James and Nietzsche on Truth



William James, in his essays on pragmatism, declares truth to be a species of the good, as what is “good in the way of belief” or the power of an idea to “work”. This is a rather instrumentalist conception of truth in which truth is a means to an end, in which an idea’s truth is conceived of in terms of its “cash value” rather than as a metaphysical correspondence to reality. James did not deny that correspondence is a factor in truth so much as the notion that truth is reducible to a copy of nature or that it could be simplified to an abstract property detached from its practical weight.

This is definitely a controversial theory of truth in light of how people generally tend to think of truth. But James did admit that if his pragmatist theory of truth could be restated simply as “truth is what would be better for us to believe” or “what one ought to believe”, and this is much more in line with common sensical uses of the term. Where things begin to get more controversial is in how James justified truth or how he described the justification process: as malleable or plastic relative to its concrete benefit to our lives. This may come off as condoning crass opportunism or devaluing truth to the level of an instrument of power, which is a big part of why it is controversial.

What James was militating against is a strong rationalistic trend that runs throughout the history of philosophy in which such matters are thought of in very abstract terms, as metaphysical absolutes that seem to have no connection with anyone’s practical experience. Hence, James wants to push the question of what practical difference a given idea will have for people’s lives if it were true or not true. If it makes no practical difference, then James seems to want to say that it is nonsensical to talk about it, that truth can only be meaningful in terms of concrete and goal-oriented applications.

It should be noted that there is a sense in which this challenges the commonly used (and abused) dichotomy between fact and value. James was very interested in being factual, but he described facts in explicitly value-laden terms, as entangled with values. He was engaging in a questioning of the value of truth, and he ended up defining truth explicitly in terms of its value for humans. While it could be said that there is a certain positivistic strain in James’s thought, his theory of truth seems to go against attempts to establish a purely dry, disinterested or “objective” calculus for what can constitute a fact. Truth isn’t value-neutral according to James.

There is another philosopher who has associations with different traditions who could be said to have made a similar investigation about the value of truth. That’s Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s writings are littered with various aphorisms and unusual questions about truth. But it appears that in comparison to James, Nietzsche wanted to challenge the value of truth. They have a similarity in that they speak of truth as something that is relative to values, but Nietzsche pushes the question of why falsehood or other things that are not strict “truth” couldn’t be instrumentally valuable. The question becomes “why truth?” more than “what is truth?”.  

There appears to be a certain tension between the ideas of Nietzsche and James on this. James defines truth as something that must necessarily be good or valuable in a practical sense, while Nietzsche proclaims that truth may be a folly and that non-truth may have indispensible practical value in terms of survival and coping with life. The picture that Nietzsche paints, at least in this interpretation, is one in which practical life and civilization largely runs on useful fictions and noble lies. Part of Nietzsche’s message is precisely that truth is not necessarily what is useful and virtuous.

James’s theory of truth, viewed in such terms, could be reduced to a theory of what James thinks that truth should be or what particular kind of truth matters. But from James’s pragmatist standpoint, he’s describing what truth actually is. Nonetheless, there may be a sense in which what both James and Nietzsche were getting at amounted to something similar, only with different terminology. What James calls truth amounts to a provisional belief that can be done away with when it becomes impractical. Nietzsche simply didn’t want to call this “truth”, because he was granting a meaning of “truth” that is absolute and rationalistic, and then going on to question the value and sensibility of such a thing. James questioned such a thing as well, but he keeps the term “truth” in a much more fallibilistic sense.

It may be that James’s new formulation of truth is simply something that Nietzsche would not have even wanted to call by the name of truth. Perhaps he would have called such a thing an interpretation or a useful belief while denying it the baggage that comes along with calling it “truth”. These two thinkers are most certainly not polar opposites on the question. Both of them challenged the conventional notion of “the truth” in some singular, essentialist, and transcendental sense. Both of them were trying to come up with new ways of thinking in reaction to the dominant Western philosophical tradition going back to Plato.

The main difference between them on this question seems to be, to borrow one of James’s own terms for philosophers, a matter of temperament. Nietzsche is much more polemical and critical in his attitude, while having what might be called an elitist streak. In contrast, there is a sense in which James had a profound respect for the common man and wanted to defend everyday experience. James’s underlying purpose seems to have been constructive and reformative, while Nietzsche has more of an explicit reputation as a negator. Perhaps it’s true that something of value could be found in both approaches.


~ by brainpolice on May 9, 2010.

2 Responses to “James and Nietzsche on Truth”

  1. The ultimate purpose of Philosophy is (and ought to be) to seek out and fully surrender itself to the Truth.

  2. Thank you for this post. It is well written and informaitve. I know more about James than Nietxhe so it was good to hear a little about the similarities and differences between them. I guess the way that I have thought about it in the past is that James along with the other American Prgamatists were insisting that human activity had to be considered as an integral part of reality. In other words, reality is not just what we look at and think about – our perceptions and thoughts are also part of reality. Thanks again!

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