptical relations to life; aligns philosophic with scientific method; does away with self-made problems of epistemology; clarifies and reorganizes logical theory, etc. He is quite content to have the truth of his theory consist in its working in these various ways, and to leave to the intellectualist the proud possession of a static, unanalyzable, unverifiable, unworking property.

Pupil: Objection Seven. Nevertheless, the pragmatist is always appealing to the judgments of

( 165) others to corroborate his own judgment. Surely this admits the principle of a judgment that is correct, true, in se.

Teacher: Reply. The pragmatist says that judgment is pragmatic, i.e., originated under conditions of need for a survey and statement, and tested by efficiency in meeting this need. And then you think you have refuted him by saying that any appeal to judgment is intellectualistic! Such begging of the question convinces me that the radical difficulty of the intellectualist is that he conceives of the pragmatist as beginning with a theory of truth, when in reality the latter begins with a theory about judgments and meanings of which the theory of truth is a corollary.

Pupil: Objection Eight. Nevertheless, you are endeavoring to convert your opponent to a certain theory. Surely that is an intellectual undertaking, and in theory (at least) the theoretical criterion, as Mr. Bradley has well said, must be supreme.

Teacher: Reply. A little reflection will convince you that you are going around in the same old circle. Since men have to act together, since the individual subsists in social bonds and activities, to convert another to a certain way of looking at things is to make social ties and functions better adapted, more prosperous in their workings. Only if the pragmatist held the intellectualist's position,

( 166) would he appeal to other than what is ultimately a practical need and a practical criterion in endeavoring to convert others.

Pupil: Objection Nine. Still the pragmatic criterion, being satisfactory working, is purely personal and subjective. Whatever works so as to please me is true. Either this is your result (in which case your reference to social relations only denotes at bottom a number of purely subjectivistic satisfactions) or else you unconsciously assume an intellectual department of our nature that has to be satisfied; and whose satisfaction is truth. Thereby you admit the intellectualistic criterion.

Teacher: Reply. We seem to have got back to our starting-point, the nature of satisfaction. The intellectualist seems to think that because the pragmatist insists upon the factor of human want, purpose, and realization in the making and testing of judgments, the impersonal factor is therefore denied. But what the pragmatist does is to insist that the human factor must work itself out in co-operation with the environmental factor, and that their co-adaptation is both " correspondence " and " satisfaction." As long as the human factor is ignored and denied, or is regarded as merely psychological (whatever, once more, that means), this human factor will assert itself in irresponsible ways. So long as, particularly in philosophy, a flagrantly unchastened pragmatism reigns, we

( 167) shall find, as at present, the most ambitious intellectualistic systems accepted simply because of the personal comfort they yield those who contrive and accept them. Once recognize the human factor, and pragmatism is at hand to insist that the believer must accept the full consequences of his beliefs, and that his beliefs must be tried out, through acting upon them, to discover what is their meaning or consequence. Till so tested, he insists that beliefs, no matter how noble and seemingly edifying, are dogmas, not truths. Till the testing has been worked out very completely and patiently, he holds his beliefs as but provisional, as working hypotheses, as methods :-and he recognizes the probability that, as additional modes of testing develop, more and more so-called truths will be relegated to the category of working hypotheses-till the dogmatic mind is crowded out and starved out. At present, the ignoring by philosophers of the part played by personal education, temperament, and preference in their philosophies is the chief source of pretentiousness and insincerity in their systems, and is the ground of the popular disregard for them.

Pupil: What you say calls to mind something of Chesterton's that I read recently: " I agree with the pragmatists that apparent objective truth is not the whole matter; that there is an authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary to

(168) the human mind. But I say that one of those necessities precisely is a belief in objective truth. Pragmatism is a matter of human needs and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist." You would say, if I understand you aright, that to fall back upon a supposed necessity of the " human mind " to believe in certain absolute truths, is to evade a proper demand for testing the human mind and all its works.

Teacher: My son, I' am glad to leave the last word with you. This en f ant terrible of intellectualism has revealed that the chief objection of absolutists to the pragmatic doctrine of the personal (or " subjective ") factor in belief is that the pragmatist has spilled the personal milk in the absolutist's cocoanut.


  1. A paper read in the spring of 1909 before the Philosophical Club of Smith College and not previously published.

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