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from Pragmatism and Sociology

Pragmatism & the Question of Truth

by Emile Durkheim (1914)


It has been said that pragmatism is above all an attempt to liberate the will. If the world is to solicit our activity, we must be able to change it; and for that to occur, it must be malleable. Things are not chiefly important for what they are, but for what they are worth. The basis of our action is a hierarchy of values which we ourselves have established. Our action is therefore only worthwhile if that system of values can be realised, made incarnate, in our world. Pragmatism thus gives a meaning to action.

Nevertheless, this preoccupation with action, which has been seen as the defining characteristic of pragmatism, is not, in my view, its major feature. Man's burning desire to transform things is apparent in the thought of all the idealists. When we have an ideal, we see the world as something obliged to conform to it. Pragmatism, however, is not a form of idealism, but a radical empiricism. What is there in it which could justify such a desire to transform things? We have seen that for pragmatism there are not two planes of existence, but only one, and consequently it is impossible to see where the ideal could be located. As has just been shown, God himself is an object of experience in pragmatist doctrine.

We can therefore conclude that pragmatism is much less of an undertaking to encourage action than an attack on pure speculation and theoretical thought. What is really characteristic of it is an impatience with any rigorous intellectual discipline. It aspires to 'liberate' thought much more than it does action. Its ambition, as James says, is to 'make the truth more supple'. We shall see later what reasons it adduces to support its view that truth must not remain 'rigid'.

General criticism of pragmatism

We can now move on to the general discussion of pragmatist doctrines.

They can, first of all, be criticised for certain gaps in them. As I have already pointed out, the pragmatists often take too many liberties with historical doctrines. They interpret them as they wish, and often rather inexactly.

Above all, however, we must indicate the abstract nature of their argument, since it clashes with the general orientation, which they claim is empirical, of their doctrine. Most of the time, their proofs have a dialectical character; everything is reduced to a purely logical construction. This provides one contradiction.

But their thought presents other flagrant contradictions. Here is an example: on the one hand, we are told that consciousness as such does not exist, that it is nothing original, that it is neither a factor sui generis nor a true reality, but is only a simple echo, a 'vain noise' left behind by the 'soul' that has vanished from the heaven of philosophy. This, as we know, is the theme of the famous article, 'Does consciousness exist?', a theme which James took up again in the form of a communication in French to the Congress of 1905. On the other hand, however, the pragmatists maintain that reality is a construction of thought, that reality is apperception itself. In so doing they attribute to thought the same power and the same qualities as the idealists ascribe to it. They urge both epiphenomenalism and idealism, two incompatible theses. Pragmatism therefore lacks those basic characteristics which one has the right to expect of a philosophical doctrine.

Here we must ask ourselves a question. How does it happen that, with such defects, pragmatism has imposed itself on so many minds? It must be based on something in the human consciousness and have a strength that we have yet to discover.


Let us ask ourselves, then, what feeling animates the doctrine, what motivation is its essential factor. I have said already that it is not a practical need, a need to extend the field of human action. There is, to be sure, particularly in James, a liking for risk, a need for adventure; he prefers an uncertain, 'malleable' world to a fixed and immobile world, because it is a world in which there is something to do. This is certainly the ideal of the strong man who wishes to expand the field of his activity. But how, then, can the same philosopher show us as an ideal the ascetic who renounces the world and turns away from it?

Actually, pragmatism has not been concerned with picturing a particular ideal for us. Its dominant trait is the need to 'soften the truth', to make it 'less rigid', as James says - to free it, in short, from the discipline of logical thought. This appears very clearly in James's The Will to Believe .Once this is posited, everything becomes clear. If thought had as its object simply to 'reproduce' reality, it would be the slave of things, and chained to reality. It would simply have to slavishly 'copy' the reality before it. If thought is to be freed, it must become the creator of its own object, and the only way to attain this goal is to give it a reality to make or construct. Therefore, thought has as its aim not the reproduction of a datum, but the construction of a future reality. It follows that the value of ideas can no longer be assessed by reference to objects but must be determined by their degree of utility, their more or less 'advantageous' character.

We can thus see the scope of the pragmatist theses. If, in classical rationalism, thought has this character of 'rigidity', for which pragmatism criticises it, it is because in rationalism truth is conceived of as a simple thing, a thing quasi-divine, that draws its whole value from itself. Since it is seen as sufficient unto itself, it is necessarily placed above human life. It cannot conform to the demands of circumstances and differing temperaments. It is valid by itself and is good with an absolute goodness. It does not exist for our sake, but for its own. Its role is to let itself be contemplated. It is so to speak deified; it becomes the object of a real cult. This is still Plato's conception. It extends to the faculty by means of which we attain truth, that is, reason. Reason serves to explain things to us, but, in this conception, itself remains unexplained; it is placed outside scientific analysis.

'To soften' the truth is to take from it this absolute and as it were sacrosanct character. It is to tear it away from this state of immobility that removes it from all becoming, from all change and, consequently, from all explanation. Imagine that instead of being thus confined in a separate world, it is itself part of reality and life, not by a kind of fall or degradation that would disfigure and corrupt it, but because it is naturally part of reality and life.' It is placed in the series of facts, at the very heart of things having antecedents and consequences. It poses problems: we are authorised to ask ourselves where it comes from, what good it is and so on. It becomes itself an object of knowledge. Herein lies the interest of the pragmatist enterprise: we can see it as an effort to understand truth and reason themselves, to restore to them their human interest, to make of them human things that derive from temporal causes and give rise to temporal consequences. To 'soften' truth is to make it into something that can be analysed and explained.

It is here that we can establish a PARALLEL BETWEEN PRAGMATISM AND SOCIOLOGY. By applying the historical point of view to the order of things human, sociology is led to set itself the same problem. Man is a product of history and hence of becoming; there is nothing in him that is either given or defined in advance. History begins nowhere and it ends nowhere. Everything in man has been made by mankind in the course of time. Consequently, if truth is human, it too is a human product. Sociology applies the same conception to reason. All that constitutes reason, its principles and categories, has been made in the course of history.

Everything is a product of certain causes. Phenomena must not be represented in closed series: things have a 'circular' character, and analysis can be prolonged to infinity. This is why I can accept neither the statement of the idealists, that in the beginning there is thought, nor that of the pragmatists, that in the beginning there is action.

But if sociology poses the problem in the same way as does pragmatism, it is in a better position to solve it. The latter, in fact, claims to explain truth psychologically and subjectively. However, the nature of the individual is too limited to explain alone all things human. Therefore, if we envisage individual elements alone, we are led to diminish unduly the amplitude of the effects that we have to account for. How could reason, in particular, have arisen in the course of the experiences undergone by a single individual? Sociology provides us with broader explanations. For it, truth, reason and morality are the results of a becoming that includes the entire unfolding of human history.

Thus we see the advantage of the sociological over the pragmatist point of view. For the pragmatist philosophers, as we have already said several times, experience can take place on one level only. Reason is placed on the same plane as sensitivity; truth, on the same plane as sensations and instincts. But men have always recognised in truth something that in certain respects imposes itself on us, something that is independent of the facts of sensitivity and individual impulse. Such a universally held conception of truth must correspond to something real. It is one thing to cast doubt on the correspondence between symbols and reality; but it is quite another to reject the thing symbolised along with the symbol. This pressure that truth is seen as exercising on minds is itself a symbol that must be interpreted, even if we refuse to make of truth something absolute and extra-human.

Pragmatism, which levels everything, deprives itself of the means of making this interpretation by failing to recognise the duality that exists between the mentality which results from individual experiences and that which results from collective experiences. Sociology, however, reminds us that what is social always possesses a higher dignity than what is individual. It can be assumed that truth, like reason and morality, will always retain this character of being a higher value. This in no way prevents us from trying to explain it. The sociological point of view has the advantage of enabling us to analyse even that august thing, truth.

