Pragmatism True


A pragmatic approach to morality is necessary since the very goal of rational thought is to solve problems of experience.

Roberto Frega. “Equal Accessibility to All: Habermas, Pragmatism, and the Place of Religious Beliefs in a Post-Secular Society.” Constellations Volume 19, Number 2, 2012.

A pragmatic theory of rationality provides a description of the nature and function of human reason whose theoretical bases lie in the naturalistic paradigm offered by classical pragmatists, especially J. Dewey and C. S. Peirce. Such an account deploys a conception of thinking [is] as human [an] activity embedded in experience (principle of continuity) and functionally oriented to the advancement of experience itself. According to such an account, thinking is conceived as an activity whose main function is the guide of conduct through the fixation of beliefs. As such it is considered as a form of inquiry. The main traits of reason so conceived are the following: Functionalism: reason is inextricably intertwined with the other dimensions of experience and is analytically distinguished and identified through its function, which is that of facing and solving problems emerging in experience; Contextualism: intelligence is always enacted by a specific problem arising in a situation that shakes our belief and, troubling our ordinary way of conduct, engenders doubt. Experimentalism: the natural history of knowledge has showed experimental thinking to be the most fruitful method for fixing human beliefs. Therefore, the enquiring attitude finds here its pragmatic justification. Inferentialism: intelligence is always directed towards future states of affairs, unknown conditions, prediction and control6. Judgmentalism: judgment as an act is the quintessential expression of human intelligence and stands for its paradigmatic form of activity (as opposed to purely theoretical forms of thinking activity like the grasping of thoughts7). Practicalism: intelligence is the qualitative trait of a specific kind of human agency, and the practical dimension of its exercise should find a full account in a practice-based epistemology. Intersubjectivism: thinking takes place in the wide open context of a social and cultural matrix that shapes its horizons. Therefore, thinking is not considered to be neither private nor mental but public in the twofold sense of taking place among peoples and in constant interaction with the environment. In this perspective, rationality should be considered as a specific trait not simply of human discourse but more broadly of human agency8. Humans are said to be rational to the extent that their interaction with their environment is [when] guided by a[n] reflective attitude characterized by the fact that [in which] obstacles are perceived and faced as problems. Rationality is an attribute of agency not because it loses its cognitively distinctive traits, but because the notion of agency overcome the duality of thinking and action towards the idea of a ‘reflective behaviour’ that is common to all the pragmatic tradition.

In dealing with moral truth, pragmatism is necessary to preserve the usefulness of any moral system to dictate right and wrong action.

Cheryl Misak. “The Pragmatic Maxim: How to Get Leverage on a Maxim.” Harvard Review of Philosophy Vol XVII. 2010. 

