John Smith’s “The Pragmatic Theory of Truth: The Typical Objection”[1] [1984]


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Introduction:


38 “...Marxists are somewhat disconcerted if not confused in the face of pragmatism because standard criticisms of speculative philosophy as something divorced from both primary experience and the social matrix of thought will not apply to the pragmatic philosophy.  Hence for some Marxists there arose the need to deal with pragmatism either by identifying it with positivism, a position generally uncongenial to Marxists, or by claiming that the central place accorded to action by the pragmatists is something quite different from praxis as they understand it.” 


Question: given that both pragmatists and Marxists emphasize the role of practice, what is it about the pragmatic orientation which the Marxists find most problematic?  Do the Marxists  maintain that there is an “objective,” independent, and static” character to reality, truth, and value? 


39 Smith will concentrate upon three focal points on the issue of truth:


(a) that pragmatism “...fostered the development of what Horkheimer calls “subjective“ or formalized reason, and at the same time contributed to the erosion of objective ontologically grounded reason.” 


Note: the criticism arises here because the only available options seem to be “objectivism” and “subjectivism” (and, of course, if you are against one, you must be for the other). 


(b) “...the charge that pragmatism is a form of positivism because it identifies meaning with the outcome of a process of verification.” 


Note: the logical positivists (A.J. Ayer, Bertrand Russell, Rudolf Carnap, Moritz Schlick, among others) did not allow for any meaningful statements which were not subject to verification—they contended that all statements are either verifiable or meaningless.  This central contention rendered logical positivism one of the “shortest” movements in philosophy—others asked: “Is this contention itself verifiable?”.  “Verificationism” as a theory of meaning has a number of problems,[2] and the pragmatists inherit a number of these problems.  The positivists were, however, anti-metaphysical and held that value claims were merely “emotive utterances” devoid of truth-value.  The pragmatists, as we have seen, can’t quite be deemed anti-metaphysical, and they allow for meaningful value statements. 


(c) that “...pragmatists, in contrast to Marx, abandoned the classical theory of truth in favor of the view that truth is “made” in accordance with the process whereby we “adapt” to the environment.” 


2. The First Charge—the Subjectivization of Reason:


39-40 “Reason, on the classical view [in Modern philosophy], was seen as objective structure, a force operative throughout the cosmos, and as a determiner of ends so that the degree of rationality in anything was a function of its harmony with a totality.”  Smith notes that with Kant we begin the “subjectivization process” wherein reason is shorn of its ontological reach and begins to serve subjective aims. 


-40 “...Horkheimer sees a total opposition between an “objective” reason whose concepts refer to objects, and a “subjective” reason that involves the relating of a concept or an object to a purpose.” 


-“...Horkheimer supposes that some private and purely personal interest or “purpose” on the part of the knower is going to determine the truth of an idea as contrasted with an “objective” concern for the “truth” of an idea in relation to an object part from any reference to purpose.  What he fails to see, however, is that for the pragmatists, all thought is guided by purposes, and that one of these purposes is that of gaining the purely theoretical knowledge represented by science and objective reason.” 


--“...all the pragmatists recognized the legitimacy of the purely theoretical purpose of describing and explaining the world through the process of empirical inquiry.” 


--41 An example of the appeal to purposes: “...James pointed out that in the attempt to answer a specific question or resolve a problem we must make judgments concerning the relevance of any information already available for dealing with the matter at issue.”  Of course, our judgments of relevance may be mistaken, but without this “selectivity,” thought becomes an indiscriminate recording of “facts.” 


--A second example of the appeal to purposes: Peirce’s doctrine of vagueness: “...every idea we can frame is more or less vague and is subject to being made more precise depending on the purpose and context in which it appears....The purpose in view determines the degree of precision in meaning necessary for achieving our aim.” 


