§3. The Meaning of »Practical« Consequences


25. If I were to go into practical matters, the advantage of pragmatism, of looking at the substantial practical issue, would be still more apparent. But here pragmatism is generally practised by successful men. In fact, the genus of efficient men [is] mainly distinguished from inefficient precisely by this.

26. There is no doubt, then, that pragmatism opens a very easy road to the solution of an immense variety of questions. But it does not at all follow from that, that it is true. On the contrary, one may very properly entertain a suspicion of any method which so resolves the most difficult questions into easy problems. No doubt Ockham's razor is logically sound. A hypothesis should be stripped of every feature which is in no wise called for to furnish an explanation of observed facts. Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem; only we may very well doubt whether a very simple hypothesis can contain every factor that is necessary. Certain it is that most hypotheses which at first seemed to unite great simplicity with entire sufficiency have had to be greatly complicated in the further progress of science.

27. What is the proof that the possible practical consequences of a concept constitute the sum total of the concept? The argument upon which I rested the maxim in my original paper 1) was that belief consists mainly in being deliberately prepared to adopt the formula believed in as the guide to action. If this be in truth the nature of belief, then undoubtedly the proposition believed in can itself be nothing but a maxim of conduct. That I believe is quite evident.

28. But how do we know that belief is nothing but the deliberate preparedness to act according to the formula believed?

My original article carried this back to a psychological principle. The conception of truth, according to me, was developed out of an original impulse to act consistently, to have a definite intention. But in the first place, this was not very clearly made out, and in the second place, I do not think it satisfactory to reduce such fundamental things to facts of psychology. For man could alter his nature, or his environment would alter it if he did not voluntarily do so, if the impulse were not what was advantageous or fitting. Why has evolution made man's mind to be so constructed? That is the question we must nowadays ask, and all attempts to ground the fundamentals of logic on psychology are seen to be essentially shallow.

29. The question of the nature of belief, or in other words the question of what the true logical analysis of the act of judgment is, is the question upon which logicians of late years have chiefly concentrated their energies. Is the pragmatistic answer satisfactory?

Do we not all perceive that judgment is something closely allied to assertion?1) That is the view that ordinary speech entertains. A man or woman will be heard to use the phrase, »I says to myself.« That is, judgment is held to be either no more than an assertion to oneself or at any rate something very like that.

30. Now it is a fairly easy problem to analyze the nature of assertion.2) To find an easily dissected example, we shall naturally take a case where the assertive element is magnified — a very formal assertion, such as an affidavit. Here a man goes before a notary or magistrate and takes such action that if what he says is not true, evil consequences will be visited upon him, and this he does with a view to thus causing other men to be affected just as they would be if the proposition sworn to had presented itself to them as a perceptual fact.

We thus see that the act of assertion is an act of a totally different nature from the act of apprehending the meaning of the proposition and we cannot expect that any analysis of what assertion is (or any analysis of what judgment or belief is, if that act is at all allied to assertion), should throw any light at all on the widely different question of what the apprehension of the meaning of a proposition is.

31. What is the difference between making an assertion and laying a wager? Both are acts whereby the agent deliberately subjects himself to evil consequences if a certain proposition is not true. Only when he offers to bet he hopes the other man will make himself responsible in the same way for the truth of the contrary proposition; while when he makes an assertion he always (or almost always) wishes the man to whom he makes it to be led to do what he does. Accordingly in our vernacular »I will bet« so and so, is the phrase expressive of a private opinion which one does not expect others to share, while »You bet« is a form of assertion intended to cause another to follow suit.

32. Such then seems at least in a preliminary glance at the matter to be a satisfactory account of assertion. Now let us pass to judgment and belief. There can, of course, be no question that a man will act in accordance with his belief so far as his belief has any practical consequences. The only doubt is whether this is all that belief is, whether belief is a mere nullity so far as it does not influence conduct. What possible effect upon conduct can it have, for example, to believe that the diagonal of a square is incommensurable with the side? Name a discrepancy e no matter how small, and the diagonal differs from a rational quantity by much less than that. Professor Newcomb in his calculus and all mathematicians of his rather antiquated fashion think that they have proved two quantities to be equal when they have proved that they differ by less than any assignable quantity. I once tried hard to make Newcomb say whether the diagonal of the square differed from a rational fraction of the side or not; but he saw what I was driving at and would not answer. The proposition that the diagonal is incommensurable has stood in the textbooks from time immemorial without ever being assailed and I am sure that the most modern type of mathematician holds to it most decidedly. Yet it seems quite absurd to say that there is any objective practical difference between commensurable and incommensurable.1)

33. Of course you can say if you like that the act of expressing a quantity as a rational fraction is a piece of conduct and that it is in itself a practical difference that one kind of quantity can be so expressed and the other not. But a thinker must be shallow indeed if he does not see that to admit a species of practicality that consists in one's conduct about words and modes of expression is at once to break down all the bars against the nonsense that pragmatism is designed to exclude.

What the pragmatist has his pragmatism for is to be able to say: here is a definition and it does not differ at all from your confusedly apprehended conception because there is no practical difference. But what is to prevent his opponent from replying that there is a practical difference which consists in his recognizing one as his conception and not the other? That is, one is expressible in a way in which the other is not expressible.

Pragmatism is completely volatilized if you admit that sort of practicality.


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