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The Pragmatists and the Human Logic of Truth

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Claudine Tiercelin

Chapter 1

The pragmatists on truth: common features

Entrées d'index

Keywords :

Peirce, pragmatism, realism, truth

Texte intégral

  • 1 According to Kirkham (1992, Theories of Truth, p. 88), one can find assertions in favor of extreme (...)

1It has been claimed sometimes that there are as many pragmatisms as there are pragmatists. On the question of truth also, the differences are glaring. Is it even possible to identify one unique theory of truth in James?1 Some people have discerned at least thirteen different theories in Peirce. One, however, can bring out some main themes which are common to most pragmatists, and, at least, to Peirce, James, Dewey, Ramsey or even Putnam. I shall pay some attention to the ideas of the British philosopher Frank Ramsey, who, although he was British, captured much of the spirit of American classical pragmatism.

1. On the meaning of “true”

  • 2 James, P, 31; MT, 6.

2For all these writers, truth must be submitted to an examination of its meaning, to be given a real definition, not a nominal or abstract one.2 As James says:

  • 3 James, P, 31.

A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action, and towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant, and the rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality and the pretence of finality in truth.3

  • 4 James, MT, 6.

Most of the pragmatist and anti-pragmatist warfare is over what the word “truth” shall be held to signify, and not over any of the facts embodied in truth-situations.4

  • 5 Ramsey, “Facts and Propositions”, PP, p. 39.
  • 6 Ramsey, OT, 9.
  • 7 Peirce, W 2 (1869-1870), p. 356.

3The first step of pragmatism is to clear up what Frank Ramsey called the “linguistic muddle” surrounding the concept of truth.5 When one asks what is the meaning of “true”, Ramsey contends, “it seems to me that the answer is really perfectly obvious, that anyone can see what it is and that difficulty only arise when we try to say what it is, because it is something which ordinary language is rather ill-adapted to express.”6 Peirce himself, who conceives the pragmatist maxim as a method of clarification of our concepts, suggests to “avoid this idea of truth as long as we can and keep in the realm of those everyday and concrete notions about which there can be no mystery nor vagueness.”7 Why should we speak of the notion of truth at all? To tell an inquirer: believe only the truth, is useless. When one has reached a stable belief and put an end to the irritation of doubt, it is purely tautological to say that the believer has reached truth.

  • 8 “What Pragmatism is” (1903), in Peirce, CP, 5.416.

If your terms “truth” and “falsity” are taken in such senses as to be definable in terms of doubt and belief and the course of experience (as for example they would be, if you were to define the “truth” as that to a belief in which belief would tend if it were to tend indefinitely toward absolute fixity), well and good: in that case, you are only talking about doubt and belief. But if by truth and falsity you mean something not definable in terms of doubt and belief in any way, then you are talking of entities of whose existence you can know nothing, and which Ockham’s razor would clean shave off. Your problems would be greatly simplified, if, instead of saying that you want to know the “Truth”, you were simply to say that you want to attain a state of belief unassailable by doubt.8

  • 9 On Peirce, see Misak, 1991, Truth and the End of Inquiry; Misak, 1998, “Deflating Truth: Pragmatism (...)

Ramsey held that truth itself does not need any definition. What more is there in the sentence “‘It is true that Caesar was murdered’ than in the sentence ‘Caesar was murdered’”? In this sense “True” is just a redundant and unnecessary word. In many respects, the pragmatists join the so-called deflationist theories of truth.9

  • 10 Tarski, 1932, « Der Wahrheitsbegriff in den Sprachen der deduktiven Disziplinen », p. 23–25.

4As a matter of fact, Ramsey is usually considered as one of the fathers, together with Tarski, of those contemporary theories – Ramsey holding a “redundantist” variant of them: to say that P is true, is nothing more than saying that P; “true” is a redundant predicate which adds nothing to the assertion of a sentence; Tarski10 holding a “semantic” which follows the following Disquotational schema (or Convention T):

(T) “P” is true iff P.

The “disquotational theory of truth” consists in saying (although Tarski himself remains neutral on that point) that there is nothing more in the concept of truth P than what is contained in the Disquotational schema and convention T. In that sense it is a form of deflationism.

  • 11 Horwich, 1998, Truth.

5Paul Horwich11 proposes another (“minimalist”) version which starts from the following equivalence scheme:

it is true that P iff P;

P;

that proposition that P is true.

In that way, truth does not express any property (either of correspondence, or of coherence, or of warranted assertibility). It is a mere “logical device” which has a purely formal or trivial value.

  • 12 Wright, 1992, Truth and Objectivity, p. 72.

6C. Wright has introduced some “inflation” in those conceptions, in trying to identify some form of commitment between language, thought and reality,12 stressing that the norms governing assertion are also the norms governing the use of the predicate “is true”, which include, among other principles:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 72.

that to every assertible content corresponds an assertoric negation; that a content is true just in case it corresponds to the facts, depicts things as they are, and so on; that truth and warrant are distinct, and –though I have laid no great weight on these – that truth is absolute (there is strictly speaking, no being more or less true), more contentiously, that it is stable (if a content is ever true, it always is.13

  • 14 Ibid., p. 16-18.

The reasons for considering a sentence as being “warrantedly assertible” are reasons for considering it as true and vice versa.14 The term “superassertibility” designates such a kind of ideally warranted assertion:

  • 15 Ibid., p. 48.

