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The Notion Of True Beliefs About Facts According to William James

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According to William James, the notion of true beliefs about facts is a concept that is considered really important yet for negative reasons with respect to the human life. Certain worlds are considered to be “useful” and certain worlds are deemed as “harmful” where something being useful or harmful depends purely on how humans perceive those. We thereby live in such a “useful” world where philosophies suggest which ones are true and which ones are false. James provides a very relevant example where he shows how if one is stuck in a moment of confusion and somehow sees an unknown path which resonates more towards the path towards clarity then it would be “useful” for that person to follow that path in hope of finding the clarity. As claimed before, the definition of “truth” thus goes down as to what seems hopeful and practical for human sustainability. James then gives an even better definition, one can say then either that “it is useful because it is true” or that “it is true because it is useful.” James claims that “truth solely is a function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.” What then is James belief? James then claims how “true belief”  “useful belief” are those having a direction towards human satisfaction through “practical applications.”

Now very clearly, this notion of truth seems to be very pragmatic in nature. It claims to define in the context of things that are useful but what one may ask is what is the clear definition of useful? Is the definition relative to different individuals since it is a human concept? Can something be useful to believe but not true in this real world?

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Example of how it is useful to follow the unknown path towards clarity is useful, raises a simple question whether that path doesn’t “really” lead to clarity? We can consider Russell’s objection that It might be useful to believe that “Santa Claus exists”. This seems rather illogical in a sense that satisfaction which is linked with Santa’s hypothetical belief based existence is thereby claiming Santa’s actual existence. Now, this makes it very clear that certain beliefs can lead humans towards things which are truly imaginative yet satisfying. For a man whose wife is on the verge of dying because of an incurable illness, it would be useful for him to believe that his wife will get better and get rid of the incurable illness, but that won’t correspond to the real truth. At the very least, the notion of utility needs to be refined in a sense that it corresponds much more with the general truth rather than truth based on mere thoughts or presumably idealized, to the point where it becomes very difficult to evaluate the theory or even to understand precisely what it means.

James, therefore, responds to this objection providing another the notion of the “common sense”  “realism”. Common sense gains an edge in order to have transparency in portraying the “real world”. It is grounded in daily experience, customs and rituals. Common sense can take into account any theory in a way such that practical application remains coherent with the theory. The beauty of common sense is that it is flexible based on human’s desires and situations. Due to a world with more than 7 billion inhabitants, different individual has diverse needs where common sense could be used in order for human satisfaction. If certain actions lead up to situations that are harmful to humans then the definition of common sense changes accordingly and vice versa. This helps humanity to draw meaningful conclusions based on how common sense entails itself.

James very clearly links this aspect to his theory about how truth is related to “usefulness”. This can impact how people perform any action. Every deed has to be relevant for growth as well as logically consistent with the world in order for those deeds to be useful for humans. This phenomenon can have a very astounding influence on how the whole society moves forward with science and technology as discussed by James. Therefore, “usefulness” grounded “common sense” provides a much more solid foundation to what it means for something to be true for the betterment of the society as a whole. James concludes by saying that “pragmatism gets her general notion of truth as something essentially bound up with the way in which one moment in our experience may lead us towards other moments which it will be worthwhile to have been led to… on the common-sense level, the truth of a state of mind means this function of a leading that is worthwhile”.

In response to this, it is only fair to argue who decides what corresponds well with this “common sense” notion? James himself states that “Common sense is better for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third; but whether either be truer absolutely, Heaven only knows.” This clearly means that the notion of “common sense “corresponds with something other than how “science” which means that it is related to factors like experience and traditions more. Now every individual has different sets of experiences and traditions then what defines the general norm of “common sense”. Is common sense general at all or is it again relative to a different situation? This could be opposed very well by Redundancy Theorists – Frank P. Ramsey – who very strongly felt that the notion of common sense which is somewhat half belief based on what the world thinks is correct and what logical consistency says is correct would lack definiteness. He states clearly “the degree of belief is like a time interval; it has no precise meaning unless we specify how it is to be measured”. Hillary Putnam in his later life responded with his “Common-sense Realism” which is based on a position about representational systems which are related in a formal setup in order to understand the nature of the realistic world.


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