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William James's Account of Truth

by Brian Tee

1. Introduction: fire at will

"The truth is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief." [1] Many commentators have taken the 'whatever proves itself to be good' as meaning whatever makes us happy, since they make the (understandable) inference of thinking that what is good makes us happy. [2] If this is William James's account of truth, that for a belief, a statement or proposition to be true, is for it to make us happy, he would not have done any worse if he had painted a target on his front and shouted at his fellow philosophers: "Here I am, fire at will"!

It is easy to see what kind of trouble William James is in, if such a view follows from his theory of truth. Here for example are some shots that hit the bulls eye: If what is true is what makes us happy then this is false because (i) Not every belief that makes us unhappy is false. For example, suppose that some enemy government has launched a nuclear missile, which is directed at my house and I do not have and time to escape before it hits me, believing this will not make me happy. (ii) Not everything that makes us happy is true, for suppose I believe that instead of being a nuclear missile, the rocket is full of flower petals that will shower my house with beautiful colours and scents. (iii) Some statements may make me happy and therefore be true, but the same statement may make you unhappy and so be false, but how can the same statement be true and false? (iv) The same statement may make me happy at one time and make me unhappy at a later time, how can the same statement be true then false?

In order to dodge some of these shots James could move the target, and claim that the true is not what makes us happy as such, but what it is good to believe all things considered and for the long haul. [3] However could not a false belief stay with a person and even help them through life indefinitely? For example, take the belief that the Earth is flat. Many people for hundreds of years went through life believing this and working their way throughout the world on the basis of this belief. Indeed there are even some people today who believe the earth is flat and who live their lives without any unhappy consequences. But the belief is still false.

These are obvious and yet devastating objections to James and if this is his theory then we should fire at will, at Will without mercy. Why? Because, according to critics, James's theory of truth so understood makes truth a subjective, psychological state that does not have any connection to the world, but only to people and their wants. James does away with Truth with a capital T. But this is at odds with what we want from a theory of truth, namely an account that is independent of anything we think about it, of truth that holds regardless of our ideas. An account that describes reality not mere appearance. An account that is objective and timeless, not at the mercy of whims and wants.

This traditional conception of truth is part of what James calls the "intellectualist" method. It was however in an attempt to overcome this tradition that James developed his pragmatic or 'instrumentalist' account of truth [4] and so he would not have been fatally damaged by these shots. He may have even considered the intellectualist to be firing blanks. And those live rounds that did hit as mere 'flesh wounds'. Whereas the intellectualists would have accused James of simply question begging.

It seems then that we have two conflicting philosophical standpoints. I will not however be concerned in this article to set up a sparing match between the two (if nothing else it makes uninteresting reading). But instead I will consider what James actually said, that is what his account of truth actually is. I will argue that once his theory is properly understood James can easily be saved from the objection that a belief is true if it makes us happy, once understood this is not an objection for James. But then I will argue that because James's theory is internally incoherent we still should not accept James 's theory. His theory does need to be rescued and can be if James gives up a fundamental idea in his account of truth, namely the idea of the verifiability of an idea.

2. Getting the real target in sight

The view that the true is what makes us happy is based on a misreading of James. He does not say this and in fact he explicitly denies it: "The pragmatist calls satisfactions indispensable for truth building, but I have everywhere called them insufficient unless reality be also incidentally led to. If the reality assumed were cancelled from the pragmatist's universe of discourse, he would straight away give the name of falsehoods to the beliefs remaining, in spite of all their satisfactoriness." [5]

Initially then, James agrees with the intellectualists that truth must correspond with reality, however for James the reality is a mind dependent one. He says "Realities mean then, either concrete facts or abstract kinds of things and relations perceived intuitively between them...thirdly as things that new ideas of ours must no less take account of, the whole body of other truths already in our possession." [6]

Does this mean that for James there can be no subjective truth, such as, for example, that this apple tastes sweet for me, but the same apple can be bitter for you? Certainly not, but for James they are set against a common background in which others have the authority to correct me. This is because for James truth operates in a community of in a social intercourse. [7]

So for any experience of mine to be called true it is to this reality that it must agree. But what does it mean for the belief or experience to agree? For an answer we must appeal to the common reality. The reason why the world is structured as it is, in the first place is because it is more useful to organise the world this way, rather than some other way. So a belief agrees with reality by proving useful to those who believe it.

