Jamesian Epistemology

Epistemologists typically cite William James for formulating the epistemic goal properly. James said there are two parts to the goal: getting to the truth and avoiding error.

It is true that James says this, but it is not clear to me that he should have said it. Recall that for James, the purely intellectual motivations are these:
1. Not to be duped; and
2. Not to miss out on something important.

One would expect, then, that the epistemic goal should be formulated in a way derivable from these motivations. James doesn’t actually derive the epistemic goal in this way, and it is worth noting that it is far from clear how to do it.

Perhaps we can connect being duped with falsity by speaking of being duped by nature herself, and in this way identify every false belief with some sort of duping. A little reification is all that is needed. And perhaps as well we can show that only falsehoods have the duping power. That is harder, however, since many are gifted at duping with statements that are true but misleading. I’m less sure how to handle this worry.

But what about the connection between truth and importance? Here I don’t see how to get the required connection. We might say that we are ignorant enough that we can never be certain that any particular path of inquiry will lead us only to unimportant truths nor can we be sure that any given truth is unimportant, but I’d prefer an argument that is less tied to skepticism. And I expect a good Jamesian would want inquiry to proceed on the basis of pursuing things of importance rather than flipping coins among various options in order to refuse to rank them in terms of importance.

Nor is it any easier to see how only truths can be important. Some falsehoods are incredibly useful ones. We can try to make progress here by distinguishing a synchronic epistemic goal from a diachronic one, so that we control for usefulness in the future. But even so, given our cognitive limitations, it is easy to imagine how a simpler theory that is false can give us a more useful overall belief set and even one with a greater proportion of truths in it (the more complex the theory, the hard to tell what its implications are, so the fewer the implications of the theory in the belief set).

So maybe a good Jamesian shouldn’t say that the goal is to get to the truth and avoid error. Maybe what should be said by such a theorist is that the goal is to find what is important and avoid being duped. Then, perhaps, the epistemic goal that we are familiar with would have a contingent but useful and perhaps defeasible connection to the fundamental goal.

Not that I am defending this proposal, of course, but it looks to me like the kind of proposal James should have defended instead of what he actually did.


Jamesian Epistemology — 2 Comments

  1. We cannot ignore one goal for the other unless we are happy with skepticism or epistemic carelessness. Although they must be employed together the goals are at odds with each other. For example, important truths could possibly be lost while avoiding falsehoods. Hence, there needs to be an adequate balance between the two goals. What this balance is, I don’t know. It seems that finding the balance is a third cognitive goal and James’ two goals are secondary to it. Depending on our motivations, the third cognitive goal could be not being duped, not missing out on something important or some combination of the two.

    I don’t know if this is helpful…I borrowed this line of thinking from a Wayne Riggs paper…

  2. idris, the issue here is what the fundamental goals are. James writes both in terms of importance and being duped, and also in terms of truth and falsity. Epistemologists always cite the latter as the goals, but James views the former as more fundamental, I think. You are exactly right that there is an important issue about how to balance the goals. Maybe the right balance depends on the context of inquiry, or maybe the same balance is required in every context. And even if the latter is true, maybe the same balance varies depending on how much of a risk-taker one is. I’m not defending any of these, but they are important questions that aren’t talked about nearly enough in the literature.

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