The Meaning of Truthby William James
American psychologist and philosopher WILLIAM JAMES (1842–1910), brother of novelist Henry James, was a groundbreaking researcher at Harvard University, author of such
Why is real-world experience vital to a mature appreciation of any philosophical system? Why is the search for “objective truth” a trickier proposition than it seems at first glance?
American psychologist and philosopher WILLIAM JAMES (1842–1910), brother of novelist Henry James, was a groundbreaking researcher at Harvard University, author of such works as Principles of Psychology (1890) and The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), and one of the most influential academics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, in a series of essays first published in book form in 1909, and considered a sequel to his series of lectures collected in Pragmatism (also available from Cosimo), James explores these questions as he discusses:
• the function of cognition
• humanism and truth
• the relation between knower and known
• the essence of humanism
• the meaning of the word truth
• the absolute and strenuous life
• and more.
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The Meaning of Truth
By William James
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE FUNCTION OF COGNITION
THE following inquiry is (to use a distinction familiar to readers of Mr. Shadworth Hodgson) not an inquiry into the 'how it comes,' but into the 'what it is' of cognition. What we call acts of cognition are evidently realized through what we call brains and their events, whether there be 'souls' dynamically connected with the brains or not. But with neither brains nor souls has this essay any business to transact. In it we shall simply assume that cognition is produced, somehow, and limit ourselves to asking what elements it contains, what factors it implies.
Cognition is a function of consciousness. The first factor it implies is therefore a state of consciousness wherein the cognition shall take place. Having elsewhere used the word 'feeling' to designate generically all states of consciousness considered subjectively, or without respect to their possible function, I shall then say that, whatever elements an act of cognition may imply besides, it at least implies the existence of a feeling. [If the reader share the current antipathy to the word 'feeling,' he may substitute for it, wherever I use it, the word 'idea,' taken in the old broad Lockian sense, or he may use the clumsy phrase 'state of consciousness,' or finally he may say 'thought' instead.]
Now it is to be observed that the common consent of mankind has agreed that some feelings are cognitive and some are simple facts having a subjective, or, what one might almost call a physical, existence, but no such self-transcendent function as would be implied in their being pieces of knowledge. Our task is again limited here. We are not to ask, 'How is self-transcendence possible?' We are only to ask, 'How comes it that common sense has assigned a number of cases in which it is assumed not only to be possible but actual? And what are the marks used by common sense to distinguish those cases from the rest?' In short, our inquiry is a chapter in descriptive psychology, — hardly anything more.
Condillac embarked on a quest similar to this by his famous hypothesis of a statue to which various feelings were successively imparted. Its first feeling was supposed to be one of fragrance. But to avoid all possible complication with the question of genesis, let us not attribute even to a statue the possession of our imaginary feeling. Let us rather suppose it attached to no matter, nor localized at any point in space, but left swinging in vacuo, as it were, by the direct creative fiat of a god. And let us also, to escape entanglement with difficulties about the physical or psychical nature of its 'object,' not call it a feeling of fragrance or of any other determinate sort, but limit ourselves to assuming that it is a feeling of q. What is true of it under this abstract name will be no less true of it in any more particular shape (such as fragrance, pain, hardness) which the reader may suppose.
Now, if this feeling of q be the only creation of the god, it will of course form the entire universe. And if, to escape the cavils of that large class of persons who believe that semper idem sentire ac non sentire are the same, we allow the feeling to be of as short a duration as they like, that universe will only need to last an infinitesimal part of a second. The feeling in question will thus be reduced to its fighting weight, and all that befalls it in the way of a cognitive function must be held to befall in the brief instant of its quickly snuffed-out life, — a life, it will also be noticed, that has no other moment of consciousness either preceding or following it.
Well now, can our little feeling, thus left alone in the universe, — for the god and we psychological critics may be supposed left out of the account, — can the feeling, I say, be said to have any sort of a cognitive function? For it to know, there must be something to be known. What is there, on the present supposition? One may reply, 'the feeling's content q.' But does it not seem more proper to call this the feeling's quality than its content? Does not the word 'content' suggest that the feeling has already dirempted itself as an act from its content as an object? And would it be quite safe to assume so promptly that the quality q of a feeling is one and the same thing with a feeling of the quality q? The quality q, so far, is an entirely subjective fact which the feeling carries so to speak endogenously, or in its pocket. If any one pleases to dignify so simple a fact as this by the name of knowledge, of course nothing can prevent him. But let us keep closer to the path of common usage, and reserve the name knowledge for the cognition of 'realities,' meaning by realities things that exist independently of the feeling through which their cognition occurs. If the content of the feeling occur nowhere in the universe outside of the feeling itself, and perish with the feeling, common usage refuses to call it a reality, and brands it as a subjective feature of the feeling's constitution, or at the most as the feeling's dream.
