The Pragmatists: Peirce and James

15.1 The Pragmatist Way

Pragmatism is the doctrine that the meaning of truth or a belief is synonymous with the practical results of accepting it.

15.2 Peirce

Pragmatism is, for both Peirce and James, a sort of antidote to traditional metaphysics. Peirce’s pragmatism is based in part on his notion of fallibilism, the view that our claims to knowledge may turn out to be false. In “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” he articulates the view that our knowledge claims need to reflect consideration for the “effects” or “practical bearings” they have. Moreover, truth is a matter of investigative convergence. In other words, a true belief is one destined to be converged on by competent investigators if they have an unlimited amount of time to reach their conclusions.

Peirce articulates four ways to settle doubt, or fix belief: the method of tenacity, the method of authority, the a priori method, and the scientific method. While we have a natural tendency for all four, only the last is comprehensive enough to last.

15.3 James

For William James, truth is not a matter of interpersonal consensus. Rather, it is about practical consequences for individuals. A belief is true if it is beneficial to our lives, if it is useful or satisfying. Hence the notion that the truth is “what works.”

Thus James repudiates evidentialism, the view that we are justified in believing something only if it is supported by sufficient evidence. This is particularly poignant with respect to James’s view that the decision to believe or not believe in a divine reality is a genuine option (live, forced, and momentous) that the intellect cannot help us decide. One who insists on evidence first cuts him-or herself off from a potentially momentous personal event.

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