But how does something prove useful? It should come as no surprise that we need to refer to the shared world. As said above, it consists of shared beliefs, concepts, experiences. We test, via verification, our present belief against this body of evidence. Useful beliefs, James says, are not those that make us happy, but those that cohere with the other beliefs, allow us to communicate successfully with others and allow us to make predictions and preserve past doctrine.

Once this has been accomplished, practical and aesthetic concerns influence the result: "The pragmatist asks what such agreement may mean in detail. He finds first that the ideas must point to or lead towards that reality and no other and then that the pointing and leadings must yield satisfaction as their results." [8]

For James then there are two aspects of an idea being true. One is verification, correspondence with the shared world. The second is the degree to which the believer can derive satisfaction from believing the idea, depending on his/ her interests. So, in a sense, the kinds of interests and aims we have will determine (in part) which truths there will be. The objection that for James a belief is true if it makes us happy is a result of not taking into account what he has to say about verification.

One important point to add is that for James usefulness, or expediency, is not limited to our immediate aims or interests, but extends "in the long run and on the whole". And this means that not just anything that pleases or makes us happy is true, for it may not pass the tests of time and experience. This is made more explicit by filling out in full the partial and misleading quote with which I started this article: "The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief", the sentence continues, "and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons". [9]

Let me illuminate all this with a couple of examples. Suppose I have two beliefs: One is that the pub will be open tomorrow afternoon. The second belief is that the universe will end in a few trillion years because of proton decay. That the first belief is true depends on there being institutions called pubs, that the consequences of believing this fits into existing beliefs and that my belief allows me to make useful predictions, for example that I will succeed in meeting my friend and getting drunk. If the belief were false I could do none of these things. Therefore for James "True ideas are those we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot." [10]

But what about the truth of my second belief? It seems highly unlikely that we could ever validate, corroborate or verify that the universe will end because of proton decay. Certainly we can make predictions based on this belief, but these predictions themselves need to be verified in experience, or do they? James says that a belief need only have potential or possibility of being verified. "Indirect as well as direct verification pass muster" and again, "verifiability... is as good as verification" [11].The idea that protons will decay in a few trillion years is still true because the idea works. It fits into our conceptual framework; it allows us to make predictions and the rest. Because this notion of verifiability James thinks that truth operates on a 'credit system' [12], where so long as nothing comes along to refute the idea it can be counted as true.

It is with this background that James can then say that the true is "only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight won't necessarily meet all farther experiences equally satisfactorily." [13] What are the consequences of this view?

For one thing James can answer his critics' accusations that for a belief to make us happy is for it to be true. Because what makes us happy now may not meet all the pertinent conditions in the future experiences we have. Even if the belief could be held in the long run, because of the appeal to a shared reality James can deny that there could be any case in which the belief and the facts of the world are not in agreement. This is because if facts are themselves a part of the mental dependent reality, the shared background, which have proved useful and true beliefs are those that are useful in the sense described then how can there be a situation in which there is a useful belief that does not agree with a useful fact.? [14] (In fact James could say that a belief is true if it makes us happy, but in a sense of being happy that does not refer to pleasant feelings, but rather in the sense that we find it satisfactory and useful in the sense described.)

