The Pragmatic Truth of Truman: An Essay.

Many people, including myself I have found, enjoy the more practical approach of applying contemporary filters to better conceptualize concepts, including such philosophical positions as Pragmatism. So I have endeavored for this paper to further this proclivity to facilitate towards understanding some of William James’ notions of pragmatic truth by coupling it with the film The Truman Show (1998). Further I shall be using Michael Bacon’s “Pragmatism: An Introduction” (P. 33-35) as a summarized source of James work to better apply these notions to various aspects of the film, using scenes and concepts derived from the narrative.

I believe that by applying some of William James pragmatic theory of truth to film, the philosopher’s concepts can be better utilized in discussion with key aspects of the movie coupled with James’ notions, to better grasp how pragmatic truth functions within a more contemporary medium of understanding.

Synopsis of The Truman Show.

The Truman Show is a satirical dramedy written by Andrew Niccol. The plot surrounds a man who has been raised his entire life believing that the people he knows, his job, his very world is real, when in fact, he is in reality the only unknowing member of a television show, called The Truman Show, the dream child of Cristof (Ed Harris) the shows director and creator. The movie further shows Truman facing the fact that his entire existence was conditioned, and molded in a contrived environment, and finally the reactions of those complicit in this continuance of the contrived environment (1998).

Pragmatic Truth and Truman.

William James subscribes to the concept that humans are not passive participants within reality, and that our truths within reality are reflective of our current, active participation, and James believes that an individual plays a role in the creation of one’s own truth (Bacon 33).

This was a notion also prescribed by James contemporary, C.S Pierce, who also valued experience as necessary to truth (Bacon 33). Both these esteemed thinkers reason that our pre-existing prejudices cannot be expelled by a mere maxim to doubt everything, as some skeptics, such as the Cartesian, might approach the concept of truth (Bacon 33-35).

This notion can be coupled with a scene from the movie to better facilitate understanding. When the lead character, Truman (Jim Carry), is first confronted with the truth of his reality; in that everything around him is built for him right down to the sand he walks on, which is the desperate claim by the character Sylvia (Natascha McElhone) as the truth, but in this early scene it doesn’t register to him, nor inspire any doubt in him as to the validity of his reality. Why? Why could he not even consider the words she said, why not accept it as truth?

James might answer that as far as Truman the Individual is concerned, he had no relevant experiences to help him play an active role in confirming the truth that his world was, in fact, fake or even entertain the possibility of being remotely suspicious of the world around him within that present moment. He already had the pre-existing prejudice that was conditioned by his current reality through others within this reality that both played a role, and guided his played out role in constructing the veracity of his existence. Therefore, because of these pre-existing prejudices about his reality, and there being no present practical reasons to doubt the truth of his reality, he therefore cannot accept Sylvia’s claim that his reality is fake

It is later that he is challenged with experiences which contradicts his worldview which lays the ground work leading him to taking an active role in constructing this new truth himself. His experiences such as the radio announcer that suddenly follows his every movements as he drives, the elevator with no set back, his dead father mysteriously appearing out of nowhere, etc., and through the increasing transparency of the fabrications and cover-ups, he’s being primed through his experiences to be lead towards a paradigm shift of reality (that his world is a fabrication) and disregarding the old paradigm (that his reality is authentic), which becomes impractical to Truman the more he is faced with the artificial construction of his life.

James believes that truth is connected to what is useful to believe (Bacon 33-35). We apply this notion to the movie by considering all those who were “in the know” on the fact that Truman’s life was a constructed television show, all the people within his constructed reality, and those who supported the shows continuation through viewership, the financiers, the producers, other media shows, etc. Everyone who is complicit in the Truman Show must suspend any disbelief of the lie that they know about the Truman Show, and the harsher morally questionable reality of it, because they invest themselves in the shows existence, the product of “Truman is real”. Their practical truth was that it was a television show, nothing more, nothing less, when taken at practical value with their own useful notion of reality.

The negation of any real moral question of Truman’s circumstances is a true belief, supported from the reliable habit amongst producers and viewers alike, that what happens on TV is not real, it’s just a show, and helps them cope with the reality of the show’s blatant manipulative nature of Truman as beyond any moral responsibility. Even within the end, when Truman leaves the show, rejoining the “real world”, the shows watchers go about their lives, no real commitment to Truman beyond as watchers of a commodity, and the whole truth of Truman’s experiences, or responsibility to Truman’s adjustment to the world, are dismissed as trivial and become a dead hypothesis (a belief, according to James, that we don’t have any great stake in) to the rest of the world (1998).

So in conclusion, various aspects of James Pragmatic concepts, such as the construction of truth based on the role of experience first exemplified in Truman’s scene with Sylvia, the active role one plays in creating their own truths that Truman does when he has his paradigm shift with his own reality, and finally the true belief of television, morality, and Truman as an individual while applying some of William James pragmatic theory of truth to all this, we can see that his philosophy of pragmatic truth more understandably functions within this more contemporary facilitator.


Bacon, Michael. “Pragmatism: An Introduction.” Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012. Print.

The Truman Show. Dir. Peter Wier. Perf. Jim Carry, Natascha McElhone, Ed Harris. Paramount Pictures, 1998. DVD.

The Truman Show trailer:

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