A Walk with William James, Part 5: A Random Musing on Serpents, Forks, and Theology

In his book Pragmatism, James famously claimed that "The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything." What James is claiming is that there is a subjective component, a human component, to all knowing.

This observation can be trivially true or radically controversial. On the trivial end of the continuum it seems obvious that WE are the locus of all truth-adjudication. Reality only makes sense to us as it relates to us. If reality doesn't relate to us then how would we know of it or about it?

A more radical claim is that, due to our subjectivity, we can NEVER know reality independently of ourselves. That is, we can never grasp an objective truth, a truth uncontaminated by human subjectivity.

If this latter claim were the case what then could we mean by "truth"? If I cannot grasp reality objectively, how can I get outside my own skin, so to speak, to compare my picture of reality directly with reality? You can't. All you have is the picture. And pictures of pictures. But we never get to see "reality." Thus, it seems impossible to say which picture is a "true" representation of reality. As the neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty (a prime example of the extreme end of James' serpent continuum) says, there is not "a way things really are," at least insofar as we can know it.

In the pragmatist literature we often see contrasts between two competing models of truth: Correspondence versus coping. The "correspondence" model of truth is your classical model of truth: I have a picture and I have reality. I can thus compare the two and see how they agree, how they correspond. If they correspond I say the picture is "true." If the picture and reality don't correspond then the picture is false. For example,

Case #1:
Picture of Reality (Belief): I believe there is a bathroom down the hall and to the left.
Reality: There is, indeed, a bathroom down the hall and to the left.
Verdict: Belief and Reality correspond. Belief is True.

Case #2:
Picture of Reality (Belief):I believe there is a bathroom down the hall and to the left.
Reality: There is not a bathroom down the hall and to the left. It is a closet.
Verdict:Belief and Reality do not correspond. Belief is False.

In our workaday lives nothing could be more obvious than the correspondence theory of truth. Questioning it seems insane. But when we start thinking about more complex issues the model quickly breaks down. For example, are the following statements true or false according to the correspondence theory?

Democracy is the best form of government.
Abortion is wrong.
God created the world in six days.

How would we set up a correspondence to assess these "truths"? Worse, we could get wildly paradoxical:

The correspondence theory of truth is true.

How would we evaluate the truth of THAT statement?

Pragmatists try to cut their way through this epistemic muddle by saying that we evaluate the truth of such claims by evaluating how these ideas WORK. This is truth as coping. Beliefs that help us cope (i.e., deal effectively with life) are adopted as "true." The "truth" is not a matter of correspondence, an unknowable issue, but a matter of pragmatic outcomes. Truth is effective. More from Rorty: Pragmatists "have no use for the reality-appearence distinction, any more than for the found and the made. We hope to replace the reality-appearance distinction with the distinction between the more useful and the less useful."

Revisiting our simplistic bathroom scenarios, we can note that the first belief might be deemed true because it helps us cope (i.e., it guides us to the bathroom successfully). The fact that the idea "corresponds" to the layout of the house really only distracts us from the true purpose of the belief: Coping. Coping is the end of all beliefs. Sometimes correspondence is the means, but correspondence is never the end. This is what James means when he says the trail of the human serpent is over everything. A pure, objective knowledge is incomprehensible outside of human goals, agendas, and interests. But note that many pragmatists part with Rorty here. Rorty denies the comprehensibility of truth-as-correspondence. But Jamesian pragmatists can grant correspondence. We only insist that correspondence is always subjugated to human coping (i.e., corresponding beliefs are very good at helping us cope). Knowledge is inherently pragmatic.

Louis Menand puts it like this in his book The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America:

"An idea has no greater metaphysical stature than, say, a fork. When your fork proves inadequate to the task of eating soup, it makes little sense to argue about whether there is something inherent in the nature of forks or something inherent in the nature of soup that accounts for the failure. You just reach for a spoon.''

