The Pragmatic Truth of Existentialism

The Current Concern for Truth

The past several months have seen a strange resurgence of interest in the question of truth. The culture wars, lighting up Twitter feeds everywhere, have found an unlikely battle ground over abstract theories of truth usually debated in the austere journals of academic philosophy. With the issue so inauspiciously raised in the public eye, it seems timely that we reconsider the pragmatic theory of truth and its role in one of the most influential philosophies of the twentieth century: existentialism.

The influence of William James on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism is mostly unknown. The theory of truth outlined by James provides Sartre with an ally against Martin Heidegger, whose shadow looms large over existential philosophy. In a 1948 text, published posthumously as Truth and Existence, Sartre strikes out from a critical engagement with Heidegger to provide his own theory that points directly from truth to ethics—something that immediately distinguishes his approach from “fundamental ontology.”

Heidegger repeatedly claims that fundamental ontology is meant to describe the basic structure of reality itself and lay out the existential structures of human existence. It is only descriptive and not normative. He claims to be outlining the indifferent modes of existence, which do not necessarily lead to ethical prescriptions. Scholars hotly debate whether or not that is really the case, or whether it’s even possible, given Heidegger’s analysis of care, death, anxiety, authenticity, and so on. Nevertheless, it is what Heidegger claims, and Sartre’s early emphasis on ethics in Truth and Existence that is a marked difference between the two. 

For Sartre, truth is only human and develops in the context of our historical practices. This means that truth is never discovered once and for all time. What it means to be, for instance, a “hero” or “coward” is open to revision as the culturally relevant projects of heroism and cowardice are rearranged within the socio-historical complex. This goes for larger, more general categories at the heart of our social lives, like “man” and “woman” as well. The same is true for abstract mathematics—for instance, if we move from asking questions about geometry as it plays out on a flat surface to questions about the geometry of a sphere, or use number systems different from base-10 to explore arithmetic. The discovery of these truths depends upon how we frame our projects relative to the material conditions in which we find ourselves.

Read “Existentialism in Children’s Film

The Pragmatist Moment in Existentialism

William James’ pragmatism, specifically his theory of truth, is a resource Sartre uses to move in the direction of ethics. American pragmatism came to Sartre in translation. The translator was Henri Bergson, a giant in French letters who exerted tremendous influence on Sartre’s generation. Bergson and James were friends and encouraged the readership of each other’s work in their respective countries. In addition to translating James’ short book Pragmatism into French, Bergson also wrote a preface for the 1911 Flammarion edition, later collected in The Creative Mind (1934) as “On the Pragmatism of William James. Truth and Reality.”

There is an important moment in Truth and Existence where Sartre discusses how truth emerges from the project in which we are engaged. What truths we discover depend in part on which questions we ask. This means the discovery of this truth and not that truth depends upon how our project relates to reality. The specific relation, determined by our goals, does not aim at the totality of truth, the whole collection of truths that could be discovered. It aims only at those relevant to the ends we’ve set out.

Sometimes, we anticipate certain truths. If, for instance, I place two five-dollar bills in my wallet in the morning, I anticipate later, when I look in my wallet while in line at the store, that I will find those five-dollar bills right where I left them. I anticipate that those bills have remained where I put them. I can also anticipate outcomes that did not depend on my hand in determining them. Like when I watch a basketball game and the ball leaves the player’s hands in a certain arc toward the hoop. I can say, “Oh I think that’ll go in!” or, perhaps, “Oh no! He’s missed that for sure.” Sometimes these anticipated outcomes don’t come to pass and what I thought might happen in fact does not—perhaps my precocious toddler has removed a bill from my wallet while I wasn’t paying attention and I’m embarrassed in the check-out line to discover only five dollars when I thought I had ten.