--42 A third example of the appeal to purposes: Royce’s discussion of accuracy of correspondence: “...the accuracy and adequacy of the correspondence between the representation and its object depend on the purpose controlling the sort of correspondence we seek to achieve.” 


--“ all these appeals to purpose—selective relevance, degree of precision required, and our intent in representation—there is nothing “subjective” in a sense that would preclude “objectivity” as regards knowledge and truth.” 


-“The contrast...between purpose and objectivity is misguided.” 


--42-43 “Horkheimer, like many other critics of pragmatism, is misled by James’ language, and in fairness it must be said that James is not without some responsibility for putting his readers on the wrong track.  His use of terms like “success”, “satisfactory” and “satisfaction” (a term to which Peirce vigorously objected as an “incomplete predicate”) led many to suppose that for him truth is “nothing but” some sort of personal, individual advantage gained by a knower who “successfully” uses an idea.  Despite these problems of language, however, there need be nothing “subjective” in the pejorative sense about what James and the other pragmatists were maintaining.” 


-44-45 “It is clear that what most troubles Horkheimer is the concern that the pragmatists reduced reason to an instrument serving “alien” ends and established not rationality but the “satisfaction” of the subject as the final criterion of thought.  But surely there is a deep irony in the situation; the pragmatists were no less concerned than Horkheimer is to see that reason, thought, knowledge “make a difference” or have some actual bearing on the course of human affairs.  The question is, of course, how reason is to exert this influence if it manifests itself in no form save a contemplative or reflective one and can maintain its integrity only at the cost of removing itself from the continuum of experience and interplay between means and ends.” 


-45 On Horkheimer’s view, “ instrumental conception of reason...must inevitably identify reason exclusively as a means, thus depriving it of the “depth” required for the selection and determination of ends.” 


--But Dewey “...regarded the “means-end continuum” as a major philosophical problem and he specifically rejected the widely held view that ends are intuitively bounded beyond rational scrutiny and that rational discussion must be confined exclusively to the selection of means.” 


--46 Similarly for Peirce and James. 


3. The Second Charge—Pragmatism is a Form of Positivism:


47 “If one reads Peirce’s original paper, `How to Make Our Ideas Clear’, and ignores the critical notes he added will suppose that, for Peirce, the diamond is “hard” only when actually put to the singular test and that the meaning of the predicate is exhausted in the one transaction.  But as Peirce pointed out, the meaning of a general concept is never identical with any singular fact...but rather with the conditional behavior...of an object over stretches of time.  His rejection of nominalism, his defense of the reality of what he called “generals”...tendencies and potentialities, and his insistence on the “independent reals” as a necessary presupposition of science must all be cited as evidence that Peirce’s pragmatism at any rate is no positivism.  Dewey’s rejection...of the classical conception of experience underlying modern positivism and his attack on reductionism make it quite impossible to classify him as a positivist.  While James did stand closer to traditional empiricism than the others, his religious humanism, theory of freedom and the self, and his “piecemeal” supernaturalism put him at odds with any form of positivism....” 


4. The Third Charge—Practical Activity Doesn’t Create Truth:


48 Kolakowski raises this objection.  “According to Kolakowski, Marx appealed to the effectiveness of human action as a criterion enabling us to verify the knowledge we need in order to undertake any sort of activity.  James, on the other hand, is said to have introduced practical usefulness as a factor in the definition of truth, and he takes this factor not as a tool for establishing the truth of our knowledge independently of to ourselves, but as something that creates the truth.  The oppositions previously mentioned is now clear: Marx adheres to the “classical” conception of truth where the relation between the judgment and the reality is independent of man’s knowledge, whereas on James’ theory it is man’s practical activity that “creates” the truth or knowledge.” 


-Thus Kolakowski maintains, according to Smith, that: “Insofar as all pragmatists regarded knowledge as issuing from a critical process, they paid attention to what an enquirer does in the way of intervening and manipulating subject matter for the purpose of testing hypotheses and possible answers to theoretical questions, but they manifestly did not maintain that this “activity” creates truth, but only that is necessary for discovery.” 


