Against Pragmatism

Pragmatism is a philosophy which makes “practical results” or utility the criterion for both what is true and what is good (according to James, truth is a species of good*). It will be shown that this philosophy is inadequate.

A few words before beginning: If everything in the physical universe is the paint (including ourselves, conscious paint) and God is the painter — science can only study the paint — it cannot tell you why God made it, or what picture He is painting with it. Religion without God can only guess at why, and philosophy can only analyze the guesses. If you want to find the ultimate Purpose, find God, or be receptive to being found. A good book to read is “The Reason for God, Belief in an Age of Skepticism” by Timothy Keller – in it you will not find any variation of James’s argument “It is useful to believe God exists, therefore the belief that God exists is justifiably true,” (in my own words).

What Is True, according to pragmatism…

Pragmatism is: “A label for a doctrine about meaning first made a philosophical term in 1878 by C.S. Peirce. ‘Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.’ The term was soon borrowed by William James, F.C.S. Schiller, and John Dewey, who all in their different ways made pragmatism a theory of truth. Thus in his Pragmatism James said, ‘Ideas become true just so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience.’ Peirce reacted by coining the substitute ‘pragmaticism’, a word too ugly to be purloined. Russell assailed the pragmatist notion of truth as obscurantist. See also instrumentalism,” (284, “A Dictionary of Philosophy,” Antony Flew). Instrumentalism is: “1. A theory of the nature of thought, logic, and acquisition of knowledge, advanced by Dewey, developing the pragmatism of William James. Ideas, concepts and judgments are instruments functioning in experienced situations and determining future consequences. Propositions are to be regarded as means in the process of enquiry; as such, they cannot be true or false but are characterizable only as effective or ineffective. Judgments may have truth-values relative to whether or not their assertion is warranted. Ideas and practice work together as instruments: ideas relate experiences, making prediction possible, and are in turn tested by experience,” (175, ibid).


Excerpts on pragmatism from “Introduction to Philosophy, A Christian Perspective” by Geisler and Feinberg:

Pragmatism. The philosophy which makes practical consequences the criterion for truth,” (433, ibid).

In chapter 4, “The Tools of Philosophy,” in the section titled “The Scientific Method,” it reads, “In his famous essay, ‘The Fixation of Belief,’ Charles Saunders Peirce (1839-1914) examines four basic methods of ‘fixing belief,’ or determining truth, which have been utilized by man through history. He calls these: the method of tenacity; the method of authority; the metaphysical or a priori method; and the scientific or pragmatic method. It is Peirce’s view that only the last method is satisfactory, for the other three always break down in practice,” (62-63, ibid). The rest of the section is also interesting.


In chapter 7, “How Can We Know?” there are presented five “logics or criteria for validating beliefs. They are: faith or authoritarianism, subjectivism, rationalism, empiricism, and pragmatism” (103-4, ibid). The chapter shows how each method is suited to justifying a certain type of belief – pragmatism suited to justifying practical knowledge, “social and individual conduct where moral norms do not apply,” (118, ibid). The entire section on pragmatism is included here:


“Pragmatism has been advanced as a method for determining genuine from mere verbal disputes, as a theory of meaning, and as a theory of truth. Here, it is our desire to examine it as a possible source and means of justification for our belief about the world.

Exposition of the Method of Pragmatism

“At the heart of pragmatism is a radical reinterpretation of the nature of knowledge. Traditionally, knowledge has been defined in static, eternal, and ‘spectator’ terms. Knowledge is, in fact, quite different, according to the pragmatist. It is dynamic. It grows out of the interaction of an organism (in this case, man) with his environment. Because the pragmatist views human beings as constantly interacting with and adapting to their environment, he considers all knowledge to be practical. (This practical approach has led many to call pragmatism anti-intellectual.)

“For the pragmatist the proper epistemological method is to be found in the natural sciences. Man applies the scientific method (see chap. 4) to acquire knowledge. (It will be remembered that for the rationalist the proper epistemological method consisted in the adoption of a mathematical model.) The pragmatist considers hypotheses or systems of ideas as instruments to help man adjust to his environment. Man’s reason is put to its highest and proper use in solving the problems of human existence. Reason seeks to solve these problems by trial and error.

