On Pragmaticism

PHIL 600, 1st Paper/Presentation, Vered Arnon

Kirkham 3.1 & 3.2: Take Two

In the first section of chapter 3, Kirkham compares and contrasts Realist and Nonrealist theories of truth. These two theories tend to be used by philosophers working on the metaphysical project. Realist theories include most, but not all, of the theories considered correspondence theories. Nonrealist theories include coherence, pragmatic, pragmatistic, and instrumental theories.

The main difference between Realist and Nonrealist theories of truth seems to hinge on their treatment of facts. Kirkham uses the phrase ‘state of affairs’ to cover actual and non-actual facts, with the definition:

X is a state of affairs if and only if x’s obtaining can be asserted truly or falsely with a declarative sentence.

Facts are merely states of affairs that obtain in the actual world.

Realist theories of truth consider facts to be mind-independent and also not mental entities. Something is a fact if its obtaining is not dependant on anything anyone thinks or sees or believes. Minds can have thoughts about facts, but these thoughts themselves are not facts. Facts cause perceptions, but are not contingent on perceptions. For example, if it is a fact that there is a car outside my window, then according to a Realist theory of truth, the car is there whether I have seen it or not, and even if I do not believe it is there at all. If a car being outside my window is not a fact, then there is no car outside my window even if I and even every other mind in the world all sincerely believe that a car is there.

There is a difference between Realism and realism. Realism is a theory pertaining to truth, while small-r realism is a theory pertaining to ontology. A realist holds that existence itself, not truth, is mind-independent. If one is not a realist, one may still hold a Realist notion of truth, and such a person would consider there to be no truths. Likewise, a realist may hold a Nonrealist theory of truth, and while existing things are mind-independent by their theory, truth could be considered a linguistic construct or something.

Nonrealist theories of truth, in contrast to Realist theories, hold that truth is mind-dependant. There is much more variation in definitions of what a fact is among Nonrealist theories of truth. For example, for it to be a true fact that a car is outside my window may depend on whether or not I perceive a car to be outside my window. Perhaps cars and windows and even I myself do not exist physically, but are the constructs of minds, perhaps my own mind or perhaps projections from God’s mind. Nonrealist theories of truth tend to go with nonrealist ontologies. But Nonrealist theories of truth are also compatible with realist ontologies, for example, consensus theories that hold truth to be determined by general social consensus. A realist ontology renders the world objective, but truth can be subjective according to some Nonrealist theories of truth.

Nonrealist theories encounter problems with subjective notions of truth, though. Aside from solipsists and absolute idealists, who hold that there is no real physical external world, someone with a Nonrealist theory of truth may hold that there are mind-independent states of affairs, but what determines whether something is true or false has nothing to do with these states of affairs.

In the second section of chapter 3, Kirkham explores Charles S Peirce’s theory of Pragmaticism as an example of a Nonrealist theory of truth. Peirce initially called his theory Pragmatism, but when other people appropriated the term for what Peirce considered a very different sort of theory, Peirce renamed his own theory Pragmaticism. Since there is a distinction between Pragmatism and Pragmaticism, but the words are so similar, it seems prudent to explain the difference between the two, since I myself was somewhat confused, and as Kirkham explained in great length at the beginning of his book, confusion in this area of philosophy is a big problem that needs to be dealt with and avoided.

Peirce wrote in a letter to someone, “Pragmaticism is not a system of philosophy, it is only a method of thinking”(1) and also “pragmaticism is simply the doctrine that the inductive method is the only essential to the ascertainment of the intellectual purport of any symbol”(2). According to the Philosopher’s Dictionary Second Edition, “Pragmatists emphasized the relevance of practical application of things, their connections to our lives, our activities and values. They demanded instrumental definitions of philosophically relevant terms, and urged that we judge beliefs on the basis of their benefit to the believer.”(3)

Apparently, Peirce started using the word ‘pragmatism’ to label his theory, but then others started using it, and eventually it was criticised as ‘ill-chosen’ when people used it for things it wasn’t originally intended. Peirce then came up with the new word ‘pragmaticism’ which he defined with a much narrower scope, to avoid the confusion that others had created around the word ‘pragmatism’.

Now, on to explaining Peirce’s theory. Kirkham claims that Peirce’s writing is full of inconsistencies and contradictions and incoherence. If this is true, then he gives a good account of the difficulty of relating Peirce’s theory, and I am glad to have been spared the work of having to figure it out for myself. Considering how prolific a writer Peirce was, however, I’m inclined to think that his philosophy is sound and coherent, he just developed and modified his ideas over time and that’s why things seem contradictory. Much of his writing is still in unpublished manuscript form, in spite of how much has been published over the past century.