It is easy to see that the concept of truth is one of those concepts, fundamental to human thought, in which we have a long-standing autonomous interest. Hence Peirce thinks that it can be illuminated by looking at our practices of doubt, belief, inquiry and assertion, for those are the human dealings relevant to truth. When we assert, believe, or inquire, we take ourselves to be aiming at truth. We want to know, for instance, what methods might get us true belief; whether it is worth our time and energy to inquire into certain kinds of questions[.]; whether a discourse such as moral discourse aims at truth or whether it is a radically subjective matter, not at all suited for truth-value. When Peirce turns his maxim on the concept of truth, the upshot is an aversion to “transcendental” accounts of truth, such as the correspondence [a] theory, on which a true belief is one that gets right or mirrors the believer-independent world (CP 5.572). Such accounts of truth are examples of those “vagabond thoughts.” They make truth “the subject of metaphysics exclusively.” For the very idea of [But] the believer-independent world, and the items within it to which beliefs or sentences might correspond, seem graspable only if we could somehow step outside of our corpus of belief, our practices, or that with which we have dealings. Peirce thinks that the correspondence concept of truth [This account] is missing the dimension that makes it [truth] suitable for inquiry. But he is perfectly happy with it as a “nominal” defi nition, useful only to those who have never encountered the word before (CP 8.100*). If we want a more robust or a full account of truth, we need to provide a pragmatic elucidation—an account of the role the concept plays in practical endeavors. Peirce argues that if we are to bring the concept of truth down to earth from metaphysical flights of fancy, we must see how [truth] it engages with our practices of assertion, inquiry, reasons, evidence, and belief. For those are the “dealings” connected to truth. So, for instance, once we see that truth and assertion are intimately connected—once we see that to assert that p is true is to assert p—we can look to our practices of assertion to see what commitments they entail. As Wiggins (2004) puts it, hard on the heels of the thought that truth is internally related to assertion comes the thought that truth is also internally related to inquiry, reasons, evidence, and standards of good belief. If we unpack the commitments we incur when we assert, we fi nd that we have imported all these notions. Peirce argues that when we think of how truth engages with our practices, we shall see that we need to think of a true belief as the very best that inquiry could do—a belief that would be “indefeasible”; or would not be improved upon; or would never lead to disappointment; or would forever meet the challenges of reasons, argument, and evidence. A true belief is a belief we would come to, were we to inquire as far as we could on a matter. He initially put this idea in the following unhelpful way: a true belief would be agreed upon at the hypothetical or “fated” end of inquiry (See W3:273). But his considered and much better formulations are the ones above. A true belief would withstand doubt, were we to inquire as far as we fruitfully could into the matter. On the whole, he tries to stay away from unhelpful ideas such as the final end of inquiry, perfect evidence, and the like. This is not to say that truth has now been identified as that which satisfies our aims in assertion and inquiry. We must be careful to not take these elucidations of truth to be attempts at analytic definition. Nothing could be clearer than Peirce’s intention to avoid that. A dispute about defi nition, he says, is usually a “profi tless discussion” (CP 8.100). Again, Wiggins sees the point clearly: “To elucidate truth in its relations with the notion of inquiry, for instance, as the pragmatist does, need not . . . represent any concession at all to the idea that truth is itself an “epistemic notion” (2002:318). Once we see that the concepts of assertion, inquiry, and truth live in the same conceptual neighborhood, we can get a grip on the concept of truth by exploring the connections between it and its neighbors. This will not be an analysis of the essence of truth, but a way of geĴ ing clearer about what truth is. One way of describing this project is to say that Peirce defl ates the idea of truth by linking it to belief, assertion, experience, and inquiry. What we do when we offer a justification of “p is true” is to [we] offer a justification for the claim that p. [so] There is an unseverable connection between making an assertion and [truth] claiming that it is true. If we want to know whether it is true that Toronto is north of Buě alo, there is nothing additional to check on (“a fact,” “a state of aě airs”)—nothing over and above our consulting maps, driving or walking north from Buě alo to see whether we get to Toronto, et cetera. The question of the truth of the statement does not involve anything more than investigating the maĴ er in our usual ways. For a claim’s fiĴ ing and continuing to fi t with all the evidence and argument is all we can be interested in. Our aĴ ention must be on fi rst-order inquiry into the claim itself, not on “philosophical” inquiry into the nature of truth. For the best kind of philosophical inquiry into the nature of truth draws out the connection between truth and the satisfaction of our aims in first-order assertion[.] and inquiry. We have seen that Peirce thought that the pragmatic grade of clarity played a special role in inquiry. If a belief has no consequences—if there is nothing we would expect would be diě erent if it were true or false—then it lacks a dimension we would have had to get right were we to fully understand it. And without that dimension, it is empty or useless for inquiry and deliberation.

It is not necessary for truths to be thoroughly verified for them to be functional. 

William James, “Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking” 1907. Selected Readings: 

Take, for instance, yonder object on the wall. You and I consider it to be a “clock,” although no one of us has seen the hidden works that make it one. We let our notion pass for true without attempting to verify. If truths mean verification-process essentially, ought we then to call such unverified truths as this abortive? No, for they form the overwhelmingly large number of the truths we live by. Indirect as well as direct verifications pass muster. Where circumstantial evidence is sufficient, we can go without eye-witnessing. Just as we here assume Japan [exists] to exist without ever having been there, because it works to do so, everything we know conspiring with the belief, and nothing interfering, so we assume that thing to be a clock. We use it as a clock, regulating the length of our lecture by it. The verification of the assumption here means its leading to no frustration or contradiction. Verifiability of wheels and weights and pendulum is as good as verification. For one truth-process completed there are a million in our lives that function in this state of nascency. They turn us towards direct verification; lead us into the surroundings of the objects they envisage; and then, if everything runs on harmoniously, we are so sure that verification is possible that we omit it, and are usually justified by all that happens.

Truths are only accepted and acted upon according to their usefulness in our experience, as proven by our constant revision of our worldview, including our conceptions of math and physics.

William James. “Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.” 1907.

The “absolutely” true, meaning what no farther experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing-point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge. It runs on all fours with the perfectly wise man, and with the absolutely complete experience; and, if these ideals are ever realized, they will all be realized together. Meanwhile we have to live to-day by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood. Ptolemaic astronomy, euclidean space, aristotelian logic, scholastic metaphysics, were expedient for centuries, but human experience has boiled over those limits, and we now call these things only relatively true, or true within those borders of experience. “Absolutely” they are false; for we know that those limits were casual, and might have been transcended by past theorists just as they are by present thinkers.