A statement is superassertible, then, if and only if it is, or can be, warranted, and some warrant for it would survive arbitrarily close scrutiny of its pedigree and arbitrarily extensive increments to or other forms of improvement of our information.15

  • 16 Ibid., p. 61.
  • 17 For an analysis of those theories, see Engel, 1998, La Vérité : réflexions sur quelques truismes ; (...)

In a pluralistic spirit, Wright takes it that this is a minimal – non metaphysical – sense, “a projection, merely, of the standards, whatever they are, which actually inform assertion within the discourse”16 of truth (which passes all the tests of the classical theories of truth: equivalence, disquotation, stability, convergence and independence), and that the minimal (though non formal) sense of the truth predicate is constituted by its function in the various types of assertion.17

  • 18 Wright, 1992, Truth and Objectivity, p. 46.
  • 19 More on this later.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 89-90 & 232.
  • 21 Misak, 1998, “Deflating Truth: Pragmatism vs. Minimalism”, p. 412-415.

7In spite of appearances, – and even if Wright (wrongly) blames the pragmatists, and Peirce in particular, for holding the rather unplausible view that there is an ideal limit to our efforts to reach warranted beliefs18 – such a conception, as Cheryl Misak has shown, is less close to the pragmatist position as one might think.19 Because, in particular, of the distinction which is made between truth simpliciter (which satisfies the minimal requirements of superassertibility) and the more robust, substantial truth (which one reaches when a discourse has other features such as, for example, cognitive command, where it is a priori that disagreements which are impossible to settle are due to such and such cognitive failure),20 which seems to mean that in some domains, in morals in particular, more “substantial” moral requirements may not be applied, but only minimal truth. It is tempting to say then that moral judgments cannot aspire to truth since they cannot aspire to robust truth. Now, the pragmatists, as we shall see, want to stick only to the view of truth simpliciter.21

2. On the criticism of metaphysical realism

  • 22 Ramsey, OT, p. 12. On the platitude of the concept of correspondence, see Hookway, 2000, Truth, Rat (...)

8Such a deflationism about truth goes hand in hand with the pragmatists’ criticism less of the idea of correspondence than of a metaphysical realism which entertains the illusion of a possible agreement with a real, totally independent of, or transcendent to what we might know of it. Indeed, to a certain extent, correspondence is but a truism, a “platitude”,22 formulated a long time ago by Aristotle:

To say of what is not, that it is, or of what is, that it is not, is false, while to say of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not, is true.

  • 23 James, P, p. 96.
  • 24 James, P, p. 96; James, MT, p. 3.
  • 25 James, MT, p. 104-106.
  • 26 James, ERE, p. 31-33.

But, even if one emphasizes that truth is not an “inert static” property of our ideas23 or a copy of the corresponding reality, it does not mean first, that one should deny the constraining power of reality with which our ideas must not, strictly speaking “correspond”, but assuredly must “agree”.24 Incidentally, this is such an agreement by a “direct acquaintance” with the external realities which is developed by James in his radical empiricism,25 going so far as considering that an idea that is not directly verified can also “agree with reality” by “substituting” for it;26 for example, the belief that the couch in my office was there at 3am last Sunday morning leads to as a successful a prediction as if I has directly verified it:

  • 27 James, P, p. 102; James, MT, p. 4. Also see Putnam’s analysis in CCWJ, 175ff.

To ‘agree’ in the widest sense with a reality can only mean to be guided straight up to it or into its surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected with it better than if we had disagreed.27

  • 28 Ramsey, OT, p. 39.
  • 29 Ramsey, OT, p. 40.

9Secondly, it does not mean that one should not take care of the coherence of our beliefs: indeed, our statements are true because they belong to an integrated system of beliefs. How can we deny, Ramsey contends, that the truths we seek “[cannot consist in a relation between them and something outside but] must lie inside the system of [our] beliefs, not in a relation between them and an unknowable reality”?28 In that respect, no doubt “truth, in any sense in which we can show ourselves to possess it, must be immanent”, and “comprehensiveness for this is the test we all employ. There is no memory or perception of which we are so certain that we should not abandon it as an illusion if it were impossible to harmonize our beliefs otherwise.”29

2.1. Neither correspondantism nor coherentism

10Yet, Ramsey added, one should resist a straightforward “coherentist” temptation, for it creates an “entirely illusory difficulty”.

  • 30 Ramsey, OT, p. 40.

When we decide that the earth is round, we are not judging that our belief corresponds to a fact but rather that it is the only one which is coherent with our beliefs about ship’s disappearing below the horizon, etc. The truth which we suppose our belief to have must therefore consist not in correspondence with fact but in coherence with other beliefs. The mistake lies, as we have seen, in supposing that in judging that the earth is round we are thinking about beliefs at all; neither our final judgment that the earth is round nor our initial beliefs that ships disappear, etc. are objects of our thought at all. We are not thinking about our own thinking but about ships disappearing and the earth being round; if coherence comes into our thought at all it is the coherence of reality not the coherence of our beliefs.30

  • 31 Ramsey, OT, p. 38-39.

