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.

A Few Good Links

I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump, so in lieu of a post of my own here’s a few good links I’ve found today:

A few 3:AM interviews:

Tim Maudlin –

‘Philosophy of mathematics is a large and fascinating area about which I have had nothing at all to say. I am a mathematical Platonist in the simple sense that I believe clear, unambiguous mathematical propositions (e.g. Goldbach’s conjecture or the Axiom of Choice) to be either true or false independently of whether or not they can be proven. Indeed, it seems obvious to me for many different reasons (including, of course, Gödel’s theorems) that infinitely many mathematical truths are not theorems of any intuitively acceptable proof system. So I believe in a “world” of mathematical fact in virtue of which clear mathematical propositions are either true or false. But I do not take these mathematical facts to be materialist or naturalistic in any interesting sense. I would not, myself, regard this as a “counterexample” to naturalism or materialism, because I never thought of those doctrines as making any claims about mathematics. But perhaps I am idiosyncratic in that regard.’

Tim Crane –

‘What I am against is the idea that in the search for the correlates of consciousness, we already have a clear idea of what we are looking for, and we have to find the neural correlate of that. I don’t think we are in this situation: we are fundamentally confused about what consciousness is. For instance, we have no proper understanding of the relationship between conscious thought and conscious sensation. The various forms of thought and sensation are underpinned by very different neural mechanisms; so how can the neural correlate of their conscious natures be the same? I don’t think we are yet in a position to make such speculations. To make progress, we have to have a good conception of the phenomenology of consciousness, among other things. I think we are very prone to errors about this, for all sorts of reasons…’

Timothy Williamson 

‘Anyway, I am indeed saying that it is necessary what there is. Necessarily everything is necessarily something. There could not have been more or fewer things than there actually are, and which particular things there are could not have been different. What is contingent is only what properties those things have, and what relations they have to each other. I call that view necessitism. Its denial is contingentism.’

‘Wittgenstein could indeed have had a daughter. But no past, present, or future person could have been a daughter of Wittgenstein, at least not in the biological sense (obviously he could have adopted many actual women). Nor could any actual sum of atoms have been identical with a daughter of Wittgenstein, it could only have constituted such a daughter, and constitution isn’t identity. Rather, for a necessitist, something that could have been a daughter of Wittgenstein is a merely possible person, and a merely possible concrete object. It is neither concrete, a person, nor a daughter of Wittgenstein, but it could have been all three. Similarly, there could have been no tigers, if evolution had taken a different turn. In those counterfactual circumstances, all the actual tigers would have been merely possible tigers—non-concrete non-tigers that could have been concrete tigers. So it is contingent what kinds of thing are instantiated.’

aeon’s David Dobbs on why the selfish gene needs to die

‘It’s a gorgeous story. Along with its beauty and other advantageous traits, it is amenable to maths and, at its core, wonderfully simple. It has inspired countless biologists and geneticists to plumb the gene’s wonders and do brilliant work. Unfortunately, say Wray, West-Eberhard and many others, the selfish-gene story is so focused on the gene’s singular role in natural selection that in an age when it’s ever more clear that evolution works in ways far more clever and complex than we realise, the selfish-gene model increasingly impoverishes both scientific and popular views of genetics and evolution. As both conceptual framework and metaphor, the selfish-gene has helped us see the gene as it revealed itself over the 20th century. But as a new age and new tools reveal a more complicated genome, the selfish-gene is blinding us.’

A really cool chart on the philosophy of science –


(I’d probably put myself between scientific and structural realism, leaning a bit closer to structural realism, while recognizing that no one position here can do science justice. Some theories are purely instrumental – some are much more realist.)

A great Russell quote:

“I still think that truth depends upon a relation to fact, and that facts in general are nonhuman; I still think that man is cosmically unimportant, and that a Being, if there were one, who could view the universe impartially, without the bias of here and now, would hardly mention man, except perhaps in a footnote near the end of the volume; but I no longer have the wish to thrust out human elements from regions where they belong; I have no longer the feeling that intellect is superior to sense. I used to think of sense, and of thought which is built on sense, as a prison from which we can be freed by thought which is emancipated from sense. I now have no such feelings. I think of sense, and of thoughts built on sense, as windows, not as prison bars.” (‘My Philosophical Development’ (1959), p. 213)

And, on the topic of Russell, An Aristotelian-Thomistic response to Russell’s problem of induction –

‘And so to respond to Russell’s claim: what is existential or particular or singularcan refer either to the thing understood, or the way of understanding. If the latter, it’s false to say that experience is particular; if the former, then the particular is no more opposed to the universal than it is to the particular.’

Reading Notez 3/1/14

Went through more of ‘Personal Knowledge’ this morning. Got to a brilliant part where Polyani gets into the personal aspect of analytic logic – his example, ‘p is true’, upon his closer inspection, to be just as personal a truth as anything. I found that to be absolutely fascinating.

Been going through a bit of Hume and Reid – Hume is an interesting critical philosopher, but the ideas he offers up aren’t so strong. Dead on about causality not being an empirical thing, though. That particular insight seems like it should have more impact on philosophy of mind than it does. Perhaps it does and I’m just not aware of it. Reid, of course, is the man, who basically criticizes Locke through Hume (specifically, the way of ideas) and by extension, Berkeley.

Continuing to read Feser’s ‘Philosophy of Mind’, specifically the sections on Russellian theory of mind and hylemorphic dualism and Thomistic dualism, which are interesting and solid theories of mind/matter. Russell’s criticisms of the idea that physics can provide a complete picture of reality are quite powerful. Interestingly, Russell thought that the amount of space and attention that we give to the mind in elevating it to be the thing does more harm than good.

I snagged the Blackwell companions to Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Religion and Metaphysics for  total of 29 bucks, which is pretty cool. I’m a big believer in having good encyclopedia/dictionaries on hand, because they get you the basics – if you learn your basics, you can apply them to the more complex things much more easily. Just like learning to fire your rifle – no fancy tricks needed. Learn your fundamentals and basics, apply em’, and you can’t lose, whether on the range on at your desk.

Bertrand Russell on Understanding Words

‘We will consider next the question what is implied by saying that a person “understands” a word, in the sense in which one understands a word in one’s own language, but not in a language of which one is ignorant. We may say that a person understands a word when (a) suitable circumstances make him use it, (b) the hearing of it causes suitable behaviour in him. We may call these two active and passive understanding respectively. Dogs often have passive understanding of some words, but not active understanding, since they cannot use words.

It is not necessary, in order that a man should “understand” a word, that he should “know what it means,” in the sense of being able to say “this word means so-and-so.” Understanding words does not consist in knowing their dictionary definitions, or in being able to specify the objects to which they are appropriate. Such understanding as this may belong to lexicographers and students, but not to ordinary mortals in ordinary life. Understanding language is more like understanding cricket*: it is a matter of habits, acquired in oneself and rightly presumed in others. To say that a word has a meaning is not to say that those who use the word correctly have ever thought out what the meaning is: the use of the word comes first, and the meaning is to be distilled out of it by observation and analysis. Moreover, the meaning of a word is not absolutely definite: there is always a greater or less degree of vagueness. The meaning is an area, like a target: it may have a bull’s eye, but the outlying parts of the target are still more or less within the meaning, in a gradually diminishing degree as we travel further from the bull’s eye. As language grows more precise, there is less and less of the target outside the bull’s eye, and the bull’s eye itself grows smaller and smaller; but the bull’s eye never shrinks to a point, and there is always a doubtful region, however small, surrounding it.’ (Bertrand Russell, ‘Words and Meanings’ cited in ‘Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell, p. 358-359)