The argument here is that we replace the idea of correspondence with notions of functionality and utility. Ideas are not "true" or "false." Ideas are forks. They are tools for coping. Some ideas work in certain situations. Others don't.

So, here's my big point: Theology is a fork.

More specifically, the trail of the human serpent is all over theology. How could we possibly disentangle theological ideas from human goals, agendas, and interests? We can't. We make God in our own image. And the minute we claim we DON'T make God in our own image, well, we can conclude that the human serpent is all over THAT statement as well. (Kind of like the epistemological equivalent of SoaP.)

Interestingly, the SoaP formulation leads us to another intersection between James and the emerging church. Again, compare James' "the trail of the human serpent is thus over everything" with another formulation from Peter Rollins in How (Not) to Speak of God: "[N]aming God is never really naming God but only naming our understanding of God. To take our ideas of the divine and hold them as if they correspond to the reality of God is thus to construct a conceptual idol built from the materials of our mind."

Given that the human serpent is deeply intertwined in all of our theological conversations, tempting us (a la Rollins) with "conceptual idolary" (i.e., the illusion that theology "corresponds" with the Divine), the only way forward is to lay all those utensils (i.e., theological ideas) on the table for pragmatic consideration. Let's say we not eating soup but eating a steak. We lay on the table a knife, a fork, and a spoon. What do we choose? We reach for the knife and fork. Because the knife and fork are truer than the spoon? No. We pick up the knife and fork because they get the job done.

Let's end by extending the metaphor. Rather than eating soup or steak, let's say the task before us is to create a community of loving people conforming to the image of Jesus?


What kind of spoon or fork or knife would you need, theologically speaking, to get that work done?

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12 thoughts on “A Walk with William James, Part 5: A Random Musing on Serpents, Forks, and Theology”

  1. Hi Richard,
    As ever I'm enjoying your blog and the safe space it provides to question and experiment.

    I'm just wondering where do you think the idea and role of relationship with God fits into the pragmatic approach to theology?

    I would say that I have a relationship with God through prayer and God 'speaking' to me and prompting me.

    Relationships function differently to ideas and concepts in that I don't even considering evaluating my relationships in terms of 'correspondence truth'. However, I gather 'experiental truth' from relationships with others and with God. Furthermore maybe I do consider relationships sometimes (whether rightly or wrongly/consciously or subconsciously) in terms of what is 'useful' and helps me to 'cope' in my life. Do I do this with my relationship with God?

    I can see that my theology plays a significant part in determining what I expect from my relationship with God and what I ask Him for, although I would also suggest that how my relationship with God is feeds back into my theology.

  2. How far you have strayed from "the Bible means what it says and says what it means!"

    Incidentally, I think James may be a little more closely tied to post-modernism than you give him credit for ... when you put pragmatism together with world-war-era disillusionment, you get Rorty's neo-pragmatism, which has a thoroughly postmodern understanding of truth.

    OTOH, those emergent folks probably wouldn't want to entirely discard the idea of objective truth, so they're probably more pragmatist than neo-pragmatist ... but if they're going to recognize James, they may as well recognize Hume, too. =)

  3. Jonathan,
    I think the focus on relationship does shift the conversation in helpful ways. In the next post or two on mysticism I think I'll be saying some things that support that perspective.

    Just to clarify, the goal of the post isn't to jettison stuff as much as it is to highlight the pragmatic aspect of belief. As churches fight and split over doctrine (i.e., quibble whose beliefs best correspond with the divine) the pragmatic approach will focus on the outcomes, the lives produced in those churches. By their fruits you shall know them. And, as Jesus said, the world will know we are his disciples if we love one another. Again, this is Rollins' idea of moving from "right belief" to "believing the right way."

    And thanks for again reminding people about the experimental nature of the blog. This post in particular could be misunderstood. A more conventional way to look at what I'm after is simply this: How does doctrine shape a church? What kind of teaching shapes people into the image of Jesus? In short, the post has very pastoral and ecclesial interests.

