The term ‘pragmatism’ or the ‘pragmatic maxim’ was first employed by Charles Sanders Peirce as a method for clarifying the meaning of difficult ideas through the consideration of the practical consequences of which the concept portrays. It is thus a maxim of logic. William James however presented pragmatism as a means to reconcile scientific methods of inquiry and those of religious and moral philosophy. The pragmatic maxim is thus a rule or method to make certain and clear the contents of concepts and hypotheses. A hypothesis can be clarified or ascertained by its ‘practical consequences’.
What James did not do was to explicate fully the concept of ‘practical consequences’ (Olin, 1992, p. 3) but to base it on ‘effectiveness’ where ‘effective’ is understood as that which has the most practical value and a value that is sensible to the desired outcomes of the hypothesis. The application of the pragmatic maxim is fairly straightforward. To avoid the metaphysical and ontological disputes of ‘reality,’ one can easily collapse the understanding of the terms ‘mug’ or ‘cup’ is the referent consequences are indistinguishable.
In other words, if the contexts of the consequent decision to call a ‘mug’ a ‘cup’ permit, then for all ‘practical’ purposes, that can be easily achieved. Such an understanding of the pragmatic maxim poses problems in real life applications for it collapses meaning and truth. Meaning claims can become reduced to truth claims. How does one distinguish ‘murder’ from ‘self-defence’ is it can be easily and ‘pragmatically’ be considered as the ending of one’s life? In such an example, the meaning claims have become reduced to ‘truth’ claims. 2. How does James understand the word “true”?
To what kind of realities or human experiences does the word most properly apply? What kind of the ‘theory of truth’ is James promoting with his claims? (Cf. pages 338 ff. ) James believed that truth is that which works in the way of belief and true ideas can always lead one into useful and sensible application. This thus leads to consistency and stability in human interaction relations. However, all true processes, according to James, must be able to be verified empirically – by sensible experiences or knowledge attained through the senses.
Truth is thus then one aspect or ‘species’ of good and not a category distinct from it (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006, para 34). As James himself notes truth is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons. Truth is a quality, then, of whose own value is confirmed through application (and hence ‘pragmatic’). Truth functions in many aspects of human reality and experience. For James, something is ‘true’ if it works for all of humanity (hence he claims his philosophy of pragmatism to be humanist).
Truths thus are guiding nodes within specific contexts and environments. The more something is true, the more it will stand the test of time and can be scientifically investigated. James applied the concept of ‘truth’ to religion via a pragmatism. In this case, truth was not regarded as ontological ‘reality’ but rather the ‘cash value’ or the returns of the belief in a specific context. As such, a hypothesis of God is sufficient truth if it is satisfactory to the empirical experience of many.
As such, James seemed to have held a pluralist view about truth and tried promoting an early notion of ‘relativism’ through such a pragmatic theory. He seemed to be gesturing to the face that truth is not absolute but relative and that there can be different kinds of truth framed within specific contexts and environments. References Olin, D. , (1992). William James: Pragmatism, in Focus. London: Routledge, 1992. William James. (n. d. ) In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 31, 2009, from http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/james/.
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