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October 21, 2005

Public perception of philosophy leaves academics cold, suggests Ray Monk

For philosophers - and, still more, for publishers of philosophical books - we live in perplexing times. On the one hand, there has probably never been more widespread interest in philosophical ideas.

Intellectual discussion in other disciplines (literary theory, cultural studies, film studies, history and archaeology, to name but a few) is dominated by philosophical discussion; films are made that centre almost entirely on philosophical questions; books on philosophy written by scientists become bestsellers; a novel about philosophy ( Sophie's World ) becomes the one book that you can safely assume sixth-form students have read; and the Radio 4 programme In Our Time makes front-page headlines by conducting a poll of its readers on their favourite philosopher.

On the other hand, there has probably never been less interest, among the educated public, in the work of the leading British philosophers of the day. Ask a newspaper editor, a headmaster or a TV producer to name any current occupant of the chairs of philosophy at Oxford or Cambridge universities and the chances are that you will draw a blank stare. The Radio 4 poll illustrated this gap starkly when it was revealed that the favourite philosopher of the listeners of In Our Time was Karl Marx, a thinker whose work is ignored by most British university philosophy departments and who is not regarded by most contemporary professional British philosophers as one of their ilk.

Allen Lane clearly hopes that Simon Blackburn's latest book will reverse this trend. Its press release promises that the book provides "light at the end of the tunnel" for all those who have asked themselves the following questions. "Living in a multicultural society, how do we decide whose truth is right and whose is wrong? How can we tell when the Government feeds us spin? And why is truth important anyway?" Unfortunately, however, no matter how interesting these questions are, they are not questions that Blackburn addresses in this book.

Although he talks in the preface about wanting to guide "innocent bystanders" through the perils of philosophical debate, and although the eight chapters that follow started life as a series of lectures addressed to the general public, this book - admirable though it is in all sorts of ways - reflects the interests of professional philosophers rather than those of, say, the listeners of In Our Time , the readers of Sophie's World or the participants of debates in the wider humanities about postmodernism.

Blackburn's concern is to steer a line between the "absolutism" of contemporary Platonists such as Thomas Nagel and the "relativism" of postmodernists such as Richard Rorty. Like Nagel (and like Bernard Williams in his last book, Truth and Truthfulness ), Blackburn wants to be free to use concepts such as truth, objectivity and reality without inverted commas. He therefore shares Nagel's distaste for the kind of postmodern irony that is now standard in most humanities subjects. Unlike Nagel, however, he does not believe that all forms of relativism can be dismissed by a three-line argument purporting to show that any denial of objective truth leads to self-reflexive paradoxes. His preferred response to relativists is to meet them halfway: to accept their arguments against the "meta-story" associated with philosophical realism but to reject any alleged implications that these arguments supposedly have for our ordinary conception of truth.

It is a sensible position, though hardly unique to Blackburn - it is, for example, also Wittgenstein's position. Where Blackburn is original is in defending this view by appeal to an argument concerning what he calls "animation". In place of the "meta-story" of philosophical realists, Blackburn offers a philosophical defence of the objectivity of scientific truth that goes like this: "By following scientific method, we get things that work: theories that deliver results, technologies that enable us to do things. We thus become what I call animated by the science, and when we do we go round saying things such as 'electrons have negative charge'. We also hold - for this is what science tells us - that it is the negative charge on electrons that explains our saying the things we do."

Whether this is right or not, it is surely scarcely less perplexing than many of the things said by absolutists and relativists. Professional philosophers, no doubt, will be stimulated by it to raise searching questions about this notion of "animation" and what light, if any, it sheds on our notions of objectivity and truth. Non-philosophers, one suspects, will simply be bewildered by it.

What Blackburn has written, then, is not a "guide for the perplexed" but rather a stimulating contribution to a perplexing issue - an issue the perplexity of which is, one suspects, a large part, if not the whole, of the interest it holds for professional philosophers.

Ray Monk is professor of philosophy, Southampton University.

Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed

Author - Simon Blackburn
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 221
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 7139 9718 4

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