The Truth-Value of Truth (William James and the unveiled world)
Truth lives, in fact, for the most part on a credit system. Out thoughts and beliefs ‘pass’, so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them. But this all points to direct face-to-face verifications somewhere, without which the fabric of truth collapses like a financial system with no cash-basis whatsoever. You accept my verification of one thing, I yours of another. We trade on each other’s truth. (James 1907:207-8).
Nietzsche was not above cheap shots. Kant and cant, the old woman as the old truth about women and whips, and a Nazi favorite, that infamous comment about Polish Jews. But it was his critique of Schleiermacher’s perception of the world, quite literally, as the ‘veil maker’, that interests us just here. For James, perhaps unknowingly, is riffing Nietzsche’s legendary 1872 essay, ‘On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense’, wherein the author is at his youthful best, when James tells us, in his equally famous 1906 public lecture series entitled ‘Pragmatism’, that truth is, essentially, whatever currency that is in use at a particular juncture in human history. And if currency is to be considered legal tender, truth could be said to have accrued to it a ‘moral tender’, which most of us respect. There are sanctioned manners by which one can question the truth, of course, scientific experiment being the most clinical and formal of these, and also, in general, the least threatening. There are ways to question the currency of truth that are in the public interest, as do the whistleblowers calling out corporation or government, church or school. Here, certain elite interests are threatened, but for the most of us, the world looks a little clearer afterwards. We feel we have more of a handle on the truth of things, and there is a little more of that kind of money in our pockets.
Indeed, James regularly uses the phrase ‘the cash value of truth’ in speaking of its practical effects in the world. “Grant an idea or belief to be true…what concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” (Ibid:200). James immediately responds to his own pragmatic interrogation of truth-value, by stating that ideas which we can assimilate, corroborate and verify are true, and those we cannot are not. This does nothing to upshift truth into a non-moral sphere, that is, an ahistorical space in which the truth rests and for all time. Instead, truth is known as and through its practical effects, nothing more but as well nothing less. He adds that ‘truth happens to an idea and it becomes true, made true by events’ (Ibid:201, emphasis the text’s). The historical happenstance of truth was one of Nietzsche’s early insights, and the pedigree of this idea can be traced back to the bare beginnings of modernity in Vico, in 1725. For James, the truth-value of truth is basically the same as its use-value. In a word, the truth of truth lies in its utility.
Nietzsche’s actual title of another early and famous essay, much mistranslated, is ‘On the Use and Disadvantage for Life of History’. The contrast in the title is key. History too, like truth, must mean something to us not only in the present, but it also must present something useful for us. This may but mean, on the shady and impoverished of the street, a political convenience. This spin on truth, attempting to become a new truth but underhandedly, is useful for this or that political desire or institutional gambit. Or it may be a more uplifting sensibility, like the idea that art represences both its original context and the transcendental means by which we today can experience another age. This kind of truth is useful as well, giving us the sense that our ancestors lived as we do, not in their customs or druthers, but rather in their essence, mortal and unknowing of destiny. But at both ends of the use-value spectrum, we encounter what James refers to ‘purely mental ideas’, which are, in addition to those ideas that can be verified by quite specific results in the world, useful in a more abstract sense and include amongst them their own descriptors, such as ‘eternal character’ (Ibid:209-10). But for James, such ‘principles’ are only true insofar as they provide useful leading connections between practicalities. They are the invisible threads from which the tapestry of daily life is woven. Such principles ‘fit’, they have engendered themselves to the ‘whole body of other truths in our possession’, and so on. They are alike to what would later be called Gestalts, the wholes, which take on a different quality than a mere sum of the quantitative parts.
Half anticipating De Saussure by a decade, James states that names are arbitrary, but he immediately adds that “…once understood they must be kept to.” (Ibid:214). This is so due to their entire imbrication with the context at hand. In Saussure, this mutual use, even usury, is analyzed in detail for the first time. The syntagmatic chain of signifiers, along which meanings differ and are deferred, Derrida’s proverbial ‘difference’, speaks to us of language in use, or ‘la parole’; speech or speaking. But those paradigmatic tell us that there is also a language at stake which is being used; ‘la langue’, or one’s ‘natural’ language. Jamesian truth bears a close resemblance to Saussurean language. Truth is spoken into being through its use and therefore ‘becomes true’. But there is also the entire stock of historical and cultural truths that lie at its back, as it were, ready to be of service to us when necessary. And the truth we have just used could not have been used without this wider landscape from which we had apparently excerpted it. James encapsulates the relationship between truth, history, and language neatly: “True as the present is, the past was also.” (Ibid:215, emphasis the text’s).
