Pragmatism is both a method and a theory of truth. The method can be used by widely different philosophical persuasions. Its function is chiefly that of settling metaphysical disputes. Metaphysical arguments involve “notions” about which one can always ask whether the notions lead to any practical consequences. Such notions must be shown to make a difference in human conduct if they are to prove meaningful. Two Jamesian examples can illustrate what is meant here. One example concerns an argument about whether, if a person circles a tree around whose trunk a squirrel is also moving, one can say the person “goes round” the squirrel. James shows how the answer depends on what is meant by “round.” If one means by “going round” that the person is in successive places to north, east, south, and west of the squirrel, then he does go round the animal. If one means, on the other hand, that the person is behind, then to the right of, then in front of, and then to the left of the squirrel, then the person may not actually go round the squirrel, since the animal may move simultaneously with the person’s movements. James concludes that an argument of this kind, if analyzed, turns out to be a verbal one.
Another example illustrates how the pragmatic method is compatible with many possible results. James asks his readers to view the method as being like a corridor in a hotel, whose doors open into many rooms that contain thinkers involved in a variety of intellectual pursuits. These pursuits may be metaphysical, religious, or scientific. Metaphysically, one room may harbor a person working out an idealistic system, while another may shelter a thinker attempting to show that metaphysics is an impossibility. James insists that the pragmatic method is neutral regarding the kinds of thought going on in the rooms. Nevertheless, he insists that as a theory of truth, pragmatism favors the nominalist’s preference for particulars, the utilitarian’s stress on what is useful, and the positivist’s dislike of metaphysical speculations and merely verbal solutions of problems. James believes that when people employ words such as “God,” “Matter,” “the Absolute,” “Reason,” and “Energy,” they should use the pragmatic method in seeking to show how such notions can have practical effects.