James can also answer the objection that statements could be true for me yet false for you. Since true beliefs are those that prove useful a belief can be useful for me yet not for you without any contradiction. So it seems that the claim that a belief is true if it makes us happy is based on a naive and mistaken reading of James' s views on truth. Truth for James is an idea's agreement with reality and consists in the reference to the possibility of concrete workings — what difference the idea would make to our lives and this does not mean anything so simple as that the belief makes us happy. So now that we have got the real target in sight, how does James's theory hold up. Can James maintain that what truth consists in is the beliefs leading to satisfactions?

3. The fatal shot

Most of the objections against James are based on a competing intellectualist meaning of truth. But James is not working in this tradition. The best way to attack him us to show that his position is internally incoherent, that it fails in it's own terms. This can be done I think by showing that James cannot maintain all the things he says about truth.

As said before, for James truth operates in a community and that for a belief to be true it must be (i) verifiable and (ii) satisfactory. Now most of the objections tend to concentrate on showing how satisfaction means that the truth is simply what makes us happy. I think the most telling point is (i).

I think that James's appeal to verifiability leads him into trouble, before I say why let me explain why James has to talk about verifiability rather than actual verification.

Remember that the reason James rejects the traditional correspondence theory of truth is that not all our ideas do correspond to reality (the ideas do not copy the object). A second point is that James thinks that truth works on a credit system. Our thoughts and ideas 'pass' so long as nothing challenges them. It is because of these two things, I think, that James prefers verifiability over verification:

Verifiability allows for the possibility for an idea to be true even though it may not copy the object precisely as the object is in the world, because the idea works. And the credit system allows us to say that the idea is true so long as nothing counts against it.

It is because of this that James can say that verifiability is as good as actual verification. Where 'just as good as' means just as good as in the idea successfully working, and it is the workings that allow us to say that the idea is true.

So for James verifiability is just as good as actual verification for the purpose of saying which ideas are true. Here is the problem : What does actual verification add? It either adds something or nothing. If it adds something it will be in terms of an additional fact, such as, for example, that the idea has now been proven true. But this is a realist, intellectualist conception, where 'the idea now been proven true' means that the idea corresponds to a fact in reality. [15]

If actual verification adds nothing then what makes an idea true is our believing it is true. Our believing that it would be confirmed if we went out in the world to check it, that is, our belief that the idea is verifiable. But because the idea is verifiable we don't need to actually go and check. And so long as nothing counts against it, it is true. But since our belief that the idea is true is based on it's usefulness and usefulness is understood in terms of fitting into previous beliefs, and the like, this comes down to saying that idea x's making us happy, believing X to be good, makes x true.And since James explicitly rejects this he cannot consistently hold these two opinions; that verifiability is as good as verification and that, because verifiability means that for a belief or idea to be true is for us to find it satisfactory.

Perhaps James could reply here that verification does add something, namely that verification shows a fortiori that something is verifiable. But this will not do, because it is just a trivial claim that what is verified is verifiable and does not tell us anything about what is verifiable, that is what makes something true.

A second option would be for James to say that actual verification is more useful. It allows us to be more certain about our ideas, actual verification provides a greater degree of confirmation, a wider scope of predictability and so on. But this will not work either, because this is a claim about the justification of an idea and more concerned with the theory of knowledge, rather than what makes a belief true. So if verification does add something to an idea it will be that the idea is true in the realist sense.

Therefore James must stick with verifiability. But this means that James is committed to saying that a belief or idea is true if we believe it that is if we find it useful. Here is why.

James cannot appeal to actual verification, but only verifiability. However for many ideas we will not know what would count even towards it being verifiable say, for example, that we have two conflicting beliefs that explain one phenomenon, experience would support either explanation but the two are incompatible, we could never say which was verifiable. Or suppose that one day human beings discover alien life, one of the human party forms the belief that there is a mug on the table, implying that the aliens use tables and place mugs on the tables. But here we would not even know what would count as verifiable. Certainly we can see objects that look like tables and mugs, but would we be correct to say in such a context that they are tables and mugs?

