On the Nature and Criterion of Truth

Creighton, J. E. “The Nature and Criterion of Truth.” The Philosophical Review 17, no. 6 (1908): 592. https://doi.org/10.2307/2177554


IN discussing this subject, it is advantageous, I think, to keep in mind that the question regarding the nature of truth and its criteria may be answered from different standpoints, and that these different answers may all be justified at their own level. Though divergent they need not be contradictory. Thus, for example, truth might be popularly defined as the agreement of ideas or judgments with the real nature of things, or as insight into the way in which we should act in a given situation. And under such circumstance we might properly enough appeal to the opinions of the plain man, or those of the scientific expert, or to the practical results of our own judgments when carried out in action. Or again, one might approach the question in a more detailed and elaborate fashion from the standpoint of the psychology of cognition, analyzing knowledge into its various elements, and attempting to show the various characteristics which distinguish true ideas and judgments from those which are false. In all of these and similar cases, the answers would vary with the standpoint from which we approached the subject, and with the presuppositions we made as to the data and terms with which we were dealing. These and numerous other accounts might be accepted as true 'from a certain standpoint,' or 'for certain purposes,' or 'provided we define our terms and state our assumptions in a certain way.' It is of fundamental importance, however, though not always easy, to remember the 'condition annexed' to all these statements and not to mistake them for philosophical truth.

The hypothetical standpoint of the special sciences has recently been so strongly emphasized, both by representatives of science and of philosophy, that there should henceforth be no danger of neglecting to recognize this limitation, or of confusing the philosophical issue by taking the conclusions of these sciences as absolute and categorical. At the present time the danger rather lies in a tendency to adopt an individual and external mode of philosophizing, which may properly enough be described as that of the essayist. The essayist deals in popular fashion with the problems of life; he discusses truth, for example, from a certain angle which seems to him suggestive, pointing out, perhaps, its resemblances to other things and its various uses and adaptations to human life. He may say a great many wise and illuminating things, and even point out facts and relations which must be taken account of in any philosophical treatment of the subject. But his results should not be mistaken for philosophy. For the essayist does not attempt to organize his results according to any logical principle or to develop them to a systematic conclusion. Tomorrow, if another aspect of the subject presents itself to his mind, he may give us quite a different account without feeling any obligation to bring it into relation with that of to-day, or even to explain any inconsistencies that may seem to exist between them. Montaigne, the originator of this form of writing in modern times, sets forth in a characteristic passage the standpoint and reflective mood of the essayist: “I take the first argument that fortune offers me; they are all equally good for me; I never design to treat them in their totality, for I never see the whole of anything, nor do those see it who promise to show it to us. Offa hundred members and faces which each thing has, I take one, sometimes to touch it only lightly or to graze the surface, and sometimes to pinch it to the bone; I give a stab not as wide but as deep as I can, and in general I love to seize things by some unwonted luster."

Now however interesting or edifying such a method of treating philosophical problems may be, it nevertheless differs in at least two fundamental respects from philosophy. In the first place, philosophy, like all other genuine sciences, has passed beyond the stage of the merely striking or suggestive treatment of problems, and aims not at interesting or picturesque results, but at the systematic organization of the facts with which it deals according to some general principle. The object of philosophy is not to make the world interesting, but to satisfy the mind's demands for intelligibility. To this end the philosopher is bound to develop systematically some unitary point of view, to organize his various experiences and observations in such a way as to make it possible to think them in some kind of relation. To discover the principle which unites these facts with each other is the purpose of this treatment, not to reflect upon them externally from the particular angle which seems to offer itself for interesting or suggestive treatment.

It is equally important to notice, in the second place, that the standpoint of philosophy, no more than the method of treatment, is to be determined by the mood of the individual, or by his love of "seizing things by some unwonted luster." It follows from the scientific aim of philosophy that its standpoint must be logically justified, that is, shown to be the standpoint of truth itself, and not one arbitrarily chosen by any special individual interest. If one believes in philosophy at all, one cannot abandon the search for such a standpoint.

