Up against a tide of denial

Truth and Truthfulness
November 29, 2002

Ray Monk admires a spirited challenge to damaging fashionable notions.

A new book by Bernard Williams is a big event, and it is not difficult to see why. He writes on important and fundamental issues that are of interest not only to philosophers but also to anyone who wants to understand contemporary culture and society. He brings to his work an immense scholarship that covers an astonishing range of academic and intellectual concerns and yet he carries it extraordinarily lightly. And above all, he writes with the kind of eloquence, elegance and wit that used to characterise the work of our greatest minds but that has now all but disappeared from academic life. What he writes, people want to read, and what he says, people want to hear - and this makes him almost unique in contemporary British philosophy.

The background to this latest book is what many of us see as an intellectual crisis in the humanities and the social sciences brought about by the widespread acceptance of various facile forms of scepticism, subjectivism and relativism, the cumulative effect of which is to make scholars and students nervous about making any truth claims whatsoever. To speak of facts, reality, truth and falsehood without a liberal application of scare-quotes is, all too often these days, interpreted as a sign of intellectual naivety. In place of facts, we should, we are told, speak of interpretations; in place of reality we should speak of (culturally and historically specific) social constructions; and in place of truth and falsehood, we should speak of accepted and rejected beliefs. To resist these linguistic innovations is to risk being labelled a "metaphysical realist" or a "Platonist" and to be condemned as at best muddle-headed and at worst some kind of totalitarian.

One reaction to this state of affairs - exemplified by, for example, Thomas Nagel's The Last Word (1997) - is to accept the terms in which the debate is often presented and to mount a robust defence of metaphysical realism. But to those of us who reject metaphysical realism and yet who still want to insist that the notions of fact, truth and reality can be used without any irony, the problem has been to convince the "deniers of truth" (as Williams calls them) that we are not Platonists in disguise and the metaphysical realists that we are not postmodernists. The success or otherwise of this bid for the commonsensical middle ground will depend upon whether we can persuade both sides of this dispute to separate the notion of truth from one particular theory of it, namely Platonism.

This is what Williams attempts to do by offering a "genealogy" of the virtue of truthfulness. This genealogy has two parts: the first, a fictitious account of "the state of nature" in which he traces the virtue of truthfulness back to two related virtues - sincerity and accuracy - which, he claims, are essential to any community whose members communicate with each other; the second, a factual history of key episodes in the development of these virtues as they have appeared in the literature of western civilisation. The motivation behind this approach is the hope that if the "deniers of truth" are presented with a story rather than with a more general and abstract argument, they might be brought to see that the virtues they themselves espouse commit them to the notion of truth.

Williams repeatedly draws attention to the supposed merits of his genealogical method, and it is clearly an important part of his purpose to demonstrate by example "that philosophy itself must involve more than abstract argument and that, in confronting this kind of question [of truth], it must engage itself in history". However, I am not entirely convinced that he has demonstrated this. Part of the problem here is that the historical chapters of the book, fascinating though they are, do not seem to advance Williams's central argument at all.

There are those - Richard Rorty has already declared himself one of them - who will prefer these historical excursions to the main body of the book. The prose acquires a greater intensity during these chapters; one feels that Williams's reflections on Thucydides, Herodotus, Rousseau and Diderot arise out of an exhilarated fascination that is missing when, for example, he is going over, yet again, standard philosophical topics such as Alfred Tarski's theory of truth or Michael Dummett's views on assertion.

What Williams claims about Thucydides is that, in distinguishing sharply between myth and historical fact, Thucydides invented the "objective" conception of the past that has driven all subsequent historical inquiries. His claim about Rousseau is that, in his Confessions , Rousseau invented a new type of virtue: that of authenticity, conceived as the baring of one's soul and the resolute rejection of all forms of hypocrisy and insincerity imposed by the obligations of society. What he finds in Rameau's Nephew by Diderot is a challenge to this supposed virtue that questions whether the individualistic "search for an authentic life" is really admirable or - given the important roles that culture, society and politics play in forming personal identity - even coherent. The rather tenuous connection that these absorbing historical diversions have on Williams's main theme is that of showing that the virtues of accuracy and sincerity have histories of their own. Just as Rousseau introduced a new form of sincerity, Thucydides introduced a new form of accuracy.

