The Meaning of Truth

Author: William James

Fifth Misunderstanding: What Pragmatists Say Is Inconsistent With Their Saying So.

A correspondent puts this objection as follows: ’When you say to your audience, "pragmatism is the truth concerning truth," the first truth is different from the second. About the first you and they are not to be at odds; you are not giving them liberty to take or leave it according as it works satisfactorily or not for their private uses. Yet the second truth, which ought to describe and include the first, affirms this liberty. Thus the INTENT of your utterance seems to contradict the CONTENT of it.’

General scepticism has always received this same classic refutation. ’You have to dogmatize,’ the rationalists say to the sceptics,’ whenever you express the sceptical position; so your lives keep contradicting your thesis.’ One would suppose that the impotence of so hoary an argument to abate in the slightest degree the amount of general scepticism in the world might have led some rationalists themselves to doubt whether these instantaneous logical refutations are such fatal ways, after all, of killing off live mental attitudes. General scepticism is the live mental attitude of refusing to conclude. It is a permanent torpor of the will, renewing itself in detail towards each successive thesis that offers, and you can no more kill it off by logic than yon can kill off obstinacy or practical joking. This is why it is so irritating. Your consistent sceptic never puts his scepticism into a formal proposition,—he simply chooses it as a habit. He provokingly hangs back when he might so easily join us in saying yes, but he is not illogical or stupid,—on the contrary, he often impresses us by his intellectual superiority. This is the REAL scepticism that rationalists have to meet, and their logic does not even touch it.

No more can logic kill the pragmatist’s behavior: his act of utterance, so far from contradicting, accurately exemplifies the matter which he utters. What is the matter which he utters? In part, it is this, that truth, concretely considered, is an attribute of our beliefs, and that these are attitudes that follow satisfactions. The ideas around which the satisfactions cluster are primarily only hypotheses that challenge or summon a belief to come and take its stand upon them. The pragmatist’s idea of truth is just such a challenge. He finds it ultra-satisfactory to accept it, and takes his own stand accordingly. But, being gregarious as they are, men seek to spread their beliefs, to awaken imitation, to infect others. Why should not YOU also find the same belief satisfactory? thinks the pragmatist, and forthwith endeavors to convert you. You and he will then believe similarly; you will hold up your subject-end of a truth, which will be a truth objective and irreversible if the reality holds up the object-end by being itself present simultaneously. What there is of self-contradiction in all this I confess I cannot discover. The pragmatist’s conduct in his own case seems to me on the contrary admirably to illustrate his universal formula; and of all epistemologists, he is perhaps the only one who is irreproachably self-consistent.


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Chicago: William James, "Fifth Misunderstanding: What Pragmatists Say Is Inconsistent With Their Saying So.," The Meaning of Truth in The Meaning of Truth (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909), Original Sources, accessed October 3, 2023,

MLA: James, William. "Fifth Misunderstanding: What Pragmatists Say Is Inconsistent With Their Saying So." The Meaning of Truth, in The Meaning of Truth, New York, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909, Original Sources. 3 Oct. 2023.

Harvard: James, W, 'Fifth Misunderstanding: What Pragmatists Say Is Inconsistent With Their Saying So.' in The Meaning of Truth. cited in 1909, The Meaning of Truth, Longmans, Green, and Co., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 3 October 2023, from