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But in order fully to grasp the pragmatist theory of the function of ideas we must inquire concerning their place in life at large. We have found that an idea is an instrument of meaning, that its function is to mean something other than itself. But what is the use of meaning, what is the function of the ideational process itself? The answer is apparent when it is observed that immediacy is not sufficient for purposes of action.
For one thing, only a part of the presented field of experience is pertinent to a particular action. It is necessary to construe each situation; that is, to select from its wealth of detail that aspect which relates to the matter in hand. Ideas are in this sense 'modes of conceiving' the given, a 'taking it to be' this or that. Discursive thought interrupts 'the continuity of habit' when a doubtful or ambiguous situation presents itself, which the organism has no ready-made way of meeting. In other words, when one doesn't know what to do about it, one thinks about it. Such an occasion constitutes one of those "particular crises in the growth of experience" to which, according to Dewey, thought is always relative. On such an occasion the idea is the "instrument of reconstruction," which delivers the agent from his predicament. The situation being reconstrued, life runs smoothly again on the new basis.' Thus to ideate experience, to think it, is to represent it in some special and suitable light.
Again, the ideational process makes it possible to act on the remote environment, on things that lie beyond the range of the individual's sensibilities. Ideal substitutes for these things, ideas that mean them, may serve as well; so that man may be said to live actively not only in the world he perceives, but in the limitlessly extended world he knows about. And finally, by means of ideas it is possible to unite range with compactness. Thus the formulas of science put man in touch with the immense expanse
· Dewey: Studies in Logic, p. 20; A. W. Moore: Existence, Meaning, and Reality (Chicago Decennial Publications), p. 16.
of nature, without overwhelming and bewildering him, because they represent it through its constant features. Their bulk is as small as their meaning is great.
This, then, is the pragmatist theory of the instrumental function of ideas. The theory puts a double emphasis on the pragmatic character of thought. An idea is defined pragmatically, as a virtual access to an immediate experience of that which it means. And the whole process of ideation is again defined pragmatically, as the means of acting on the environment.
$ 4. When we turn to the pragmatist theory of truth, which in English-speaking countries is regarded as pragmaThe Meaning
tism's most notable contribution to philosophy, of Truth
we find it again necessary to set the problem with some care. I have placed this theory second in order of exposition because it is properly to be regarded as the sequel to the instrumental theory of ideas.
In the first place, the pragmatist is talking about the kind of truth that is humanly attainable, lying within the individual thought process itself. He not improperly insists that if truth is to be conceived in hypothetical or ideal terms, then this conception itself must be true for the thinker who constructs or defines it. Thus if one asserted that truth attaches only to the thinking of an absolute knower or to an absolute system of thought, then this assertion itself would be in some sense true for the finite philosopher who maintained it. And it is this latter sense of the term with which pragmatism has to do — not the truth of God's knowledge, but the truth of my knowledge of God.
In the second place, truth for the pragmatist is invariably an adjective of ideas; and by ideas he means not Platonic essences, but the modes of an individual's thinking. When are ideas, in this sense, true? What is the nature of knowing truly? Like all forms of practice, thinking, believing, or the forming of ideas is essentially fallible. There
1 Cf. below, pp. 242–243.
is a right way and a wrong way. What on any given occasion distinguishes the right way of thinking from the wrong way? When is an idea ‘a good idea,' and when is it a 'bad' one? It is evident that you have not solved the problem of truth in the pragmatist sense until you have also solved the problem of error. For pragmatism, in short, truth does not mean the same thing as reality or existence, but is a property, exclusively, of that instance of existence which we call 'idea' or 'belief,' in its relation to that second instance of reality or existence which we call 'object' of the first. Truth is a property of ideas as these arise amid the actual processes of human thinking; it is something which happens to ideas in the course of their natural history. And since ideas have a function, which they may or may not fulfil, truth is one of two opposite fortunes which may befall ideas, the other being error.