Suppose the question arises, whether two regiments of soldiers which I have seen or read about have uniforms of the same colour, and I think “The uniforms of the Northshires are red and the uniforms of the Southshires are red, so they have the same colour”. Then the relation which I affirm in so concluding is one between the actual colours or uniforms, not one between my opinions about them. My conclusion is founded no doubt on my opinion as to what each colour is, but [is not about those opinions but] states a relation which I believe to hold not between my opinions (or at least not merely between them) but between the real colours.31

Indeed,

  • 32 Ramsey, OT, p. 39.

when we say that other people’s opinions are true or false, we mean that they do or do not correspond to the facts.32

As James says:

  • 33 James, MT, p. 10.

Realities are not true, they are; and beliefs are true of them.33

This is the familiar point that our beliefs could well be coherent but false:

  • 34 Ramsey, OT, p. 94.

The beliefs of a man suffering from persecution mania may rival in coherence those of many sane men but that does not make them true.34

  • 35 Ramsey, OT, p. 64.
  • 36 Peirce, CP, 1.578.

11This is indeed the reason why even if “evidently we require of our coherent system that it should embody as many as possible of the things we instinctively believe”, as Ramsey notes, “we should not regard as plausible a historical system, however coherent, which contradicted all our memories and held that memory was an illusory faculty or even that it went by contraries.”35 So the truisms about correspondence are misleading in at least two ways. (1) If one thinks that truth can be explained before analyzing what is the content of belief. Say what you believe, and how you believe it, and truth will take care of itself. (2) It tends to mask or displace the real problems which should be raised if one wishes to understand what is at stake in the concept of truth: thus one talks of “real character,” “object,” or “reality”,36 where one should instead talk of our assertions, commitments, judgments, beliefs, knowledge, inquiry, and of the role played by induction and probability in our approach to the true.

  • 37 MS 283, p. 39, ‘assorted pages’, 1905. Quoted by C. Misak, 1991, Truth and the End of Inquiry, p. 3 (...)
  • 38 Peirce, CP, 5.416.
  • 39 See MS 283, p. 39, in Misak, 1991, Truth and the End of Inquiry, p. 38.
  • 40 Peirce, CP, 5.578.

12Peirce does not reject correspondentism as much as he finds it superfluous,37 providing no interesting information on the pragmatic meaning of the concept. More precisely, it has no consequences for our practices.38 A definition of truth which makes no reference to belief, doubt or inquiry is just empty. It is a mere “nominal definition,” useful only to those who have never encountered the notion of truth.39 If truth is the aim of inquiry, then the correspondence theory leaves inquirers completely in the dark as to how they should conduct their investigations. The aim is not “readily comprehensible”.40 However, Peirce keeps such formulations as these:

  • 41 Peirce, CP, 8.126 (1902).

A true proposition corresponds to a real matter of fact, by which is meant a state of things, definite and individual, which does not consist merely in being represented (in any particular representation) to be as it is.41

Or again that:

  • 42 Peirce, CP, 5.553 (1903).

Truth is the conformity of a representamen to its object, ITS object, mind you.42

13However, he recalls that the facts to which the true propositions “correspond”, are nothing more than, as Hookway stressed, what Frege will take as true thoughts or propositions: “there is no difference between saying that it is a fact that snow is white and saying that it is true that snow is white. In that case, we cannot appeal to facts in order to explain what truth is. Referring to Mill’s apparent assumption that fact is the ‘very objective history of the Universe for a short time, in its objective state of existence in itself’, Peirce responded:

  • 43 Peirce, CP, 6.67.

But that is not what a fact is. A fact is an abstracted element of that. A fact is so much of reality as is represented in a single proposition. If a proposition is true, that which it represents is a fact.43

  • 44 Hookway, 2000, Truth, Rationality and Pragmatism, p. 86.

14The concept of a fact lacks the metaphysical weight required for an informative account of truth as a correspondence between proposition and fact”:44

  • 45 Peirce, CP, 5.549; see also 1.427.

A state of things, is an abstract constituent part of reality, of such a nature that a proposition is needed to represent it. There is but one individual, or completely determinate state of things, namely the all of reality. A fact is so highly a precissively abstract state of things, that it be wholly represented in a simple proposition, and the term “simple”, here, has no absolute meaning, but is merely a comparative expression.45

15But, basically, what is condemned in correspondence is the illusion it fosters on the relation between our ideas and the world. Putnam denounces it vigorously. One of his most constant adversaries is indeed, as it is for Peirce, metaphysical realism or “externalism” which is characterized by three fundamental themes:

(1) The world consists of some fixed totality of mind independent objects.

(2) There is exactly one true and complete description of the way the world is.

  • 46 Putnam, RTH, p. 49.

(3) Truth involves some sort of correspondence relation between words or thought signs and external things and sets of things.46

  • 47 Tiercelin, 1999b, “Comment donner un visage humain à la vérité sans la défigurer? Sur le pragmatism (...)
  • 48 Peirce, CP, 6.231. –It must not be imagined that any notable realist of the thirteenth or fourtee (...)
  • 49 The correct answer to such a criticism lies in the adoption of neither nominalism nor conceptualism (...)
  • 50 Peirce, CP, 8.10; 5.470; 5.503.
  • 51 Peirce, CP, 1.21; 2.115.
  • 52 Peirce, CP, 5.315.
  • 53 Peirce, CP, 8.13. On this, see Tiercelin 1986, “Le vague est-il réel ? Sur le réalisme de Peirce”; (...)