“Since our environment is constantly changing, there are no final solutions to any problems man faces. As a matter of fact, man’s ability to deal with is environment is in constant flux, so the task is ongoing. Thus, those ideas, beliefs or hypotheses that work, that have utility, or are successful are considered to be true. Those which fail may be discarded and considered false.

“Two of the most prominent proponents of pragmatism were William James (1842-1910) and John Dewey (1859-1952), both American philosophers.

Evaluation of the Method of Pragmatism

“Pragmatism is a practical, in-use account of the origin and justification of our beliefs. It makes no attempt to abstract knowledge from its context. Moreover, like empiricism, it accepts probability as an adequate requirement for knowledge. Furthermore, it does not cut off epistemology from experience. It allows man to seek justification for his beliefs in his experience.

“Nevertheless, there are some serious shortcomings of pragmatism. First, pragmatism entails the giving up of objective grounds for testing beliefs. Everything is viewed as in constant flux, and as a means rather than an ultimate end. The result is the most radical kind of subjectivism and relativism.

“Second, pragmatism has too restrictive a view of the nature of knowledge. To the pragmatist, only practical knowledge is considered true knowledge. This means that much of what has traditionally been considered part of epistemology must be rejected or ruled out. Pragmatism recognizes only the methodology of the natural sciences as valid. One may question absolutizing the scientific method even for the natural sciences, and there is even more reason to question extending the method to all areas of human knowledge and inquiry.

“Finally, while it is not our primary objective to deal with questions of truth in this chapter, we must note that pragmatism advances a theory of truth that many philosophers consider false. Pragmatism claims that truth is defined as what is useful, what works, or what has good practical results. But it is possible to show that certain statements we know to be false on independent grounds are ‘true’ on pragmatic grounds. For instance, suppose a patient fears he has cancer. He visits a doctor, who runs tests. Sure enough, cancer is present. However, knowing the mental state of the patient, the doctor tells him that there must be surgery but that there is no cancer. The patient comes through the operation with flying colors. The lie has clearly ‘worked.’ Therefore, on pragmatic grounds the lie must be true.

“It has also been argued that if ‘true’ and ‘useful’ are synonymous, then after one says, ‘X is useful,’ it should make sense to say, ‘X is true.’ But obviously that does not make sense; the terms are not synonymous.

“The reason that such a definition of truth has any plausibility at all is because the phrase ‘it works,’ ‘it is useful,’ and ‘it has good practical results’ are ambiguous. As has been shown, some falsehood can bring peace of mind, but is this really a good practical result? Not all are agreed that it is. Some would argue that it is better to face up to reality rather than attempt to avoid or escape it,” (115-117, ibid).


In chapter 16, “What is Truth?” there are presented “four major theories of truth: the coherence theory, the pragmatic theory, the performative theory, and the correspondence theory” (235, ibid). The chapter shows how the first three theories are inadequate, that the correspondence theory alone is sufficient. The entire section on pragmatism is included here:

The Pragmatic Theory of Truth

“Pragmatism was a dominant force in American philosophy during the first half of the twentieth century. While there are few philosophers today who call themselves pure pragmatists, the movement has left an indelible mark on American philosophy. We will examine a distinctive theory of truth which grew up with pragmatism. It will be helpful in dealing with this theory of truth if we build our discussion around the three central figures in pragmatism—Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), and John Dewey (1859-1952).

Charles Sanders Peirce

Peirce’s view of truth. Peirce (pronounced Purse) sought to relate truth to observable practices; his understanding of truth was in contradistinction to that of Descartes. Descartes thought that a proposition was true if we had a clear and distinct idea of it. Peirce reacted to this subjectivism, and rejected Descartes’s view. He felt that a proposition could seem to be clear and distinct without really being clear. Peirce’s theory of meaning, sometimes called the pragmatic maxim, bases the meaning of a proposition on the bearing it has on the conduct of our lives.