Until now there has been no particularly urgent need to choose between the points of view of sociology and pragmatism. In contrast to rationalism, pragmatism sees clearly that error does not lie on one side and truth on the other, but that in reality truths and errors are mixed, the latter having often been moments in the evolution of truth. In the history of creations, there are unforeseeable novelties. How, then, could truth be conceived of as something fixed and definitive?

But the reasons that pragmatism adduces to support this idea are susceptible to a great many objections. Moreover, the fact that things change does not necessarily mean that truth changes at the same time. Truth, one could say, is enriched; but it does not really change. It has certainly been enlarged and increased in the course of the development of history; but saying that truth grows is quite different from saying that it varies in its very nature.

The variations of truth

Let us return to the reasons that pragmatism gives in order to prove that truth is subject to change. There are really two: (1) truth cannot be immutable because reality itself is not immutable; hence truth changes in time. (2) Truth cannot be one because this oneness would be incompatible with the diversity of minds; hence truth changes in space.

1 In order to be able to say that truth has varied in time, one would have to show that a proposition can legitimately be considered true at a given moment and in particular circumstances, and that this same proposition at another moment and in other circumstances cannot be held to be true, even though it relates to the same object. This has not been shown. Pragmatism alleges that reality has changed; but does this mean that old truths become false? Reality can evolve without truth thereby ceasing to be truth. The laws of the physical world, for example, have remained what they were when life first appeared, and as the biological world has taken form.

2 The pragmatists base their case on the diversity of individual minds. But does progress perhaps not consist precisely in the removal of individual differences? Will the pragmatist then maintain that truth belongs only to the individual? This is a paradox that pragmatism itself has not dared to attempt to resolve. Nor do the pragmatists explain what relationship there is between the diversity of minds and the diversity of truth. From the fact that in penetrating individual minds, truth takes on diverse forms, it does not follow that truth in itself is multiple. In short, pragmatism offers no proof of the thesis that it advances, the thesis that truth is amorphous.

Yet this thesis is not without some foundation, for it rests on certain facts. However, these facts, which the pragmatists sense only vaguely, must be restored to their true meaning. Let us see what explanation of them is offered by sociology.

Sociology introduces a relativism that rests on the relation between the physical environment on the one hand and man on the other. The physical environment presents a relative fixity. It undergoes evolution, of course; but reality never ceases to be what it was in order to give way to a reality of a new kind, or to one consisting of new elements. The original world survives under successive additions that enrich it. New realities were, in a sense, already present in the old ones. The organic world does not abolish the physical world and the social world has not been formed in contradistinction to the organic world, but together with it.

The laws that ruled the movements of the primitive nebulae are conserved in the stabilised universe of today. It seems that in the organic world the era of great transformations closed with the appearance of the human species. Can this be true of man and the social milieux in which he lives? Social milieux are the products of different elements, combined and fused together. Our present-day French society is made up of Gallic, Germanic, Roman and other elements; but these-elements can no longer be discerned in an isolated state in our present civilisation, which is something new and original, a synthesis which is the product of a true creation. Social environments are thus different from each other, since each of them presents something new. Therefore, the institutions of which they are composed must also be different. Nevertheless, these institutions fulfil the same functions as those that preceded them. Thus it is that the family has evolved in the course of history, but it has always remained the family and has continued to fulfil the same functions. Each of the various forms has been adapted to these functions. Similarly, we see that the same ideal political regime cannot be suitable for all types of societies. And yet the city regime was proper for the ancient cities, just as our present political regime is suitable for us. In the same way, there is no single morality, and we cannot condemn as immoral the moral systems that preceded ours, for the ideal that they represent was valid for the society in which they were established. The same can be said for religion. In sum, there is not one religion, one morality and one political regime, but different types of religion, types of morality and types of political organisation. In the practical order, diversity may be considered as established.

Why should things not be the same in the theoretical order, in thought itself? If the value of a particular act has changed, it means that speculative thought has changed, and if speculative thought has changed, why should the content of truth not change too?

Action cannot be separated from thou ht. It is impossible for us to say that the generations which preceded us were capable of living in total error, in complete aberration. For false thoughts produce erroneous acts. Thus if men had been completely mistaken about the nature of things, their actions would not have been the right ones; and their failures would have produced suffering which would have led them to seek something else. Nothing authorises us to think that the affective capacities of men of former times were radically different from our own.

Speculative and theoretical thought vary as practice varies. Aesthetic speculation itself shows variations, each people has its own aesthetic. Hence we tend to believe that speculation and its value are variable and that consequently, truth, too, is variable.

These variations occur not only in time but also in space, that is to say, not only from one type of historical society to another but also among the individuals of the same society. In fact, an excess of homogeneity within a society would be its death. No social group can live or - more particularly - progress in absolute homogeneity. Both intellectual and practical life, both thought and action, need diversity, which is, consequently, a condition of truth. We have moved beyond the intellectual excommunication of all those who do not think as we do. We respect the truths of others. We tolerate them, and this tolerance is no longer the sort that preceded the development of our modern civilisation. It is not the kind of tolerance that has its source in weariness (as happened at the end of the wars of religion), nor is it the kind that is born of a feeling of charity. Rather it is the tolerance of the intellectual, of the scientist, who knows that truth is a complex thing and understands that it is very likely that no one of us will see the whole of all its aspects. Such tolerance mistrusts all orthodoxy, but it does not prevent the investigator from expressing the truth as he feels it.

It is in this way that the thesis enunciated by pragmatism is justified from the sociological point of view. Considerations of an abstract or metaphysical order cannot provide us with a satisfactory explanation. It is provided instead by its heightened sense of human reality, the feeling for the extreme variability of everything human. We can no longer accept a single, invariable system of categories or intellectual frameworks. The frameworks that had a reason to exist in past civilisations do not have it today. It goes without saying that this removes none of the value that they had for their own eras. Variability in time and variability in space are, moreover, closely connected. If the conditions of life in society are complex, it is naturally to be expected that this complexity and with it many variations are to be found in the individuals who make up the social groups.


Given this variability of truth in time and space, let us see what explanation of it pragmatism offers. (So far, of course, we have seen this dual variability posited, but not explained.)

Pragmatism gives us the 'why' of these variations very briefly: it is the useful that is true. However, it finds the attempt to demonstrate this proposition a far from easy undertaking. In our view, the proper way to do this would very probably be to take all the propositions recognised as true and determine whether or not they are useful and, if so, how. But such a procedure would be contrary to the method of pragmatism. If, as pragmatism maintains, there is no true idea but that constructed, there can be no given or established idea of truth that can be verified.

Pragmatism attempts to show that its own theory of truth is useful. For it, the important thing is not so much what truth really is but what it must be, even if it is recognised by no one. What the pragmatists are trying to determine is the ideal notion of truth. But how can we know that the notion thus constructed is really the ideal one? Pragmatism can call anything it pleases 'ideal truth'. Therefore, its method is arbitrary and leads to a purely verbal definition with no objective validity. It is analogous to the method used by the classical moralists when they try to determine the ideal notion of morality, a notion which may well be unrelated to morality as it is actually practised. But just as it is better to begin by studying moral facts, the best method of establishing an ideal notion of truth seems to consist in observing the characteristics of recognised truths.

That is only a question of method, however. Much more important is the pragmatist thesis itself. We shall see that the proposition that the useful is the true is a formula that brings us back to utilitarianism. The pragmatist theory of truth is a logical utilitarianism.