The recognition that there is an objective standpoint which it is possible to attain seems to find expression at the present time in the almost universal appeal to experience on the part of philosophical writers. Whatever school one belongs to, one still claims to be an empiricist in the sense that his results are professedly founded on the impregnable rock of concrete experience. But in spite of this verbal agreement, differences arise as soon as we come to a reading of experience. For facts exist for us only in the light of theories, and a theory of experience is a whole philosophy. The objective standpoint, the truth of the facts themselves, is not, then, one at which we can arrive without pains and labor, merely by lifting up our eyes and looking. Indeed, when we sharply contrast facts and theories in this way, thinking of each as having an existence independently of the other, we are at once brought to a standstill. As we cannot begin with either, it may appear that we cannot begin at all. The antithesis between facts and theories, however, is a false one; and, as a matter of fact, philosophy, like all the sciences, did begin with both, with facts which were not less inaccurate and incomplete than its theories were crude and inadequate. The progress of the sciences has taken place through further analysis of the starting point, a process that involves at once the criticism of facts in the light of theories and the elaboration and development of new theories in the light of facts.

We have said that it is the business of philosophy to justify its standpoint, which means, to show that this is really objective, and thus, corresponding to the true nature of things. But how is it possible, even provisionally, to define such a standpoint? How is it possible to get, as it were, inside experience itself, to attain, even partially, the standpoint of internal reflection, which, as Hegel says, is der Gang der Sache selbst? The case would be hopeless if any individual thinker were called upon to take up the problem of philosophy without any reference to the past. What I wish to emphasize is the necessity of going to the history of philosophy to discover the true standpoint of philosophy itself. For the history of philosophy is the record of the progress that humanity has made in defining the objective standpoint from which alone experience can be rendered intelligible, and, consequently, in defining the nature and criterion of truth. Depreciation of the value of historical study in philosophy overlooks entirely the objective character of truth, and of the process of its development. It is doubtless true that scholarship in the history of philosophy might tend to stifle a certain kind of originality, but perhaps this loss would not altogether be a disaster. It is surely true that a genuine contribution can be made in philosophy, as in the other sciences, only by one who knows and understands what has already been done. Only such a person is in a position to formulate a significant problem or to raise a pertinent objection. Philosophy cannot be directly advanced, then, either by the essayist or by the original thinker who works in independence of the past. The would-be philosopher who resolves to occupy himself only with current problems and present-day tendencies has cut himself off from all possibility of philosophical insight. No man can lift himself by his own bootstraps.


I have ventured to refer to these matters because they seem to me to be materially involved in the present discussion. It is necessary, before attempting to agree in our definitions of truth, to have some understanding as to what constitutes a philosophical definition, and also, since we must begin somewhere, to have some common understanding as to what we may fairly regard as established by the historical systems and what criticism has shown to require correction or restatement. If one believes in philosophy at all, one must admit that some philosophical truth has been objectively established, that there are some things that one has to learn and at least provisionally accept. I do not mean, of course, that philosophy at the present day has merely to follow one of the great historical systems, Aristotle's, or that of Kantor Hegel. But, as a protest against the attitude of the free-lance who asserts his right to make his own standpoint and method, I’m insisting that no such individual or arbitrary procedure offers any hope or has any genuine title to the name of philosophy.

My own contribution to this discussion will consist in stating very briefly some of the fundamental conceptions with which the history of philosophy has furnished us as instruments for interpretation of experience. I shall then attempt to show what application these conceptions have to the current discussion of pragmatism.

In the first place, everyone would admit at the present time that experience must be conceived as a process, and that truth has to do with the relation of the parts of that process to each other. In the pre-Kantian modern systems, the prevailing mode of explaining experience was to represent it as a mechanical aggregation of unchanging elements, and to find the criterion of truth in some quality or characteristic of the elements themselves, as, e.g., in their clearness, or strength and vivacity. Now, I think that we all agree that the problem can no longer be stated in this form: we no longer ask, in logic at least, what particular mark belongs to a mental process as such in virtue of which it is true. Truth is recognized to involve the functional relations and interplay of ideas, it is found in the achieved organization, in the attained consistency of experience. This general recognition experience as a dynamic process through which organizations achieved is, of course, a result of the application to logic of the notion of development. But although this conception is of fundamental importance and has transformed the older way of stating the logical problem, it has not served to put to rest the historical disputes regarding the nature of experience, as Spencer fondly hoped that it would. For although it is undoubtedly true that if we could give a complete genetic account of knowledge, exhibiting fully its various functions and implications, we should have answered all the questions that can intelligibly be asked regarding its nature and validity, the old difficulty recurs as to the terms in which the true genetic account is to be given. Hegel and Spencer, for example, reach very different results by following the evolutionary method, and an almost equal divergence shows itself in later writers who profess to give an account of experience in developmental terms. The truth is that every description of the origin and development of mind implies, either implicitly or explicitly, a general theory regarding the nature of experience both in relation to the self and the world.