“Peirce called his approach pragmaticism, and argued for a public understanding of truth. Truth could not be conceived apart from its practical relationship to doubts and beliefs within the framework of human inquiry. Metaphysical visions of truth such as those set forth by Spinoza and Leibniz were, for Peirce, in violation of Ockham’s Razor (p. 183). Men and women search for belief; the search for truth is, in practice, the search for belief. Truth is the consequence of the experimental method, and will ultimately be agreed upon by the scientific community.

Evaluation of Peirce. We shall say more about the identification of truth with practice in our discussion of William James. Suffice it to say here that a number of key notions in Peirce’s view of truth lack practical consequences; thus they too would presumably fall when examined under the principle of Ockham’s Razor. What is the experimental or practical difference between Descartes’s ‘absolute fixity of truth’ and Peirce’s ‘opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to’?

“These, however, are minor objections when viewed in light of the criticisms to be made of pragmatism’s central thesis that truth is related to practical consequences.

William James

“Both William James and John Dewey sought to apply the pragmatic notion of meaning to truth. There was, however, a decided difference in the application and results achieved by each man, and in James’s hand Peirce’s method undergoes crucial transformation.

James’s view of truth. When Peirce talked about practice bearing on truth, he was talking about the results of the scientist or the experimenter. He claimed that only this sort of experience is important for our understanding of truth. Furthermore, said Peirce, experience is very general in nature, not particular. Given the scientific flavor and the public nature of his views, Peirce was interested in experience stated according to general rules or regularities for a group of observers.

“Both of these views of Peirce were modified by James. First, James was interested in the particular and the concrete, as opposed to the general and abstract. Second, James’s understanding of what constituted experience was quite different from Peirce’s. Rather than the results of the scientist, James was concerned with the effects of a belief in the private and personal life of the individual.

James defined the role of thinking in light of these concerns. The function of thought is not to imagine reality, but to produce ideas that will satisfy an individual’s needs and desires. Thought functions primarily as a problem-solver. In the area of science, truth is determined by verification, for such ideas are necessary to predict and to cope with experience. Thus, scientific truth meets the criterion of practical interest.

“However, James said that scientific truth gives us no criteria for metaphysical and theological beliefs. Since meaning and truth are related to consequences, James argued that an individual could regard metaphysical and religious beliefs as true if they provided him with what James called ‘vital benefits.’ Vital benefits are consequences that help an organism survive in its environment. Thus, according to pragmatic principle, if belief in God ‘works’ satisfactorily for us, then we will be justified in believing it, and it will be true. James’s famous statement is that what is true is ‘the expedient in the way of our thinking,’ just as right is ‘the expedient in the way of our behaving.’ In other words, truth is determined by consequences.

Objections to James’s view of truth. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873-1962) were two of the most severe critics of James’s pragmatic theory of truth. First, both Russell and Lovejoy argued that the notion that something is true if it ‘works,’ which is central to James’s view of truth, is ambiguous. Lovejoy pointed out that a belief may ‘work’ in two very different ways. We may say it works if predictions we make on its basis are in fact fulfilled. On the other hand, we may say that a belief works if it contributes to our motivation and effort.

“But a belief may work in one of these ways and not in the other. Let us consider a particular belief, that an extremely rich uncle loves us. On the basis of this belief we predict that we will receive great wealth upon his death. This belief may motivate us to do things for this uncle that we would not do otherwise, such as mowing his lawn. Likewise, it may help us in times of great poverty to endure the lack of earthly goods. Btu when this uncle dies, he may leave us out of his will, and we may not receive a penny. Thus our belief ‘worked’ to motivate and encourage us, but it did not ‘work’ to benefit us financially. Russell makes a similar point. When a scientist claims that a hypothesis works, he means that he can deduce a number of predictions that are confirmed in experience. However, these predictions or their results may not necessarily be good, and so many not ‘work’ to benefit mankind.

“Second, Russell claimed that James’s view of truth ignores the way we usually understand truth. Consider the following two sentences: ‘It is true that it is sunny out’; and ‘It is useful to believe that it is sunny out.’ If James is correct, then these two sentences are identical in meaning. When we believe one, we believe the other. There should be no transition in our mind from one to the other—but there obviously is. Therefore, the two sentences cannot be identical in meaning.

