Pragmatism – the bedrock of epistemology

When trying to comprehend the world, one should stumble quite quickly on the fact that we don’t have absolute knowledge, and nor will we ever have. Living in an era of information overflow where each answer seems to open up ten new questions, makes it just impossible to feel to not have overlooked something.

But does that mean that there is no truth? Does that mean we can’t find truth?

If, because of that, everybody starts dogmatically defining their own truth, how can we ever agree upon objective facts, universal morality or anything else that should connect us as human beings?

How can we establish common ground despite difficulties in escaping our subjectivity?

There is only one solution, and it’s the only one that matters, even more than matter.

A View on Reality

A common answer to the question of truth is that something is true if it corresponds to reality.

But before starting to discuss whether an idea is true or not, it might be useful to talk about how we get to ideas in the first place. Philosophers labeled therefore two important terms:

  1. Rationalism – knowledge through thinking,
  2. Empiricism – knowledge through experience.

Although we understand, how rationality and experience provide us with knowledge, it is not obvious that such knowledge must comply with the definition of truth as something corresponding to reality.

Let’s first take a more isolated look at our ability to perceive our surroundings. Nature has provided us with sense organs that navigate us through the world. But in order to properly be navigated, it is necessary that focus is put on only basic directions and that a lot of details are kept left out.

For example, not only do we see just a tiny section of the color spectrum, the way we think that color is a property of the world that we observe, is just due to our unintended ignorance to basic physics. Colors are actually just a creation of our consciousness.

The primary drive of nature is evolutionary and therefore focused on living and surviving. However, the possibility is not excluded that it might well be that our knowledge still contains at least some objective truths about reality. What if only possessing knowledge that corresponds to reality will foster life?

Although we all can agree on which color to assign to a certain object, we are still left with the underlying problem to define objective truth. I call it the correspondence paradox:

In order to determine if A corresponds to B, you technically first need to know both A and B, or how else can you compare two things? Suppose A is something and B is reality, there exactly is the catch:

If we knew reality, we would already have possessed truth and wouldn’t need something.
If we didn’t know reality, there is nothing to compare our something with.

Hence, the correspondence theory is guilty of circular reasoning, because you would first need to know reality to know the truth.

To many, it might seem as an ignorance to the scientific philosophy that testing a hypothesis against nature is in fact a proof whether something corresponds to reality. But is it? On what basis are scientists pursuing their research? Here comes an interesting question: is it true that the scientific method is able to determine truth? To say yes, one would need a proof that is neither scientific nor logic-based. So, in the end, the scientific method leads us back into the same vicious circle and therefore does not solve the correspondence paradox.

Does that mean we just “assume” that the scientific method is true? On what basis then is our coherent chain of knowledge actually based?

The Logic Barricade

For some people, such skepticism might lead them to reject truth as a concept in general. However, it is not as simple as that. There are two problems that arise from such a pessimistic attitude to knowledge.

To say “There is no truth” or “Truth is ultimately subjective” is a straight surrender to logic and its unavoidable fallacies:

If there is no truth, is the statement “There is no truth” true?
If truth is ultimately subjective, is that statement only true for the person who said it?

Paradox alert: both statements possess an intrinsic and inevitable truth claim while contentwise rejecting truth.

But if it is so obvious that our knowledge of nature as a whole barely exists, why does logic stand in our way? As the saying goes, “actions speak louder than words”. It means that your true Beliefs are determined by your behavior, not by what you think you think.

To say “I can’t speak a word in English” or “My parents never had children that lived” is equally contradictory as to say “I just don’t use logic when talking”,
because I would tell you “Yes, you do”, and you would answer “No, I don’t”, and I would repeat “Yes, you do.”, and you would repeat “No, I don’t”, “Yes, you do”, “No, I don’t”. And then I would close with “Interesting, so you are contradicting me… How so without using logic?”, and you would say .

What it does not mean, is that everything you say is logically right. The profound takeaway is that every action, like speaking, has the fundamental drive to be consistent. Even if you were purposely trying to be inconsistent, you would still have to aim for consistency at being inconsistent.

The vicious circle is inescapable because it seems that we can’t control our Belief in logic. It’s even more: as beings that cannot not act, it is inherent to our behavioral nature to believe that our surroundings are not less real than ourselves. It means that our mere existence immutably subscribed to the belief in an objective world that we are part of, despite what someone’s words might claim.

So if we come back to our scientific approach, do we just have to realize that we can’t choose if the method is true or not? Surely not. After all, nothing directly forces me to indulge in the research of the cosmos.

But why do we then call science our future and are collectively so engaged in it? What justifies the underlying “assumption” of our knowledge?


If the assumptions are useful, then congratulations for finding truth: so called pragmatic truth. Let me explain.

Pragmatism is an American philosophy that originated in around 1870 and was developed by William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey. The recognition of the immense lack of knowledge about the world and our being trapped in our own subjective interpretation made them realize one central idea:

Truth is not a property of the world or the ideas aligning with the world.

The question that rather needs to be asked is, What is it about an idea that has to happen for us to experience it as being true?

The answer is either “it is useful because it is true” or “it is true because it is useful”. Both of these phrases mean exactly the same thing.

Truth is what works; ideas that serve a purpose. If certain knowledge is useful to get to a set goal, we call it true enough.

However, the most important thing here to notice is that we cannot simply choose what works or what is our best purpose. Pragmatism is in the same team with logic that doesn’t permit Subjectivism as we previously established.

Pragmatism is not the single epistemological answer, but it is the most fundamental one that builds and justifies the bedrock for all the other knowledge.

Being a Pragmatist

Finding our axioms in life is the equivalent to becoming mature. Being a Pragmatist means trying to get to the core of your knowledge. Being a Pragmatist means trying to understand the architecture of your belief. Being a Pragmatist means trying to take self-reflection to the next step, and once the step is done, taking the next.

It is okay for us to accept that our knowledge is limited by all means of the imagination, but so is our existence. We as finite beings have proportional finite knowledge. Because of this proportionality there is really no excuses to stop learning. Remember, you are not questioning the world to approach the absolute wisdom. You collect, test, evaluate, discuss, accept or discard knowledge to ultimately enhance the life of yourself and hopefully others.

Don’t be an ideologue. Be a Pragmatist.

Because remember, it’s not about matter, but about what matters.