A couple thoughts on William James

I’ve just finished reading through The Meaning of Truth, by William James. I’d like to offer a very brief and preliminary response.

First of all, for William James, the criterion of truth seems to be, in a word, agreement or coherence with experience. Now, experience for James is a technical term and means a great deal more than the traditional empiricist use of the term which tends to refer strictly to acquaintance with sense data. For James, on the contrary, experience should be understood to include intentionality and normativity, concepts which rule over domains much broader than simple sensory stimulation and/or experimental observation (though of course also include these as well). Simply put, I think James offers us a coherentist theory of truth without which he thinks we could not even make sense of the correspondence or representational theory of truth that is often touted as its rival.

However, commitment to consistency becomes problematic when experience comes into disagreement with itself over a question that we might call structurally fundamental. This occurs when experience is drawn to or oriented towards a fact which, if taken to be true, seems to require us to rescind a previous or simultaneous truth-claim that is itself the very belief (or set of beliefs) which drew us to the fact in question. For example, a commitment to certain styles of scientific reductionism will preclude us from taking the structural aspects of the mind, such as intentionality, as basic and irreducible, though the project of scientific reductionism itself makes use of intentionality in its methodology. Here we have a contradiction within experience itself and it is not clear how James’ pragmatism can resolve this and other similar issues. The Kantian, famously, has recourse to the transcendental division between phenomena and noumena and can attempt to resolve such contradictions by separating theoretical commitments (loosely, the fruits of the natural sciences) from practical commitments (loosely, the fruits of the human or social sciences). And for Kant, the set of commitments which make both theoretical and practical reason possible will be transcendental, viz., beyond which and without which nothing can be known and no experience can be possible.

James, it seems to me, should be happy to agree with the Kantian at least on this point, the transcendental nature of experience as having the final say on truth. However, James would not agree that experience could ever know its own limits since these limits have a tendency to change depending on from where inside experience they are examined. That is to say, I think, upon first reading, that Jamesian pragmatism is at ground, a process philosophy wherein ‘experience’ – instead of ‘the Absolute’ a notion which James detests – plays the starring role. Ironic then that modern psychology has largely become a study of mechanism instead of a detailed cataloguing of the varieties of ‘experience’ understood in the Jamesian idiom.


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