Outside our shared background we cannot say what is verifiable. And perhaps even inside the framework the same problem exists. For what does it mean to say that in three trillion years the mass of protons in the universe will have decayed? Only that it fits into our theories and is useful and not that if we wait three trillion years we will see this (because we too would have decayed there would be nothing too witness this, it is not verifiable).

Perhaps James could say that there are some beliefs whose merit is not a matter of verifiability such as Free Will, fine, but then where does the merit lay? Only in our believing it to be true because it is satisfactory it fits into our aims and interests [16]. Therefore for James to say that a belief is verifiable comes down to saying that it is satisfactory, because this is the only thing left which James can appeal to as a criterion for what truth consist in. Here is a summary of the argument:

(P1) The truth of an idea consists in it's verifiability
(P2) However, verifiability means that the idea works
(P3) Workings is understood as meaning satisfactions
(P4) Satisfactions means the ability to makes us happy.


(C) To say that the truth is verifiability of an idea means that the idea is satisfactory, i.e. that it works, it makes us happy. [17]

This is the position that James is in, but is it an objection? In other words does James need rescuing? It may not appear so if we stay within James's system and bracket the intellectualist framework, which is working in a different tradition.

However I think that an inconsistency within James's theory will show that even confining ourselves to the Jamesian world we should not accept the claim that happiness is trueness.

The objection is this. James says that verifiability is as good as verification and that what is verifiable is true, but he also says that truth 'happens' to an idea. Now we may accept what he says about truth happening to an idea given what he says about the shared background. But verifiability, as Perkins [18] points out is a property ideas have for all time. The verifiability condition stays with the idea even if the truth value changes. But according to James, truth is verifiability. The two ideas, that truth is the verifiable and that truth is malleable are incompatible.

Even so, the objection is worse. Because verifiability is a condition that holds forever James is using it in a manner which he has no right to, because it involves a notion of truth that holds independently of experience and immutably [19]. Verifiability is not a property within the experience of the shared background. It is rather a general condition surpassing any number of single finite experiences. And so cannot have in James's sense any cash value.(James's appeal to absolute truth will not help him here because these too are made, they too are part of the shared background). Further as I said earlier we would not know what would count as verifiability unless we have at least some idea of the shared background i.e. of what is already the case. We would not know if a thing is verifiable unless we know it what would be a verification. So Verifiability presupposes truth. And because I have said he cannot appeal to actual verification, he is locked into inconsistency. He is forced to give up a one of a number of key ideas (verifiability, the credit system, or the pragmatist idea of workings.) if he is to preserve the larger theory. The shot has hit now James has to decide which limb to amputate.

So even within a Jamesian framework we should not accept the view that the true is what is expedient, because to do so would lead to an incoherent system.

So far I have established that James does need rescuing, How can we do this?

One way would be for James to give up the idea that experience is the basis of his system. For James truth is an experiential notion, we use it and experience it in our lives. It is a descriptive tool. If James can accommodate an explanatory role for truth there may be a life line. James could still allow a role for pragmatic, practical consequences. The useful would still be true, but not because the true is defined in terms of the useful, the descriptive, but rather because the truth provides the best explanation of utility. This would also clear up the confusion about verifiability, because now we can accept that it is transcendent of experience without any worry about as to whether verifiability is the true. James would not even need to give up talk about a shared world, so long as it is recognised that this to has it's basis in a notion of truth as an explanatory device also.

How far does this get James? It may not get him very far at all unless he develops, as Sprigge [20] suggests a two tier theory. On one level there are truths that we can take as a feature of the world, what Sprigge calls 'literal truths' [21]. On the second level we have other truths which follow from these first level ones that are practically useful, that are true because they are satisfactory, and which have the qualities James attributes to them, namely of being malleable, verifiable and half true. This however may be too much of a concession to the intellectualists, for James to accept.