For the feeling to be cognitive in the specific sense, then, it must be self-transcendent; and we must prevail upon the god to create a reality, outside of it to correspond to its intrinsic quality q. Thus only can it be redeemed from the condition of being a solipsism. If now the new-created reality resemble the feeling's quality q, I say that the feeling may be held by us to be cognizant of that reality.
This first instalment of my thesis is sure to be attacked. But one word before defending it. 'Reality' has become our warrant for calling a feeling cognitive; but what becomes our warrant for calling anything reality? The only reply is — the faith of the present critic or inquirer. At every moment of his life he finds himself subject to a belief in some realities, even though his realities of this year should prove to be his illusions of the next. Whenever he finds that the feeling he is studying contemplates what he himself regards as a reality, he must of course admit the feeling itself to be truly cognitive. We are ourselves the critics here; and we shall find our burden much lightened by being allowed to take reality in this relative and provisional way. Every science must make some assumptions.
Erkenntnisstheoretiker are but fallible mortals. When they study the function of cognition, they do it by means of the same function in themselves. And knowing that the fountain cannot go higher than its source, we should promptly confess that our results in this field are affected by our own liability to err. The most we can claim is, that what we say about cognition may be counted as true as what we say about anything else. If our hearers agree with us about what are to be held 'realities,' they will perhaps also agree to the reality of our doctrine of the way in which they are known. We cannot ask for more.
Our terminology shall follow the spirit of these remarks. We will deny the function of knowledge to any feeling whose quality or content we do not ourselves believe to exist outside of that feeling as well as in it. We may call such a feeling a dream if we like; we shall have to see later whether we can call it a fiction or an error.
To revert now to our thesis. Some persons will immediately cry out, 'How can a reality resemble a feeling?' Here we find how wise we were to name the quality of the feeling by an algebraic letter q. We flank the whole difficulty of resemblance between an inner state and an outward reality, by leaving it free to any one to postulate as the reality whatever sort of thing he thinks can resemble a feeling, — if not an outward thing, then another feeling like the first one, — the mere feeling q in the critic's mind for example. Evading thus this objection, we turn to another which is sure to be urged.
It will come from those philosophers to whom 'thought,' in the sense of a knowledge of relations, is the all in all of mental life; and who hold a merely feeling consciousness to be no better — one would sometimes say from their utterances, a good deal worse — than no consciousness at all. Such phrases as these, for example, are common to-day in the mouths of those who claim to walk in the footprints of Kant and Hegel rather than in the ancestral English paths: 'A perception detached from all others, "left out of the heap we call a mind," being out of all relation, has no qualities — is simply nothing. We can no more consider it than we can see vacancy.' 'It is simply in itself fleeting, momentary, unnameable (because while we name it it has become another), and for the very same reason unknowable, the very negation of knowability.' 'Exclude from what we have considered real all qualities constituted by relation, we find that none are left.'
Altho such citations as these from the writings of Professor Green might be multiplied almost indefinitely, they would hardly repay the pains of collection, so egregiously false is the doctrine they teach. Our little supposed feeling, whatever it may be, from the cognitive point of view, whether a bit of knowledge or a dream, is certainly no psychical zero. It is a most positively and definitely qualified inner fact, with a complexion all its own. Of course there are many mental facts which it is not. It knows q, if q be a reality, with a very minimum of knowledge. It neither dates nor locates it. It neither classes nor names it. And it neither knows itself as a feeling, nor contrasts itself with other feelings, nor estimates its own duration or intensity. It is, in short, if there is no more of it than this, a most dumb and helpless and useless kind of thing.
But if we must describe it by so many negations, and if it can say nothing about itself or about anything else, by what right do we deny that it is a psychical zero? And may not the 'relationists' be right after all?
In the innocent looking word 'about' lies the solution of this riddle; and a simple enough solution it is when frankly looked at. A quotation from a too seldom quoted book, the Exploratio Philosophica of John Grote (London, 1865), p. 60, will form the best introduction to it.
'Our knowledge,' writes Grote, 'may be contemplated in either of two ways, or, to use other words, we may speak in a double manner of the "object" of knowledge. That is, we may either use language thus: we know a thing, a man, etc.; or we may use it thus: we know such and such things about the thing, the man, etc. Language in general, following its true logical instinct, distinguishes between these two applications of the notion of knowledge, the one being [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], noscere, kennen, connaître, the other being [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], scire, wissen, savoir. In the origin, the former may be considered more what I have called phenomenal — it is the notion of knowledge as acquaintance or familiarity with what is known; which notion is perhaps more akin to the phenomenal bodily communication, and is less purely intellectual than the other; it is the kind of knowledge which we have of a thing by the presentation to the senses or the representation of it in picture or type, a Vorstellung. The other, which is what we express in judgments or propositions, what is embodied in Begriffe or concepts without any necessary imaginative representation, is in its origin the more intellectual notion of knowledge. There is no reason, however, why we should not express our knowledge, whatever its kind, in either manner, provided only we do not confusedly express it, in the same proposition or piece of reasoning, in both.'