What this has to do with showing the "deniers of truth" the errors of their ways is unclear, especially as Williams is at pains to point out that the notion of truth differs from the virtues with which it is associated in being completely ahistorical. Neither Thucydides nor Rousseau either did or could possibly have invented a new conception of truth, since "everybody everywhere already has a concept of truth; indeed they all have the same concept of truth". What one learns from a genealogy of truthfulness, whether fictitious or factual, is not that the concept of truth has a history, but rather that the virtues of sincerity and accuracy, though they themselves have a history, commit us (where "us" means language-users, communicators, human beings) to a notion of truth that is invariant through times, places and cultures.

This brings us to another problem with Williams's genealogical method, which is that it is very difficult to see how the genealogy does the persuasive task assigned to it, namely that of showing why it is wrong (morally and philosophically) to abandon the notion of truth. Understood as a challenge to the "deniers of truth", this book might, I think, be summarised without any reference to its genealogy. For the argument at its core, the argument that is actually doing the work of persuading us that the deniers have gone astray, might be expressed in exactly the kind of general and abstract terms that Williams purportedly eschews. Stripped to its bare bones, it would go like this: without communication, human society would be impossible, and without the virtues of accuracy and sincerity, communication would be impossible; therefore, as accuracy and sincerity presuppose the notion of truth, truth is an indispensable concept for any human society.

Of course, there are many ways of putting flesh on these bones, one of which is to develop the kind of genealogical story that Williams chooses to tell. But, aside from its awkward mix of fact and fiction, and its vacillations between conceptual and historical inquiries, this has the disadvantage of letting the deniers out of our sights. As noted earlier, that arch-denier, Rorty, can sit back comfortably while Williams tells him stories about how Thucydides invented a new form of accuracy and Rousseau a new form of sincerity, for there is nothing in these stories to challenge his view that the notion of truth is as outdated as that of phlogiston.

The place at which Rorty ought to be squirming in his seat is at the end of Williams's chapter on accuracy, when he critiques Rorty's reading of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four . A great deal hangs on this discussion, since Nineteen Eighty-four is usually read as a dramatisation of the intrinsic connections between the notions of freedom and of truth. Bertrand Russell used to argue that pragmatism led to fascism, because once the notion of objective truth was abandoned, the only thing left to settle disputes was power. The kind of thing Russell had in mind, one might think, is vividly illustrated by the episode in the novel when the party boss, O'Brien, tortures Winston into believing that two times two is five. "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four," Orwell writes. "If that is granted, all else follows."

As Rorty believes in freedom with as much fervour as he disbelieves in truth, it is important to him to challenge this connection between the two notions, and, in a famous essay in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989), he argues that it is unimportant that the belief O'Brien induces through torture is false, while that which Winston desperately tries to cling to is true. But this, as Williams convincingly argues, is to miss the entire point. "The torture that Orwell imagines," Williams writes, "subverts true belief so as to destroy the victim's relation to the world altogether, undoing the distinctions between fantasy and reality. It puts Winston into a fantasy which is O'Brien's, or the Party's creation. This is the final affirmation of power, as Orwell saw, and Rorty, in letting truth and falsehood 'drop out', disables himself from understanding it."

The point has been made at greater length by James Conant in his essay "Freedom, cruelty and truth: Rorty versus Orwell" (in Rorty and his Critics [2000]) and it is in this and similar ways that we can successfully show, not just the muddle-headedness, but also the moral bankruptcy of the voguish denial of truth that threatens to turn the study of the humanities away from, as Williams puts it, "professional seriousness, through professionalisation, to a finally disenchanted careerism".

Ray Monk is professor of philosophy, University of Southampton.

Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy

Author - Bernard Williams
ISBN - 0 691 106 7
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 328

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments