Truth Criterion

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An analysis based on contextualism’s root metaphor essentially consists of a description of some event or phenomenon and its current and historical context. Such an analysis is evaluated by examining—not surprisingly—the context in which it was generated. In particular, contextualists determine the validity or "truth" of an analysis by looking at the purpose or function of the analysis. If the analysis includes enough features of the context to successfully achieve the goal of the analysis, then it is deemed "true." In other words, for contextualists the truth and meaning of an idea lies in its function or utility, not in how well it is said to mirror reality. The truth criterion of contextualism is thus dubbed successful working, whereby an analysis is said to be true or valid insofar as it leads to effective action, or achievement of some goal.

This notion of truth reveals contextualism’s roots in philosophical pragmatism, a tradition heavily influenced by the work of figures such as Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., George Herbert Mead, and John Dewey. Pragmatists and contextualists are not concerned with the existence of absolute, foundational truths or assumptions about the universe. As James wrote, "the truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events" (1907, p. 161).

For the contextualist, ideas are verified by human experiences, with an idea’s "meaning" essentially defined by its practical consequences, and its "truth" by the degree to which those consequences reflect successful action. Contextualism’s extremely functional approach to meaning, with a heavy emphasis placed on the empirical consequences of ideas, reveals the influence of another figure who greatly affected the development of pragmatist thought: Charles Darwin. Pragmatism can be seen as an application of Darwin’s selectionism to epistemology: In pragmatism, ideas are "selected" (to be retained as true or valid) if they lead to successful action, just as in natural selection traits are "selected" (to be retained by the species) if they lead to reproductive success. This influence is not surprising, as Darwinism was just gaining widespread appeal among scholars during the era in which the early pragmatists were cutting their intellectual teeth (Menand, 2001).