16Although Putnam does not refer to Peirce, the criticism of the first point at least is at the heart of the fierce attacks Peirce launches against what he calls “nominalist Platonism” or the antique view (taken over and amplified by the medievals in their quarrel over universals) according to which there would exist real universals, totally independent of our ideas and words. Contrary to the nominalists, and in perfect agreement with Duns Scot whom he takes as one of the leading inspirers of modern pragmatism,47 Peirce shows that what is important is not to say what is mental and what is not, but rather to determine whether our thinking is about real objects or not. Granted that “the real is what signifies something real”, what counts is to specify the fundamentum universalitatis, the nature of the object of what is being thought, which is neither a res, as the Platonists or metaphysical realists would have it, nor a fictum or a vox (as the nominalists or vocalists want to reduce it to). In a word, the founder of pragmatism considers that metaphysical realism is a form of substantialist realism – to which, incidentally no medieval scholastic subscribed, unless one gives a “caricature of their thought”48 – which constitutes an obstacle to a correct understanding of the relationships between our thoughts and the world.49 If “universals must have a real existence”, such admittance does not amount to hypostatizing mysterious entities; on the contrary it is nominalists who “Platonize”: used as they are to admit as reals, singular existents only,50 they come to figure that all that is real must have the same mode of reality as any other thing51 and that “reality is something independent of the representative relation.”52 The nominalist makes things in themselves of them, res extra animam, while a realist is simply one who knows no more recondite reality than that which is represented in a true representation.53

  • 54 Peirce, CP, 4. 530.

17Ramsey has often very close arguments, in particular as regards the importance of generality or the usefulness of thinking in general terms. For Peirce, what a scientist or a mathematician is interested in in an experiment, is not this or that piece of gold or acid; it is not the particular sample that the chemist is investigating, it is the molecular structure,54 i.e. a certain nature which is in itself neither particular nor universal, neither particular because the singular case is but a contraction of that nature, nor universal because universality is not actual but potential, under the form of a predicable habit, disposition or tendency:

  • 55 Peirce, CP, 5.425.

When an experimentalist speaks of a phenomenon, such as “Hall’s phenomenon”[. . . ] he does not mean any particular event that did happen to somebody in the dead past, but what surely will happen to everybody in the living future who shall fulfill certain conditions.55

Compare with what Ramsey says about the usefulness of thinking in general terms:

  • 56 Ramsey, PP, 236.

In theorizing what we principally admire is generality, and in ordinary life, it may be quite sufficient to know the existential proposition that there is a bull somewhere in a certain field, and there may be no further advantage in knowing that it is this bull and here in the field, instead of merely a bull somewhere.56

Now Peirce:

  • 57 Peirce, W 2, p. 389. Now Peirce finally viewed Duns Scotus as too moderate and too close to the nom (...)

Demonstration of the sort called mathematical is founded on supposition of particular cases. The geometrician draws a figure; the algebraist assumes a letter to signify a certain quantity fulfilling the required conditions. But while the mathematician supposes a particular case, his hypothesis is yet perfectly general, because he considers no characters of the individual case but those which must belong to every such case. […] We may reap all the advantages which the mathematician is supposed to derive from intuition by simply making general suppositions of individual cases.57

18Ramsey criticizes those who defend a purely coherentist theory of truth and find it impossible to attach an intrinsic meaning to such a singular sentence as “Caesar crossed the Rubicon”, because it would be inseparable from the whole holistic system and the context in which account should be taken of the life of Caesar, of the decline of the Roman Republic, etc.

  • 58 Ramsey, OT, p. 30; see OT, p. 95-96.

Caesar crossed the Rubicon is not the whole truth about that event, but I cannot see that Prof. Joachim’s argument have any tendency to show that it is not part of the whole truth; because he was at the head of his army was he not still Caesar, because he was led to cross by motives of ambition did he any the less cross? When we say simply that he crossed, we do not particularize where, when and from what motives, but we are not denying that he must have crossed at some definite place and time for definite reasons. Because we call him simply a man and say no more about him we do not mean he as a “man in the abstract” without body parts or passions. If I asked someone whether there was a dog in the house would it be reasonable for him to reply “No; there isn’t an abstract dog, but only a poodle”?58

This amounts purely and simply to commit the same type of error on abstraction as the one Peirce stigmatizes:

  • 59 Peirce, CP, 5.312; Peirce W 1, p. 240.

The great argument for nominalism is that there is no man unless there is some particular man. That, however does not affect the realism of Scotus; for although there is no man of whom all further determination can be denied, yet there is a man, abstraction being made of all further determination. There is a real difference between man irrespective of what the other determinations may be, and man, with this or that particular series of determinations, although undoubtedly this difference is only relative to the mind and not in re. Such is the position of Scotus. Occam’s great objection is, there can be no real distinction which is not in re, in the thing-in-itself; but this begs the question, for it is itself based only on the notion that reality is something independent of representative relation.59

2.2. Peirce on realism

  • 60 Peirce, CP, 5.503.

19A realist, for someone like Peirce – who was always convinced that “pragmaticism could hardly have entered a head that was not already convinced that there are real generals”60 – is very soon defined as someone for whom:

  • 61 Peirce, CP, 1.27n1.
  • 62 Ramsey, PP, 38.

