Truth, Knowing and Human Activity according to William James

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 37 Comments

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.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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liesbeth
liesbeth
11 years ago

I had to think about the knowing of Dolphins that Carl mentioned and also about dogs who definitely have a kind of ‘knowing’. The animals are going up in evolution. Native Americans, ages ago, did not only draw images of animals (pictures) but they had the idea that when they ‘draw the animal’ they already almost killed it’ (meaning). I think it is the most important thing of ‘mind’ that is not only gives names, but also connotations (meanings). I was surprised to find that you write with a pen for example. Thirty years ago that would have been normal.… Read more »

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

It always comes back to an “other” to help us know.
The other that nurishes us in the womb, that schools us, that loves us, that dies for us, and that weeps for us when we pass. And most importantly the other that provides us the room, the freedom! to live and express our uniqueness as part of the larger whole.

Carl
11 years ago

So James held a view that is consistent to a great degree with Wittgenstein’s idea that “meaning is use” and with Skinner’s analysis of one kind of verbal behavior that he called “tacts” which are utterances made in the presence of objects and then reinforced by others.

How could consciousness as we know it ever evolve without an other? It is self-referential, and to be self-referential there must also be the perception of an “other,” or so it would seem.

Anonymous
Anonymous
11 years ago

Jeff,
Funny, – was just going to mention “Out of Our Heads” to you. It’s a very intelligently written andinsightful book. It definitely embraces an integral perspective in it’s understanding of the inseparability of consciousness and action in the world. I even got the sense that the author’s perspective was going beyond integral to what is called holism in the Spiral Dynamics model. This is my first time to read your blog. I appreciate the simultaneous presence of depth, brevity and clarity in it. I plan to keep reading it and looking at passed blogs.

Carl
11 years ago

I think it would be more accurate to say that Skinner did not see the concept of “free will” as meaningful or useful, which is very different from denying that we “have” free will. He saw choice and consciousness as products of evolution that simply have arisen and to various degrees are influenced by the continuum of interdependent causality (to borrow a Buddhist term) that impinges on the person, seen as a whole organism but also as part of a larger environment-organism process. In that larger context, choice obviously occurs, seemingly at the level of the separate self but with… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Perhaps more fundamentally, the question is, “What IS free will?”

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Don’t get me started on free will!

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

We “know” something because the appearance of a particular idea leads to certain predictable activities. I think I understand James’ idea of knowing something is true when we put words with experiences or objects, and then having them verified by another human. I am in college for the first time after being out of school for 29 years. When I sit in class learning something new, then leave class only to see that new object or word popping up in my everyday life, I feel as though I am a child seeing the world for the very first time. Even… Read more »

Mette
Mette
11 years ago

Could it be so that “free will” is connected to “insight”? That the more insight we have, the more are we able to act according to “the truth” (that is absolute) ? If it is really so, then we can accept determinism as a principle – like the principle of karma, but at the same time (because some things are more true that others) we can evolve and do new things (getting some freedom from of karma) when our insight increases. So prior to cause and effect is a reality of the universe, and by seeing more of that reality… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

I think this question has very much to do with the willingness to take responsibility in a much bigger sense and take efforts to think autonomously. Important culture change would be that it would be normal also at a more advanced age. A very practical example is the support Obama gets from the world. Because of a political crisis in my country and my own confusion in that I questioned a lot of people and I am surprised how small everybody thinks. It goes on the level of ‘we have done enough, let others do something now’; and ‘I always… Read more »

Chris
Chris
11 years ago

I agree with Leisbeth’s point that this question of free will “has very much to do with our willingness to take responsibility in a much bigger sense”. In my experience, free will, or the freedom to will, or manifest what I want (slightly awkward wording there) increases when I am in alignment with the fundamental driving force of the Kosmos. I don’t know where everyone else in this discussion is coming from, but I think you can talk about this fundamental driving force as being the evolution of consciousness, or the drive towards Truth, or Beauty or Perfection. I imagine… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Jeff, I think that is brilliant — the question, “How do we behave if we believe we have free will?” The belief in free will surely serves a purpose because it encourages people to choose actively, to exercise “volitionality,” to take responsibility and make an effort. But with an understanding of how the process of choice works, and the factors that influence it (“cause” it), we can go even further than that because we can, for example, exert “self control” by arranging conditions in the present that make good choices in the future more likely. We actually have more leverage… Read more »

Mette
Mette
11 years ago

oh, this is so tricky! When Liesbeth talks about “willingness” it is again almost the same as “free will”/ “will” , and what is that actually? How does a dog get “willingness” to help a blind man? Maybe we are like the dog but more advanced, especially we have got more intellect to know more about consequence than a dog. Our ego is old structures that once upon a time were needed in our evolution but is now more an obstacle to get futher. It is natural that we with all our instincts are holding on to the old structures… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Metternich, that is very beautiful.