A second life line for James would be to give up talk about the notion that causes him the trouble, that is verifiability, and replace it with a theory of falsifiability, where this means the exact opposite of verifiability. This is not as drastic a move as it may first appear. In fact because of his notion of truth as working on a credit system, James's theory would be better described I think as a theory of falsification any way. Changing to falsification would have the advantage over verifiability because of the fact that only one contrary instance would be needed to refute an idea, where as on a verificationist no finite number of confirming cases could add to the truth value of an idea [22] This move would rescue James from the objection that for a belief to be true is for it to make us happy, for this would no longer be an objection. Because on a falsificationist picture for a belief to be true is for it to work. It would also answers the objection against pragmatism that a statement becomes true, or has truth happen to it. Truth does not happen, ideas do not become true, but are first treated as if true and then become false, in an absolute sense. Verifications do not increase the degree of truth an idea has or add to the justification of holding an idea, as James would suggest, but merely means that the idea has not been refuted, and that we can continue using it in our explanations and predictions. This move, then, can still preserve the pragmatists idea that what is true is what works.

This move towards falsification however, would mean making certain significant modifications to James's theory. Not only would he have to give up talk about verifiability, he may even have to abandon the word 'true'. For on a falsificationist picture we do not look for truth as such, but for the best explanation of phenomena. There are in a sense no truths, but only ideas that have not been refuted.

This would mean James could still retain his idea of the credit system, because this is basically the falsificationist method and he could still hold happily to the notions of satisfactions and workings, but now, in terms of falsification theory, instead of looking for verifications to support or confirm a belief we should actively look for falsifications of our ideas. A belief would still be 'true' so long as it worked, but we should not be satisfied with it working per se, we should not settle for that. Rather we should test the belief to see if it could be false.

Whether James would be happy with these suggestions is very doubtful. However, he should be happy because it is the only way I can see to save his theory, in other words he should be happy because these suggestions work!


1. Thayer p.223.

2. For example, Moore and Russell.

3. In fact he does make this move, but it does not have the consequence the objectors think it does. See section 2.

4. This does not mean however that James thinks that truth was subjective. He thought that we could get all we want from a theory of truth (objectivity, etc) from a pragmatist position, but with out the problems or metaphysical baggage of the intellectualist.

5. The Meaning of Truth p. 195.

6. Thayer p.232. He also says "Realities in themselves can be there for any one... only by being believed; they are believed only by their notions appearing true".

7. Thayer p.234.

8. The Meaning of Truth p.191.

9. Thayer p.232.

10. Thayer.p.229.

11. Thayer p.231. Let me make one point clear James uses verifiable to mean what WOULD be confirmed as true by observation, in terms of workings and satisfactions. This is not to be confused with the Logical Positivists use of verifiability as meaning what could be found by observation.

12. Thayer p.231.

13. Thayer p.238.

14. This is pointed out in the article on the pragmatic theory of truth by Richard Kirkland, in the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy vol 9 p.478-480.

15. This is a variation of Russell's objection see The Meaning of Truth p.272.

16. This ties in with James ideas in The Will to Believe. Thayer p.186-209.

17. Note that 'Happy' is to be understood in the Jamesian sense noted earlier.

18. Perkins p.577.

19. Mounce p.49.

20. Sprigge p.64.

21. Sprigge p.64.

22. Ayer makes this point. see Ayer p.28.


Ayer, A.J. The Central Questions of Philosophy (Penguin 1973 reprint 1991)

James, W. The Meaning of Truth (Prometheus Books 1997)

Mounce, H.O. The Two Pragmatisms (Routledge.1997)

Perkins, M "Notes on the Pragmatic Theory of Truth" (The Journal of Philosophy August 28 1952. pp.573-587.)

Russell, B. Philosophical Essays (Longmans, Green and Co. 1910.)

Sprigge, T.L.C. James and Bradley — American Truth and British Reality (Open Court Publishing Co 1993)

Thayer, H.S. Pragmatism — The Classical Writings (Hackett Publishing Co. 1982)

Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Routledge 1998)

© Brian Tee 2003