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.