What is truth?

What is truth?

What is truth?

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 29 2005 6:25 AM

Simon Blackburn

The British philosopher's take on truth.

This is the first part of a two-part article. Click here to read Part 2.

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Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

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

Its loftier aspirations aside, philosophy wouldn't be philosophy if it didn't occupy itself with problems that no normal person, in the course of his or her daily life, ever experienced to be problems. My favorite example comes from a letter of Bertrand Russell's, where the great English logician remarks on a certain mooncalf who has been pestering him after lectures. "My German engineer, I think, is a fool. He thinks nothing empirical is knowable—I asked him to admit that there was not a rhinoceros in the room, but he wouldn't." The young German engineer's name was Ludwig Wittgenstein. Like Russell, Wittgenstein started out a logician, but surpassed his teacher to become the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, in part because he was willing to entertain the possible presence of rhinoceroses. Modern philosophy may submit itself to stringent canons of proof-seeking, but to move the multitudes (or at least the stray avid sophomore) it must also carry with it some leftover power of credo quia absurdum—I believe because it is absurd. And so, after reading Hume, perhaps the most sensible man who ever lived, one is not entirely sure that a billiard ball striking another billiard ball actually causes the second billiard ball to roll.

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Simon Blackburn's new book, Truth: A Guide is an attempt to alarm us into believing in something he calls "the Truth Wars." For Blackburn, the credo has become too credulous, while standards of evidence have been allowed to erode. The label Blackburn applies to the trend is "relativism," and this covers a pretty vast catalog of deplorable items. Working up a typical lather, he writes:

Today's relativists, persuading themselves that all opinions enjoy the same standing in the light of reason, take it as a green light to believe what they like with as much conviction and force as they like. So while ancient skepticism was the sworn opponent of dogmatism, today dogmatisms feed and flourish on the desecrated corpse of reason. Astrology, prophecy, homeopathy, Feng shui, conspiracy theories, flying saucers, voodoo, crystal balls, miracle-working, angel visits, alien abductions, management nostrums, and a thousand other cults dominate people's minds, often with official backing. Faith education is encouraged by the British Prime Minister, while Biblical fundamentalism, creationism and astrology alike stalk the White House.

Book cover

Clever vitriol aside, Truth purports to tell both sides of a contentious story. On one side are the relativists, who believe truth is inevitably partial and objectivity impossible, and who doubt that science affords us a uniquely accurate access to reality. On the other side are absolutists, or realists, who believe that some mix of common sense and the scientific method allows for correct judgments, or accurate descriptions of the world as it is in itself.

Truth is basically a recasting of the culture wars with the great philosophers enlisted as protagonists. Blackburn starts the book with a discussion of William James, later goes back as far as Locke and Bishop Berkeley and Kant, and has generously long sections on recent analytic philosophers, some of whom he admires, like Quine, and some he deplores, such as Sellars. Blackburn is himself a philosophy professor at Cambridge University, best-known in professional circles for a doctrine he pioneered called "quasi-realism." Blackburn the quasi-realist is widely recognized as a lucid, careful, and generous philosopher. His two heroes are Hume and Wittgenstein; keying off them, he has pointed to a middle way, whereby we might reject a strictly realist account of knowledge, but without lapsing into the flabbiness of relativism, or emotivism, or what philosophers sometimes call noncognitivism.

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As he has grown older and his audiences larger (Truth is only his latest attempt at the pop intellectual limelight), Blackburn has grown considerably less patient. The prevailing tone of Truth is an incredulous disdain. Here, the absolutist is never a creationist, a eugenicist, or the thundering Republican water-carrier of Fox News, but a reasonable consulter of maps and timetables, the scientist calmly plying his honest trade. (That the history of science could be equally one of advancement and disinterest and falsification and overreach is never seriously entertained.) The relativist, meanwhile, is unfailingly a ninny. Blackburn mentions as examples of relativist excess Mayan birth cultists and bad-boy darlings of the English art world, though mostly he wants us to be thinking of the tenured radical, or that trendy humanities professor who believes in "the dark forces of language, culture, power, gender, class, economic status, ideology and desire."

Even a sympathetic reader—someone who already agrees that intellectual onanism has overtaken the liberal arts—might occasionally find herself in need of clearer bearings. "The science wars arose," Blackburn tells us, "when scientists found sociologists and historians of science apparently rubbing a lot of the bloom from the scientific enterprise itself. In good relativistic fashion the sociologists and historians and cultural critics bracketed science's claims to objectivity and truth, and regarded the enterprise purely in an anthropological spirit."

This may be true, or it may be tendentious and broadly drawn—either way, we're given no names, no titles, no citations to back it up. An entire chapter is devoted to Nietzsche on the premise that, "It is an axiom of many academic schools and programmes that [Nietzsche] has something supremely important to tell us about truth." But no school or program is specified, and the assertion is left to the dubious authority of It is an axiom. (Nietzsche in general gives Blackburn fits: A few paragraphs further, Nietzsche is described as "most famous as a culture critic," then barely a page later we're told Nietzsche is "most famous" for his "highly general doctrines" such as "the will to power.") Should a book titled Truth so frequently revert to lore? "There are amusing episodes," writes Blackburn, "of radical postmodernists who suddenly forgot all about the death of the author and the indefinite plasticity of meaning when it came to fighting about copyright and the accuracy of translations of their own works." In lieu of names, dates, titles, and places, Blackburn frequently recurs to his own parables, about mapmaking, bus schedules, and tide tables. "Tide tables have their prestige," he informs us. "Good sailors make a point of carrying them. This is not because of social and political machinations, or dark cultural or psychological forces like the grip of myth or superstition, but because they are reliable, and in turn that enables you to do things with them."

True, tide tables allow you to do things with them. But has Blackburn done too much? After all, many different kinds of statements aspire to be considered true. "7+5=12," "All bachelors are unmarried men," "Gravity is the warping of space by matter," "The 5:15 leaves in 10 minutes," "The Beatles are better than the Stones," "A specter is haunting Europe"—do they all refer equally to a mind-independent reality, or submit equally to the scientific method? In running together different types of knowing, Blackburn helps himself to an enormous, and unearned, rhetorical advantage, as this is how he imputes to his relativist an almost impossible lack of common sense. Reject the authority of science, he implies, and forget about catching the 5:15, or acknowledging (another Blackburn favorite) "Cambridge is north of London." On the opposite ledger, science is promoted as the one inexorable method for apprehending reality. "Science and common sense offer their own explanation of why we do well using them," Blackburn writes emphatically. "Science explains the success of science."

As easily as it can make him sound like a paragon of reason, a boundless confidence in the prestige of science can make an author appear curiously literal-minded. "There are no specifically Hindu or Taoist designs for mobile phones, faxes or televisions," goes one typically jeering aside, by which the reader supposes he means that the sheer utility of technology renders it the supreme form of human knowledge. (To which one is tempted to reply, "And no mobile phone has yet to give me Satori.") In a later aside, he writes, "Why is it right, we might ask the poetry lover, to be gripped by the thought that, 'Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity.'? And back comes the reply that it is because this is what life does." But such Donnish confidence is strangely misplaced. The poet he quotes was a devoted neo-Platonist, filled with quasi-mystical ideas about the relationship of poems to reality; and the line of poetry he cites, in case he hadn't noticed, is a metaphor, and a fairly outlandish one at that.