-50 “To deal with agreement when it does not mean copy, James, like Peirce and Dewey, called for the interpolation of a controlled, critical process to be carried out by an enquirer seeking to determine whether some idea being tested is in agreement with its object.  Here is where the possibility confusing ideas of “working”, “leading”, “fitting” enter the picture; they represent the structure of the process of testing or an order of operations intended to disclose whether in fact the idea being tested is true or false.  If I want to test the simple proposition, “This car has front-wheel drive”, the constituent ideas must direct me to the appropriate object and indicate what I am to expect to find if the proposition is true.  When I make the inspection under this guidance and find that the driveshaft is in fact connected to the rear wheels, I conclude that the proposition does not “agree” with its object and is therefore false.  But none of this activity “creates” any truth or falsity, and in fact James was more sanguine in his appeal to the authority of present fact than either Peirce or Dewey....” 


-51 “Kolakowski misses this and seems to think...that the truth of a judgment for James is simply a function of the “usefulness” or advantage to the individual of accepting or rejecting it.  As I have already pointed out, however, considerations of this kind enter only when we are not concerned with theoretical knowledge itself, but are guided instead by the purposes defining the moral, religious and metaphysical contexts.  In these contexts our aim is not the determination and explanation of facts, in James’ phrase, “already in the bag”, but  rather to act, transform the world and interpret it in accordance with ideas that, in the nature of the case, cannot be a matter of prior knowledge....We act on these convictions with faith and risk, and here, according to James, we do appeal to the consequences of such belief and action and to their “satisfactoriness” in enabling us to realize ourselves in the world.  But even in these precarious contexts, it is not James’ view that we can believe anything we wish, even what is manifestly contrary to all we know, if somehow such belief contributes to our success in life á la Henry Ford....” 


-52 “In short, for James, an understanding of “what’s what” about the world is a necessary condition for changing it.  Moreover, as James argued in his critique of Herbert Spencer’s theory of the mind, a one-way “adaptation” of the mind to the world tells only half the story; the other half is the creative power of the mind to transform the environment in accordance with human needs and purposes. 

  Simple contrasts between the “objective” approach of Marx, and the “subjective” approach of the pragmatists will not “work”, because both Peirce and James defended a form of correspondence in their theory of truth, and even Dewey’s transform conception of truth which represents a more radical break with the tradition that the thought of the other two, has a conform element in it at the stage of inquiry he called the “determination of the facts of the case”.  A more profound and fruitful; exchange between Marxism and pragmatism can take place when there is a deeper understanding of pragmatism and one which is not derived primarily from the loose phrases and slogans of James which he himself came to acknowledge as such and sought to correct in his replies to his critics.”





Notes: (click on note number to return to text for the note--emphasis has been added to several of the citations)

[1] John E. Smith, “The Pragmatic Theory of Truth: The Typical Objection,” originally published as “Some Continental and Marxist Responses to Pragmatism,” in Contemporary Marxism, ed. J.>. O’Rourke (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1984), pp. 199-214.  This supplement is to the reprint in Smith’s American’s Philosophical Vision (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1993), pp. 37-52.  Emphasis has been added to several of the passages.  

[2] William Alston, in his “A `Doxastic Practice’ Approach to Epistemology” (in Knowledge and Skepticism M. Clay & K. Lehrer (eds.) (Boulder: Westview, 1989), p. 5) maintains that “...I can perfectly well understand the propositions that sense perception is (is not) reliable, that physical objects do (do not) exist, and that the earth has (has not) been in existence for more than a year, whether or not I or anyone else has any idea of how to go about determining whether one of these propositions is true.  This confidence reflects a realistic conception of truth, on which a proposition’s being true is not a matter of anyone’s actual or possible epistemic position vis-a’-vis the proposition.” 


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