Truth and utility

Before examining the value of pragmatism as a form of logical utilitarianism, let us look first at the characteristics of truth. We see at once that it is linked to:

1 a moral obligation. Truth cannot be separated from a certain moral character. In every age, men have felt that they were obliged to seek truth. In truth, there is something which commands respect, and a moral power to which the mind feels properly bound to assent;

2 a de facto necessitating power. There is a more or less physical impossibility of not admitting the truth. When our mind perceives a true representation, we feel that we cannot not accept it as true. The true idea imposes itself on us. It is this character that is expressed in the old theory of the evident nature of truth; there emanates from truth an irresistible light.

Is pragmatism, as a form of logical utilitarianism, capable of explaining these two characters? It can explain neither of them.

1 Seeking the useful is following nature, not mastering it or taming it. There is no place here for the moral constraint implied in the idea of obligation. Pragmatism indeed cannot entail a hierarchy of values, since everything in it is placed on the same level. The true and the good are both on our level, that of the useful, and no effort is needed to lift ourselves to it. For James, the truth is what is 'expedient', and it is because it is advantageous that it is good and has value. Clearly this means that truth has its demands, its loyalties, and can give rise to enthusiasm, but at the level of the useful, this enthusiasm is only related to what is capable of pleasing us, that which is in conformity with our interests.

2 Nor is it possible to see how pragmatists could explain the necessitating character of truth. Pragmatists believe that it is we who construct both the world and the representations which express it. We 'make' truth in conformity with our needs. How then could it resist us? Pragmatism no doubt accepts that beneath those intellectual constructions which make up truth there is nevertheless a prime matter which we have not created. For pragmatism, however, this prime matter is only an ideal limit which we never reach, although we always tend towards it. It is wiser, says Schiller, to ignore it, since absolute truth could 'give us no aid', and is rather an obstacle to a more adequate knowledge of realities which are in effect accessible to us. Besides that prime matter, there is of course the whole system of mental organisation, acquired truths and 'previous truths'. But that is 'a much less obdurately resisting factor' which 'often ends by giving way': ideas are soft things, which we can twist as we like when there is no objective reality (provided by sensations) which prevents us from doing so.

in short, when pragmatists speak of truth as something good, desirable and attractive, one wonders whether a whole aspect of it has not escaped them. Truth is often painful, and may well disorganise thought and trouble the serenity of the mind. When man perceives it, he is sometimes obliged to change his whole way of thinking. This can cause a crisis which leaves him disconcerted and disabled. If, for example, when he is an adult, he suddenly realises that all his religious beliefs have no solid basis, he experiences a moral collapse and his intellectual and affective life is in a sense paralysed. This sense of confusion has been expressed by Jouffroy in his famous article Comment les dogmes finissent. Thus the truth is not always attractive and appealing. Very often it resists us, is opposed to our desires and has a certain quality of hardness.

3 Truth has a third character, and one which is undeniable: impersonality. The pragmatists themselves have indicated this. But how can this character be reconciled with their definition of truth? It has been said, with some justice, that moral utilitarianism implies moral subjectivism. Is the same not true of logical utilitarianism?

The notion of the useful is, moreover, a very obscure one. Everything is useful in relation to certain ends, and even the worst things are useful from a certain point of view. Inversely, even the best, such as knowledge, have their disadvantages and can cause suffering: those ages in which knowledge has increased must have been the most anguished. Any phenomenon has infinite repercussions in the universe, some of them good and others bad. How could we weigh advantages against drawbacks? It would probably be possible to trace all effects back to a cause and consequently to a criterion which would both be single and determining. One could, for example, accept the existence of an impersonal and universal moral end which all men are obliged to seek. But pragmatism excludes any determination of this kind. The truth, says James, is what is 'expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight won't necessarily meet all further experiences equally satisfactorily'. And yet not everything can be true. A choice has to be made, but on what basis? Only on that of personal experience. If something causes us more satisfaction than discomfort, we can say that yes, it is useful. But the experience of other people can be different. Although pragmatism does not totally accept this consequence, truth can be totally subjective in such conditions. It is a question of temperament: the temperament of the ascetic, for example, and that of the man of action; both have their reason for being, and thus correspond to two different modes of action.

But here a problem arises. If truth thus has a personal character, how can impersonal truth be possible? Pragmatists see it as the ideal final stage towards which all individual opinions would ultimately converge." What then are the causes which would determine such a convergence? Two are mentioned by the pragmatists. (1) just as experience varies with individuals, so does its extent. The person who possesses the widest and best-organised experience is in a better position to see what is really useful. Gradually, his authority here imposes itself and attracts the commendation of others. But is that a decisive argument? Since all experience and all judgements are essentially personal matters, the experience of others is valid for them, but not for me. (2) There are also social considerations. 'Every recognition of a judgement by others is a social problem', says Schiller. Everyone, in fact, has an interest in acting in concert with his fellow men, since if he does he feels himself to be stronger and consequently more efficient and more 'useful'. But the usefulness of joint action implies shared views, judgements and ideas. The pragmatists have not disregarded this entirely. The difficulty is that we do not in fact picture things as we desire them to be, and that the pragmatist theses run the risk of making us not see this gap, and consequently of making us see as true that which conforms to our desires. In order to overcome this difficulty, we should have to agree to see the general opinion, not as something artificial, but as an authority capable of silencing the differences between individuals and of countering the particularism of individual points of view. If, however, public opinion is to be able to impose itself in this way it is essential that it should have an extra-individual origin. But this is not possible in pragmatist doctrine, since it holds that individual judgements are at the root of all human thought: no purely individual judgement could ever become an objective truth.

Moreover, above all these dialectics, there is one fact. If, as pragmatism maintains, the 'common' truth was the product of the gradual convergence of individual judgements, one would have to be able to observe an ever-greater divergence between the ways of thinking of individuals as one went further and further back through history. However, what happens is exactly the opposite." It is in the very earliest ages that men, in every social group, all think in the same way. It is then that uniformity of thought can be found. The great differences only begin to appear with the very first Greek philosophers. The Middle Ages once again achieved the very type of the intellectual consensus. Then came the Reformation, and with it came heresies and schisms which were to continue to multiply until we eventually came to realise that everyone has the right to think as he wishes.

Let us also go back in the series of propositions of pragmatist doctrine. We see that if pragmatism defines the true as the useful, it is because it has proposed the principle that truth is simply an instrument of action. For pragmatism, truth has no speculative function: all that concerns it is its practical utility. For pragmatists, this speculative function is present only in play and dreams. But for centuries humanity has lived on non-practical truths, beliefs which were something quite other than 'instruments of action'. Myths have no essentially practical character. In primitive civilisations they are accepted for themselves, and are objects of belief. They are not merely poetic forms. They are groupings of representations aimed at explaining the world, systems of ideas whose function is essentially speculative. For a long time, myths were the means of expression of the intellectual life of human societies. If men found a speculative interest in them, it is because this need corresponded to a reality.

Speculation and practice

The pragmatist philosophers, and Schiller in particular, deny that thought has a speculative value. How valid is that opinion?

It is contradicted by the facts. According to pragmatism, knowledge is essentially a plan of action, and proposes practical ends to be attained. Yet the mythological beliefs encountered in primitive societies are cosmologies, and are directed not towards the future but towards the past and the present. What lies at the root of myths is not a practical need: it is the intellectual need to understand. Basically, therefore, a rationalist mind is present there, perhaps in an unsophisticated form, but nevertheless enough to prove that the need to understand is universal and essentially human.

After mythology came philosophy, born from mythology, and it too satisfies purely intellectual needs. The belief in the existence of speculative truths has neither been a hallucination nor a view more purely appropriate to Plato. It predates him by a long time, and is affirmed in all the philosophers. It is true that from a very early age philosophy set itself practical problems, both moral and political. But even if it tried to engage in practical action (of a very general nature, be it noted) with regard to human problems, it has never claimed to have any effect with regard to action or things. Morality has never been more than the handmaiden of philosophy. In the Middle Ages, it was a secondary concern; and scholastic philosophy often paid no attention to it. The same is true of the seventeenth century. A practical concern does not therefore represent a permanent current of philosophical thought.

