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American Annals of the Deaf

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Genetics, Disability, and Deafness

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Pragmatism is not a debunking of the concept of truth. It is an effort to adapt the concept of truth to the universe Darwin described, a universe where things happen higglety-piggedly, where reality doesn’t sit still long enough for us to form an accurate picture of it. Pragmatism regards truth in the same way that statistical science regards a fact: it is the provisional place that the preponderance of experience leads us to assert a belief. Truth is like a natural law in science: it is what, given certain conditions, will happen most of the time. It is not an iron law. The universe being what it is, there may be a natural law of iron, but there are no iron laws of nature. As one nineteenth-century philosopher of science put it: “Scientific laws are the bed over which passes the torrent of facts; they shape it even as they follow it. . . . They do not precede things, they derive from them, and they can vary, if the things themselves happen to vary.” The tendencies of living beings to follow predictable paths “can look, viewed from outside, like necessary laws,” but they are only habits. Without variation, everything would be dead matter.10

Pragmatists also believed that on a theory of natural selection, there is no warrant for the notion that our minds are supposed to mirror reality objectively. This isn’t just because reality doesn’t stand still. It’s because there is no adaptive utility in having a mirror in our heads. The evolutionary value of having minds is the same as the evolutionary value of having opposable thumbs: it helps us cope with our environment. The truth-value of a belief, therefore, is the same for a pragmatist as the truth-value of a statistical fact is for a scientist: its predictive usefulness. True beliefs, James liked to say, are beliefs that cash out in experience. One of his favorite examples was belief in an idea central to scientific inquiry: causation. You cannot show causation, James said, any more than you can show the existence of God. But belief in causation is warranted because experience shows that it pays to believe in causation.

This was a view about truth drawn directly from science. One of James’s students, the future educational psychologist Edward Thorndike, had, for his doctoral thesis, put chickens in boxes with doors on them. Then he measured how long it took the chickens to learn how to open the doors and get at the food pellets outside. He observed that although at first many actions were tried, apparently unsystematically, only successful actions performed by chickens who were hungry—only actions that opened the door to food the chickens wanted to eat—were actually learned. Actions that produced no results were simply forgotten by the chickens. He concluded that success is what caused those movements to be imprinted in the brains of the chickens. Belief that pushing this lever with my beak will give me access to food is a belief that cashes out in experience. It is therefore, pragmatically, true. Belief that I have to emit a special cluck before I push the lever could be a vestigial belief, discarded when it becomes clear that without the cluck, the door opens anyway.

The pragmatists thought that philosophers had mistakenly insisted on making a problem of the relation between the mind and the world, an obsession that had given rise to the attempt to answer the question, “How do we know?” The pragmatist response to this question is to point out that nobody has ever made a problem about the relationship between, for example, the hand and the world. The function of the hand is to help the organism cope with the environment; in situations in which a hand doesn’t work, we try something else, such as a foot, or a fishhook, or an editorial. Nobody worries in these situations about a lack of some preordained “fit”—about whether the physical world was or was not made to be manipulated by hands. They just use a hand where a hand will do.

The pragmatists thought that ideas are the same as hands: instruments for coping. An idea has no greater metaphysical stature than, say, a fork. When your fork proves inadequate to the task of eating soup, it makes little sense to argue about whether there is something inherent in the nature of forks or something inherent in the nature of soup that accounts for the failure. You just reach for a spoon. But philosophers have worried about whether the mind is such that the world can be known by it, and they have produced all sorts of accounts of how the “fit” is supposed to work—how the mental represents the real. The pragmatist point was that “mind” and “reality” are only abstractions from a single, indivisible process. It therefore makes as little sense to talk about a “split” that needs to be overcome between the mind and the world as it does to talk about a “split” between the hand and the environment, or the fork and the soup. The pragmatist would make the same point about biological and psychological explanations of personality and behavior: they are abstractions from a single entity, which is the human being. You can speak of the human organism from the point of view of genetics, and you can speak of it from the point of view of psychology, spirituality, or culture. Anything that helps us get a grip on understanding the phenomenon is useful. The phenomenon itself is the sum of all possible understandings.

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