What is Truth? (Part 2)

What is Truth? (Part 2)

What is Truth? (Part 2)

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 30 2005 5:37 PM

Simon Blackburn

The British philosopher's "Truth Wars."

This is the second part of a two-part article. Click here to read Part 1.

The English philosopher Simon Blackburn would like us to believe in something he calls "the Truth Wars," a kind of shadow version or echo of what was once known in the 1980s and '90s as "the culture wars." In the Truth Wars, respect for the truth has been degraded by a band of careless and pseudo-sophisticated philosophes, and this degradation carries with it a broad set of cultural consequences. (Loss of public esteem for the natural sciences most worries Blackburn, though he paints a world broadly lacking in proper respect for any authority or expertise.) To this end, Blackburn has set up a contrast between what he labels "absolutists," or right-thinking scientists and philosophers whose respect for truth remains intact; and "relativists," or the wrongheaded, overindulged critical theorists who believe only in self-interest and power. While Blackburn generously names his allies—the philosophers Bernard Williams, Thomas Nagel, and Hilary Putnam—details about his enemies are left sketchy. In Truth, the hostility to the unnamed relativist so overflows at points as to make her sound more like a solipsist, a nihilist, or even a willful and demented child. I spent a number of years in and around English departments and certainly met plenty of nudniks and witnessed my share of bizarre seminar discussions. But never once did I meet the shameless knave that Blackburn describes.

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate’s critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

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Why would someone so ostensibly smart as Simon Blackburn spend so much time attacking a papier-mâché doll of his own making? Anyone currently in academia in any capacity knows that the prestige of hard and semihard disciplines (notably economics) has never been higher, while the prestige of soft disciplines—those aided over the previous 25 years by the allure of "theory," such as English, Comp Lit, Art History—has never been lower. Over the period in the history of the Anglo-American university Blackburn identifies as coinciding with the broader societal decline he decries, philosophy departments were ruled by analytic philosophers, direct descendants of the logical positivists he professes to adore, and the avowed enemies of the hermeneuticists he clearly detests. Meanwhile, the idea I read about constantly in the mainstream press or catch whiffs of from the stray Charlie Rose isn't post-colonialism or queer theory; it's sociobiology, or any of the various offshoots of Darwinian determinism that have left a cadre of English and American philosopher-scientists the most accredited, respected, and glamorously feted public intellectuals of their day.

Blackburn's Truth Wars would pit right-brain adepts of the math and sciences against the left-brain adepts of the humanities, but this is a tendentious morality play meant to fret the public imagination without taking into account the actual intellectual or institutional history of the American university. Blackburn doesn't ever let on, but the unacknowledged conflict at the heart of Truth is between two opposing camps within the humanities over what the humanities should look like given the unchallenged pre-eminence of the natural sciences. Here a little history might be in order. The contemporary American philosophy department is heir to a group of European intellectuals, known as the Vienna Circle, who came to the United States in the '30s to flee the Nazis. (Some were also from a related group called the Berlin Circle.)  The contemporary American English department is the heir to a group of European intellectuals, known as the Frankfurt School, who came to the United States in the '30s, also to flee the Nazis. The Vienna Circle was made up of philosophers—chief among them Carnap, Feigl, and Reichenbach—who knew personally the prominent scientists of the day and were proficient, to say the least, in math. They wanted to establish a firm basis for all knowledge as logical and empirical—that is, as mathematical and scientific. For their part, the Frankfurt sociologists—chief among them Horkhemer, Adorno, and Marcuse—were interested in understanding modes of social control, especially in light of the political psychosis they had only just fled. Their work did not presuppose or aspire to a style of thinking that refined away historical contingency or the vicissitudes of political conflict; but they firmly believed, under the direction Horkheimer, that Marxism was a science.

Within the humanities, there's no denying it, the prestige attaching to the heirs to the Frankfurt School has outstripped the prestige attaching to the heirs to the Vienna Circle. The reason, I think, is simple: In the battle for non-scientific hearts and minds in a university, the less-scientific sounding people are bound to win out. One philosopher above all has chronicled the decline in prestige of analytic philosophy and the corresponding rise in interest in literary theory; and not coincidentally, this is the one enemy Blackburn troubles to identify by name. This is a review-essay, and any attempt to justify the American philosopher Richard Rorty's conclusion, that truth is human-centered and consensual and not alien and extrinsically imposed, would require at least a book. But it is possible to identify, merely by quoting Rorty, the wound to the ego that seems to have motivated Blackburn to write a screed in response to him. As Rorty has written:

The principal vice of the community of analytic philosophers is that its members do not read much outside of analytic philosophy. Graduate study in philosophy in most American philosophy departments is largely a matter of going over the publications of the last ten or twenty years in order to get the background necessary for throwing oneself into the "hot topics" of the last one or two years—the topics currently being discussed on the pre-print circuit. … Yet they have little sense of what the ancient discipline was. … Nor do they have much sense of what is going on in the history, political science, literature, or sociology departments of the universities in which they teach. This is why they are baffled and annoyed when they find that contemporary French and German philosophers are being admired, discussed, and taught in these departments.

Being told that you are ill-read, or better yet, a "time-serving bore," as Rorty has dubbed analytic philosophers, would fuel anyone's bafflement and annoyance, and these are the twin engines behind Truth. As a helpless rejoinder to Rorty that only serves to prove his case, the book would be harmless if it didn't also take energy from a trend darkening the culture at large. A few years back, Blackburn, the defender of the total explanatory advantage of science, confided to an interviewer that he didn't believe in global warming:

I think the scientific evidence is that the phenomenon is either very slight or doesn't exist. There is no good measurement of global warming. There are bad measurements of it using land-based, widely-scattered, sporadic, rather primitive instruments called "Stevenson Boxes," often sited near airports and in cities which do indeed show warming, but the globe is much bigger and the best measurements of the atmosphere's temperature are given by satellites and by meteorological balloons. And if you go to the websites for those, they show more or less flat graphs.

At this, as one might imagine, the interviewer expressed some amazement. "Yes, I shared that belief until six months ago," Blackburn replied. "I then went to New Zealand, where a man called Denis Dutton directed me to some of the skeptical literature on this and to the websites I've been talking about." Now, I have met Denis Dutton, and he is a nice enough man, an American philosophy professor who lives and teaches in New Zealand. Dutton is well-known for two things: his dislike of the academic left, which he lampoons with his Annual Bad Writing Contest; and a phobic dislike of environmentalism, which he berates tiresomely through his otherwise very fine Web site, Arts & Letters Daily. Dutton is a gadfly, not an authority (on anything, so far as one can tell), and on the most basic facts regarding global warming, both he and Blackburn are simply wrong. The evidence for global warming comes from a variety of sources, and it is convergent: In addition to ground-based temperature readings, there are satellite measurements, space measurements of Earth's heat budget, borehole readings, computer models, and several mutually reinforcing lines of historical evidence. Nonetheless, how satisfying, if global warming were a canard! How vast the bad faith, and the hoodoo powers of left-wing conspiracy! To which one can only reply: Physician, heal thyself. As in his beef with Rorty, Blackburn has let a personal distaste overwhelm a basic respect for the facts. To have been lectured to at length by this man, on just this score, and in a book so clumsily soldered together, lies beyond even poor taste; it is perverse. It requires reminding, then, that "Philosopher" isn't a job description, but an honorific. And in this instance, it might better be revoked.