It seems to me that knowledge may be best understood when it is taken at the outset as the process through which both the individual subject and the race attain consistency of experience. But this consistency, it should be added at once, is no merely formal consistency of internal ideas, if such a consistency be possible at all, but involves and implies a view of the world as a harmoniously organized system of reality. These two sides, the thought and its object, are distinguishable aspects of the total concrete experience, but cannot be taken as separate entities that might exist apart from each other, and thus might be connected only in an accidental way through external causalities are not to conceive the matter as if there were first mind and an objective order each existing independently, and as if these two things then proceeded to act upon each other at more or less irregular intervals. For to be a mind at all is just to stand in relation to a world, an objective order of things and events. And, on the other hand, the objective order is never in experience at any of its stages something merely isolated from and independent of mind.

It is doubtless true that in the earlier form of experience, which is sometimes described as the stage of primitive awareness, this dualism of aspects is not distinctly recognized as present. To impute to this earlier stage of knowledge the full-blown dualism between subject and object which later appears in consciousness would certainly be a mistake. And even to say that the distinction is at first implicit or potentially present may be misleading. The uncritical use of the potential or the implicit is almost certain to lead to a begging of the question. I do not see how we are to avoid employing the notion in some sense, Buti do not feel able at present to show in detail what are the limits of its justifiable use. It is certain, however, that in describing experience, we cannot say that a distinction is present or not present in the same sense in which we pronounce a body presenter absent in a particular space. Even in psychology we recognize the distinction between what is at the center and what is at the periphery of attention. And, in analyzing knowledge, we are not dealing with existing processes, but with meanings, whose signification may be dimly felt without being clearly recognized.

Now even in the most primitive experience we are entitled argue, I suppose, that the conditions of consciousness must be present. These conditions I do not think are fulfilled in the descriptions of this experience which characterize it as a "distinctionless mass," or a 'chaotic undifferentiated whole.' For experience is an internal process and seems at least to carry with it a 'being aware' or 'simple apprehension' on the part of a subject. However vague and indefinite this awareness may be, there is involved the two aspects of the act and of some object of which the subjects aware. The distinction of act and object is, of course, not there for the subject in explicit form, but it is functionally operatives the very condition of conscious experience. Similarly, on the presentation side, there is some distinction in the total presentation, some discrimination of a content as a distinguishable element, as that of which we are aware.

In short, I do not see how we can avoid the conclusion that consciousness is an awareness of an objective content, and that the content to be a content at all is already from the first in some way discriminated and related, that is, taken as a meaning. Consciousness is not there as a Prius, as if it were a kind of entity, a receptacle perhaps to be filled with sensations and feelings another thing, but it is the immanent and dynamic function of interpretation in experience. Now this function of interpretation is progressive throughout the development of experience. Thetis, it everywhere does essentially the same work, organizing experience through analysis and synthesis. In tracing the development of experience, we are following the movement of one continuous function, which from the beginning is a functional discrimination and relation among objects. I fail, therefore, to see why experience should not be described in terms of this functions the development of thought or judgment. We should, of course, have to recognize the enormous difference between fully self-conscious thinking and the early modes of experience where the distinction between subject and object, between existence and idea, is not yet consciously present. But the disadvantages of applying the term 'judgment' at different levels would seem to be amply compensated by the emphasis which is thus placed upon the unity of mind, and the relief which thus is afforded from the impossible task of deriving thought from bare existence. Moreover, we may go on to say, just as thought or interpretation is the motive and the moving principle, which is immanent in experience from first to last, its universal subject, reality is everywhere present throughout experience as the universal object. The process of cognition does not deal with reality second hand, so to speak, by referring its own states of consciousness to reality as a predicate, but apprehends and interprets reality directly, as it is its nature to do so. In sense perception we know objects as having such and such qualities, in reasoning we are not operating with states of our own consciousness but are interpreting objective existence and relations. It has been acknowledged over and over again, that we cannot get knowledge out of mental states; but in spite of this acknowledgment, the belief in their reality as actual existences seem to persist in many quarters. Undoubtedly, it is said, they have to be touched with thought, universalized, or referred to reality, but in themselves they form the ultimate basis of our knowledge. Whether there are any states of consciousness in this sense, whether we can justifiably speak of feelings and emotions as merely in the mind, is a question that need not here be discussed. But it seems evident that, so far as the process of knowledge is concerned, there are no such subjective intermediaries present between the mind and the reality which it knows. In sense perception the sensations are not affections of the subject, but qualities of the objects. In reflective thinking, where the dualism between subject and object is more explicit, it is doubtless possible to distinguish between our ideas and hypotheses and the nature of reality. But even here this separation is only temporary and tentative. In the end it will be found impossible for any idea to be real apart from some relation, direct or indirect, to a real objective order.

