We all have a philosophy about life whether we realize it or not.
Your philosophy represents the beliefs you have about how the world works, as well as the values you strive to achieve and uphold. But philosophy isn’t just a set of ideas that live in your head, it also gives you a guide for how to act and make choices in the real world.
This is one of the main themes throughout the psychologist William James’ classic work Pragmatism. He emphasizes how our beliefs can often have consequences, and it is the measure of these consequences that ultimately shows us whether a belief is valid or not.
Philosophy can often become unnecessarily confusing, abstract, and complex. Many philosophers can get lost in their heads without considering how their ideas apply to their actual lives (if at all).
This is a big reason why I find William James’ version of pragmatism to be so refreshing. Unlike many other philosophers, James is surprisingly clear and simple. He doesn’t drift too far into abstract thought without pulling things back into the practical and concrete.
In this article I’m going to highlight some of the key ideas from William James, then do my best to give my interpretation of them and how they relate to the general philosophy of pragmatism.
What difference does it make if it’s true?
“What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right.”
It’s common in philosophy to get caught up in age-old dilemmas like “free will vs. determinism” or “mind vs. matter,” but often the answers provided by most philosophers don’t make much of a concrete difference to our everyday lives.
For example, whether or not you have free will, to what extent does it change how you behave on a daily basis? Or if the world is just one big simulation in your mind, to what extent does it change your everyday choices?
Maybe the answers to these questions do have much practical benefit to you, but if they don’t then they are relatively meaningless questions to worry about.
One way to avoid over-philosophizing our lives is to ask ourselves, “If this is true or that is true, what difference does it make from a practical standpoint?” If neither answer makes a whole lot of difference to you, then there’s little point in seeking the answer (except as an intellectual exercise).
The goal of truth according to pragmatism
- “Ideas (which themselves are parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience.”
According to James, the goal of truth is to reveal a relationship between one experience and another experience.
For example, when man first discovered how to create fire, that knowledge helped us to create a state of heat from a state of cold. This is just one of the immediate effects of fire, but it is one that has proven very useful and it’s why this knowledge has continued to live throughout the generations.
All true knowledge gives us a degree of understanding about how reality works (or, more specifically, how one experience we have relates to another experience we have). When we begin to have knowledge about these different experiences and how they are related, we can begin to use this knowledge to better navigate our world.
A “truth” which doesn’t make a difference in our experiences isn’t useful and probably doesn’t make much of a difference whether we believe in it or not.
Letting go of stubborn principles
- “The attitude [of pragmatism] is looking away from first things, principles, “categories,” supposed necessities and looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.”
Many philosophers (especially those who follow a “rationalist” tradition), tend to start their philosophy with a certain set of principles. Then they look at the world and try to make sense of it based solely on these principles.
Yes, principles can be a valuable guideline, but they can also inhibit a more nuanced understanding of how the world works. If you follow any principle too consistently, it often requires ignoring contexts or situations where that principle may not apply.
Our world is complicated. Context matters. The pragmatist knows not to cling too hard to any one principle, because they may very likely find themselves in a situation they couldn’t foresee, where the principle doesn’t yield the desired effect.
It’s perfectly fine to abandon your principles every now and then. Don’t think of it as being hypocritical, it just means that you don’t know everything and you need to adjust your beliefs in the face of new knowledge and experiences.
Acknowledging when our principles don’t always work is a big part of growing and maturing as an individual.
Pragmatism is a classic work by the American philosopher and psychologist William James. It emphasizes that we should focus more on the practical consequences of our beliefs, rather than get lost in abstract concepts and imaginative theorizing. A very refreshing perspective that everyone should keep in mind when they find themselves over-thinking about life’s deepest problems.
Our understanding of truth is always changing
- “Meanwhile we have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it a falsehood. Ptolemaic astronomy, euclidean space, aristotelian logic, scholastic metaphysics, were expedient for centuries, but human experience has boiled over those limits, and we now call these things only relatively true, or true within those borders of experience.”