    You're right, Rorty does link the pragmatists with post-modernity. This link is debated however as he's the only one to make it. For example, he claims that pragmatists and post-modernists reject any notion of correspondence. In my reading of James, I don't know if that reading is wholly accurate.

    On reading the bible. One of my favorite passage is John 7:15-17:

    The Jews were amazed and asked, "How did this man get such learning without having studied?" Jesus answered, "My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own."

    This is such a great verse. How can we KNOW that Jesus' teaching is TRUE? He offers a pragmatic test: Try the teaching on for size. When you do the belief will provide its own verification in the life in produces in you. As James says, "truth happens to a belief."

  4. I think the first question you have to ask is if religion/theology is really the right tool for getting the job done in the first place. Is religion really pragmatic when it comes to changing people to produce the "fruits" of peace and justice? Does it do more harm than good? Should we jettison it for some better alternative?

  5. Pecs,
    I think that is the big question right now about religion. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are making the claim that religion is making us worse. My opinion is that if this is, indeed, the case it is because Christians have too long focused on doctrine over behavior. It goes back to my concerns regarding Bob Sutton's book. In too many places in Christianity we tolerate horrible behavior from fellow believers which leads to the overall witness of the faith being compromised. My hope is that the more pragmatic focus of the emerging church will be a good corrective.

  6. Richard, I think that the issue that mainstream Christianity may never be able to get past is the 'black swan' issue. For too long, the church has preached that it doesn't really matter what works in this life because this life is totally f*ed up and at the end Jesus will save us from all the ways that this life doesn't work. Therefore, mainstream Christianity is fundamentally opposed to pragmatism. Mainstream Christianity doesn't need to worry about what works now because they 'know' that in the end they will find their black swan.

    Maybe this is why the church thinkers such as Tillich, John A.T. Robinson, Bonhoeffer (?) have suggested, some more subtly than others, that maybe for a generation the word God will have to die out. Maybe all the forks and spoons and knives associated with religion have become too tainted and we have to put them away (at least for a while).

    You're right. The big question right now about religion is: Can religion work (and work better than the other alternatives)? Or, after 2000+ years of devoting good and talented people to religion, can we finally say enough? Can we finally say that this doesn't work and we need to try something else?

    I guess I write all of this to ask you about your response to Pecs, Richard. Isn't kind of arrogant to assume that our generation can fix the problems of religion and make it work, when people have been trying that with no success for thousands of years?

  7. Andrew,
    Hey, a "black swan" reference! Good book.

    Arrogant? Well, yes. But isn't each generation a little that way?

    You make a good point. Here's what I'll argue before I run to class.

    I think progress has been made, morally and religiously, over time. If we cast our net broadly, looking for pro-social interest/investment inside and outside of religion and attribute that motive force to God (although only believers would do that), then I think God, via human agents, has been shaping the world in positive ways. That is, when you say try "something else" we are missing the multitude of ways God is working, inside and outside churches. We don't reject religion for a Plan B. God has plans A, B, C, D.... all in play. Religion has and does seem to play a part of those plans. That is, some people only become good via the religious route. For them, pragmatically speaking, it's the fork that gets the job done. So maybe the issue is, as you point out with mainstream churches, the insistence that only forks will do.

  8. I remain uncertain as to how exactly this move from belief to behavior would work. I mean, on some level it is contradictory, since this move starts with the BELIEF that behavior should be emphasized over belief. In reality, I think you are asking Christians to change their beliefs (i.e. adopt a new theology regarding the importance of behavior in relation to belief) and let that belief inform a new ideal for practice.

  9. Pecs,
    These posts are not systematic treatments of pragmatism so there is no wonder there is confusion. Let me try to clarify.

    Pragmatism is not an attempt to eradicate beliefs. Nor is it giving primacy to behavior over beliefs. Rather it is an account of the RELATIONSHIP between belief, behavior, and truth-hood.

