It's a bumpy road that leads to truth

October 4, 2002

What is truth and why does it matter? Bernard Williams tells Jennifer Wallace that we value truth only when we are in danger of losing it

Ever since Alan Clark admitted to being "economical with the actualité ", there has been an anxiety about truthfulness in public life. Fewer and fewer people believe politicians, and fewer people are bothering to vote than at any time in the past 80 years. There is a crisis of trust, a hunger for the truth and an accompanying cynicism that we will ever get it. Timely, then, that one of the UK's leading philosophers, Bernard Williams, is publishing Truth and Truthfulness .

The message of the book is that truth is very hard to define but that we know what it is and value it all the more when we are in danger of losing it. Which we may be now, owing in part to the influence of postmodernism in the humanities and to the paranoia rife among the internet generation.

For Williams, truth is not transcendent or based on some idea of God or divine truth or absolute morality. "I do not think truth is the most helpful adjective to use about moral propositions," he says. But, on the other hand, truth is not relative either. This is not some laissez-faire world, with everyone entitled to his own version of events.

Confused? Well, the answer seems to lie in history, in the way we tell ourselves stories to vindicate the truth about something, and in the way beliefs repeated over time acquire a significance and value of their own. So, for example, accuracy and sincerity have always been considered to be virtues, but the forms they have taken and the way they have been practised have changed in different historical periods. "You cannot understand such ideas without telling the story behind them," Williams explains. "You have got to tell the history. Philosophy needs history."

It is a philosophy of consensus and conversation. Williams is trying to bring about a rapprochement between the arts and sciences, between the "deniers" who think "truth is an ideological position" and those who rely on commonsense and argue that truth is something that they bump into everyday. "These two parties do seem to pass each other by," Williams chuckles. "The commonsense party is absolutely right, but it does not seem to meet any of the concerns that the denier party really has." Williams wants philosophers to engage with historians and abstract ideologues to chat to factual literalists.

That is all very well within the cloisters of academia, but what about the world beyond? Williams thinks the role of new Labour spin in the crisis of truthfulness in public life has been rather exaggerated. He admits that the party has "overvalued the alleged virtues of presentation", but he argues that it is only compensating for years of misrepresentation in the press. "The Labour Party has fought endlessly with the press when it has had an anti-left bias, and that's produced a somewhat paranoid atmosphere."

But Williams reserves his main bile for journalists. It is the newspaper industry, he believes, that is the primary cause for the lack of trust in Britain. "I regard a lot of the press as simply the enemy of understanding. It seems to me to be destroying the fabric in which anybody would give anyone enough space to do anything." The problem stems from the structure of newspaper ownership, the pressure to make money, to increase readership and therefore to "sell sneers". Compared with other western countries, Britain relies far more on very large-scale ownership, which leads to "a tremendous emphasis on tycoonery". "We have in Britain a press that is totally devoted to scandals, under the cover of a feigned righteousness," he says. "It's as if they were implying that what politicians ought to be is utterly and limitlessly virtuous. As if that were true of journalists and newspaper tycoons. It's childish."

As an example of what journalism should aspire to in terms of standards and commitment to public life, Williams cites the BBC's mission statement, inscribed in Latin in the entrance of Broadcasting House. It relies not on the "raucous competition for circulation" but "upon an idea of common ground", although he admits that this view may be a little outmoded in the era of director-general Greg Dyke.

The difficulty in a multicultural society is what we mean by "common". Whose version of events prevails? Williams imagines that the truth emerges from debate and argument. "I'm not a great believer in the ideal of a liberal society in which everyone consists of readers of The Guardian . If you are going to have a pluralistic society, it's got to be a pluralistic society with collisions where ideas bump into each other."

Williams, now 72, clearly has a strong sense of public service, which is informed by his philosophical work and by his upbringing. He has been a fellow of three Oxford colleges (New College, Corpus Christi and All Souls), two London University colleges (University College London and Bedford) and one Cambridge college (King's), and he divides his time between Oxford and the University of California, Berkeley, where he holds the Monroe Deutsch chair in philosophy. He was at one time the husband of the politician Shirley Williams and he has also sat on various government committees over the years - the Public Schools Commission, the Royal Commission on Gambling - and chaired the committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship in the late 1970s.

"I've always been interested in ideas such as honesty, integrity, truthfulness from a very long way back," he says. "I suppose it was the way I was brought up by my mother, who had a rather stern view of such things."

And yet he is reluctant to envisage too practical and public a role for philosophers.

Philosophers should not be too engaged in the minutiae of everyday life, he believes. "If philosophers are going to be significant and not just journalists, they need to take the longer view. They put ideas into circulation and criticise ideas already in circulation so that there is a kind of shift in the way people look at things."

But surely as our leading philosopher and author of a book on truth, he might want to claim a slightly more important public role than that? He reluctantly concedes: "I'd like to apply Picasso's remark to my own philosophy. They said to him, about his portrait of Gertrude Stein, that it didn't look like her. Picasso said: 'It will.' And he didn't mean that Gertrude Stein was going to change."

Jennifer Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse College, Cambridge.

Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy is published on October 7 by Princeton University Press, £19.95.

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