Friday, September 30, 2011

Moore on James & Jason on Moore

I have been responding to Crispin Sartwell's post on G.E. Moore on James' pragmatism here.  Basically, Moore appears to misunderstand James in the predictable fashion, e.g., running with a metaphysical notion of truth rather than a practical notion.  Of course James is not saying that believing something makes it true, but when believing makes a difference in the world, there is a sense in which we "make truth."  Moreover, since every case of claiming metaphysical truth is also a "making truth," there is a strong sense in which practical truth is more important in our everyday lives.  But this also means that many natural factors come into play, including the human one of culture, politics, etc.

Sartwell said that Stuhr, McDermott, and Rorty couldn't explain pragmatism to him, and I don't think I could do any better if they failed.  That said, I insist that the position is being misunderstood, especially since corrupted forms of the view have been prevalent for a long time.  Case in point, thinking that "believing makes something true" in the simple sense is a misreading that is still a prevalent one.  I'm astonished that it is even seriously entertained ....


  1. look i know a lot about pragmatism. i think it has its moments. my dissertation was on dewey's aesthetics, e.g. i just think that the work on truth isn't plausible, and that even the most basic objections are on to the problem. i'm certainly not saying that on their view believing something makes it true.

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  3. Crispy,

    I already outlined this on your blog.

    The claiming of truth is an activity that does work. Consequences result and the world is altered. If truth must be experienced to function as "truth," then "truth" is always working.

    Hence, Moore's objections as quoted miss the point, e.g., equivocate on the extension of the word "truth." These may not be the truths Moore was looking for, in which case I claim that it is a misunderstanding. The basic idea is quite plausible and resonates with issues in the sociology of knowledge and its analogues in continental philosophy. Aside, the theory of truth is a side-show in most of classical and neoclassical pragmatism.

    So, what are the basic objections? I'm not certain to what you refer? I suspect that there are a few good objections, but perhaps less than originally envisioned.


  4. William James on the matter:

    “But please observe, now, that when as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope for truth itself. We still pin our faith on its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think. Our great difference from the scholastic [the absolutist] lies in the way we face. The strength of his system lies in the principles, the origin, the terminus a quo of his thought; for us the strength is in the outcome, the upshot, the terminus ad quem. Not where it comes from but what it leads to is to decide. It matters not to an empiricists from what quarter an hypothesis may come to him: he may have acquired it by fair means or by foul; passion may have whispered or accident suggested it; but if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he means by its being true (17).”

    The "absolutist" is one who not only believes that one knows, but knows when with certainty. This is a position that pragmatism will never countenance. Truth works, and in its working we know it to be true, but truth is not a "whatever goes affair," for that is an uncharitable reading of what James means by "works," especially given the experimental scientific process implied.

  5. truth is not (only) in the head. it's not (only) in social practices. it's in the world. i say the position is that the pragmatic view of truth is going to turn out to be right at any cost, including saying, 'well, the pragmatists don't really care about truth.' or: there is no theory of truth in james or peirce. rather odd then that they both formulated pragmatism in terms of truth. i'll just say it again: truth does not necessarily work, in any dimension, in any sense. the truth could drive you to suicide or enable you to blow up the world. now is that compatible with the pragmatic view of truth? in that case i wonder how they could possibly keep writing things like 'the truth is the expedient in belief,' etc, over and over, all day every day. so: one formulates a massively or obviously implausible view. then when people gear up the assault, one hedges, hedges, qualifies, opts for ever-more elaborate and obscure formulations, or even goes to the length of saying 'i wasn't talking about truth at all' or whatever.

  6. Captain,

    Of course truth is not only in the head or in social practices, but those cannot be eliminated in the claiming of truth. Recall that the original context of the conversation was G.E. Moore, so that aspect gained prominence to combat what Moore was saying, but that's far from the whole. Don't mistake the momentary emphasis against a particular interlocutor for the whole.

    Saying that they both formulated pragmatism in terms of truth is … just incorrect. Uncontroversially incorrect among the scholars, of which I am one. The classical pragmatists are realists; in contemporary parlance they're mixed constructivists who also insist that so many "non-natural" qualities are real qualities that emerge through human interaction. Hence, their "realism" is not contemporary garden-variety realism and that leads to much confusion for those not familiar with it.

    Hence, talking about truth-working is only a part of the issue, and we should not magnify it as if it were the whole of pragmatism, which is far, far more than a theory of truth. Please, you seem to be engaging in the common mischaracterization of the tradition, and I apologize if I come off a bit firm, but neoclassical pragmatist scholars are over-tired at defending against mis-characterizations and straw-man arguments.

    Final points. The view is not "truth is the expedient in belief," which misunderstands James' point; see William James "The Will to Believe":

    “But please observe, now, that when as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective
    certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope for truth itself. We still pin our
    faith on its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by
    systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think" (17).

    He is rejecting the "absolutist" notion that there is "objective evidence" that "illumines my intellect irrestibly" such that we can know the truth *and* be certain of it. The opposing view is "empiricism," the view of science, that aims to experimentally and fallibly verify truth. The talk of "truth-working" is the idea, verified by all contemporary science, that in practice we are fallible human beings that should verify our hypotheses. Verification is about a lot more than mere belief.

    Now, as I have already said, pragmatism doesn't say much about metaphysical notions of truth precisely because the moment we make such a claim, we are already involved in the practice of truth-talking. It's a blatant contradiction. This is why James refers to the metaphysical notion in terms of "pinning our faith on its existence," because pragmatists are still realists.

    I hope that I have been helpful. I can recommend David Hildebrand's article on pragmatism and neopragmatism or his introduction to become clearer on precisely what is going on. I cannot recommend Rorty, who as a neopragmatist is doing a linguistic pragmatism that bears little resemblance to classical or neoclassical (contemporary traditional) pragmatism.

  7. Great discussion, and thanks for providing some inspiration this Friday morning.

    Two short points: first, I'd like to challenge the idea that the world and the social are somehow separate. Second, just because truth is what works doesn't mean that it's pretty.

    Honestly, yes, people who commit suicide or blow things up or go on shooting rampages often do feel they are in some kind of privileged possession of the truth, or are being driven by truths that are too great for them to handle, or have a vision of the world that demands they act in a certain way.

    If anything, this doesn't negate the idea of truth being what works, it demonstrates its power. But I deny that this collapses into relativism, because we're not dealing with fixed perspectives that exist on some folder in a transcendent hard-drive of truth, we're dealing with human engagement with the world. And if you want truth to have anything to do with being human, then you have to recognize the manner in which human perspectives are constituted through social, historical, and emotional conditions. And that is going to be messy, and complicated, and often filled with conflict.

    Honestly, if truth weren't what worked, then there wouldn't be so much disagreement over what is true. The problem is that many different things work for different people. But again, because we're describing things in terms of ways of doing things, or how things are done, that doesn't negate the idea of truth. Two truths can both be true, and it doesn't diminish the ability either truth to provide justifications or create consequences in the world.

    This doesn't negate the idea of truth, it just means there are bigger truths and more inclusive truths. It means that truth, like everything else human, suffers from alienation and isolation. Truth becomes anemic and worthless when we cleave it from human interactions in the world. People become less when we fail to understand the elements of their experience and how their arrangements and expressions of experience function within the complexities of the world in which they live.

    Truth grows, like people, and it requires care, and attention, and dedication. Theories of truth that deny the pragmatic elements of truth ultimately collapse into either relativism or absolutism, because they have no way of interacting with the world.


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