Carl
11 years ago

Sorry , my iPhone turned you into a famous person with it’s spell checker!

Carl
11 years ago

What were the intentions of the whale?

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/26/us/26whale.html

Do whales have free will?

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Free will is a conservative Republican concept, as in personal accountability.

Determinism is a liberal Democrat concept, as in victim of circumstance.

Chris
Chris
11 years ago

Jeff,
How would one know if a choice is freely chosen? If one chooses to act on a conditioned response (at least what one believes to be a conditioned response) how would one know that they are acting freely abd not out of that conditioned response. Maybe one could never know for certain. What is the geround that what can feel to be confident that one is acting freely?

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

This is really exciting. I only just now read Mette’s response about the question how to motivate people. I immediately had to think about my investigation in politics, and the woman who said she ‘always votes the same’, she is very smart, very popular, she just married another woman which shows she has ‘her own free will’ and at the same time she was totally ‘stuck’ when it was about politics. It is very true that for decades the ‘good’ people where ‘left wing’, they do not mix with ‘right wing’. Even though through my family I know both camps… Read more »

Mette
Mette
11 years ago

Yes, we have to see our responsability, but in a way we all do what some older structures in us have learned to bring succesful results, so we also have to change our deep convictions about what we really trust will lead us to a better future. My idea of “will” is deeply inspired by Andrew Cohens evolutionary enlightenment teaching but also by the philosophical debate on free will and determinism. I will try to explain it like this: We are all a part of evolution. Life has been evolved through billions of steps; from plants, to animals and humans.… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

I wasn’t contradicting. I followed your line.

Mette
Mette
11 years ago

oh Im sorry Liesbeth, I didn´t mean that you were contradicting. I was kind of going on with all the posts. I would now like to respond to what Jeff wrote about free will as “being unvictimized”. What would the answer be to “victimization” according to what I tried to explain just before? I’m not sure, but maybe we can answer something like this: We are all living a life that depends on cause and effect (in spiritual terms Karma – that in a way is victimizing), but we have got a miraculous gift to move further by the ability… Read more »

Chris
Chris
11 years ago

Jeff, Are you saying that we can never know intellectually or experientially, whether we can have free will or not, or both? I have not read any William James so I can’t comment in regards to him, but to get at what you are saying, I am wondering how James’s understanding of free will relates to Andrew Cohen’s law of volitionality.I feel like both free will and the law of volitionality can be felt experientially. Wouldn’t one get an indication that free will did not exist, if it in fact did not, even if one acted like it did. Just… Read more »

Mette
Mette
11 years ago

Inspired by this site and by a discussion about Andrew Cohens new quote of the week I would like to share some maybe provoking thoughts on the subject Free Will (I a not sure they are true, but this is very deep philosophical stuff, I think) : William James said: ‘You cannot believe in an idea without your actions demonstrating that belief in consequences in the world’. Then the question will be: what makes one believe? Is believing something just a choice we make? I think we rather believe according to our insights. Insights combined with our lower parts of… Read more »

Mette
Mette
11 years ago

Why this strange thoughts? I’m interested in responsability and how it really works, its not that I try to get rid of it. I think it would be fantastic if we could include someone like Skinner and integrate it with spiritual teaching. Maybe it is possible?? If we can get an understanding of how motives has got shared early roots in our one shared system of organisms that is the whole world, then we can maybe see that we are one, but need to see it before our acts can express it. Our shared intention was to make life evolve,… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

It is interesting you bring this up. I have been very interested in Assigioli, I have practiced psycho syntheses which is very effective. I think it is quite close to Ken Wilber’s Upper Left. It is only extremely individual, which makes it often more ‘horizontal’, while the spiritual development we are interested in is more vertical, where the personal perspective gets smaller and smaller, and the impersonal perspective gets bigger and bigger.
There might be much more to this, I do not know Skinner…

Mette
Mette
11 years ago

I have read something about free will as Eckhart Tolle see it: According to Eckhart Tolle, giving in to the now is the only path that leads to actual free will. “Most people live in the delusion that they make decisions out of free will. In reality their actions are completely determined by their past. How you think, what you want and what you consider important are all determined by your upbringing, your culture, your religion – in short, by your concepts. As long as you still think you are your mind, you have no free will. Spiritually you are… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

The way I see free will is: the mind is filled with memories, conditionings, things you know. The question is when you are outside, how do you get to your will. Except some examples like Tolle or Byron Katie, I do not think people get very far as individuals. Being in the unknown is often also being away from thinking. Listening to enlightened people give access to higher consciousness. In shared consciousness it is possible to access higher consciousness that provides us with access to real will, I think that is the only real free will there is. Because by… Read more »

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3 years ago

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