“Truth is what works,” said the pragmatist William James.
Simple enough. But as Robert Talissee explains, you can’t take James’s advice at face value.
Beliefs are tools. A belief is like a hammer or a pair of scissors. It’s supposed to do things, behaviourally, it’s supposed to guide our actions. James thinks that the truth of a belief is to be understood in terms of the success it brings to our action when it serves as our guide.
Truth happens to an idea. First, we believe, and then we experiment. You can’t possibly confirm what’s true about your own beliefs and perceived faculties without taking some type of action to test them. What you think is true only becomes true through validation.
Positive results are at the heart of Pragmatist philosophy. But so are negative ones.
In Louis Menand’s book The Metaphysical Club, he explains how America’s Civil War — a failure in American democracy — was fought to show that democracy was indeed worth preserving.
Pragmatism is, therefore, a test of failure just as much it is a test to revalidate success and strengthen resolve. Pragmatists theorize that if your belief is strong enough, you’ll do everything you can do to uphold it to ensure repeated success. At the same time, if the experiments fail, then pragmatism fights to find something else that works.
Pragmatists endeavor to reach the best solution and keep improving until they get there, even if that means a completely different pivot. Pragmatism is also a community effort, as John Dewey later added. Your ideas are only so good that they get accepted by the wider community.
At the simplest, pragmatism can be described as “Truth is what works.” But as you can see from the complexity above, pragmatism allows for the truth to be continually tested and expanded until the solution of the moments rings true for all.