James on truth and solidarity: The epistomology of diversity and the politics of specificity

José M. Medina*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

10 Scopus citations


Given William James's thoroughgoing individualism, it may seem peculiar-even implausible-to use his philosophy to bring together the notion of truth and the notion of solidarity. James's philosophy seems oriented toward the individual and her experiences, but not so much toward interpersonal relations. However, despite his recalcitrant and unqualified individualism, I want to argue that there is a strong social element in James's philosophy. I see this impetus toward the interpersonal and social in his pluralism and relationalism. James's radical pluralism is based on a theory of relationality according to which nothing can be understood in and by itself, but rather in relation to other things, in a network of relations. On this relational view, the identity of things is concocted in a network of interdependences; and to have a sense of self is to have a sense of the dependences that compose one's life, for we can understand the identity of something only by grasping the fabric of relations in which that thing appears. It is essential to distinguish this relationalism from the holism that is often attributed to figures such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wilfrid Sellars, Nelson Goodman, and W. V. O. Quine. Whereas the Jamesian relationalism is based on open-ended networks of relations that are typically unfinished and indeterminate, the holism that circulates in contemporary philosophy of language requires finished and complete wholes (whether they are frameworks, webs of beliefs, or language-games). James's relationalism is beyond the usual dichotomy between atomism and holism and actually undercuts it, for, without assigning priority to the component parts or to the whole, it prioritizes relations and calls attention to their formative and transformative character in shaping the relata. From a relational perspective, to understand the identity of something is to understand how that thing is related to many other things, but also how it can become entangled in many other potential relations. For it is not only the factual relations that are already given that matter, but also those other potential relations that can unfold or be created. The identity of each thing is bound up with diversity, for each thing enters into constitutive relations with many other things and becomes entangled with a wild diversity of entities to which it is related in a network of interdependences. From this point of view, issues of identity have to be understood as issues of diversity: The others are essential to the self, for it is in networks of relations that individuals and groups are formed. Diversity is not a multicultural invention of postcolonial and globalized societies. On this view, diversity is the condition of denizens of this world and, therefore also, the human condition. We are diverse and heterogeneous beings who are shaped and reshaped through diverse and heterogeneous networks of interpersonal relations. James's conception of the self underscores this deep sense of relationality and involvement with those around us. For James, the self is a bundle of relations: The self is formed in and through the relations in which it becomes involved; we negotiate our identity in these relations. As he puts it: "Every bit of us at every moment is part and parcel of a wider self, it quivers along various radii like the wind-rose on a compass, and the actual in it is continuously one with possibles not yet in our present sight" (APU, 1977). As McDermott has shown, despite James's unflinching individualism and his explicit rejection of sociality as a constitutive aspect of the self, the Jamesian Promethean self is not a solitary self but a member of a community of experience and interpretation that cannot help but be enmeshed in social networks, for it is a relational unit that shrinks and grows as it relates to others.1 In James's view truth is a value that regulates our normative engagements with others. Truth is therefore the source of solidarity, for it contributes to the sharing of experience and the coordination of action. When James defines truth as "whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief" (P, 42), he is referring not only to what we believe individually but also to what we believe together. For, as James puts it, "all human thinking gets discursified [ . . . ] by means of social intercourse" (P, 102); and in the "discursification" of our thinking our beliefs get articulated and evaluated in social negotiations that are regulated by truth. In other words, truth is a value that regulates our epistemic practices for the fixation of belief. Our truth negotiations are oriented toward the configuration of a common vantage point from which we can survey the world together. They aim at the sharing of experiences and at the coordination of action. In these negotiations we have to take responsibility for the beliefs we hold to be true. On the Jamesian view, holding a belief as true is holding that it is good to live by it; and this allegiance to a particular belief makes one responsible for its practical consequences in one's life and in the lives of others. In this way, as we shall see, James's conception of truth underscores the epistemic and social responsibility of believers and their accountability to others. It is important to note that the normative engagements that truth regulates are open-ended negotiations that involve not only actual but also possible others with whom we may share our cognitive life. That is, the normative negotiations concerning truth are open to indefinitely many others who can become our inter locutors. And what is crucial to note here is that these potential interlocutors are specific others who pose specific challenges and demands. They cannot be properly understood as a Generalized Other à la Mead or as a formal universal community of communication à la Habermas. As I will try to show in what follows, the notion of solidarity that derives from James's view of truth is very different from Mead's cosmopolitanism or from Habermas's universalism. The central goal of this essay will be to use James's conception of truth to make explicit the connections between the epistemic reconstruction of beliefs and the sociopolitical critique of our practices and ways of life. In the next section, I will examine the normative and performative aspects of truth, bringing to the fore the social and political implications of James's view. In the section after, using as an illustration the critical reconstruction of our beliefs about the past, I will try to show that, according to James's radical pluralism, epistemological analysis is always at the same time social critique. This discussion will try to make clear that, far from falling into relativism, James's pluralistic conception of truth makes room for a robust notion of objectivity, which is at the same time a notion of justice. Finally, I will explore the implications of the convergence between the epistemic and the political that I see in James's view. I will argue that the Jamesian insights about truth have a prolific (and yet untapped) critical potential and can be used to set the agenda of a critical epistemology for the twenty-first century.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publication100 Years of Pragmatism
Subtitle of host publicationWilliam James's Revolutionary Philosophy
PublisherIndiana University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)9780253353870
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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