Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogyby Bernard Williams
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What does it mean to be truthful? What role does truth play in our lives? What do we lose if we reject truthfulness? No philosopher is better suited to answer these questions than Bernard Williams. Writing with his characteristic combination of passion and elegant simplicity, he explores the value of truth and finds it to be both less and more than we might imagine.
Modern culture exhibits two attitudes toward truth: suspicion of being deceived (no one wants to be fooled) and skepticism that objective truth exists at all (no one wants to be naive). This tension between a demand for truthfulness and the doubt that there is any truth to be found is not an abstract paradox. It has political consequences and signals a danger that our intellectual activities, particularly in the humanities, may tear themselves to pieces.
Williams's approach, in the tradition of Nietzsche's genealogy, blends philosophy, history, and a fictional account of how the human concern with truth might have arisen. Without denying that we should worry about the contingency of much that we take for granted, he defends truth as an intellectual objective and a cultural value. He identifies two basic virtues of truth, Accuracy and Sincerity, the first of which aims at finding out the truth and the second at telling it. He describes different psychological and social forms that these virtues have taken and asks what ideas can make best sense of them today.
Truth and Truthfulness presents a powerful challenge to the fashionable belief that truth has no value, but equally to the traditional faith that its value guarantees itself. Bernard Williams shows us that when we lose a sense of the value of truth, we lose a lot both politically and personally, and may well lose everything.
Author Biography: Bernard Williams is Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University, and also teaches philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Making Sense of Humanity, Morality, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Shame and Necessity, and Moral Luck.
Truth and Truthfulness is an ambitious work, and its journeys into history give it a breadth unusual in these days of increased academic specialization. . . . William's book combines real history and fictional constructs to tell a revealing story that makes us reconsider the meaning of familiar concepts.
If philosophers ever became kings, they would all be like Mr. Williams. His books were clear, funny, dramatic and readable, like great novels. . . . His final book, Truth and Truthfulness, has come along at exactly the right moment. It both describes our current crisis of truth and offers hope for a resolution.
Truth and Truthfulness is the book which has meant the most to me this year. . . . This vigorous, crystalline book is an intellectual landmark.
Honorable Mention for the 2002 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Philosophy, Association of American Publishers
"[Truth and Truthfulness] shows all Williams's characteristic virtues. He is always a pleasure to read, and as it has often done before, his deft, sparkling intelligence newly illuminates an old philosophical subject, scattering light into many surprising corners as it does so. . . . He is consistently amusing, but at absolutely no cost to the depth of the enterprise. And what a wonderful life it would be if even a small proportion of philosophers could write so well."--Simon Blackburn, Times Literary Supplement
"Its virtuoso blend of analytic philosophy, classical scholarship, historical consciousness, and uninhibited curiosity marks Truth and Truthfulness unmistakably as a work by Bernard Williams. He responds to Rousseau and Diderot; Thucydides, Herodotus, and Homer; Nietzsche, Hume, Plato, and Kant; Rorty, Habermas, and Hayden White."--Thomas Nagel, New Republic
"Anyone who wants to understand the relations between the relatively arcane issues concerning truth debated by philosophy professors, and the larger question of what self-image we human beings should have, would do well to read Williams's new book. It is a major work."--Richard Rorty, London Review of Books
"Many colleagues consider Williams the most influential voice in contemporary moral philosophy. . . . [This book] may well have a noteworthy impact. It is Williams' reflection on the moral cost of the intellectual vogue for dispensing with the concept of truth. . . . The patient reader will enjoy the rare experience of watching philosophical and historical scaffolding installed, or revealed, beneath everyday expectations and practices of honesty, trust, doubt, deceit and wishful thinking."--Kenneth Baker, The San Francisco Chronicle
"A model of clarity and discernment."--Library Journal
"[A] brilliant and disturbing book. . . . This is a fascinating and riveting work, and it shows, in a way which no other recent work of philosophy has done, that the subject can be both important and comprehensible--and that is a very considerable achievement indeed."--Alasdair Palmer, Sunday Telegraph