Peirce’s theory of truth has two parts, one part consensus theory, the other part correspondence theory. So far, presentations on this section of Kirkham’s book have found Peirce’s theory to be circular and confusing. I will attempt to show that his theory is in fact not circular, and hopefully I will clear up the confusion.

To start with, Peirce believes that the inductive method is ‘the only essential to the ascertainment of the intellectual purport of any symbol’. By this he means that truth is determined by induction, or by the scientific method of inquiry. Thus, if everyone studies and seeks an answer to a question, the consensus that they reach at the end of their investigation will be agreed upon as ‘true’. His notion of truth by consensus exhibits great faith in the human mind. But it is important to point out that, according to pragmaticism, ‘true’ and ‘correct’ are not synonymous. If all minds arrive at a consensus but their conclusion is incorrect, it is still ‘true’, because it is held to be true by everyone who has undertaken the investigation. Peirce’s theory is Nonrealist because truth is determined by the consensus of minds and not the actual state of affairs. This is a plausible theory, because if people agree upon something and take it to be true, it doesn’t matter what the actual state of affairs is, especially if the actual state of affairs is never realised by anyone. This theory is also functional in that it is fluid and flexible– if investigation is undertaken and a new consensus is arrived at, then revision is as easy as pointing out that the previous investigation was incomplete and thus the former consensus must be disregarded.

Peirce’s theory is also a correspondence theory, because he believes that ultimately consensus WILL be correct. He believes in the validity of the inductive method. So when he says ‘The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by truth’ he is saying that given enough time the inductive method will not fail to produce truth that corresponds with reality. Maybe people found his theory circular because of his use of the word ‘fated’, as if consensus was pre-determined to be true before the consensus was reached. But I think he uses the word ‘fated’ in the sense that he believes the power of inductive reasoning is great enough to actually discover truth, not in the sense that some opinions are pre-determined to be true before investigation is done.

I will attempt to map out Peirce’s theory:

Investigation — Consensus — truth (incorrect) — truth (correct)

The second to last step may be bypassed, and ideally will always be bypassed given adequate time and effort of investigators. Peirce believes that if the inductive method is really fully carried out, then it will arrive at a consensus of truth that corresponds with reality. But he grants that human minds are not infallible and thus incorrect things can be mistaken for reality and thus considered true. His theory is not circular, he merely has a Nonrealist theory of truth together with a realist theory of existence. Reality is not subjective, there is an actual state of affairs that obtains mind-independently. But truth is a status assigned to ‘symbols’, to use Peirce’s word, and thus while reality-correspondent truth is ideal and achievable, it is not ALWAYS achieved, so a theory of truth needs to accommodate the limitations of the human mind, since truth is in his view the ‘intellectual purport of a symbol’ and distinct from reality.


Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 8 volumes, vols. 1-6, eds. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, vols. 7-8, ed. Arthur W. Burks. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931-1958.

Commens Virtual Centre for Peirce Studies at the University of Helsinki. Helsinki, Finland. Established 2001. <www.helsinki.fi/science/commens>

Kirkham, Robert L. Theories of Truth: A Critical Introduction. MIT Press, March 1995.

Martin, Robert. The Philosopher’s Dictionary, 2nd edition. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 1994.

The Pierce Edition Project, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. Established 1976. <www.iupui.edu/~peirce/index.htm>


Realist theories of truth hold that facts are mind-independent.

Nonrealist theories of truth hold that facts are mind-dependant.

Facts, as the word is used by Kirkham, are states of affairs.

Realism (realism, note the lower-case) is not a theory of truth but a theory of reality which holds that existence is mind-independent. Non-realists include idealists, solipsists, etc.

Pragmatism is a school of philosophy emphasising the relevance of the benefit of beliefs to the believer.

Pragmaticism is a narrower term than pragmatism and is used by Charles Peirce to refer to his inductive-method-based philosophy.

Map of Peirce’s Theory:

 Investigation — consensus — truth (incorrect)* — truth (correct)

*Ideally this step will be bypassed/avoided because of the strength of the inductive method, but the nature of the human mind and the fact that the inductive method is often not completely carried to its end need to be taken into account.

1 Burks, Arthur W, ed. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, volume 8, paragraph 2.05-5, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1931 – 1958.
2 Ibid, paragraph 209
3 Martin, Robert. The Philosopher’s Dictionary, 2nd edition, p182. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 1994.

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