The same is also true of science. Speculation and practice were of course intermingled in the very early stages. Alchemy, for example, was less concerned with finding the real nature of bodies than with a method of producing gold. In this sense, it could be said that in origin the sciences are pragmatic. But as history progresses, the more scientific research loses the mixed character that it originally possessed. Science has increasingly less to do with purely technical concerns. The scientist contemplates reality, and becomes less concerned with the practical consequences of his discoveries. In all research there is no doubt a point of departure, an optimistic act of faith in the utility of research; but that is a transitory stage. The essence of the scientific mind is that the scientist takes up a point of view which is sharply opposed to that of the pragmatists.

History too is no less of an embarrassment for pragmatists. Their view is that ideas exist to act on the real. But historical facts are facts from the past. How could there be any question of acting on this? James and Dewey reply that the past is not wholly dead, that there are 'present prolongations or effects of what the past harboured', and that an assertion relating to the past can make a present assertion true or false. But this is playing with words, for the adaptation of thought to historical reality is entirely an intellectual process and satisfies purely speculative needs, not practical ones.

Moore says that historical knowledge can be useful in directing our individual conduct in circumstances similar to those of the past. Although the eventuality of using history for practical and individual ends is perhaps not impossible, it has nothing to do with historical studies and the establishment of historical truth as such. When the historian asks whether Caesar really crossed the Rubicon, as is related in his Commentaries on the Civil War, he does so solely to know and to make known. Fustel de Coulanges said that history serves no purpose, and that that was its greatness. That aphorism is perhaps rather too absolute; but we must admit that the practical benefits of history are singularly slim. Times change, circumstances change, and the events of history cannot recur in precisely the same way, because the conditions are different.

There is of course one science which is close to history and which can extract practical consequences from historical facts. This science is sociology. It is however a recent one, and still in its very early stages. Even if it were more advanced than it actually is, it would still be separate from history. For example, it is no pressing concern of sociology to know whether Madame de Montespan played a political role in the events of her time or not, but history certainly does not neglect problems of this kind.

Thus, the search for truth for truth's sake is neither an isolated case, nor a pathological fact, nor a deflection of thought. Indeed, even if we suppose that it is an aberration, and that men were driven by illusion to seek for a truth which could not be grasped, we should still have to explain that illusion.


Let us now examine those arguments which pragmatism has used in claiming to have established that knowledge exists only for the sake of action.

Dewey in particular thought that he could cite a number of facts which he saw as conclusive. These are: (1) consciousness and reflection most often come into being in such conditions that they seem to have been called into existence by the very necessity of practice. When balance is disturbed in a living organism, consciousness awakes: it begins to question itself, the subject becomes aware of problems. Consequently, it can be said that the appearance of consciousness is a response to practical ends, for it comes into being to re-establish the disturbed equilibrium. (2) The same applies to habits of all kinds: consciousness disappears when it no longer serves a purpose. It only awakes when habit is disrupted, when a process on non-adaptation occurs. (3) This is also true of human society. When a political or social regime is functioning smoothly, it is accepted passively and men do not reflect on it. It is when it does not function smoothly that we seek remedies and think of getting to the causes of the trouble.

These facts are clearly undeniable. What provokes argument, however, is the way in which they are interpreted. From them, it is concluded that since consciousness appears only for the sake of action, it is simply a substitute for it. In this view, an idea is no more than a representation of an end to be achieved, the movement -itself being this representation expressed as an act. But there are facts which contradict this assertion of the pragmatists, and which show that there can be antagonism between thought and action. (a) In some cases, consciousness can hinder action instead of facilitating it. For example, a pianist who can play a given piece perfectly will make mistakes if he thinks about what he is doing. Similarly, someone who searches for words instead of speaking naturally will stutter. In both cases, consciousness slows down, overloads or paralyses action. (b) Inversely, action can paralyse thought, and this is constantly happening. The psychology of attention indicates it. Attention is a concentrated form of awareness: consciousness sharpened in this way is what enables us to understand better what the constitutive characters of consciousness are. Attention implies a tension in organic functions, a suspension of movement, and that suspension of movement is even, as Ribot has shown, an essential condition for it. That is why it has been said that in order to think deeply it is necessary to abstain from all movement: 'To think is to refrain from ... acting.' It is impossible to think intensely while walking, playing and so on.

Hence it is a fact that the two very different human types, the man of action and the intellectual, are so diametrically opposed. What is dominant in the man of action is overall sensations, which are synthetic and confused, but sharp and strong. With his representations are associated motor mechanisms which he combines appropriately and adapts almost unthinkingly to circumstances. If you want his advice, do not ask his reasons for giving it, for more often than not he does not know what they are, and thinking about them would disturb him and make him hesitant. On the other hand, the intellectual, the thinker, always tends to put off the decisions he has to take. He hesitates because he never finds satisfactory reasons for acting. For him, the time for reflection is unlimited; and when he finally decides to act, he violates his intellectual temperament. We never of course encounter these two types in as absolute or clear-cut a form as that which I have just described, but it is quite true that there are in fact two contrasting casts of mind.

Why is there this sharp contrast? Because the conditions of thought and those of action are different. (1) First, thought is a hyperconcentration of consciousness, and the greater the concentration, the smaller the circle of reflection. Action, on the other hand, is a sudden release. Acting means externalising oneself, and spreading out beyond oneself. Man cannot at one and the same time be both entirely within himself and entirely outside himself. (2) Secondly, thought, the reflecting consciousness, demands time. The faster a representation passes through consciousness, the greater the proportion of the unknown it contains. We can only truly know a representation in successive stages, part by part. To know it, we must analyse it, and to analyse it we must fix it, hold it in our consciousness; that is to say, keep it motionless for a certain time. Action does not call for that kind of fixity. What it wants is the exact opposite. Movement flows, and to the extent that it is also flux and movement consciousness does the same. But if it is to exist truly, to manifest itself, it must stop, and this also supposes a halt, a suspension of action. By way of contrast, when there is an equilibrium between our dispositions and the surrounding environment, our vital movements occur automatically, and pass so quickly that we have no time to know them, since they merely skim over consciousness. Consciousness does not therefore move off-stage like an actor whose part is over. It disappears because the conditions for its existence have not been met. And in the same way, if the movement is stopped and consciousness appears, it is not only because something must fill the gap which movement no longer occupies, but also because the suspension of movement has made consciousness possible.

We can conclude that, contrary to the pragmatist thesis, thought and action are not akin in nature. It is therefore very surprising to see the pragmatists maintain that knowledge has only practical ends, since the opposite is the case: it has demands radically different from practice.

The role of truth

The antithesis noted in the last lecture between truth and action is all the more marked when one considers higher forms of thought. Knowledge ascends in a series of stages.

Sensation is the lowest. It provides us with merely fleeting knowledge, and is barely sufficient to set off the necessary reactions. This is apparent in the working of instinct.

Images, like sensations, are closely connected with tendencies to action. We cannot imagine something called desire without movements making themselves felt to some degree. These movements remain, however, in a state of potentiality and are, as it were, unfinished sketches. Nevertheless, representations at this stage begin to take on an appearance of having a life of their own.

Concepts have a very low motive power. If we are to think in concepts, we have to put aside the emotions which cause us to act, and reject feelings which would prevent us isolating the intellectual element. Concepts are isolated from acts, and they are posited for their own sake.

