Russell Against the Pragmatists

A wise man once said that there are as many pragmatisims as there are pragmatists, so there’s a danger in even trying to formulate objections and arguments against such a fluid position (if it can even be called a position). What I’ll attempt to do here is look at the two classic streams of pragmatism, the (1) objective and the (2) subjective by looking at their respective founders: Peirce and James, and by way of Bertrand Russell sketch some objections against their ideas.

The pragmatism of Peirce is rather unlike the pragmatism that many are familiar with today in that it is a primarily semantic pragmatism – it’s more a theory of meaning than a theory of action (which is the hallmark of James-ian pragmatism). Thus his famous maxims:

‘To attain clearness in our thoughts of an object, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object might involve.’

‘If one can define accurately all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmations or denial of a concept could imply, one will have therein a complete definition of the concept.’

Peirce’s theory is, again, semantic. He’s looking at how we can attain clear and accurate definitions of concepts in the service of scientifc discovery and theory-making. It is within a community of ‘rational inquirers’ that these maxims apply. Thus, truth, for Pierce, is a matter of consensus:

‘Truth is what is destined: it enters the picture regulatively as an ideal that rational, i.e. scientific, inquiry, if pursued sufficiently far, will produce an ‘overwhelming consensus’ among those dedicated to its pursuit (‘Collected Papers’, vol. 6 paragraph 610). Reality is what is represented by those opinions which have produced that consensus.’ (Richard Robin, ‘A Companion to Metaphysics’, p. 408)

Distinctive here is Peirce’s commitment to the natural sciences – he fashioned his metaphysics and epistemology after the method of observation, experience and reason – as well as objectivity, since Pierce is keen to avoid a psychologistic pragmatism. Though for Peirce is able to avoid psychologism by a nod towards realism prompted by John Duns Scotus. Though, Peirce’s inquiry is very fallibilistic – he remains ready to ‘dump the whole cartload of his beliefs the moment experience is against them’, his metaphysic includes such things as universals, laws and patterns , which sustained scientific inquiry will eventually expose. These universals, laws and patterns exist independent of any mental activity or particulars that are observed. It is these regulative aspects of his thought which guards against psychologism, and prompted him to change the name of his theory from ‘pragmatism’ to ‘pragmaticism’.

The pragmatism of William James is more well-known today – a much more subjective and psychologistic conception than Pierce, where the cash value of a true belief is simply that it works – we might crudely term this a ‘street-level’ pragmatism. Is a belief useful? Then it’s true. James’ pragmatism is a street-level pragmatism. Are the effects of a belief good? Then it’s true.

”The true’ is only the expedient in our way of thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in our way of behaving’. (James)

‘Ideas become true just insofar as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience.’ (James)

Russell took exception to both these theories largely on the basis that they ignore extra-human facts and make some tenuous assumptions:

‘I find great intellectual difficulties in this doctrine. It assumes that a belief is ‘true’ when its effects are good.. If this definition is to be useful — and if it is not to be condemned by the pragmatist’s test — we must know (a) what is good, (b) what are the effects of this or that belief, and we must know these things before we can decide if a belief is ‘true’, since it is only after we have decided these things that we have a right to call it ‘true.’

‘There is another difficulty. Suppose I say there was such a person as Columbus; everyone will agree that what I say is true. But why is it true? Because of a certain man of flesh and blood, who lived 450 years ago — in short, because of the causes of my belief, not because of its effects. With James’ definition, it might happen that, ‘A exists’ is true although in fact A does not exist. I have always found that the hypothesis of Santa Claus ‘works satisfactorily in the widest sense’; therefore, ‘Santa Claus exists’ is true, although Santa Claus does not exist.’

‘James’ doctrine is an attempt to build a superstructure of belief upon a foundation of skepticism, and like all such attempts it is dependent on fallacies. In his case, the fallacies spring from an attempt to ignore all extra-human facts. … But this is only a form of the subjectivistic madness which is characteristic of most modern philosophy.’ (quoted paragraphs taken from here)

In the spirit of Russell, I offer these critiques of my own of the James-ian type of pragmatism, since it is this kind that is most common:


(1) If the James-ian pragmatist theory of truth is correct, then it is true that…

(a) it is useful to believe that god exists (or the effects of believing that god exists are good)

(b) it is true that god exists

…mean the same thing.

(2) (a) and (b) do not mean the same thing

(3) therefore, James-ian pragmatism is false.

Second (and this is a very brief and rough sketch of a possible objection:

James-ian pragmatism cannot be falsified, since its criterion for truthfulness is purely subjective and relativistic, nor can it falsify any idea or theory.


(1) If there are no extrahuman facts, James-ian pragmatism is true.

(2) There are extrahuman facts (it is the case that there are true propositions apart from whether or not their effects are good if I believe them)

(3) Therefore James-ian pragmatism is false.

3 thoughts on “Russell Against the Pragmatists

  1. PeterJ August 12, 2015 / 9:42 am

    As James and Peirce were open to ideas about reality well beyond what most ‘rational’ philosophers would countenance, I rather think they’re pragmatism relates to experience and not just to empiricism. If so this equates with Buddhism’s pragmatism, which sees a statement as conventionally true if it serves the purpose of guiding us closer to the ultimate truth. A useful approximation may be considered conventionally true even if from a metaphysical perspective it would be false.

    I don’t know either philosopher well enough to argue the point, but I suspect that both their pragmatisms can be defended if we see them as speaking conventionally and not as denying ultimate truths.

    Just a thought. I couldn’t hold up an argument without some work and perhaps I’m being too generous. But then, perhaps the view here is not generous enough. I don’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • whitefrozen August 12, 2015 / 11:57 am

      I think that could be argued for Pierce, not so much James.


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