Now obviously if our supposed feeling of q is (if knowledge at all) only knowledge of the mere acquaintance-type, it is milking a he-goat, as the ancients would have said, to try to extract from it any deliverance about anything under the sun, even about itself. And it is as unjust, after our failure, to turn upon it and call it a psychical nothing, as it would be, after our fruitless attack upon the billy-goat, to proclaim the non-lactiferous character of the whole goat-tribe. But the entire industry of the Hegelian school in trying to shove simple sensation out of the pale of philosoplic recognition is founded on this false issue. It is always the 'speechlessness' of sensation, its inability to make any 'statement,' that is held to make the very notion of it meaningless, and to justify the student of knowledge in scouting it out of existence. 'Significance,' in the sense of standing as the sign of other mental states, is taken to be the sole function of what mental states we have; and from the perception that our little primitive sensation has as yet no significance in this literal sense, it is an easy step to call it first meaningless, next senseless, then vacuous, and finally to brand it as absurd and inadmissible. But in this universal liquidation, this everlasting slip, slip, slip, of direct acquaintance into knowledge-about, until at last nothing is left about which the knowledge can be supposed to obtain, does not all 'significance' depart from the situation? And when our knowledge about things has reached its never so complicated perfection, must there not needs abide alongside of it and inextricably mixed in with it some acquaintance with what things all this knowledge is about?
Now, our supposed little feeling gives a what; and if other feelings should succeed which remember the first, its what may stand as subject or predicate of some piece of knowledge-about, of some judgment, perceiving relations between it and other whats which the other feelings may know. The hitherto dumb q will then receive a name and be no longer speechless. But every name, as students of logic know, has its 'denotation'; and the denotation always means some reality or content, relationless ab extra or with its internal relations unanalyzed, like the q which our primitive sensation is supposed to know. No relation-expressing proposition is possible except on the basis of a preliminary acquaintance with such 'facts,' with such contents, as this. Let the q be fragrance, let it be toothache, or let it be a more complex kind of feeling, like that of the full-moon swimming in her blue abyss, it must first come in that simple shape, and be held fast in that first intention, before any knowledge about it can be attained. The knowledge about it is it with a context added. Undo it, and what is added cannot be context.
Let us say no more then about this objection, but enlarge our thesis, thus: If there be in the universe a q other than the q in the feeling, the latter may have acquaintance with an entity ejective to itself; an acquaintance moreover, which, as mere acquaintance, it would be hard to imagine susceptible either of improvement or increase, being in its way complete; and which would oblige us (so long as we refuse not to call acquaintance knowledge) to say not only that the feeling is cognitive, but that all qualities of feeling, so long as there is anything outside of them which they resemble, are feelings of qualities of existence, and perceptions of outward fact.
The point of this vindication of the cognitive function of the first feeling lies, it will be noticed, in the discovery that q does exist elsewhere than in it. In case this discovery were not made, we could not be sure the feeling was cognitive; and in case there were nothing outside to be discovered, we should have to call the feeling a dream. But the feeling itself cannot make the discovery. Its own q is the only q it grasps; and its own nature is not a particle altered by having the self-transcendent function of cognition either added to it or taken away. The function is accidental; synthetic, not analytic; and falls outside and not inside its being.
A feeling feels as a gun shoots. If there be nothing to be felt or hit, they discharge themselves ins blaue hinein. If, however, something starts up opposite them, they no longer simply shoot or feel, they hit and know.
But with this arises a worse objection than any yet made. We the critics look on and see a real q and a feeling of q; and because the two resemble each other, we say the one knows the other. But what right have we to say this until we know that the feeling of q means to stand for or represent just that same other q? Suppose, instead of one q, a number of real q's in the field. If the gun shoots and hits, we can easily see which one of them it hits. But how can we distinguish which one the feeling knows? It knows the one it stands for. But which one does it stand for? It declares no intention in this respect. It merely resembles; it resembles all indifferently; and resembling, per se, is not necessarily representing or standing-for at all. Eggs resemble each other, but do not on that account represent, stand for, or know each other. And if you say this is because neither of them is a feeling, then imagine the world to consist of nothing but toothaches, which are feelings, feelings resembling each other exactly, — would they know each other the better for all that?
Excerpted from The Meaning of Truth by William James. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Meet the Author
William James (1842 -1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher who was trained as a physician. He wrote influential books on the young science of psychology, educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and on the philosophy of pragmatism. He was the brother of novelist Henry James and of diarist Alice James. William James was born at the Astor House in New York City. He was the son of Henry James Sr., an independently wealthy and notoriously eccentric Swedenborgian theologian well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. The intellectual brilliance of the James family milieu and the remarkable epistolary talents of several of its members have made them a subject of continuing interest to historians, biographers, and critics. James interacted with a wide array of writers and scholars throughout his life, including his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson, his godson William James Sidis, as well as Charles Sanders Peirce, Bertrand Russell, Josiah Royce, Ernst Mach, John Dewey, Walter Lippmann, Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, Jr., Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud.
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