The error of the pragmatists is precisely that of denying the specific nature of knowledge and consequently of thought and even of consciousness. The role of consciousness is not to direct the behaviour of a being with no need of knowledge: it is to constitute a being who would not exist without it. This seems to me to be proved by the role played in psychic life by 'coenaesthetic' sensations, which emanate from all parts of our body and are, so to speak, the kernel of our personal consciousness. This is what caused Spinoza to say that the soul is the idea of the body. Consciousness is therefore not a function with the role of directing the movements of the body, but the organism knowing itself, and solely by virtue of the fact that the organism knows itself, we can say that something new occurs.

For consciousness to come into being, there must be gaps or spaces in action; and it is through these that the being becomes aware of himself. A being who knows himself is one who stops movement and then starts it again. Consciousness, far from having only the role of directing the movements of beings, exists in order to produce beings.

Pragmatism tends to? deny this function of consciousness, which it sees as part of the external world, simply a moment in the series of movements which make up this world, and is lost in them. And yet pragmatism claims to be a spiritualist doctrine. It is a strange kind of spiritualism which claims to deny the specific nature of consciousness!

It is no doubt quite natural that when the unthinking play of movements is disturbed thought should intervene to stimulate those which are deficient. This practical role of thought is not unimportant; but it is neither the only nor perhaps the chief one. Indeed, a conscious being, a being which knows itself, cannot act completely like a being which has no knowledge of itself. Its activity will rather be of a new kind. It will of course still consist of movements; but these movements will now be directed by ideas. In other words, there will be psychological activity.

Reducing the conscious being to nothing but his actions means taking from him the very thing which makes him what he is. Moreover, consciousness finds such a role distasteful, for it forms only schematic plans and can never take immediate command over real behaviour. Intelligence can only provide very general and hypothetical plans of action, whereas movement needs to be categorical and precise. Only the experience of action itself can tell us whether a given act is really the appropriate one in given circumstances. We have to act in order to know how we should act.

What really shows us that consciousness is in some measure obliged to do violence to itself, when it attempts to direct attention, is the fact that once it is freed from this task or escapes from it, movements gradually become established in the organism and consciousness itself disappears. This is what occurs in the formation of habit.

The initial error of pragmatism is thus to deny the proper nature of consciousness and subsequently of knowledge. It does, however, have the merit of causing us to reflect on the question of how the notion of truth should be constructed.

As I have already said, the reply to that question is that one must look at truths which are recognised as such, and examine why it is that they are accepted. A representation is considered to be a true one when it is thought to express reality. I am not concerned here with whether that is a correct view. We may hold it erroneously. It may be that ideas are held to be true for other reasons. That is of little consequence for the moment. Let us simply say that when we believe an idea to be true, it is because we see it as adequately conveying reality.

The problem is not to know by what right we can say that a given proposition is true or false. What is accepted as true today may quite well be held to be false tomorrow. What is important is to know what has made men believe that a representation conforms to reality. Representations which have been accepted as true in the course of history are of the same interest for us: there are no privileged ones. If we wish to escape from all that is too narrow in traditional rationalism, we shall have to broaden our horizons by freeing ourselves from ourselves, from our own point of view.

Generally nowadays, when we speak of 'truth', we have in mind particularly scientific truth. But truth existed before science; and to answer the question properly, we must also consider pre-scientific and non-scientific truths such as mythologies. What were mythologies? They were bodies of truths which were considered to express reality (the universe), and which imposed themselves on men with an obligatory character which was just as marked and as powerful as moral truths.

What, then, caused men to consider these mythological propositions or beliefs as true? Was it because they had tested them against a given reality, against spirits, for example, or against divinities of which they had had real experience? Not at all. The world of mythical beings is not a real world, and yet men believed in it. Mythological ideas were not considered as true because they were based on an objective reality. The very opposite is the case: it is our ideas and beliefs which give the objects of thought their vitality. Thus, an idea is true, not because it conforms to reality, but by virtue of its creative power.


These ideas, however, do not originate with individuals. They are collective representations, made up of all the mental states of a people or a social group which thinks together. In these collectivities, of course, there are individuals who do have some role to play; but this very role is only possible as a result of the action of the collectivity. In the life of the human race, it is the collectivity which maintains ideas and representations, and all collective representations are by virtue of their origin invested with a prestige which means that they have the power to impose themselves. They have a greater psychological energy than representations emanating from the individual. This is why they settle with such force in our consciousness. That is where the very strength of truth lies.

Thus, we come back to the double thesis of pragmatism, but this time transposed onto a different level: (1) the model and the copy are one; (2) we are the co-authors of reality. However, one can now see the differences. Pragmatism said that we make reality. But in this case, 'we' means the individual. But individuals are different beings who cannot all make the world in the same way; and the pragmatists have had great difficulty in solving the problem of knowing how several different minds can know the same world at once. If, however, one admits that representation is a collective achievement, it recovers a unity which pragmatism denies to it. This is what explains the impression of resistance, the sense of something greater than the individual, which we experience in the presence of truth, and which provides the indispensable basis of objectivity.

In the last analysis, it is thought which creates reality; and the major role of the collective representations is to 'make' that higher reality which is society itself. This is perhaps an unexpected role for truth, but one which indicates it does not exist simply in order to direct practical affairs.

The different types of truth

In the history of human thought there are two kinds of mutually contrasting truths, namely, mythological and scientific truths.


In the first type, all truth is a body of propositions which are accepted without verification, as against scientific truths, which are always subjected to testing or demonstration. If they are unproven, from where do they acquire the character of truth attributed to them? It is representations which create the character of objectivity which mythologies have, and it is their collective character which confers on them the creative power that enables them to impose themselves on the mind. Collective representations carry with them their objects, and entail their existence. Mythological truths have been, for those societies that have believed in them, the conditions necessary for their existence. Communal life in fact presupposes common ideas and intellectual unanimity. By the very fact that the collectivity accepts them, mythological ideas are no longer subject to individual contingencies. Hence their objective and necessitating character.

But are peoples completely free to create truth as they will? Can society transform reality just as it wishes? If this were the case, we should be able to adopt a more or less attenuated version of pragmatism, giving it a more or less sociological slant. But a correction of that kind would not be enough. Ideas and representations cannot become collective if they do not correspond to something real. Nor can they remain divorced from the conduct of individuals; for experiencing failure, disappointment and suffering tells us that our action corresponds to an inadequate representation, and we immediately detach ourselves from both of these. Indeed, it is untrue to say, as the pragmatists do, that an idea which brings us 'satisfaction' is a true one by the very fact that it does so. But, although it is false to think that any idea which satisfies us is a true one, the reciprocal idea that an idea cannot be true without bringing us some satisfaction is not false.

It is the same with truth as with moral rules. Moral rules are not made with the purpose of being useful to the individual. However, we could not do what we ought to do if duty contained no attraction for individuals or if they found nothing satisfying in it. Truth is similar to moral rules, in having an impersonal and a necessitating character; but if that were the sum of its characteristics we should constantly tend to reject or ignore it. In order to become really a part of ourselves, it must serve us and be useful to us. At the practical level, any collective representation must serve individuals, in the sense that it must give rise to acts which are adjusted to things, to the realities to which the representation corresponds. Hence, if it is to be able to give rise to such acts, the representation itself must be adapted to these realities.

Mythological creations therefore have some connection with reality. There must be a reality of which these representations are the expression. That reality is none other than society. The forces that religions and myths believe that they recognise in mythological creations are not mere illusions, but forces which are collective in origin. What religion expresses in its representations, its beliefs and myths, is social realities and the way in which they act upon individuals. Monotheism, for example, is the expression of the social group's tendency towards greater concentration, as a result of which particularist groups increasingly disappear. just as 'coenaesthetic' sensations are the central core of consciousness for the individual, collective truths are the basis of the common consciousness for society.