    You stated that behavior starts with belief. Exactly. As James stated, the whole point of a belief is to motivate a behavior. A goal-less, consequence-less belief is, according to pragmatism, meaningless.

    So, what I'm recommending here is simply this: Theological discourse makes little sense separated from the Incarnational community, the community that acts out and lives those beliefs. Beliefs motivate the community and the life of the community witnesses to the truth of the beliefs. It's a symbiotic relationship.

  10. Richard, others,

    A few observations.

    First, (que X-files music) the truth is out there. But there is also what Gerard Manley Hopkins termed the "inscape," that interior imaginative, symbolic topography that shapes our thinking and individual and social behavior.

    Second, Richard Rority is dead (he died a couple of days ago at 75).

    Third, I agree with Pecs. Metaphysics is sneaky. Toss it out because it is inconvenient or forces us to think about what seems unthinkable, or because it seems to justify the status quo, and it creeps back in. James', Rority's, and Menand's critiques, though antimetaphysical, are still fundamentally metaphysical and symbolic. By the way, the knife, fork, spoon illustration presupposes that a spoon has been invented. But suppose it had not. Thinking about the inherent characteristics of the knife and fork might then allow us to conceive of an ideal spoon which could then be invented (theologically, incarnated).

    Fourth, ongoing intellectual critique--which is ineluctably based in metaphysics--of function, relationship, knowledge, ethics, and critique itself is what is going on (ideally) on this blog.

    Fifth, John has Jesus say of himself: "I am the way, the truth, and the life . . . ." Function (doing), metaphysics (thinking), and living. To revere, imitate, and do the good things of Jesus is of a piece. That's the job of disciples.


    George C.

  11. "Beliefs motivate the community and the life of the community witnesses to the truth of the beliefs. It's a symbiotic relationship."

    So what you are saying when you say "Christians have too long focused on doctrine over behavior" is that this belief/doctrine of the importance of doctrine should be changed to one that de-emphasizes the importance of doctrine (or emphasizes this "symbiosis") because the current emphasis has resulted in the church being a negative rather than positive force on humanity? The current witness shows this "doctrine" of emphasizing doctrine to be farce, in other words. So the first step to emphasizing behavior in church would be to start with a doctrine emphasizing behavior (or de-emphasizing doctrine, or emphasizing the symbiosis).

    There still seems to be a logical contradiction here, but I'm probably just reading you wrong.

  12. Richard, you asked What kind of spoon or fork or knife would you need, theologically speaking, to get that work done?

    For me it is none of these, what I think what will get the work done is the cross. It is God redeeming the world one person at a time through the glorious work of the cross. Shame on all that minister the word in God’s name who feed us nothing but "nice" little sermons and "delightful" little points and "interesting" little biblical portraits and "informative" glances at this or that! These are not the truths that give us a sense of our destiny and mission to the world. These are not what fill us with purpose and the power to defy the chaos of the world and the entrenched evils that would strip us of dignity and meaning. It’s the cross and what it means that disarms the authorities and powers and makes a spectacle of them; and nothing less than feeding the church on all these massive truths is the minister’s business.

    We need more than correct "answers" to biblical questions and more than tanker-loads of moral opinions while starving for the meaning and implications of the Incarnation, life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ to God’s right hand. We need more than a "gospel" that is almost an apologetic invitation instead of a bold declaration of the fact of Christ’s Lordship!

    We don’t need leaders whose aim is greater numbers in their churches, whose central aim is to please the religious consumers they have helped to create. We don’t need ministers who are especially concerned with making a name for themselves as "fearless"; men that spend their lives correcting people at important points while depriving the church of the indispensable "gospel" that enables it to face a fierce world like ours with radiant hope in their hearts. The hope and radiance the world needs to see and hear is that which is generated by God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ. And if we don’t know or really care how to develop that and make it the steady diet of our people then we ought to get an honourable job like digging ditches or driving a taxi.

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