We are now in a position to frame the pragmatist definition of a true idea. An idea is true when it works; that is, when it is successful, when it fulfils its function, or performs what is demanded of it. An idea is essentially for something; and when it does what it is for, it is the 'right' or the 'true' idea.
Lest this should seem more obvious than important, it should be contrasted with the view that has been commonly held both by philosophers and common sense. According to that view the truth of ideas lay in their resemblance to their objects. Ideas were regarded as copies, pictures, replicas, true in proportion to their likeness. Pragmatism, on the contrary, insists that a true idea need not resemble its object at all, precisely as a word need not resemble what it denotes; if there is resemblance, it is accidental and negligible so far as truth is concerned. The truth of an idea lies not in the present relation of similarity, nor in any present relation whatsoever, but in the practical sequel. If, in relation to the motive which prompted me to form it, my idea succeeds, the inciting interest being satisfied, my idea is true. Ideas are essentially instruments, and not images; and the proof of the instrument is in the using. The particular kind of excellence proper to this particular kind of instrument is called 'truth.'
$ 5. So much for the pragmatist theory of truth stated in the terms common to all pragmatists. We must now
pass on to sharper distinctions, and to the Modes of Verification. Verifi- ambiguities, doubts, and criticisms to which cation by Per- these distinctions give rise. The success or ception and by
truth of the idea is relative to its use, and the Consistency
verification of it consists in successfully using it. But there are various uses which ideas may serve. Are we to regard all of these uses as equally germane to an idea's truth? I may, for example, be induced by various motives to form an idea of my future state in the life after death. Such an idea may serve the purpose of preparing me for what I am going to see, or for what I am going to be called upon to do. Such an idea may console me for the loss of friends, or it may be demanded by the logical implications of my philosophical system. Suppose these tests conflict. Can I discriminate among them as respects priority? Or shall I attach equal weight to all, and determine the truth of my idea by the general preponderance of utility? I find no clear answer to this question in the writings of pragmatists. All four of these tests, and possibly others, are recognized as valid; and the choice from among them would seem to be not infrequently governed by the exigencies of controversy. In order to bring out more clearly the difference between these truthtests or modes of verification, I shall invent names for them as follows: verification by perception, consistency, operation, sentiment, and general utility.
Verification by perception, is simply the following up of the meaning of an idea. An idea means something, as we have seen, when it is so connected with something as to lead to the presentation of it. The idea must be a sort of handle to the object, a means of recovering it. And when I try my idea by using it to recover its object, I verify it in this first sense. It is true if the perception is what the idea calls for, or what the idea leads me to expect. Thus having an idea of my future state means having something now in mind (it may be no more than a verbal complex) that is so related to my environment as to conduct me to a certain locus in experience; and it is a true idea in proportion as it prepares me for the perception which would there greet me. To verify my idea in this sense would be to follow its lead into this perceptual presence, and so test my preparedness. A shock of novelty and surprise would prove the untruth of my idea; a sense of recognition would indicate its truth.
Verification by consistency, is the testing of the idea on trial, by ideas already in good and regular standing. The idea is proved true by this test when it is not contradicted by other ideas, or is positively implied by them. Thus my idea of my future state is proved by this test in so far as it is not contradicted by the accepted physiological theory of death, or is implied by the accepted theory of the nature of the soul.
Now verification by perception and by consistency evidently stand apart by themselves. They correspond to the traditional criteria of empiricism and rationalism. In restating them pragmatism has simply pointed out that in both cases verification is a series of acts, governed by motives, and terminating in success or failure. Furthermore, pragmatists such as James regard these two modes of verification as the strictly "theoretical” tests of truth. They may not in any given case be sufficient, but so far as they go they have a peculiar validity. “Between the coercions of the sensible order and those of the ideal order our mind is thus wedged tightly.” The formation of ideas that shall be determined by these two “coercions" is the cognitive interest in the narrow sense. Such ideas have a
subsequential utility” – that is, they may be usefully employed by other interests; but they get their original
1 For similar examples, cf. James: op. cit., pp. 33, 104.