Society cannot become aware of itself in the absence of any relationship with things. Social life demands agreement between individual consciousnesses. In order to notice it, each one must express what it experiences. It can only do so, however, by means of things taken as symbols. It is because society expresses itself through things that it has managed to transform and transfigure reality. That is why, in representations in the form of a myth, plants, for example, become beings capable of expressing human feelings. Such representations are false with respect to things, but true with respect to the subjects who think them.

It is for this reason that truth has varied historically. We have seen that the pragmatists have been well aware of that idea; but they express it by talking of the truth as neither fixed nor definite, as being constantly formed. This formulation is not satisfactory; for although there are new truths, that does not mean that old ones change or are abolished. All the cosmologies immanent in mythological systems are different from each other, but can nevertheless be said to be equally true, because they have fulfilled the same function for all the peoples who have believed in them, and because they performed the same social role.


Nowadays we see scientific truths as being the very type of truth. At first glance, scientific representations seem very different from mythological ones. The latter express ideas which society has about itself, the former express the world as it is. The social sciences, in particular, express what society is in itself, and not what it is subjectively to the person thinking about it. Nevertheless, scientific representations are also collective representations.

It will be objected that scientific representations are impersonal; but perhaps so too are collective representations? We can answer in the affirmative, for they express something which is outside and above individuals.

Scientific ideas have all the characteristics necessary to become collective representations. Scientific truth helps to Strengthen social consciousness, as does mythological thought, though by different means. One might ask how individual minds can communicate. In two possible ways: either by uniting to form a single collective mind, or by communicating in one object which is the same for all, with each however retaining his own personality; like Leibnitz's monads, each expressing the entirety of the universe while keeping its individuality. The first way is that of mythological thought, the second that of scientific thought.

Nor has science taken on this task fortuitously or, as it were, unconsciously, for it is its very raison d'étre. When pragmatists wonder why science exists, and what its function is, they should turn to history for a reply. History shows us that it came into existence in Greece, and nowhere else, to meet certain needs. For both Plato and Socrates, the role of science is to unify individual judgements. The proof is that the method used to construct it is 'dialectics', or the art of comparing contradictory human judgements with a view to finding those in which there is agreement. If dialectics is the first among scientific methods, and its aim is to eliminate contradictions, it is because the role of science is to turn minds towards impersonal truths and to eliminate contradictions and particularisms.

Science and the collective consciousness

We have seen that the great thinkers of Greece tried to ensure intellectual unity and understanding among men. The means they used was to take objective reality as their object, since it must necessarily be the same for all men, given its independence from the observing subject. This aim will therefore be achieved if one can attain a representation of things in the manner in which an impersonal understanding would represent them.

But the object of science as we see it today is precisely to represent things as if they were seen by a purely impersonal understanding. August Comte understood that perfectly, and saw the role of 'positive philosophy' as that of ending the intellectual anarchy paramount since the Revolution, but having much earlier real origins. From the 'metaphysical age', that is, from the birth of the critical mind, there could no longer be a common consciousness. Comte's view was that it was science that could provide the mental equipment to reconstitute that common consciousness. Individual sciences, however, are not up to that task, since they are too specialised. A discipline capable of including all specialisms and synthesising individual -sciences was needed, and that discipline was philosophy. It is possible to see Comte as mistaken here, as he did not see that philosophy can never be anything but personal.

Yet the collective consciousness can, even if not necessarily by means of a philosophical approach, take possession of scientific truths and fashion them into a coordinated whole. That is how a popular philosophy, made by and for all, can be created. Such a philosophy will not have as its concern solely physical things, but also, and indeed chiefly, man and society. Hence the important part that history must play. As Comte said, philosophy looks not so much towards the future (which is what the pragmatists believe) as towards the past; and it is through philosophy that society becomes aware of itself. There is also a science which, with the help of history, is called to play the most important role in this area. That science is sociology.


It is not, however, necessary that philosophy should investigate all the forms of scientific knowledge, for they are recorded and retained in the collective consciousness. Philosophy can only provide general orientations; it cannot be coercive. Comte exaggerated not only the role of philosophy, but also that of science. He believed that once mankind reached the positive age, there would be an end to mythological ideas. Men, he thought, would no longer have views on questions not elucidated by science. Our lives would be based on positive scientific truths, which would be considered established, and the rest would be the domain of intellectual doubt. I accept that this is so with regard to knowledge about the physical world, but it cannot be the case as far as the human and social world is concerned. In these areas, science is still in a rudimentary state. Its methods of investigation are difficult, since direct experiment is impossible. Under such conditions it is not hard to understand why ideas expressing social matters in a really objective way are still rather rare.

If Comte could believe that sociology would one day be able to provide guidelines for the public consciousness, it was because he had simplistic ideas about social development, or rather an essentially philosophical concept of it. His sociology was really a philosophy of history. He was fascinated by the 'law of the three stages' and thought that in enunciating it he had established the whole of sociology. This was, of course, far from being the case. Sociology, as he himself recognised, has a more complex object than other sciences. It can only express fragmentary hypotheses, and so far these have had scarcely any effect on popular consciousness.

What action should we take in these circumstances? Should we take refuge in doubt? That would certainly be a kind of wisdom, at least with regard to the physical world. But, as we have said, it is difficult to extend that attitude to the social and human world. In that world, we have to act and live; and in order to live we need something other than doubt. Society cannot wait for its problems to be solved scientifically. It has to make decisions about what action to take, and in order to make these decisions it has to have an idea of what it is.

Where can we find that representation of it, which is indispensable for its action and its life? There is only one solution. If there is no objective knowledge, society can only know itself from within, attempt to express this sense of itself, and to use that as its guide. In other words, it must conduct itself with reference to a representation of the same kind as those which constitute mythological truths.

What characterises such mythological representations is the fact that they express a unanimous conception, and this is what gives them a force and authority which enables them to impose themselves without their being subject to verification or doubt. That is why there are formulae in our societies which we imagine are not religious, but which nevertheless do have the character of dogma, and are not questioned. Of this kind are ideas such as 'democracy', 'progress', 'the class struggle' and so on. Thus, we can see that scientific thought cannot rule alone. There is, and there always will be, room in social life for a form of truth which will perhaps be expressed in a very secular way, but will nevertheless have a mythological and religious basis. For a long time to come, there will be two tendencies in any society: a tendency towards objective scientific truth and a tendency towards subjectively perceived truth, towards mythological truth. This is also one of the great obstacles which obstruct the development of sociology.


We are now faced with a further problem. So far we have seen truth as characterised by its impersonal nature. But should we not keep a place within it for individual diversity? As long as mythological truth holds sway, conformity is the rule. Once scientific thought becomes paramount, however, intellectual individualism appears. Indeed, it is this very individualism which has made scientific truth necessary, since social unanimity can no longer centre on mythological beliefs. The impersonal truth developed by science can leave room for everyone's individuality. The fact is that the diversity of objects found in the world encourages the differentiation of minds; for individual minds are not all equally suited to studying the same things, and thus tend to parcel out amongst themselves the questions to be investigated.

But this is not all, and not even the real question, which is whether, with a given problem, there is room for a plurality of mental attitudes all of which in a sense are justified. Each object is, of course, extremely complex and includes a multitude of elements which intermingle. We cannot exhaust reality either as a whole or in any of its constituent parts. Therefore every object of knowledge offers an opportunity for an infinity of possible points of view, such as the point of view of life, of purely mechanical movement, of stasis and dynamics, of contingency and determination, of physics and biology and so on. Individual minds, however, are finite, and none can work from all points of view at once. If each of these aspects is to be given the attention it merits, the whole mind must be devoted to it. Consequently, each mind is free to choose the point of view from which it feels itself most competent to view things. This means that for every object of knowledge there are differing but equally justified ways of examining it. These are probably partial truths, but all these partial truths come together in the collective consciousness and find their limits and their necessary complements. Thus intellectual individualism, far from making for anarchy, as would be the case during the period of the domination of mythological truth, becomes a necessary factor in the establishment of scientific truth, so that the diversity of intellectual temperaments can serve the cause of impersonal truth.