(1) a universal is not a thing but a predicate: so, if he thinks that, whether the word ‘hard’ itself be real or not, the property, the character, the predicate, hardness is not invented by men, as the word is, but is really and truly in the hard things and is one in them all, as a description of habit, disposition, or behavior, then, he is a realist.61 In other words, “truth and falsity are ascribed primarily to propositions.”62

  • 63 Peirce, W 1, p. 238.
  • 64 Peirce, W 1, p. 469.

(2) “whatever is meant by any term as ‘the real’ is cognizable in some degree, and so is of the nature of a cognition, in the objective sense of that term.”63 Such a conception therefore is “instantly fatal to the idea of a thing in itself, – a thing existing independent of all relation to the mind’s conception of it”.64

  • 65 Peirce, W 1, p. 239.
  • 66 Peirce, W 1, p. 469.
  • 67 Peirce, W 1, p. 468.
  • 68 Peirce, W 1, p. 239.

(3) “the real is not what we happen to think of it”, it is a contrario “independent of the vagaries of me”,65 independent “not indeed of thought in general, but of all that is arbitrary and individual in thought; quite independent of how you, or I, or any number of men think.”66 It is what is “independent of how we think it”67– but what remains unchanged by what me may think of it. Therefore the real involves the notion of the community (and not the nominalistic view of the individual).68

  • 69 Peirce, CP, 5.453.
  • 70 Peirce, CP, 5.453.

20But a nominalist is also someone who does not want knowledge and meaning to have some real indeterminacy and vagueness. For Peirce, to adopt realism means that universals are real, that they cannot be reduced to what one may think of them, but also that “vagueness is real”.69 Such a recognition of vagueness is a decisive element of Peirce’s pragmaticism and of his Critical Common Sense. In particular, the adoption of realism means that vagueness must be taken as real: for it is on that latter ground that realists and nominalists are mostly opposed.70 To be a realist, one shall have to

  • 71 Peirce, CP, 6.348.

get rid […] of the Ockhamistic prejudice of political partizenship that in thought, in being, and in development, the indefinite is due to a degeneration from a primary state of perfect definiteness. The truth is rather on the side of the scholastic realist that the unsettled is the primal state, and that definiteness and determinateness, the two poles of settledness, are in the large, approximations, developmentally, epistemologically, and metaphysically.71

  • 72 Peirce, CP, 4.344.

For Peirce, to be a “nominalist”, one has only to “entertain the theory that all vagueness is due to a defect of cogitation or cognition.72

21Is Ramsey so far from him when he stresses that:

  • 73 Ramsey, PP, p. 7.
  • 74 Ramsey, PP, p. 6.

The chief danger to our philosophy, apart from laziness and woolliness is scholasticism, the essence of which is treating what is vague as if it were precise and trying to fit it into an exact logical category. A typical piece of scholasticism is Wittgenstein’ view that all our everyday propositions are completely in order and that it is impossible to think illogically”73 and that when on must keep in mind that “we are in the ordinary position of scientists of having to be content with piecemeal improvements: we can make several things clearer, but we cannot make anything clear?74

  • 75 Ramsey, PP, p. 8-33 (1925).
  • 76 Dokic & Engel, 2001, Ramsey, vérité et succès, p. 38-41; see also Tiercelin, 2004d, “Ramsey’s pragm (...)

Indeed, the article he devotes to Universals75 has been justly considered “as a classic of contemporary ontology and logical analysis”, in so far as Ramsey seems to subscribe to the paradigmatic thesis of analytic philosophy holding that the investigation of the world is a by- product of the investigation of language in general; but as Dokic and Engel have noted, there are also elements in his thought which go beyond this and “if Ramsey’s conceptions have an obvious anti-realist and nominalistic ring, it would be wrong to interpret his views only in his sense. For his rejection of realism about theoretical entities does not imply that he espoused full-blooded nominalism with respect not only to these entities but also to universals”. In particular “he does not claim that universals do not exist, and that only particulars do”.76

3. Truth, belief and action

22To clarify truth, then, is first of all for a pragmatist, to link it with beliefs and assertions. In that respect, as C. Misak stressed, it can be said that:

  • 77 Peirce, CP, 5.569.
  • 78 Misak, 1991, Truth and the End of Inquiry, p. 7.

In anticipation of certain kinds of minimalist accounts of truth, Peirce focuses on what he thinks the transcendentalist has lost sight of – the unseverable link between truth on the one hand and assertion (and belief) on the other. To assert P is to assert that P is true and to assert that P is true is to assert P. (Alternatively, to believe P is to believe that P is true, and to believe that P is true is to believe that P.) The notion of truth is bound up with the notions of assertion and belief. But Peirce takes a step further than the minimalist. Once we see the internal connection between truth and assertion/belief, we must look to the practice of assertion belief and to the commitments incurred in it, so that we can say something more. What we know about truth is that it is what we aim at when we assert, believe, or deliberate. Were we to forever achieve all of our local aims in assertion, belief, and deliberation (prediction, explanatory power, and so on), then the belief in question would be true. There is nothing over and above the fulfilment of those local aims; nothing metaphysical, to which we aspire. Were we to get a belief which would be as good as it could be, that would be a true belief. […] Peirce sums up the matter thus: “A true proposition is a proposition belief in which would never lead … to disappointment.”77 This is an account of what we can expect of a true belief: if we were to inquire into P, we would find that P would encounter no recalcitrant experience. We can predict that if we were diligently to inquire, it would not, in the end, be overturned by experience or argument. An alternative way of making the point is to say that we would expect the following: if inquiry with respect to P were to be pursued as far as it could fruitfully go (i.e. far enough so that the hypothesis would no longer be improved upon), P would be believed. A true belief is a permanently settled or indefeasible belief.78

  • 79 Hookway, 2004, “Truth, Reality and Convergence”.

