Magic Words

Metaphysics has usually followed a very primitive kind of quest. You know how men have always hankered after unlawful magic, and you know what a great part in magic words have always played. If you have his name, or the formula of incantation that binds him, you can control the spirit, genie, afrite, or whatever the power may be. Solomon knew the names of all the spirits, and having their names, he held them subject to his will. So the universe has always appeared to the natural mind as a kind of enigma, of which the key must be sought in the shape of some illuminating or power-bringing word or name. The word names the universe’s principle, and to possess it is after a fashion to possess the universe itself. ‘God,’ ‘Matter,’ ‘Reason,’ ‘the Absolute,’ ‘Energy,’ are so many solving names. You can rest when you have them. You are at the end of your metaphysical quest.

~ Wm James, Pragmatism

In the first lecture of Pragmatism, William James writes that “the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned.” The unspoken premise is the individual temperament of a philosopher which he may hide under his cloak or pretend is irrelevant but once revealed serves to explain so much of his thought. I am not an academic and can’t pretend to expertise here (hence any sloppiness below), but James’s book might have gained something, I think, if he’d returned to this notion at the end of it and more frankly examined his own philosophy by its light. If he’d been a character in one of his younger brother’s novels, he’d have been forced to do so.

In Pragmatism James wants us to reconsider the Aristotelian correspondence theory of truth, according to which an idea or assertion is true as far as it reflects the way things really are. By this model, the truth of a statement is independent of our having tested it. So, for example, if I were to give you an envelope and tell you it contained a dollar bill, the statement would be either true or false depending on what was actually in the envelope, even if you never opened it to check my statement against reality. Most people are satisfied with this definition. It’s our common-sense notion of truth in the western world.

James suggests that rather than use the word “truth” to describe a correspondence of assertion and reality we reserve it only for things that have, one way or another, passed a test of verification or proven themselves beneficial. Ideas, according to pragmatism, are tools, and if they don’t “work” for us, they’re meaningless. Reduced like that, James’s idea sounds simple enough, and possibly appealing, but James gets overexcited and there are passages in Pragmatism where he seems to want to discard the correspondence theory of truth altogether. To return to my example of the envelope with the possible dollar bill inside, James might say, for instance, that the assertion “becomes true” when and if we open the envelope and find that it does indeed contain a dollar bill. Truth, James says when he gets carried away with himself, is something that “happens to an idea.”

To be fair, James doesn’t really want to do away with the Aristotelian notion of truth, and he apparently spent some sweat and labor after the publication of Pragmatism trying to calm the apprehensions he roused in some of his readers. But James had been impressed by his friend Charles Pierce’s elucidation of the law of errors which states that repeated minute scientific observations inevitably vary along a plottable curve, allowing us to infer an accurate-enough position (of a star, say) but never making for absolute certainty. Unless we want to go for a ride with Bishop Berkeley, then, and deny the independent material existence of sense objects altogether, there is an unbridgeable (if infinitesimal) gap between things in themselves and our perceptions of them. While that gap may look small from an everyday distance, it can be philosophically dizzying. With his pragmatic redefinition of truth James wanted to build a bridge to cross it while keeping the vertigo to an acceptable level.

James was also laboring under the stark shadow of 19th century German metaphysics and a Darwinian scientific worldview that was just flexing its muscles. Whereas the rationalists of the period wanted to describe a world in which matter is governed hierarchically by mind, science made forceful arguments for mind’s governance by matter instead. What James wanted was a way to honor his pro-scientific empiricist sympathies while at the same time respectably making room for God. Pragmatism’s careful adjustment of terms allows James to test his idea of God, find it psychologically or socially beneficial (i.e. a “working” idea) and proclaim it therefore true. I wonder if he might have found it easier to support his theism nowadays as Hegel and Kant recede in the background and science with its quantum theories and dark matter allows more room for interested speculation.

In the end, however, I find I agree with the judgment of the late Martin Gardner who shared James’s theism but felt that pragmatism was more an attempt to rewrite the dictionary than a philosophy in its own right, and that anyway philosophies departing from the common uses of terms and resorting to private definitions can have little enduring value. If pragmatism had “cash-value” for James himself, I suspect that had something to do with his own unspoken premise, a temperament balanced painfully between what he saw as the irreconcilables of materialistic determinism and the hope that, after all, words really are magic – or can be made so by some delicate adjustments.


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