A great deal of philosophical discourse revolves around the concepts of truth and falsity. We are generally expected by virtue of the consensus of meanings to attribute truth to rectitude, to fact, and falsity to wrongness, lies and fantasy. As Richard Dawkins recently commented regarding religious belief and the existence of God “God either exists or he doesn’t. It’s a matter of the truth.” But as with any attempt at analytical philosophy we shouldn’t simply accept meanings at face value, surely we must tease meanings out of them? To this end then I am compelled to ask as did Pontius Pilate on the seat of judgement:

What is Truth? John 18:38

Kierkegaard famously said “truth is subjectivity” and accordingly I am going to have a look at the notion of truth in subjectivity. After all looking at truth as objectivity is rather singular, fixed and boring. My main focus of interest will be William James, American psychologist and philosopher and founder of the school of pragmatism. James was an individualist and his philosophy was subjective, according to his pragmatism any idea is true so long as belief in it is of some practical consequence to our lives.

The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief. Pragmatism 42

James and his followers frequently summed up their philosophy in the simple maxim “what is true is what works“. This naturally aroused great criticism, what if someone chose to believe in a falsehood, particularly one that makes the individual happy – in such a circumstance one could not identify truth with long-term satifactoriness. Naturally many philosophers tested this pragmatic theory with regards religious belief and both believers and unbelievers were said to have been shocked to the core by his declaration

if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true. Pragmatism 143

What about reality though? Why believe in something that is not real and yet maintain that it is true, surely such an attitude is nonsensical? Not according to James, he insisted that his general theory did not involve any denial of what may be called objective reality. Reality and truth, he stated, are radically different from each other. Things have the quality of reality; ideas and beliefs have the quality of truth.

Realities are not true, they are; and beliefs are true of them. The Meaning of Truth 196

It is not by discovering whether the consequences of a belief are good that we learn whether it is true or not; but it is the consequencesd that assign

the only intelligible practical meaning to that difference in our beliefs which our habit of calling them true or false comports. The Meaning of Truth 273.

Yet for many people it is considered that what makes a belief true is its correspondence with reality. James does not deny this altogether but he enquires what is it we mean by the notion of correspondence? When we speak of an idea ‘pointing to’, or ‘fitting it’, or ‘corresponding’, or ‘agreeing’ with it, what he argues we are really talking about is the processes of validation or verification that take us from the idea to the reality. This mediation process James says is what makes the idea true.

Thus the truth is something we make by verifying an idea with real consequences. William James held that these real consequences (being an individualist) were matters of personal utility. James extended this princinple of the practicality of truth to include ethics and religion along with the more obvious scientific empiricism that it is more usually associated with. It is worth noting that not all pragmatists agreed with James’ extension.

One of the key tenets of James’ pragmatic theory was its conceptual relativism, and to an extent this is common to all philosophers in the pragmatist tradition. The later Wittgenstein and Quine were both heavily infuenced by this aspect of James.

Conceptual relatvism holds that not only do we make things true by verifying them, but that there is no such thing as truth without a conceptual framework within which those truths can be meaningfully expressed.

Schiller uses an analogy of a carpenter making a chair to demonstrate that the manner in which we make truth is not divorced from reality. Just as a carpenter makes a chair out of existing materials and doesn’t create it out of nothing, truth is a transformation of our experience but that doesn’t imply reality is something we’re free to construct or imagine as we please.

Finally in an echo of Wittgenstein the pragmatic notion of truth could be described as thus:

Unless we decide upon how we are going to use concepts like ‘object’, ‘existence’ etc., the question ‘how many objects exist’ does not really make any sense. But once we decide the use of these concepts, the answer to the above-mentioned question within that use or ‘version’, to put in Nelson Goodman’s phrase, is no more a matter of ‘convention’. (Maitra 2003 p. 40)