Furthermore, intellectual individualism does not necessarily imply, as James seems to think, that everyone may arbitrarily believe what he wishes to believe. It simply means that there are separate tasks within the joint enterprise, and that everyone may choose his own in accordance with his temperament.

Thus, on the one hand, scientific truth is not incompatible with the diversity of minds; and on the other, as social groups be come increasingly complex, it is impossible that society should have a single sense of itself. Hence there are various social currents. Here, society will be seen as a static phenomenon; there as a dynamic one. Now it will be seen as subject to determinism; now chiefly sensed as an essentially contingent entity, and so on. Basically, all these ideas are reasonable, for they each correspond to various needs which express the different ways in which society senses and experiences itself.

A further consequence of this transformation is that tolerance must henceforth be based on this idea of the complexity and richness of reality, and then on the diversity of opinions, which is both necessary and effective. Everyone must be able to admit that someone else has perceived an aspect of reality, which he himself had not grasped, but which is as real and as true as those to which he had gone from preference.

We can also see at the same time that the task of speculative truth is to provide nourishment for the collective consciousness. This means that we can answer the pragmatists' objection, which says that if the sole function of truth is to express reality, it is merely redundant; it must add something to truth, and if it does, it is no longer a faithful copy. The fact is that truth the 'copy' of reality, is not merely redundant or pleonastic. It certainly 'adds' a new world to reality, a world which is more complex than any other: That world is the human and social one. Truth is the means by which a new order of things becomes possible, and that new order is nothing less than civilisation.

Are thought and reality heterogeneous?

We must now examine pragmatism as a doctrine which claims that thought and reality are heterogeneous. At the same time, we shall have to ,examine the arguments which the pragmatists borrow from Bergson to support that thesis.

We recall that the pragmatists' line of argument is as follows: truth implies the existence of distinctions between elements; reality consists of a lack of distinction; therefore truth cannot express reality without presenting as distinct something which is not distinct; without, in short, distorting reality. Reality, like a mass, forms a unity where everything holds together without any radical separation. What emanates from one part has repercussions within the whole. Thus it is only in abstracts that we separate one part from the whole. Concepts, on the other hand, are limited, determined and clearly circumscribed; and the world of concepts is discontinuous and distinct. The conceptual and the real are thus heterogeneous.

This heterogeneity is heightened when we try to express, not the universe as a whole, but change, movement and, above all, life. In order to express change, we have to break it down into its components, split it up into its elements, and each of these elements necessarily becomes something fixed. A series of fixed elements, however, will never restore the mobility of change, just as from inert matter one can never create life. Concepts express only the coagulated, the ready-made, and never what is being made or is becoming. But in reality everything is continuous. complex and moving. There is nothing simple about the world. Everything can be broken down infinitely; and it is pluralism, as a negation of simplicity and an affirmation of diversity, which is all affirmation of the true.

That is the pragmatist line of argument. But, because reality is continuous and undivided, does it necessarily follow that what is distinct is simply a product of thought and that alone? Because there are no absolute distinctions, does it follow that there is a lack of distinction and absolute confusion? There is nothing absolute in the universe, and absolute confusion is as impossible as absolute separation. In things there is already a relative discrimination. If the real were in fact totally indistinct, if confusion were paramount in it, we should have to admit that the principle of contradiction could not apply there. In order to be able to say that A is A, it is necessary that A should be determined, must be what it is and not something else. Pragmatism itself rests on reasoning which involves concepts and which is based on the principle of contradiction. Denying this principle would mean denying the possibility of any intellectual relationship. We cannot make a judgement or understand anything at all if we do not first agree that it is this object and not another that is at issue. Similarly, in discussion, we first have to agree that we are talking about this object, and not another.

But it may be objected, with Bergson, that the natural state of life is precisely one of undividedness. Life is a unity, a concentration, in which nothing is properly speaking outside the other parts.

Our answer is that reality, whatever it is, is far from resistant to any form of distinction, and to some degree tends of itself towards it. When Spencer says that the universe moves from 'the homogeneous to the heterogeneous', the expression is inexact. What exists originally is also heterogeneous in nature; but it is the heterogeneity entailed by a state of confusion. The initial state is a multiplicity of germs, of ways and means, and of different activities which are not only intermingled, but, as it were, lost in each other, so that it is extremely difficult to separate them. They are indistinct from each other. Thus, in the cell of monocellular organisms, all the vital functions are so to speak included. They are all there, but not separately, and the functions of nutrition and of sensitivity seem confused, and it seems difficult to distinguish them. The same is true of the embryo: in the human foetus, all the functions of the human organism are already present. The child who is born carries within him all his hereditary tendencies, although it is not possible to see them clearly at that stage, and it is not until later that they will really separate.

In social life, that primitive undivided state is even more striking. Religious life, for example, contains a rich abundance of forms of thought and activities of all kinds. In the field of thought, these include myths and religious beliefs, an embryonic science' and a certain poetry. In the sphere of action we find rites, a morality and a form of law' and arts (aesthetic elements, songs and music in particular). All these elements are gathered up into a whole and it seems extremely difficult to separate them. Science and art, myth and poetry, morality, law and religion are all confused or, rather, fused. The same observations could be made about the early family, which is at one and the same time, for example, a social, religious, political and legal unit.

Thus the primitive form of any reality is a concentration of all kinds of energies, undivided in the sense that they are only various aspects of one and the same thing. Evolution consists of a gradual separation of all these various functions which were originally indistinct. Secular and scientific thought has moved away from religious thought; art has moved away from religious ceremonies; morality and law have moved away from ritual. The social group has been divided into the family group, the political group, the economic group and so on.

We are thus brought round to the view that what we are told is the major form of reality, that is, the non-separation and interpenetration of all its elements, is really its most rudimentary form. Confusion is the original state.


But here once again we encounter Bergson's objection. Life is seen as essentially an undivided force; and this 'life force', struggling with rigid, fixed, inert matter, is obliged to diffract and sub-divide.' Matter itself is also seen as a slackening, an intermission and an inversion, of this rising force.

We do not see, however, if matter is still life in a slowed-down and so to speak condensed form, how both can engage in a struggle or why they should be opposed to each other. The hypothesis of life and matter as two mutually hostile forces is inadmissible. Life does not break up and sub-divide in spite of itself. It does so spontaneously to achieve its potential more fully and to emancipate itself. In the beginning, all forms of activity and all functions were gathered together, and were, in a manner of speaking, each other's prisoners. Consequently they were obstacles for each other, each preventing the other from achieving its nature fully. That is why, if science is to come into being, it must differentiate itself from religion and myths. If the link which originally united them slackens and weakens, it is not a fall or a collapse, but progress.

The need for distinction and separation thus lies in things themselves, and is not simply a mental need. Things are rich in potentially diverse elements, separable parts and varied aspects. Consequently, there are discernible elements, since they tend of themselves to separate, although they never manage to free themselves of each other completely.

In social life, individuation is simply one of the forms of that movement towards distinction.

Such a distinction probably cannot be a mere abstraction, as we know that every element that we isolate keeps its relationship with all the rest. Nevertheless, the isolation of one element from everything to which it is connected is a legitimate action. We have the right to say that A is A, provided we are aware that we are doing so in abstracts and conditionally. In so far as we are considering A, not as absolutely distinct from B and C, but in itself, we are making a concept of it. Isolating this real aspect of things is not doing violence to the nature of things. All we are doing is to follow the natural articulations of each thing. Using concepts to think about things means establishing a quite relative distinction. The concept certainly expresses a reality and, if it is distinct, it is because it expresses distinctions which are in no way purely mental ones. Thought and reality are thus not at all heterogeneous.