The view, then, which I am endeavoring to state, and which I think has been established by the historical development of philosophical conceptions, maintains that the relation between the mind and reality is essentially inner and organic. Experience throughout all its modes is the expression of this unity in difference. In the progression of experience both the opposition and the connection of the two aspects are made more and more explicit. That is, both the subject and the object assume an increasing independence as over against each other, and at the same time they more and more exhibit their mutual dependence and inter-relation. Moreover, in the whole cognitive process thought presents a function of interpretation, operating indeed at various levels and with varying degrees of conscious control, but always as a process of thought, whose function is to determine concretely and still in universal terms the real world. Knowledge, then, is to be defined by tracing the development of this continuous function, and noting the forms assumed by the oppositions and dualisms within it and the result reached at any stage through the positive and negative interplay of its parts.

All of this is stated here in very general and schematic terms, and the standpoint, of course, could only be fully justified and its significance shown by applying it in some detail. Knowledge and truth can only be exhibited in the concrete working out of the relations of the parts of experience, and not in the general point of view. But, still, it is essential in the detailed working out to follow the thread, to interpret experience even in its most primitive form in the light of the purpose which is being realized. It seems to me that it is only by emphasizing the presence of mind throughout experience, as the immanent principle of development, that the various stages and processes can be exhibited as teleologically related and connected.


This brings us, I think, to a point from which it is possible to state the fundamental problems at issue in the discussions which are now going on about pragmatism. When we ask what is the purpose which the thought process is realizing, the idealist generally replies, 'completeness and coherence of experience,' or 'consistent view of the nature of reality.' Now the objection, as I understand it, which the pragmatist raises is that this definition is too absolute and formal, and that it rules out as irrelevant the natural processes and conditions which give to truth its concrete meaning. "The more it is insisted," says Professor Dewey in a recent article in Mind, "that the theoretical standard consistency is final within theory, the more germane and the more urgent is the question: What then in the concrete is theory? And of what nature is the real consistency which is the test of its formal consistency?" And again, he writes: "Those who question this basic principle of intellectualism . . . will urge instead of consistency in reality resting on the basis of consistency in the reasoning process, that the latter derives its meaning from the material consistency at which it aims."

There can be no doubt that this criticism is effective against any view that regards thought as something by itself in abstraction from the material of experience. And it must be admitted that, in their anxiety to vindicate the priority of thought, idealists have often ended by robbing it of all concrete meaning. To take thought as a formal process of reflection operating outside and independent of the real world of experience, and then to find truth in the formal consistency of such a process is obviously an absurdity. But real thinking, as we have seen, is not isolated, but exists only as the form and immanent principle of experience; and the consistency at which it aims must include the full concrete consistency of all the empirical elements. When we say, then, that logical consistency is the end and criterion of truth, we must give these terms a broader and more inclusive meaning than that which is often ascribed to them. We must regard thought as including within itself and using as means for the accomplishment of its own ends, not only sense-perception, memory, and imagination, but even physical movements and social verifications. Thinking is no closed process which develops truth according to an abstract principle of internal consistency, but is essentially a going to facts, a process of experiment and verification. As Herder says, “it is significant that the word 'Vernunft' is derived from 'vernehmen,' to learn or give ear to, for reason or thought involves looking abroad and learning." But thinking includes also the interpretation and organization of the reports derived from this or that quarter, their testing and evaluation in the light not only of the inquiry at hand, but also of their relation to the wider system of experience in which the particular inquiry stands, so that it is equally an internal process, a coming home to itself.