Although I agree mostly with Misak’s analysis, I do not agree with the nothing metaphysical, precisely, because Peirce links truth to reality, and even starts inquiring about truth, because he wants to find out about reality, as Hookway also emphasized.79

23Furthermore, a belief, for a pragmatist, is more than a mental state: it is a disposition to act which has effects and also norms our conduct.

  • 80 Peirce, “How to make our ideas clear” (1878), CP, 5.400.

The whole function of thought is to produce habits of action” so that “to develop the meaning [of any conception], we have simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves.80

  • 81 Peirce, CP, 5.398.
  • 82 Peirce, CP, 5.400.

The only function of thought being the settlement or fixation of belief, namely a habit of action, “different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise,”81 so that “we come down to what is tangible and conceivably practical as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtle it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.”82 Like Peirce, James reminds us that the pragmatic method interprets each conception according to its practical consequences:

  • 83 James, “What Pragmatism means”, P, p. 30.

There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on some body, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world formula or that world-formula be the true one.83

For Ramsey too:

  • 84 Ramsey, “Facts and propositions”, PP, p. 51.

The essence of pragmatism I take to be this, that the meaning of a sentence is to be defined by reference to the actions to which asserting it would lead, or more vaguely still, by its possible causes and effects. Of this I feel certain, but of nothing more definite.84

As Engel has insisted on,

  • 85 See Whyte, 1990, “Success Semantics”; Mellor, 1991, Matters of Metaphysics; Dokic & Engel, 2002, Ra (...)
  • 86 Engel, 2002, Truth, p. 36.

the interesting doctrine in pragmatism, which was developed by Ramsey, who considered himself to be Peirce’s disciple, is not one about truth, but one about the meanings of our beliefs: their meaning, or their truth conditions, are their utility conditions, the way in which they generally (although they might not in particular circumstances) lead to successful actions in the long run. This is called, in contemporary philosophy a ‘success semantics’ for beliefs85 and there is a biological evolutionist version of it: on a large scale those of our beliefs that are true are those that tend to be beneficial for our species (this is called teleosemantics). That can provide us with a realistic conception of meaning and representation (which can be considered as an appropriate alternative to Dummett’s anti-realist conception considered above), but it does not define truth in biological and functional terms. Rather the biologically reductive story employs a realistic and correspondentist definition of truth as the property (useful by all means) to represent the environment. Peirce himself was an evolutionist, but his pragmatism had a more idealist twist.86

What all want to deny is the fact that truth might go faster than what humans could verify or discover. It is in that first sense, of course, that pragmatists can be considered as having held a human logic of truth.

  • 87 Peirce, CP, 5.412.

24For James the word “practical” has an individualistic, vital and emotional sense. For Peirce, “practical” means what is fitted to practical reason, or to the ends of reason in its practical use.87 One should not, however, insist too much on the emotional theme for James: indeed, beliefs have first a vital importance, and would never have acquired the status of true beliefs, if they had not been from the start advantageous and useful; the good or advantageous beliefs are thus those that do not run the risk of being contradicted by experience, thus protecting us from later failures, but they are also such that they allow us to maximize our old beliefs while preserving consistency (so, as already noted, coherence also counts).

  • 88 James, MT, p. 105.

Above all we find consistency satisfactory, consistency between the present idea and the entire rest of our mental equipment, including the whole order of our sensations, and that of our intuitions and likeness and difference, and our whole stock of previously acquired truths.88

And this is precisely the reason why after observing that a belief in the Absolute would provide him with a sort of moral holiday, and would be good, in the sense of “agreeable to believe”, James yet rejects it, because it is inconsistent with other beliefs.

  • 89 James, MT, p. 112-113.
  • 90 James, P, p. 31-32.

25James does not assimilate a true belief to something which it is simply agreeable to believe. He never held that “practice” had to be opposed to “theory”: he meant essentially to oppose “practical” to “vague and abstract”.89 If truth is not a static copy of reality, but a direct contact with it through our beliefs or dispositions to action, it is therefore an instrument of inquiry, which occasionally allows us to serve as “an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed90. As Putnam reminds us, for James, it means first that truth cannot be dissociated from verification, justification or confirmation of our beliefs.

  • 91 James, P, p. 97.

True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known as. […]The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. 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, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of valid-ation.91

  • 92 Peirce, CP, 5.416 & 5.375.
  • 93 Dewey, 1938, Logic. The Theory of Inquiry, p. 7. It is, incidentally, about the only passage Dewey (...)
  • 94 Dewey, 1938, Logic, p. 345n; see Haack, 1976, “The pragmatist theory of truth”, p. 234-235.