Our scope of knowledge and understanding is always changing. What we think of as “truth” today may not necessarily be considered “truth” tomorrow.
While science is often one of the best methods for discovering truth, science itself is always evolving and changing. New observations are made. New facts are discovered. New theories emerge.
For example, Newton’s laws of motion used to be the main paradigm of physics. And while these laws are still useful in certain contexts, we know that these laws don’t always apply to other domains of physics, like general relativity and quantum mechanics.
As we learn more, we also learn the limitations of our previous knowledge. We must always remember that our current understanding of truth is never a “perfect” or “complete” picture. And we must be willing to update this understanding as we learn new things.
How we integrate old knowledge with new knowledge
- “Our minds grow in spots; and like grease-spots, the spots spread. But we let them spread as little as possible: we keep unaltered as much of our old knowledge, as many of our old prejudices and beliefs, as we can. We patch and tinker more than we renew. The novelty soaks in; it stains the ancient mass; but it is also tinged by what absorbs it. Our past apperceives and co-operates; and in the new equilibrium in which each step forward in the process of learning terminates, it happens relatively seldom that the new fact is added raw. More usually it is embedded cooked, as one might say, or stewed down in the sauce of the old.”
Our old knowledge and new knowledge are always mixing together in a haphazard and messy way.
To start, your old knowledge can influence your new knowledge. We all enter the world with a certain bias (or preconceived notion of how the world works), and that bias is going to have an impact on how you perceive new knowledge and new information.
When a scientist tests their hypothesis, that hypothesis is in-itself an influence of older knowledge and older scientific literature. It rarely comes completely “out of the blue.”
Then, when you learn something new, that new knowledge is also going to influence your old knowledge. In light of new information, you may look back on older information and understand it in a different and more nuanced way.
When James says, “it’s seldom that the new fact is added raw” he means that we don’t just learn a new piece of information and store it neatly in our brains where it is untouched by other facts.
Instead our knowledge is more like a complex web of connections, and every time a new node is added to that web it changes the web itself in some small way.
The trap of searching for a single, all encompassing truth
- “I read in an old letter – from a gifted friend who died too young – these words, ‘In everything, in science, art, morals, and religion, there MUST be one system that is right and EVERY other wrong.’ How characteristic of the enthusiasm of a certain stage in youth! At twenty one we rise to such a challenge and expect to find the system. It never occurs to most of us even later that the question ‘What is THE truth?’ is no real question (being irrelative to all conditions) and that the whole notion of THE truth is an abstraction from the fact of truths in the plural.”
When young intellectuals and philosophers first become interested in “truth,” they often fall into the trap of trying to find that ONE truth or ONE theory that explains everything in the universe.
This absolutism can sometimes take the form of common spiritual beliefs like “Everything is one” or “God is everything.”
While James acknowledges that these beliefs can have some truth on a pragmatic level (for example, if they are understood in the context of providing feelings of love, comfort, and security), these beliefs can’t be taken as the sole explanation of truth.
Instead, pragmatism takes a more pluralistic notion of truth.
It acknowledges many truths, in many different contexts. There are different truths to describe biology, physics, chemistry, psychology, and economics – and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever find a single theory that eloquently describes all of these domains in a simple and neat way.
Searching for a single, all-encompassing truth can be a trap because it often means searching for easy and simple answers rather than acknowledging the endless complexity of the world.
These highlights from Pragmatism will give you a good idea about what this philosophy is all about and why it matters to your life.
The common mantra of the pragmatic thinker is that “truth is whatever works.” And I think this can be a very helpful attitude because it often cuts out unnecessary abstractions and philosophizing, but instead keeps us grounded in the actual results our beliefs lead to.
When philosophy can’t be applied to our real world lives, it becomes nothing but “mental masturbation.” It may make us feel good, but it doesn’t actually accomplish anything or make any real difference to us at the end of the day.
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