“Moreover, on pragmatic grounds we will be bound to declare certain sentences true that we know on independent grounds to be false. Consider the case of a patient who comes to a doctor. The patient suspects cancer and is emotionally unstable because of this fear. The doctor examines the patient and finds overwhelming evidence that there is cancer. However, because the doctor feels that the patient either will refuse the needed surgery or will not do well in surgery, he tells the fearful patient that nothing serious is wrong. Reassured by the words of the doctor, the patient goes through the surgery and recovers. Telling the patient that nothing serious was wrong ‘worked.’ But was it true? On pragmatic grounds we must say yes, but on independent grounds we know that it is not true.

“Third, Russell argued that James’s notion of truth was, in practice, useless. To say that belief is true in light of the consequences, is to say that the results of holding it are better than the results of rejecting it. But how can we be sure of the results of holding any belief? We may underestimate or overestimate their effect.

John Dewey

“Dewey developed a theory of truth which was in keeping with his pragmatic method, and may be identified with the phrase, ‘warranted assertibility.’

Dewey’s view of truth. Dewey began by pointing out that it is easy to subscribe to the belief that truth is a correspondence between an idea or statement and a fact. However, this can also be understood outside the context of inquiry, reflective thinking, and problem solving. What does ‘correspondence’ mean in practice? What is the relationship between ideas and facts in practice, that is, in the context of investigation?

“According to Dewey, an investigation is always instigated by an initial state of doubt. The doubt is real, not theoretical. One is uncertain about the surroundings. It is impossible to understand the use of ideas and facts unless we first understand the purpose in undertaking the inquiry, that is, to answer doubt and uncertainty.

“Serious inquiry begins with the formulating of one’s doubt into a problem. Within this context an idea is a possible solution to the problem. An idea is more than simply that which is directly perceived. It extends beyond what is perceived to what is (as yet) unperceived.

“Facts, said Dewey, are used in inquiry to mark off or set what is secure and unquestioned. Facts guide inferences by prompting new ideas, and new ideas promise new facts, which in turn verify the ideas. Facts are not abstract, and they always occur in the context of inquiry. Thus, the correspondence between ideas and facts comes from their working relationship in the context of inquiry.

“Ideas, then, become true when their ‘draft upon experience’ is verified by the promised facts. According to Dewey, truth is not antecedent to a context of inquiry. Furthermore, truth is a mutable idea. It ‘happens to an idea’ when it is verified, or ‘warranted.’

Objections to Dewey’s view of truth. There are a number of problems concerning Dewey’s view of truth. First, it is argued that truth is certainly antecedent to its verification. Truth is not something that ‘happens’ to an idea. It is not a time-dependent, acquired property. Suppose, for example, that a crime is committed on Tuesday. On Friday we have enough evidence to place the guilt on Jones. The statement ‘Jones committed a crime’ cannot be true on pragmatic grounds until Friday, but we know good and well that it was true on Tuesday. As a matter of fact, on Dewey’s interpretation we should not be able to convict Jones. ‘Jones committed a crime’ is not true until Friday, and the crime was committed on Tuesday.

“Both Rudolf Carnap and G.E. Moore attacked Dewey’s view of mutable truth. Carnap pointed out that there is a distinction between truth and confirmation. It does make sense to say that a statement is confirmed today, but not that it may be true today and not yesterday or tomorrow. Dewey has merely confused truth with confirmation. To accept his view will ultimately lead to the surrender of the law of non-contradiction.

“G.E. Moore, on the other hand, stated that there is only one way we can make a belief true. We will make the belief, ‘It will rain tomorrow’ true only if tomorrow we have a part in making the rain fall,” (239-244, ibid).