Sartre points out that, in one sense, my anticipations are not really in error. They exist as a non-being because what is anticipated has not yet come to pass. I am anticipating what is not yet—I have not looked in the wallet, the ball has not yet found or missed its mark, etc. When I then attempt to verify the anticipated result, Sartre argues, the anticipation that is not realized annihilates itself in disappointment. My anticipation that the ball would pass through the net is annihilated in the realization that, in fact, the ball has bounced off the rim.

At this point, Sartre refers to Bergson’s preface to Pragmatism. Actually, the editors of Sartre’s text make an error here. In the English edition of Truth and Existence, there is a note where Sartre writes, “My pencil drops. I pick it up. What proves it is the same pencil? The fact that I pick it up (Bergson, preface to Pragmatism). No. But the coherence of the action implying permanence (Merleau-Ponty).” The editors insert their own note that attempts to correct Sartre’s citation, saying “The author is in fact William James: Pragmatism.” But that is wrong! Sartre does indeed mean Bergson here, who, in his preface, makes the remark that, “When I say, ‘My pencil has just fallen under the table,’ I am certainly not enunciating a fact of experience, for what sight and touch show me is simply that my hand opened and let fall what it held . . . the first venture to believe in this invariability and independence [of the pencil that I have dropped] made a hypothesis: it is that hypothesis which we adopt every time we use a substantive, every time we speak.” Our judgements, according to Bergson, are not the result of a simple observation of fact. Rather, they hinge upon our ability to bring together a series of observations made over time, synthesizing these into the idea that we have dropped and then retrieved the pen. Sartre is flagging Bergon’s explanation and tying it to phenomenology—the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view.

James does use the example of a pen being the same pen today as it was yesterday in his 1890 book, Principles of Psychology. He says, “This sort of bringing of things together into the object of a single judgment is of course essential to all thinking. The things are conjoined in the thought, whatever may be the relation in which they appear to the thought. The thinking them is thinking them together, even if only with the result of judging that they do not belong together.” So, I see the pen one day and I see the pen the next and I bring together these two separate experiences, synthesizing them into the idea of the same pen observed on two different occasions. As Sartre says, it is not the mere fact that I pick the pen up which proves its identity, but rather the whole culmination of experiences in a judgment that establishes for me the truth of the object. I have made a hypothesis, according to Bergson’s language, and that hypothesis is confirmed in a variety of ways.

For instance, I might observe that the pen has a particular scratch on it and the clip which would hold it in place is slightly bent to one side. The next day, hypothesizing that the same pen I had used yesterday was still on my desk, I anticipate, now using Sartre’s terms, that the pen I find will have the marks—the scratch and the bent clip. If these anticipations are confirmed, my hypothesis is verified, and I judge the pen I hold today is the same as yesterday. But our hypotheses can only arise out of our own context and experience. If Sartre is right, in line with pragmatism, it becomes clear how a person’s particular situation—their race, gender, class, sexual orientation—can impact how they navigate the world and condition what truths will come to light in the course of their projects.

Read “The Power of One Idea

Pragmatic Truth in Other Philosophical Projects

Sartre is interested in how this simple truth, the identity of the pen, is wrapped up in a larger project. If I were not concerned with writing, generally, I would never consider, thus never discover, this truth about the pen’s identity. And I, as an individual who writes, would never be concerned with writing generally if I did not have some particular project to work on—this book, that essay, taking notes on this interview, and so on. All of those projects entangle me in the world of literacy and its equipment—pens, pencils, paper, word processing software, keyboards—and it is through my concrete engagement with these instrumental objects that I begin to discover certain truths, indeed, that I even begin asking the questions that will lead me to truth.

On this score, Sartre is still very close to Heidegger. In Heidegger’s monumental 1927 work Being and Time, he famously analyzes how meaning arises within a systematic web of references that I can navigate sensibly in my everyday dealings. They have a pragmatic structure, the structure of in-order-to, and that is my primary way of making sense of the world. Heidegger even draws attention to the Greek word pragmata, the root of “pragmatic,” because it is a generic word for “things” as well as “deed” or “acts.”

