“Putnam, James, and ‘Absolute’ Truth”

European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy 13 (2) (2021)
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While historians of pragmatism often present William James as the founder of the “subjectivist” wing of pragmatism that came back into prominence with the writings of Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam has argued that James’s views are actually much closer to Peirce’s (and Putnam’s own). Putnam does so by noting that James distinguishes two sorts of truth: “temporary truth,” which is closer to a subjective notion of warranted assertibility, and “absolute truth,” which is closer to Peirce’s own comparatively objective notion of truth as what would be believed at some idealized end of inquiry. Putnam then argues that the temptation to read James as a precursor to Rorty requires privileging his talk of temporary truth, when, in fact, it was always absolute truth that was the primary sense of the term for James. This paper will argue that James’s views on truth are, in fact, much less tied to the absolute notion than Putnam suggests, and, indeed, that James’s account of the relations between our concepts and reality leave open the possibility that no claim of ours could ever be “absolutely” true, and thus that “temporary” truth would be all we could ever expect to have.

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Henry Jackman
York University


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