What Is Good, according to pragmatism…

In chapter 24, “How Do We Know What Is Right?” in the section “Justifying What Is Meant by Right” subsection “Justification by Results” it reads:

“William James unabashedly suggested that something was right if it ‘worked.’ The good is the expedient, he claimed; acts or intentions are not good as such, but they become good if they bring good results. The rightness or wrongness of actions is judged not by their roots, but by their fruits. To use James’s term, the ‘cash-value’ of the term right is its results. What brings desirable consequences is good and what does not is bad.

“One of the most pointed criticisms of James’s pragmatism was given by Josiah Royce, a colleague at Harvard, who wondered whether James would be satisfied ‘to put a witness on the stand in court and have him swear to tell ‘the expedient, the whole expedient, and nothing but the expedient, so help him future experience.’ ’ Furthermore, one could ask, ‘Results desired by whom?’ For obviously, results desirable to some are undesirable to others. In addition, even desired consequences do not prove something right. Lying, cheating, and even killing sometimes bring desired consequences, but this does not make them right. Finally even when the consequences are clear, one can still ask, ‘Are they good or bad?’ If the question of right or wrong is not answered by results, then results cannot be the sole justification for what is meant by right actions. Bad motives (for example, being generous to be praised by men, not out of concern for the poor) can bring good results, and vice versa,” (373-374, ibid).


Note: pragmatism and utilitarianism are not identical to each other, but are similar in their emphasis on ‘results’.

In chapter 23, “What is the Right?” in the section on utilitarianism titled “Right Is the Greatest Good for the Race” it reads “First of all, how does a human being—who can only rarely predict short-run consequences—determine what will result from his actions in the long run? Many evil actions (lying and cheating, for example) seem to ‘work’ for people for long periods of time. Does this make them right? Second, how long is the long run? If it means the remote future or end of the world, then it is too out of reach to be of any help in making decisions today. But if it means the near future, then that would justify obviously evil things which work well for a short time (corrupt governments, cruelty, and deception). Finally, even when the results are obvious, how does one know they are ‘good’ results unless he has some standard of good beyond the results? But if there is a norm for rightness or wrongness beyond the results, then the results as such do not determine rightness,” (357, ibid). However, in the section titled “The Synthesis of the Other Views” it reads “Fourth, there is, however, some truth in relating good to long-range results. If there is an absolutely good God, then surely He is interested in bringing about the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run. However, the results (in the long run) do not determine right; rather, what is right according to God will determine what the results will be. Further, since only an omniscient God can know what will bring the greatest good to the greatest number in the long run, then only God is in a position to determine the right way to bring about these best results,” (360).

In chapter 25, “The Relationship Between Rules and Results” there are compared, and eventually synthesized, two approaches to ethics: the deontological (duty-centered) view, and the teleological (end-centered) view. I recommend purchasing the book and reading the whole chapter (the whole book, actually, not that it is without its problems).

It is admitted that “the duty ethic has been charged with inconsistency, for it too is concerned with the results of actions—immediate results. Indeed, there seems to be no way to separate an action from its immediate results. For instance, the act of killing is inseparable from the result of someone being killed. Likewise, the act of stealing is inseparable from the result that something is stolen. Hence, even deontological ethics is concerned about results of actions—immediate ones,” (392, ibid). However, “No matter who—man or God—determines what rule is right (based on the foreseen results), there must be some concept of what is intrinsically right apart from the results. Otherwise, there would be no way to know whether the results are good or bad. Obtaining desired results is insufficient, for what is desired may in fact be evil. … And even in the case of theistic utilitarianism (where God determines the rules by the results), God, also, must know some intrinsic or ultimate value by which He determines that the results are good rather than bad. This intrinsic value must be inside His own nature rather than outside; otherwise there would be some ultimate beyond God. In brief, even the theistic version of utilitarianism reduces to a deontological duty to be God-like. It is, in the final analysis, a rule-centered duty geared toward emulating the ultimate good (God),” (392-394, ibid).

Recommended reading:

*The chapters on James and Dewey in Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy”.

(I haven’t recommended reading Peirce, James or Dewey, or any others named in this document, because the only one I really read was Peirce, and I fell asleep doing so.)

Based on Russell’s chapter on James, I may one day read James’s “Does Consciousness Exist?” – but, that is off-topic.

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