So, it’s not a huge leap for Sartre to move from this Heideggerian analysis to pragmatism. We can already see in Sartre’s note from Truth and Existence that he connects pragmatism with phenomenology. The other named figure in that note is phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who Sartre associates with the idea that the coherence of an action is what implies the permanence of the object. 

Merleau-Ponty was a close friend and associate of Sartre, one of the founding editors of Les Temps modernes who, in his groundbreaking Phenomenology of Perception (1945), lays out a basically gestalt theory of perception where experience is unified in the eye of the perceiver against a background from which the objects of perception emerge as meaningful within the context of one’s life, projects, and engagements. All of these thinkers are clustering around similar theories for how the mind works as a synthetic process, and Bergson is correct to say that pragmatism carries on the project of Kant, as phenomenology certainly does. Except, Bergson points out in his preface, “Pragmatism adds, or at least implies, that the structure of the human mind is the effect of the free initiative of a certain number of individual human minds.” Every truth, from the pragmatic point of view, traces a path through history, through reality, as we seek out certain ends we hope can be achieved and discover along the way the truths that those projects bring to light.

The way that we think of things, the truths we have access to, are the result of people’s experiences over time, their failures, successes, and experiments. Perhaps we can imagine anyone could have invented the phonograph. But, Bergson reminds us, Edison did in fact invent it, and it is thanks to the collective efforts of millions of individuals over time that we have the current “structure of mind” that we do have—the ideas and ways of thought that we adapt from those who came before us and about whose discoveries we learn, repeat, and build upon. As James himself says in Pragmatism, “True ideas are those we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we can not.” Ideas are not true thanks to some inherent conceptual mark or property of the idea itself, but rather become true through historical events that test and prove their merits. “Truth happens to an idea,” James says.

This statement aligns with what Sartre says about the confirmation of my anticipation. The anticipation is not itself true or false. By itself, the anticipation I have that ends up disappointed is not an error ahead of time. The expectation I have, the idea about whether or not the basketball will go through the hoop, is made true or false by the event itself. Whether or not my prediction is confirmed in the event and recorded on the scoreboard determines its truth, which is not established beforehand in the formation of the idea itself, but only comes about after the fact as a matter of course. This historical trajectory through the projects of many individuals working in concert or disparately is what will really shift Sartre’s alliance from Heidegger to pragmatism. The key departure we should note is how truth is not ethically neutral. The truth, because it is a human truth that emerges from our historical entanglements, is imbued with value. Truth does things, it is for something and, because it is directly connected with human activity in this way, can take on an ethical valence relative to the ends to which it is put.

Read “The Dude Abides: Pragmatism as an Alternative to Deontology and Nihilism

The Truth of Being

In the 1930 essay “On the Essence of Truth,” Heidegger argues against the correspondence theory of truth, which holds truth to obtain in the correspondence between a proposition and a state of affairs. Heidegger uses the language of “accordance,” as when he says, “Being true and truth here signify accord, and that in a double sense: on the one hand, the consonance of a matter with what is supposed in advance regarding it and, on the other hand, the accordance of what is meant in the statement with the matter.” Here, as he describes the “typical” view of truth against which he will argue, you can see Heidegger and Sartre working toward similar ends.

Like Sartre’s analysis of anticipation, Heidegger will deny that there’s something true or false inherent in statements, expectations, presuppositions, or anticipations, which is found to accord with or correspond to some state of affairs or reality as it is in itself. Remember, Sartre and James are both arguing that truth is made, that truth or falsity is not contained in the idea and realized in a correspondence, but rather that truth happens to an idea as it plays out in time. Heidegger differs in that he thinks truth is not made but revealed. Underlying all theories of “correctness,” Heidegger’s shorthand for correspondence is a deeper, more primordial truth as revelation or “unconcealing” by which being itself is discovered.

