William James is America’s Pragmatist  par excellence and the father of American Psychology. He’s quoted again and again in every other monograph on bookstore shelves, and yet, he is misunderstood by so many people.
Where he is the most misunderstood is his view on the meaning of truth. Consider the following few examples of how people like to summarize the Pragmatic theory of truth:
- “That what is true is what is useful to you, or beneficial for you.” (Cedric Chin)
- “For pragmatism, a belief is ‘true’ if its consequences are pleasant.” (Bertrand Russell)
- “It is a frequently repeated observation of pragmatists … [that] the true … is ‘the satisfactory.’” (A.O. Lovejoy)
These are all wrong.
The association of truth in Pragmatism with sentimental evaluative norms like good, pleasant, or satisfactory comes from the peculiar choices in wording that James preferred to use, as well as a very common misreading of his paper The Will to Believe. James was born into a family of writers, so it’s no wonder he used metaphors more often than not to describe his theories (i.e. the meaning of a term is its “cash-value”). However, the real meaning behind these turns of phrases can be gleaned from the larger works of which they are a part. So, what exactly is William James’ theory of truth, then?
Simply, truth is what works. But what this means is that when we call a statement true, we are saying it aligns with (i.e. explains and predicts) our experience, past and present. This allows us to escape the metaphysical implications of the correspondence theory  while also avoiding the subjectivism of the coherence theory . The criterion is vague, and purposefully so, since the Pragmatic theory of truth recognizes, as deflationists  about truth have made so clear, that the function of truth is contextual.
That is a very brief explanation of the typical Pragmatic stance à la James. It is the archetypal base of what people refer to as the Pragmatic theory of truth, which is a fair generalization because most Pragmatists in the canon accept something along these lines. However, James himself held an additional stance on the ethics of truth that people construe as being part of his definition of truth, and therefore the standard definition of truth in the Pragmatist canon as a whole. This is, in my opinion, the main source of the confusion.
This stance is expressed in James’ seminal paper, The Will to Believe. James’ thesis in the paper is that, under very specific kinds of circumstances, we may have a right to personally believe something to be true without following rigid standards of evidence. Given the following standards, we have a right to choose our belief, not based on an empirical measure, but on a practical standard for our own well-being:
- The choice between beliefs is unavoidable
- There is a similar or equal amount of evidence backing up both claims
- We could genuinely believe either belief
- There are important stakes in the choice between the beliefs
- The adoption of one of the beliefs would positively change our course of action
For example, if a mountain climber is doubtful about whether they could make it to the summit and survive, a practical choice of truth will help their motivation and therefore their capability to succeed. That is to say, believing some things can make them more likely to become true. Or, for a more high-school example, if you’re unsure if someone likes you because of mixed signals, compelling yourself to believe they do will help your confidence and may therefore build the truth of the belief (this is an example James actually uses, believe it or not). These examples help show that James’ argument doesn’t make people believe dangerous things and actually can be beneficial to people’s lives. Plus, on a descriptive level, it is what most people choose to do anyway.
This doesn’t mean we can believe whatever we want, whenever we want – contra the common interpretation. It should also be noted that, even if you find James’ The Will to Believe too extreme, it was radical in large part because it was written primarily as a response to a previous essay by William Clifford, which offered stringent and absolutist standards for truth that were unrealistic for how people actually think.
In conclusion, stop getting William James wrong. He’s not some crazy relativist, just a crazy Pragmatist.
: Pragmatism: A philosophical tradition started by C.S. Peirce that, broadly speaking, identifies the meaning of concepts with their practical imports
: Correspondence Theory: The theory that truth consists in the correspondence between a proposition and the world
: Coherence Theory: The theory that truth consists in the coherence of a belief with your previously held beliefs and/or a specified set of propositions
: Deflationism about Truth: The theory that truth has no definition. That is to say that when we say a sentence S is true, we are not saying anything additional about S than if we just asserted S