Yet none of this is, to use James’ term, ‘capricious’. We must find, and thence use, truths that will work, he tells us. And part of the working consciousness, present overmuch to any innovator or revolutionary alike, is how, and by how much, does any new truth agree with all of the old ones. Nietzsche’s too-obvious metaphor of woman as truth plays this problem out, and not without resentment. For James, ‘workable’ means both ‘deranging common sense and previous truth as little as possible, and leading to some sensible terminus that can be precisely verified’. (Ibid:216). Durkheim, writing and working in the same generation, was not anywhere near as concerned about the first aspect of useful truth, blithely declaring in 1897 that ‘any time science presents a new truth, it is bound to offend common sense’, and indeed this is an arbiter of its truth-value. James does agree, after a fashion, but not without adding that ‘taste’ is also a function of even scientific truths (Ibid:217). By such devices is truth ‘made’, and through such does it ‘pay’. Once again, the comparison with wealth is front and center, perhaps appealing to the well-heeled Bostonians in his audience. Wealth is merely a name for ‘concrete processes’, and does not refer to a phantasmagorical ‘natural excellence’ (Ibid:221). Just so, truth has nothing directly of nature in it, but only gains its marque by virtue of allowing us to thread nature’s labyrinth and follow our own exiguous threads back out.
Even so, it is clear that James places a stock in truth that Nietzsche, for one, is shy of doing. More than mere ‘metaphor and metonym’, for James, truth is something that does useful work in the world. It is replicable, verifiable, and assimilable to what has been known to work over time. It has the air of common sense while being in principle opposed to it. In this, truth takes on a kind of user-friendliness which belies its radical prospectus. It directs our view away from the personal and parochial and towards the structural and historical. Its working mechanism is derived from human experience as Humean knowledge, but it also responds to the Kantian question regarding how an experience occurs; pragmatically, experience can be had only when a useful idea is present to consciousness. Though this response begs the question of the first experience, and thus the original truth, it does make useful the enquiry into the nature of experience itself: experience is the conjunction of a new truth assimilating to what has been known as the truth.
Suppose we take up the critic’s jaded hat and state with derision, Arvo Paart killed serious music, Mariah Carey killed pop, Garth Brooks country, and Wynton Marsalis jazz. How useful would be such a series of claims? But if we instead suggested that each of these musical genres was itself dead before these figures came along, and indeed, speaking of ‘taste’, in addition said that only because the genres had exhausted themselves were such mediocre talents able to fill these respective aesthetic vacuums, we would be closer to the pragmatic vision of the ‘how’ of truth, if only because we had shifted the frame from specific individuals, who come and go, to a more discursive, or paradigmatic sensibility. One could argue reasonably that while Marsalis and Paart are guilty of nostalgic regression and Brooks and Carey of crass commercialization, it remains the case that there was space for them to enter and thence dominate, either dialing back the clock on innovation or narrowing the use of it. However this may be, the truth of the matter is that in each genre, there was a shift towards either the commercial or the nostalgic, and this kind of observation has indeed a use to it. For James, the truth exists only after the fact, as opposed to what he himself critically views the rationalist to be peddling. In pragmatism, it is action that counts, neither habit nor act. Habit, or even habitus, is that which prevents new ideas from becoming useful in the world, and act, rather than action, presumes a history of acts which have themselves become aggrandized as being within the truth due precisely to their usefulness, mostly as either a doxa or a politics. Luke does not entitle his second book ‘Actions’, as he wishes there to be a resonance of what he witnessed in the reader; Paul suffered, both from the habits and customs of those he sought to convert, and from his own bad conscience about once being a persecutor himself. Given that each of us encounters those who resist our own ideas, including our sense of self, and as well, have ‘baggage’ sundry and divers, it is the testifying to the ‘Act’ that counts as having a truth-value, and not the mere observation of an action.
Such is the world unveiled. Instead of the hermeneutically fraught ‘prose of the world’, as Foucault describes the premodern perception of nature and history alike, veiled over with assignations and autographs, diabolical and divine in tense tandem, we have a world wherein things either work or they do not. If the first, truth is generated, if the second, falsity. This is not to say that what is judged as ‘working’ or ‘workable’ is not shot through with both contrivance and contraption. ‘Perspectivism’, another concept worked through by Nietzsche, following Vico, has of late become the fashionable home of subaltern truths which, by association with a politics of visibility from invisibility, doubles over its assault on accepted truth. In principle, this is always a healthy thing, salutary as it is to the very being-ahead of our shared human character. But James’ disquisition must always be borne in mind; what is stopping any new truth from becoming old, wearing itself out through over-use and customary assumption, and thereby losing its once freshly-minted edges, the everyday pocket tools from which the visionary sword is crafted?
G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, ad well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.