We have to be careful. The word “discovery” can be used in both Sartre’s pragmatic theory of truth and in Heidegger’s theory, but it takes on very different significance. In James and Sartre’s pragmatic theories, truth is discovered in the sense that it is not realized until a certain point in time. I have an anticipation of something happening and I discover if I’m right when it actually happens or not, meaning just that some eventuality has occurred, and I realize only once that has happened whether I’m right or wrong. But I’m not right or wrong beforehand, and then uncover some preexisting truth that lay hidden waiting to be revealed. This is actually closer to what Heidegger has in mind.

For Heidegger, there is something he calls “the openedness of beings as a whole.” Don’t get him wrong, he does not mean here just the collection of everything that exists, the totality of all objects in the universe. What Heidegger has in mind seems more like undifferentiated Being itself—that from which any collection of objects is possible, out of which anything we can imagine at all would arise, the very ground of all possibilities and actualities. The problem, for Heidegger, is that we’re always cutting this up into little discernible chunks that we can learn about and claim to have knowledge of. But this covers up and conceals the big “T” Truth of beings as a whole. The trick we must master is properly attuning ourselves to acknowledge this truth without imposing our neat little systems of knowledge on it. He actually says that we are more receptive to this revelation when we are in the midst of unfamiliar things. Our familiar, everyday life, where we know things intimately and very casually slice the world up into digestible and easily grasped facts, is where we’re most unlikely to see through the manifold of beings to this grand Being that grounds and is the source of everything. It’s the truth of being that allows things to be true, that confers truth on them and frees them up from nothing to be true.

The essence of truth, according to Heidegger, is freedom. Things are released, freed from concealment to be revealed as truth. Heidegger’s way of treating truth is extremely esoteric when considered from the perspective of pragmatism.

Sartre fires back. This quest for the proper attunement that would reveal the openedness of beings as a whole is a project and whatever truth is discovered is done so as the culmination of that project as an historical event. It would still be a selective view determined by the so-called “question of being” that could not capture anything like “the whole” of being. Sartre points out that we can theorize something like the totality of facts, all that is the case, or the primordial font of all beings, but that will never be revealed to us all at once. As finite beings, we are locked into a narrower view of the world that is cut to the measure of our lives, our commitments, and the concrete projects with which we are engaged. There is no possibility for an attunement that would circumvent our particularized historical situation and sufficiently defamiliarize the world to allow for the appearance of rarified being-as-such. The break with Heidegger in favor of pragmatism is achieved at this point.

A full analysis of Sartre’s theory of truth would be illuminating. There is much more to be said on the relation of truth to freedom, which makes his theory distinctly existential and not merely a variety of pragmatism. I have here only scratched the surface by showing how James’ pragmatism helps Sartre make his break from Heidegger on the question of truth. 

Truth is historically contingent, not necessary. There is a real world out there to be discovered—we do not just create the world out of thin air, but we are constrained in our projects by the material conditions in which we find ourselves. However, the truth of those conditions can only emerge in the context of our engagement with and commitment to our situation from particular standpoints and projects that have historical precedent in those who came before us. We must navigate this complex together, but it is a constantly evolving network of claims that we return to, reevaluate, and integrate according to the needs of the day. With Sartre, we lose the transcendental, timeless, inhuman truth of an ahistorical absolute, but we gain the world in which we live, that is meaningful to us, and that is flush with human values that demand our ethical concern.

Donovan Irven

Donovan is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction. He currently teaches eighth-grade science and offers philosophical consultations with the Lawn Chair Philosophy Foundation. The author of two novels and a collection of philosophical essays, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in EmergeQueen Mob's Tea House, and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Literature from Purdue University.

One thought on “The Pragmatic Truth of Existentialism

  • As much as you might not like it, I think Wittgenstein and Godel make quick work of this topic with the question “is it true that there are truths?” or “is it objectively true that there are objective truths?” However uncomfortable this question might make you feel, you can’t ignore that this is at once an unanswerable question of absurdity and also precisely the question being raised. As far as I am concerned, this is QED.


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