One may acknowledge, then, the value of pragmatism in so far as it is a protest against abstraction, the besetting sin of philosophical constructions. But it seems to me that there has been a tendency, at least on the part of certain representatives of pragmatism, to go to the opposite extreme and to deprive thought or reason of all hegemony in experience. Thinking, from the thorough-going pragmatic standpoint, is regarded as a particular function in experience which is instrumental to the ends and aims of life, and which is justified by the practical effects which it shows in action. It grows out of the need for concrete ways of living and is tested by its practical consequences in terms of effects. There can be no doubt, I think, that it is perfectly natural to interpret these and similar statements as an appeal to some other standard than thought, and to find them an attempt to read experience in terms of life (the individual organism and its needs) rather than in terms of rationality. Pragmatism thus seemed to offer us a new doctrine, and in its exclusive emphasis upon the 'practical' to lead to new and startling consequences. But it is not too much to say that this more extreme and sensational side of pragmatism has been definitely refuted by the flood of criticism which it has called out. There has not, I think, been a shred left of its original form, or of its claim to supersede all the older systems.

We have been told recently, however, that all this criticism beside the mark, that the action and practical consequences to which the pragmatist appeals include further consequences for thought, the changes in values of all kinds, which will be brought about if a given conception is accepted as true. Now this interpretation of 'action' and 'practical consequences' was not entirely ignored by the critics, who pointed to the ambiguity which these words were made to cover in the pragmatists' writings. But the doctrine that thinking is always a means to more thinking, that the criterion of knowledge is more knowledge, can scarcely be considered an original discovery of pragmatism. That each element in experience gets its place and meaning from its relation to the other elements, that the truth of any conception is not in the mere result, but must be taken together with its process of becoming, that the test of thinking is more thinking, is not all this familiar doctrine? But even though this is true, we may still grant that pragmatism has rendered an important service by attempting to state the doctrine in more concrete terms, thus giving it a new meaning and emphasis. It is not entirely fair today that the difference between the new and the older statement of the relation of the various parts of experience to one another is a mere difference in phraseology. The new terms are significant of the more concrete way in which we think of experience as a functional system, a dynamic unity, in which neither the parts nor the whole have any reality or meaning when taken in isolation; and to the development of this view the pragmatic movement has materially contributed.

If we may interpret the pragmatic test of truth in this way, there is no reason why it may not be profitably accepted by idealism. For it is no appeal to the results of external consequences or to any mere individual feeling or act which is not organized as a consistent part of experience. But it is its mission to recall us from an abstract and formal view of thought and consistency to a broader conception of concrete rationality. In temper and motive it is identical with Hegel's vindication of the standpoint of reason as against the static conceptions and formal consistency of the understanding. Strangely enough, though quite in harmony with their lack of historical appreciation, pragmatists generally fail to appreciate Hegel's constant warfare against abstractions and continue to regard him as their archenemy rather than as their most powerful ally. Whatever may be the explanation of this antagonism, it seems to me that the most fruitful way of regarding pragmatism is as enforcing and carrying further Hegel’s appeal from the fixedness and isolation of the conceptions of the understanding to the fluid process of reason.

Nevertheless, even if we admit that the criticism which pragmatism has directed against idealism to a large extent has been deserved and should be laid to heart, the new school cannot be said to have developed any new views which are able to stand alone. The history of the whole discussion illustrates the comparative barrenness of philosophical criticism which is not carried on from some systematic point of view. It is impossible, I think, to give a philosophical account of the nature or test of truth without some general theory of experience. The nature of truth cannot be defined apart from any theory of reality; one cannot first settle logical questions and then go on to metaphysics. One must play the game of philosophy with the cards all on the table. The failure of the pragmatists to define their own standpoint, or perhaps to take any definite standpoint at all, has been mainly responsible for the misunderstandings of their doctrine of which they complain. More serious still, the lack of theory shows itself unmistakably in the nature of the pragmatic results, at least as they have been formulated by most writers. The pragmatists demand concreteness, but not having developed any objective view of logic, the only concreteness to which they can attain is that of psychological experience expressed in terms of subjective feeling and purpose. In a certain sense, it is of course true that we cannot deal with experience apart from its relation to the individual mind. But the genuinely concrete standpoint of experience which enables us to discover and define the nature of truth is not found in the form of psychological feeling or action, but in the universal aspect of logical organization of which all minds, in so far as they are rational, partake. It is surely a mistake to suppose that we render our view of knowledge more concrete by bringing it into relation to any private satisfaction or personal ends. It is only in so far as our desires and purposes are capable of being universalized that they can participate in the nature of truth and goodness, and it is only when viewed in the light of this relation that the 'actions' and 'satisfactions' of the individual can contribute to an understanding of the objective experience which is dealt with both by logic and ethics.

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