26Peirce, like James, underlines the dynamical character of truth (the influence of Darwin may not be foreign to this). But like Dewey, who insists on he “biological” and “cultural” matrices of inquiry, he cares more than James on the modalities and methods governing the process of inquiry in its naturalistic as well as normative aspects. In the end, the only definition or real meaning of truth lies in its capacity to determine, in the context of inquiry, which, among our beliefs, resist doubt and are stable.92 In defining the true as that which inquiry aims at, Peirce also chooses the method which, contrary to the methods of authority, tenacity or a priori, is able to stabilize or fix belief. This method is, in his view, the scientific method, which takes its strength, not from any magical superiority of science, but from the constraint exerted on it by reality, which alone can realize, thanks to its independence from individual minds, the consensus of the community. Dewey follows Peirce in viewing truth as the end of inquiry, saying that it is the best definition that was ever given of truth,93 the method of inquiry providing us, Dewey says, the right to assert in a warranted way and to endow our beliefs with the status of knowledge.94

  • 95 Peirce, CP, 5.407; Peirce, W 3, p. 273.
  • 96 Putnam, CCWJ, p. 166-170.

27Famously Peirce defines truth as the “end of scientific inquiry”, as “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate.”95 On this view, truth is a possible ideal rational order and a constraint exerted on our beliefs by external reality. James agrees to a large extent. Both define truth in terms of beliefs and judgments. This is often mistaken, in particular by contemporary readers like Habermas and Rorty, for a consensus theory of truth, according to which what is true is true because the community of inquirers agree on it, or decides about what is true. But the equation should be read in the reverse order: inquirers agree because they are constrained by reality and by the stock of our previous beliefs.96 The consensus is prompted by reality, not the other way round.

Notes

1 According to Kirkham (1992, Theories of Truth, p. 88), one can find assertions in favor of extreme subjectivism (James, MT, p. 129), objectivism (MT, p. 105), relativism – albeit not implying a refusal of absolutism (MT, p. 142-143) –, correspondentism (James, P, p. 96), coherentism (P, p. 34-37; MT, p. 104-105), and a consensus-theory à la Peirce (MT, p. 142-143).

2 James, P, 31; MT, 6.

3 James, P, 31.

4 James, MT, 6.

5 Ramsey, “Facts and Propositions”, PP, p. 39.

6 Ramsey, OT, 9.

7 Peirce, W 2 (1869-1870), p. 356.

8 “What Pragmatism is” (1903), in Peirce, CP, 5.416.

9 On Peirce, see Misak, 1991, Truth and the End of Inquiry; Misak, 1998, “Deflating Truth: Pragmatism vs. Minimalism”; Tiercelin, 1993a, Peirce et le pragmatisme, p. 106ff; Hookway, 2000, Truth, Rationality and Pragmatism, chap. 2, 3 and 4. On Ramsey, see Dokic & Engel, 2001, Ramsey, vérité et succès, p. 31-37.

10 Tarski, 1932, « Der Wahrheitsbegriff in den Sprachen der deduktiven Disziplinen », p. 23–25.

11 Horwich, 1998, Truth.

12 Wright, 1992, Truth and Objectivity, p. 72.

13 Ibid., p. 72.

14 Ibid., p. 16-18.

15 Ibid., p. 48.

16 Ibid., p. 61.

17 For an analysis of those theories, see Engel, 1998, La Vérité : réflexions sur quelques truismes ; and Engel, 2002, Truth.

18 Wright, 1992, Truth and Objectivity, p. 46.

19 More on this later.

20 Ibid., p. 89-90 & 232.

21 Misak, 1998, “Deflating Truth: Pragmatism vs. Minimalism”, p. 412-415.

22 Ramsey, OT, p. 12. On the platitude of the concept of correspondence, see Hookway, 2000, Truth, Rationality and Pragmatism, p. 82. In fact, as Ramsey observes, “the refusal to admit that anything but the whole truth can be wholly true comes from the confusion between truth and intellectual merit in general”, and that “this in turn comes from an emotional attitude towards the word ‘truth’ which does not allow its votaries to admit that she can ever be tedious or trivial.” Now, “knowledge and ingenuity one can admire, but mere truth can be attained by a fool by accident and has no moral value” (Ramsey, OT, p. 31).

23 James, P, p. 96.

24 James, P, p. 96; James, MT, p. 3.

25 James, MT, p. 104-106.

26 James, ERE, p. 31-33.

27 James, P, p. 102; James, MT, p. 4. Also see Putnam’s analysis in CCWJ, 175ff.

28 Ramsey, OT, p. 39.

29 Ramsey, OT, p. 40.

30 Ramsey, OT, p. 40.

31 Ramsey, OT, p. 38-39.

32 Ramsey, OT, p. 39.

33 James, MT, p. 10.

34 Ramsey, OT, p. 94.

35 Ramsey, OT, p. 64.

36 Peirce, CP, 1.578.

37 MS 283, p. 39, ‘assorted pages’, 1905. Quoted by C. Misak, 1991, Truth and the End of Inquiry, p. 38, from The Charles S. Peirce Papers, Microfilm Edition, Thirty Reels with Two Supplementary Reels Later Added, 1966.

