While some pragmatists, including William James (right), argue truth is malleable and constantly changing, logician Charles Sanders Peirce (left) asserts it is our knowledge of truth that is variable, not truth itself.

Truth as Pragmatism’s Only Hope

Nick Gall begins his recent twopart essay on the prospects for a pragmatistic philosophy of hope with three questions famously posed by Immanuel Kant:

  • What can I know?
  • What should I do?
  • For what may I hope?

Gall notes that while the first is addressed by epistemology and the second by ethics, there does not seem to be an established field of study for tackling the third. On the other hand, the pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce—whom Gall discusses only briefly, and strictly with respect to his asymptotic metaphysics—effectively reverses the order of these questions and aligns them with the three normative sciences:

  • Esthetics identifies “concrete reasonableness” as the only ideal that is intrinsically admirable—”a state of things that reasonably recommends itself in itself aside from any ulterior consideration” (CP[1] 5.130, EP[2] 2:201, 1903).
  • Ethics converts this “ultimate aim” into a categorical imperative governing deliberate conduct—”rendering the world more reasonable whenever, as the slang is, it is ‘up to us’ to do so” (CP 1.615, EP 2:255, 1903). 
  • Logic prescribes how to pursue this end by engaging in inquiry and adopting beliefs manifesting as habits of action that would never be confounded by any possible future experience.

In other words, for Peirce, the hope that animates pragmatism is the attainment of truth:

The principle of pragmatism is applicable here. In reference to any particular investigation that we may have in hand, we must hope that, if it is persistently followed out, it may ultimately have some measure of success; for if it be not so, nothing that we can do can avail, and we might as well give over the inquiry altogether, and by the same reason stop applying our understanding to anything. … The success for which we hope is that we shall attain some rule which further experience will not force us to repeal. (NEM[3] 4:xii-xiii, 1901)

Gall disagrees, preferring instead the more popular and explicitly melioristic pragmatism of Peirce’s good friend William James, along with successors such as John Dewey and Richard Rorty. Jeffrey Howard takes the same position in his favorable response to Gall, asserting that “ideas and truth are malleable, constantly changing to help us meet the challenges of a boundless world.”

According to this school of thought, a belief is “true” to the degree that it is reliable, useful, and/or fruitful for a given purpose. Peirce would acknowledge that true beliefs are indeed generally reliable, useful, and fruitful; nevertheless, false beliefs can also be temporarily reliable, useful, and/or fruitful, even for long periods of time: “the perversity of thought of whole generations may cause the postponement of the ultimate fixation” (CP 5.430, EP 2:342, 1905). An obvious example is the geocentric model of the universe.

Accordingly, true beliefs are only those that would be affirmed by an infinite community after infinite inquiry: “if Truth consists in satisfaction, it cannot be any actual satisfaction, but must be the satisfaction which would ultimately be found if the inquiry were pushed to its ultimate and indefeasible issue” (CP 6.485, EP 2:450, 1908).

The basic difference here is that James and others attempt to redefine truth, while Peirce merely seeks to clarify its meaning: “Every man is fully satisfied that there is such a thing as truth, or he would not ask any question. That truth consists in a conformity to something independent of his thinking it to be so, or of any man’s opinion on that subject” (CP 5.211, EP 2:240, 1903).

After all, if truth itself were “malleable and constantly changing,” then no one would bother with inquiry and debate:

I say, then, that a reasonable disputant disputes because he hopes, or at least, goes upon the assumption that the dispute will come to something; that is to say, that both parties will at length find themselves forced to a common belief which will be definitive and final. For otherwise, why dispute? To reach a final and compulsory belief is, therefore, what the reasonable disputant aims at. But what he aims at is the truth. Therefore, by the truth he means nothing more than a finally compulsory belief. (CP 2.29, 1902)

Instead, it is our knowledge of truth that is variable, because our beliefs are always fallible. Reliability, usefulness, and fruitfulness are helpful criteria for justifying them. Truth is the normative standard to which we deliberately seek to conform them, even though we can never be certain that we have achieved that objective in any individual case.

Credited by James as the founder of pragmatism, Peirce eventually rechristened his own version “pragmaticism” to distinguish it, correctly anticipating that this name would be “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (CP 5.414, EP 2:335, 1905). In fact, “the mutability of truth” was one of the notions that prompted him to accuse James and others of allowing pragmatism “to become infected with seeds of death” despite being “a philosophy so instinct with life” (CP 6.485, EP 2:450, 1908).

In short, truth ultimately leads to life, while error ultimately leads to death—no matter how reliable, useful, and/or fruitful it might seem to be in the short run. This is expressed poetically by William Cullen Bryant in the following stanza of “The Battle-Field,” whose first line Peirce quoted at least twice (CP 5.408, EP 1:139, 1878; CP 1.217, EP 2:122, 1902):

Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again;
The eternal years of God are hers;
But error, wounded, writhes with pain,
And dies among his worshippers.

Peirce himself puts it this way in one of his earliest published articles:

We are in the condition of a man in a life and death struggle; if he have not sufficient strength, it is wholly indifferent to him how he acts, so that the only assumption upon which he can act rationally is the hope of success. So this sentiment is rigidly demanded by logic. (CP 5.357, EP 1:82, 1868).

Hence, for Peirce—a polymath who always considered himself to be first and foremost a logician—truth is pragmatism’s only hope.

[1] Peirce, C. S. (1931-1958). The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (8 Vols.), C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss, and A. Burks, Eds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[2] Peirce, C. S. (1992-1998). The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings (2 Vols.), N. Houser, C. Kloesel, and The Peirce Edition Project, Eds. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

[3] Peirce, C. S. (1976). The New Elements of Mathematics (4 Vols.), C. Eisele, Ed. The Hague: Mouton Publishers.

Jon Alan Schmidt

Jon is a professional engineer, amateur philosopher, and Lutheran Christian living in Olathe, Kansas, USA. His published papers discuss various aspects of Peirce's thought, touching on mathematics, phenomenology, logic as semiotic (including pragmatism), and metaphysics (including cosmology).

2 thoughts on “Truth as Pragmatism’s Only Hope

  • I’m curious whether you agree with Russell or James in their dispute about truth.

    • As one might expect from the post, I generally agree with Peirce, whose position on truth is closer to Russell’s but not identical with it. As Paul Forster explains in chapter 8 of *Peirce and the Threat of Nominalism*, Peirce’s theory of truth encompasses correspondence, coherence, consensus, and instrumental reliability, rather than being reducible to only one of these.


Leave a Reply