Truth, Knowing and Human Activity according to William James

William James tied the expereince of knowing directly to human activity. His version of Pragmatism was largely based on this “integral” (if I may use the term so loosely) connection between mind and matter. In some of James’ writing he draws out in detail exactly his view of knowing. Before I try to spell out James’ position I want to encourage you to think about how most of us generally, consciously or unconsciously, relate to the experience of knowing.

The way most of us relate to it, knowing revolves around some kind of mental “stuff” called thoughts and feelings that float in our heads. We say that we “know” something when one of the thoughts in our head appears to us to resemble some real object. I know, for instance, that the object I am holding in my hand is a pen because the object I see resembles an idea that I hold in my mind of a pen. This is an example of what is called the correspondence theory of truth. To take the example one step further, if I show you something and say, “This is a pen.” You will tell me that the statement is true because the object in my hand corresponds to an idea that you hold in your head that you think of as the idea “pen.”

This seems obvious and requiring little further thought, until you actually give it further thought and then you realize that it is not as simple as it appears. Think of a pen. What do you think of when you think of a pen? Probably the first thing you think of is an image of a pen. Maybe it is ballpoint pen, or a felt tip marker. Maybe it is a black pen, or a green pen. Let’s imagine that I hold an object in my hand and say “This is a pen.” If you look at it and see a blue pen, but in your mind you see a red pen would you say that my statement is false, probably not. That is because our idea of pen is more complicated than an image. We also “know” what the function of a pen is. What if I were holding a pencil – same function different name?

Think about all of the pens you can imagine. Wow, how many different kinds you can imagine, and you can recognize them all as pens. Even if you see a pen the likes of which you had never seen before you could probably recognize it as a pen.

In his writings James outlines his belief that the reason we can understand anything at all is only because the truth of that understanding is confirmed through mutual activity between people. Think about how you first teach a child what a pen is in the first place. Someone will pick up an object and show it to you, or hand it to you and say “pen.” This will happen over and over again until eventually the child picks up a pen and says to you “pen.” How does the child know he or she is correct in labeling the object a pen? The only way he or she knows is that you will say either yes or no. “Yes” will confirm the truth of the object being a pen and “no” will indicate that the child is wrong. Only in the interaction will the child be able to verify the reality of the pen.

If I ask someone to pick up the book on the table and they pick up the object that I think I am referring to they will confirm for me that the object is a book. If I do the same and the person looks at me blankly I will either have to doubt that they know what a book is or wonder if I have named the object correctly. According to James it is only because ideas can be predictably tied to human activity, either our own or other peoples’, that we can know what they refer to. In fact James did not even think of ideas as existing in consciousness. He did not believe that anything called consciousness –meaning a space, substance or entity that contained thoughts, even existed.

T o James we “know” something not because some idea in our head appears to correspond to some object in the world. We “know” something because the appearance of a particular idea leads to certain predictable activities. I know my idea of pen refers to the object in my hand because I can reliable predict that if I ask someone “Is this a pen?” they will predictably answer yes. To James truth and knowing were always tided to human activity and human social interaction.