38 Peirce, CP, 5.416.

39 See MS 283, p. 39, in Misak, 1991, Truth and the End of Inquiry, p. 38.

40 Peirce, CP, 5.578.

41 Peirce, CP, 8.126 (1902).

42 Peirce, CP, 5.553 (1903).

43 Peirce, CP, 6.67.

44 Hookway, 2000, Truth, Rationality and Pragmatism, p. 86.

45 Peirce, CP, 5.549; see also 1.427.

46 Putnam, RTH, p. 49.

47 Tiercelin, 1999b, “Comment donner un visage humain à la vérité sans la défigurer? Sur le pragmatisme de Putnam”.

48 Peirce, CP, 6.231. –It must not be imagined that any notable realist of the thirteenth or fourteenth century took the ground that any ‘universal’ was what we in English should call a ‘thing’, as it seems, that, at an earlier age, some realists and some nominalists too, had done. [...] Their very definition of ‘universal’ admits that it is of the same generic nature as a word, namely, is: ‘Quod natum aptum est praedicari de pluribus’. Neither was it their doctrine that any ‘universal’ itself is real. They might, indeed, some of them, think so; but their realism did not consist in that opinion, but in holding that what the word signifies, in contradistinction to what it can be truly said of, is real. Anybody may happen to opine that ‘the’ is a real English word; but that will not constitute him a realist. But if he thinks that, whether the word ‘hard’ itself be real or not, the property, the character, the predicate, hardness is not invented by men, as the word is, but is really and truly in the hard things and is one in them all, as a description of habit, disposition, or behavior, then, he is a realist.” (Peirce, CP, 1.27n1)

49 The correct answer to such a criticism lies in the adoption of neither nominalism nor conceptualism (which are but disguised ways of Platonism and reductionism), but in the adoption of a subtle form of scholastic realism, inspired by Scotism, such as Peirce presents it as early as 1871 in his “Review of Fraser’s edition of Berkeley’s works” (Peirce, W 1, p. 461-487).

50 Peirce, CP, 8.10; 5.470; 5.503.

51 Peirce, CP, 1.21; 2.115.

52 Peirce, CP, 5.315.

53 Peirce, CP, 8.13. On this, see Tiercelin 1986, “Le vague est-il réel ? Sur le réalisme de Peirce”; Tiercelin, 1993a, Peirce et le pragmatisme, 11ff; Tiercelin, 1993b, La Pensée-signe: études sur Peirce, p. 56ff.

54 Peirce, CP, 4. 530.

55 Peirce, CP, 5.425.

56 Ramsey, PP, 236.

57 Peirce, W 2, p. 389. Now Peirce finally viewed Duns Scotus as too moderate and too close to the nominalists; for real universality must not only be indeterminate in respect to the mind, it must be so in re (Peirce, CP, 8.208). Why is that so? Because, in spite of the modifications undertaken in his logic, particularly from 1885 on, with the introduction of indices and the first attempts in direction of quantification theory, in spite also of the growing importance of the second category, namely the category of existence or reaction, at the phenomenological (or phaneroscopic) level, Peirce continues to claim that an absolutely determinate logical individual is impossible (Peirce, W 2, p. 389-90).

58 Ramsey, OT, p. 30; see OT, p. 95-96.

59 Peirce, CP, 5.312; Peirce W 1, p. 240.

60 Peirce, CP, 5.503.

61 Peirce, CP, 1.27n1.

62 Ramsey, PP, 38.

63 Peirce, W 1, p. 238.

64 Peirce, W 1, p. 469.

65 Peirce, W 1, p. 239.

66 Peirce, W 1, p. 469.

67 Peirce, W 1, p. 468.

68 Peirce, W 1, p. 239.

69 Peirce, CP, 5.453.

70 Peirce, CP, 5.453.

71 Peirce, CP, 6.348.

72 Peirce, CP, 4.344.

73 Ramsey, PP, p. 7.

74 Ramsey, PP, p. 6.

75 Ramsey, PP, p. 8-33 (1925).

76 Dokic & Engel, 2001, Ramsey, vérité et succès, p. 38-41; see also Tiercelin, 2004d, “Ramsey’s pragmatism”.

77 Peirce, CP, 5.569.

78 Misak, 1991, Truth and the End of Inquiry, p. 7.

79 Hookway, 2004, “Truth, Reality and Convergence”.

80 Peirce, “How to make our ideas clear” (1878), CP, 5.400.

81 Peirce, CP, 5.398.

82 Peirce, CP, 5.400.

83 James, “What Pragmatism means”, P, p. 30.

84 Ramsey, “Facts and propositions”, PP, p. 51.

85 See Whyte, 1990, “Success Semantics”; Mellor, 1991, Matters of Metaphysics; Dokic & Engel, 2002, Ramsey, Truth and Success.

86 Engel, 2002, Truth, p. 36.

87 Peirce, CP, 5.412.

88 James, MT, p. 105.

89 James, MT, p. 112-113.

90 James, P, p. 31-32.

91 James, P, p. 97.

92 Peirce, CP, 5.416 & 5.375.

93 Dewey, 1938, Logic. The Theory of Inquiry, p. 7. It is, incidentally, about the only passage Dewey devotes to truth, preferring at the outset to use the term “warranted assertibility”.

94 Dewey, 1938, Logic, p. 345n; see Haack, 1976, “The pragmatist theory of truth”, p. 234-235.

95 Peirce, CP, 5.407; Peirce, W 3, p. 273.

96 Putnam, CCWJ, p. 166-170.

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