There remains the objection which sees concepts as unable to express change and life. Becoming, we are told, is something which 'occurs', not a series of ready-made states. Concepts are unable to express the transition from one stage to another. There is however a contradiction in that idea of life. Life cannot be defined by mobility alone. Reality has a static aspect. That aspect, in the view of the doctrine we are discussing, is that of matter. If matter is spoilt, or fixed by life, there must be something in life which is inclined towards that process of becoming fixed. Even in change itself there must be a static aspect.

The fact is that nothing changes except to achieve a result. What right have we to postulate that these results have no fixity? Life has a perfect right to rest on its laurels occasionally! Movement and change can surely be seen as means of achieving results. If becoming were a kind of frantic, incessant and restless flight, with never a fixed point, it would simply be sound and fury. By fixing consecutive states, we are therefore expressing real elements of becoming, and they are indeed its most important ones.

Nor can we represent something changing without representing something'; and that something is necessarily something already constituted. We make the new from what we have, and the new is new and meaningful only in relation to what we already have.

It is true that we still have to think out the link between the two. One might ask how it is possible to think about what is 'making itself'. Things in that state do not yet exist, they are indeterminate in nature, and therefore not susceptible to thought. We can only represent what is, because it 'is' in a certain way, and this offers some purchase for thought.

The tendency to be can only be thought about in terms of elements already acquired.

But is it really true that we cannot think of movement and the transition from one stage to another? When thought is applied to change, it always contains three terms: the idea of an achieved state, the idea of a state thought about in rudimentary terms because it still does not exist and the idea of a relationship between these two notions. That last idea can certainly be represented by a concept.

The difficulty lies chiefly in understanding how a participatory relationship can be expressed. Concepts are never really isolated by us. We can loosen the context which constrains them, but we have judgement and reason which enable us to re-establish mutual relationships. That is how we learn that two things are in communication.

Distinction is thus a need of conceptual thought, but it already exists in things as it does in the mind. Similarly, continuity and communication exist in the mind, as they do in things.


Rationalists were accused of seeing truth as a sort of luxury of reality, something given, achieved, created simply to be contemplated. But that contemplation, it was also said, is a sterile, selfish intellectual's joy, of no use from the human point of view.

The expression of reality, however, does have a truly useful function, for it is what makes societies, although it could equally well be said that it also derives from them . It is true that when we imagine truth as something ready-made, we are obliged to see it as a transcendence. But although truth is a social thing, it is also a human one at the same time, and thus comes closer to us, rather than moves away and disappears in the distant realms of an intelligible world or a divine understanding. It is no doubt still superior to individual consciousness; but even the collective element in it exists only through the consciousness of individuals, and truth is only ever achieved by individuals.

We should also add that truth, at the same time as being a social and human thing, is also something living. It mingles with life because it is a product of that higher form of life, social life, as well as being the condition for its existence. It is diverse, because that form of life presents itself in multiple and diverse forms. This 'diversification', and the carving out' of concepts of which pragmatism speaks, are by no means arbitrary. They are modelled on realities, and in particular on the realities of social life.

There is also one final characteristic of truth on which I have already insisted, but which I would like to recapitulate in conclusion: that is its obligatory nature. We have seen that pragmatism, that logical utilitarianism, cannot offer an adequate explanation of the authority of truth, an authority which is easy to conceive of, however, if one sees a social aspect of truth. That is why truth is a norm for thought in the same way that the moral ideal is a norm for conduct.


We might be tempted to define concepts by their breadth and generality, as opposed to sensations and images which represent only particular objects.

Such a definition would, however, simply provide a generic notion, and would not specifically distinguish concepts from sensations and images. It would imply that thinking logically means simply thinking in general terms. But the general only exists as entailed by the particular. Thinking in general terms therefore means thinking in particular terms, but in a certain way.

It would be extraordinary if such a simple definition was enough to give rise to a type of thought which is as distinct from 'thought through sensations' and 'thought through images' as logical thought is. How would the particular, once it had been impoverished and simplified, come to possess those virtues which the particular in its richness and denseness does not possess? How would one, by mutilating the real, obtain a set of specially privileged representations? We must consider whether concepts are not something more.

There is no discontinuity between the individual and the genus. There are concepts for genera. Why should there not be concepts for individuals? Is the genus necessary for the existence of a concept?

There are in fact many concepts which designate only individuals. Each people and nation has a great number of heroes either legendary or historical (it matters little which). In what terms do we think about them? Not in general ideas, nor yet in images, for we have never seen them. We do have concepts of them, for we argue about them, and these concepts are the starting-points for our discussions and our reasoning.

In the same way, the concept of God is an individual concept. For believers, God is certainly an individual being, and we think of Him neither through sensations nor through images.

The idea of the native land is also a concept.

Furthermore, sensations and images are characterised by their fleeting nature and their mobility. The concept on the other hand is immutable, or at least should be. Thinking in concepts means thinking of the variable, but subsuming it under the form of the immutable. The fixity of vocabulary expresses the fixity of concepts, and at the same time partly causes it.

Concepts are universal or at least capable of being universal amongst men of the same civilisation. They are common to all men who have the same language, or at least communicable. One cannot talk about my concept; although one can talk about my sensation. Sensations, like images, cannot be communicated to others. We can only suggest similar ones, by association. Concepts are impersonal, and above individual contingencies. That, indeed, is the feature of logical thought.

The problem is thus that of how thought has been able to fix itself in this way and, so to speak, to make itself impersonal, and not of how it has become generalised.

When the Socratics discovered that there were fixed representations, they were full of wonder; and Plato felt impelled to hypostasise, almost to make divine, these fixed thoughts.

We can, however, find other explanations of the properties of concepts. If they are common to all, is it not because they are the work of the community? Classical dogmatism, which postulates the agreement of all human reasons, is a little childish. There is no need to go beyond experience to seek this one, impersonal thought. A form of it, collective thought, occurs within experience. Why should concepts not be collective representations?

Everything collective tends to become fixed, and to eliminate the changing and the contingent. In addition, it is because they are collective that concepts impose themselves upon us, and are transmitted to us. Words too play a major role where concepts are concerned, and words are collective things.

Collective thought is only feebly and incompletely represented in each individual consciousness, as we have already seen in the case of moral thought. The same is true intellectually. Each of our words goes beyond our individual experience, and often expresses things about which we know nothing whatsoever. If some of the objects connotated by the word are known to us, they are only examples. Concepts themselves go even further beyond our personal experience; for they are formed by what a whole series of generations has experienced. What is superimposed on our individual experience, and 'subsumes' it by means of concepts, is thus collective experience.

In addition, concepts are systematised because collective thought itself is systematised. In relation to that collective thought, we stand in the same relationship as Plato's nous to the world of Ideas. We never manage to see it in its entirety, or in its reality. We do not know all the concepts worked out by our own civilisation; and in addition, we individualise them, and give words a particular meaning which they do not have. Hence the many differences which arise amongst individuals. Hence too lies, the lies which are said to be necessary ...

One can make an objection to this sociological theory of concepts. As we have defined them here, concepts ensure agreement between individuals. One might ask, however, where their agreement with reality comes from. We tend to think that if concepts are collective they are likely to be true; but only scientific concepts present this character. The others are worked out without method.

One can nevertheless reply that collective representations do not stand outside logical truth. The generality and fixity which they have would not be possible if they were totally inadequate with respect to truth. Verification is a reciprocal process: the experiences of all individuals are mutually critical. The concepts worked out by the masses and those worked out by scientists are not essentially different in nature.

Index - Biography - Source - James - Peirce - Spencer - Comte - Weber - Lévi-Strauss