The Meaning of Truth
By William James
Public Domain Books
IX. The Meaning of the Word Truth
[Footnote: Remarks at the meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Cornell University, December, 1907.]
My account of truth is realistic, and follows the epistemological dualism of common sense. Suppose I say to you ’The thing exists’– is that true or not? How can you tell? Not till my statement has developed its meaning farther is it determined as being true, false, or irrelevant to reality altogether. But if now you ask ’what thing?’ and I reply ’a desk’; if you ask ’where?’ and I point to a place; if you ask ’does it exist materially, or only in imagination?’ and I say ’materially’; if moreover I say ’I mean that desk’ and then grasp and shake a desk which you see just as I have described it, you are willing to call my statement true. But you and I are commutable here; we can exchange places; and, as you go bail for my desk, so I can go bail for yours.
This notion of a reality independent of either of us, taken from ordinary social experience, lies at the base of the pragmatist definition of truth. With some such reality any statement, in order to be counted true, must agree. Pragmatism defines ’agreeing’ to mean certain ways of ’working,’ be they actual or potential. Thus, for my statement ’the desk exists’ to be true of a desk recognized as real by you, it must be able to lead me to shake your desk, to explain myself by words that suggest that desk to your mind, to make a drawing that is like the desk you see, etc. Only in such ways as this is there sense in saying it agrees with THAT reality, only thus does it gain for me the satisfaction of hearing you corroborate me. Reference then to something determinate, and some sort of adaptation to it worthy of the name of agreement, are thus constituent elements in the definition of any statement of mine as ’true’.
You cannot get at either the reference or the adaptation without using the notion of the workings. THAT the thing is, WHAT it is, and WHICH it is (of all the possible things with that what) are points determinable only by the pragmatic method. The ’which’ means a possibility of pointing, or of otherwise singling out the special object; the ’what’ means choice on our part of an essential aspect to conceive it by (and this is always relative to what Dewey calls our own ’situation’); and the ’that’ means our assumption of the attitude of belief, the reality-recognizing attitude. Surely for understanding what the word ’true’ means as applied to a statement, the mention of such workings is indispensable. Surely if we leave them out the subject and the object of the cognitive relation float-in the same universe, ’tis true–but vaguely and ignorantly and without mutual contact or mediation.
Our critics nevertheless call the workings inessential. No functional possibilities ’make’ our beliefs true, they say; they are true inherently, true positively, born ’true’ as the Count of Chambord was born ’Henri-Cinq.’ Pragmatism insists, on the contrary, that statements and beliefs are thus inertly and statically true only by courtesy: they practically pass for true; but you CANNOT DEFINE WHAT YOU MEAN by calling them true without referring to their functional possibilities. These give its whole LOGICAL CONTENT to that relation to reality on a belief’s part to which the name ’truth’ is applied, a relation which otherwise remains one of mere coexistence or bare withness.
The foregoing statements reproduce the essential content of the lecture on Truth in my book PRAGMATISM. Schiller’s doctrine of ’humanism,’ Dewey’s ’Studies in logical theory,’ and my own ’radical empiricism,’ all involve this general notion of truth as ’working,’ either actual or conceivable. But they envelop it as only one detail in the midst of much wider theories that aim eventually at determining the notion of what ’reality’ at large is in its ultimate nature and constitution.