The Meaning of Truth
By William James
Public Domain Books
X. The Existence of Julius Caesar
[Footnote: Originally printed under the title of ’Truth versus Truthfulness,’ in the Journal of Philosophy.]
My account of truth is purely logical and relates to its definition only. I contend that you cannot tell what the WORD ’true’ MEANS, as applied to a statement, without invoking the CONCEPT OF THE STATEMENTS WORKINGS.
Assume, to fix our ideas, a universe composed of two things only: imperial Caesar dead and turned to clay, and me, saying ’Caesar really existed.’ Most persons would naively deem truth to be thereby uttered, and say that by a sort of actio in distans my statement had taken direct hold of the other fact.
But have my words so certainly denoted THAT Caesar?–or so certainly connoted HIS individual attributes? To fill out the complete measure of what the epithet ’true’ may ideally mean, my thought ought to bear a fully determinate and unambiguous ’one-to-one-relation’ to its own particular object. In the ultrasimple universe imagined the reference is uncertified. Were there two Caesars we shouldn’t know which was meant. The conditions of truth thus seem incomplete in this universe of discourse so that it must be enlarged.
Transcendentalists enlarge it by invoking an absolute mind which, as it owns all the facts, can sovereignly correlate them. If it intends that my statement SHALL refer to that identical Caesar, and that the attributes I have in mind SHALL mean his attributes, that intention suffices to make the statement true.
I, in turn, enlarge the universe by admitting finite intermediaries between the two original facts. Caesar HAD, and my statement HAS, effects; and if these effects in any way run together, a concrete medium and bottom is provided for the determinate cognitive relation, which, as a pure ACTIO IN DISTANS, seemed to float too vaguely and unintelligibly.
The real Caesar, for example, wrote a manuscript of which I see a real reprint, and say ’the Caesar I mean is the author of THAT.’ The workings of my thought thus determine both its denotative and its connotative significance more fully. It now defines itself as neither irrelevant to the real Caesar, nor false in what it suggests of him. The absolute mind, seeing me thus working towards Caesar through the cosmic intermediaries, might well say: ’Such workings only specify in detail what I meant myself by the statement being true. I decree the cognitive relation between the two original facts to mean that just that kind of concrete chain of intermediaries exists or can exist.’
But the chain involves facts prior to the statement the logical conditions of whose truth we are defining, and facts subsequent to it; and this circumstance, coupled with the vulgar employment of the terms truth and fact as synonyms, has laid my account open to misapprehension. ’How,’ it is confusedly asked, ’can Caesar’s existence, a truth already 2000 years old, depend for its truth on anything about to happen now? How can my acknowledgment of it be made true by the acknowledgment’s own effects? The effects may indeed confirm my belief, but the belief was made true already by the fact that Caesar really did exist.’
Well, be it so, for if there were no Caesar, there could, of course, be no positive truth about him–but then distinguish between ’true’ as being positively and completely so established, and ’true’ as being so only ’practically,’ elliptically, and by courtesy, in the sense of not being positively irrelevant or UNtrue. Remember also that Caesar’s having existed in fact may make a present statement false or irrelevant as well as it may make it true, and that in neither case does it itself have to alter. It being given, whether truth, untruth, or irrelevancy shall be also given depends on something coming from the statement itself. What pragmatism contends for is that you cannot adequately DEFINE the something if you leave the notion of the statement’s functional workings out of your account. Truth meaning agreement with reality, the mode of the agreeing is a practical problem which the subjective term of the relation alone can solve.
Note. This paper was originally followed by a couple of paragraphs meant to conciliate the intellectualist opposition. Since you love the word ’true’ so, and since you despise so the concrete working of our ideas, I said, keep the word ’truth’ for the saltatory and incomprehensible relation you care so much for, and I will say of thoughts that know their objects in an intelligible sense that they are ’truthful.’
Like most offerings, this one has been spurned, so I revoke it, repenting of my generosity. Professor Pratt, in his recent book, calls any objective state of FACTS ’a truth,’ and uses the word ’trueness’ in the sense of ’truth’ as proposed by me. Mr. Hawtrey (see below, page 281) uses ’correctness’ in the same sense. Apart from the general evil of ambiguous vocabularies, we may really forsake all hope, if the term ’truth’ is officially to lose its status as a property of our beliefs and opinions, and become recognized as a technical synonym for ’fact.’