|BERNARD WILLIAMS' NEW
BOOK TRUTH AND TRUTHFULNESS -- a review by Ted Honderich
My old and no doubt my best teacher's Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy was published by Princeton University Press. 328 pp., £19.95. The following brief thoughts on it, somewhat differently expressed, appeared in The Guardian. Better late than never. Chigwell, for those unfamiliar with it, most of the world, is an outer-London suburb that has not yet seized its place in history, but had in it what no doubt was a good school.
This book is by our most successful philosopher, an adornment of Chigwell, Oxford, London, Cambridge, Berkeley, and now Oxford again. He is funny too, a discoverer of moral luck, knighted, and all too human. Is it only the example of his infinite capacity for making yet more distinctions that keeps us from declaring with his American publisher that he is Britain's greatest living philosopher?
The book is about the two things of finding out the truth and then telling the truth. It is also about associated items: virtues, styles, beginnings in a state of nature, genealogies, histories, mini-narratives, personnel across the centuries, trust, and tropes. So maybe it's better to say, with its author, sometimes, that it is about Accuracy and Sincerity.
That may be more Accurate than its opening words, which are to the effect that it is about a malaise or problem we now have.
We are less inclined to believe in real truth now, objective truth, partly because of the drubbing it has got from sceptics, relativists, pragmatists, and post-modernists. But on the other hand we are still all for people being truthful, and keen ourselves to see through things to, presumably, the truth. What is the point of our doing the noble thing of finding out and saying what isn't there? Or anyway isn't there as firmly as used to be supposed? There's your malaise.
If you are not too sure of what the sceptical, relativist and what-not doctrines are, by the way, and can't tell a post-modernist from a milkman, you have come to the wrong place. Our guide does not bring himself to state the doctrines, let alone expound them. Still, we understand they have something to do with Professor Richard Rorty, the victim of a uppity line pretty near to scurvy. And we can get the general idea, which is not new.
Williams finds it harder to save us from our malaise or problem because he may be a little post-modern himself. For a start, he has taken over the nonsense of a Polish logician who proved you can't ever define truth -- by running up a formal semantic system within which he made it impossible. The proof is still playing to small audiences in California but not doing so well elsewhere.
Williams certainly won't have the idea that truth is a matter of correspondence to something, as the dictionary rightly says. This is also so because he supposes the correspondence would have to be with facts, entities about which there are known philosophical problems. Are they themselves truths? He overlooks that the truth of `The cat has mange', for a start, consists in the correspondence of an ordinary thing's actually having the property assigned to it.
The book certainly isn't all about the malaise and the uncertain help for it. In parts it is about how Accuracy and Sincerity have come about, or could have come about, or might be imagined to have come about. Working this out will tell us what they are, their nature. How this Nietzschean backward-looking way is better and actually different than having a good look at the things themselves -- this is much explained. Might you do as well, however well that is, if you don't want to look at them, by looking at their effects over time?
There is also an engaging classicist's chapter having to do with the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who began our preference for history over myth. Also a chapter on relevant virtues and vices of Rousseau and Diderot, which has to do with one of society's several virtues, which is that of steadying one's mind.
In another line of reflection there is a preference for explaining actions by reasons rather than causes . It brings to mind an indubitable proposition embraced by Williams. It is that post-modernist carry-on about varying interpretations or whatever of the past or whatever actually embarrassingly presupposes something's being true, something's being there to be interpreted.
So too, it does indeed come to mind to say, does explanation of actions by reasons, if they really do explain the actions, presuppose that reasons are actually causes.
There is also some morals and politics. Some is acute argument for going beyond the proposition of moral luck to such a conclusion as `there is no Moral Law'. The argument about our liberalism is not quite sufficient for the conclusion, absurd to me, that all you have to say about its effects on the rest of the world is that it less benign there than it is with us. In this piety no attention is paid to the connection between liberalism and bad lives. It is contentedly forgotten that there are more alternatives to liberalism than tyranny.
Truth and Truthfulness is not like post-modernism as occasionally encountered. It is not stuff to which the only proper response is frustration and the desire to be somewhere else. Truth and Truthfulness is a large, replete, distinctive and often challenging piece of work, first-rate philosophy with which it is possible to disagree.