"The book is never dull or nerdy. It is suffused by a sly Oxonian humor and a keen feeling for pleasures and philosophical argument. . . . Yet this playfulness does not detract from its underlying seriousness of purpose: this is a defense of the value of truth against those modern skeptics who deny its existence. . . . [I]t offers the rare pleasure of a first-rate philosophical mind at work."--Edward Skidelsky, New Statesmen
"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. . . . And above all, he writes with the kind of eloquence, elegance and wit that used to characterize 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."--Ray Monk, Times Higher Education Supplement
"Deftly, and with a certain relish, [Williams] explores the barefaced lying and the many subtler forms of deception and self-deception we practice. . . . The array of arguments he marshals to cast light on the problem leaves little doubt: If you wish to develop your talents, earn the love of another, or pursue justice, then cultivate the virtues of truth."--Peter Berkowitz, Washington Post Book World
"Truth and Truthfulness is the book which has meant the most to me this year. . . . This vigorous, crystalline book is an intellectual landmark."--Richard Sennett, Times Literary Supplement
"Truth and Truthfulness is an ambitious work, and its journeys into history give it a breadth unusual in these days of increased academic specialization. . . . William's book combines real history and fictional constructs to tell a revealing story that makes us reconsider the meaning of familiar concepts."--Julian Baggini, The Philosophers' Magazine
"Elegance and subtlety are the hallmarks of Bernard Williams's philosophical style, both in the quality of his thought and the manner of his prose. His contributions have enriched philosophical debate for decades, and as this absorbing book about the truth and the vocations of truth shows, they continue to do so. . . . Williams's careful, eloquent and searching analysis . . . makes a valuable contribution to philosophy."--A. C. Grayling, Literary Review
"Bernard Williams has been a distinctive presence on the intellectual scene for more than three decades. . . . His writings do not offer the dubious exhilaration of grand philosophical theory, in which messy reality is tamed and caged, but the thrill of seeing pretension punctured by a kind of high-voltage common sense (backed up by impressive erudition). . . . There is no one in philosophy quite like him."--Colin McGinn, New York Review of Books
"Williams observes that unsettling questions about truth have been on the table at least since Nietzsche. . . . Truth and Truthfulness addresses these questions in a clear and cogent . . . manner."--Thomas Hibbs, The Weekly Standard
"Elegance and subtlety are the hallmarks of Bernard Williams's philosophical style, both in the quality of his thought and the manner of his prose. His contributions have enriched philosophical debate for decades, and as this absorbing book about truth and the vocations of truth shows, they continue to do so. . . . [E]ven those who disagree with aspects of Williams's careful, eloquent and searching analysis will acknowledge that it makes a valuable contribution to philosophy."--Literary Review
"If philosophers ever became kings, they would all be like Mr. Williams. His books were clear, funny, dramatic and readable, like great novels. . . . His final book, Truth and Truthfulness, has come along at exactly the right moment. It both describes our current crisis of truth and offers hope for a resolution."--Doug Saunders, Toronto Globe and Mail
"Bernard Williams' last book is the most interesting set of reflections on the values of truth and truth-telling in living memory. His grasp of philosophical arguments is astonishing. . . . The book manages to be both learned and passionate without being pretentious. And of course witty; . . . Williams' analytic expertise is combined with an acute sensibility to historical facts, or claims to fact, about the history of practices of telling the truth about the past, or about oneself. He writes about what Western civilisations do and have done in trying to find out and to tell the truth. The book presents what are argued to be human universals about the values of truth, as opposed to the historical circumstances in which particular ways of finding out come into being."--Ian Hacking, Canadian Journal of Philosophy
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Truth and TruthfulnessAn Essay in Genealogy
By Bernard Williams
Princeton University PressBernard Williams
All right reserved.
1. Truthfulness and Truth
Two currents of ideas are very prominent in modern thought and culture. On the one hand, there is an intense commitment to truthfulness-or, at any rate, a pervasive suspiciousness, a readiness against being fooled, an eagerness to see through appearances to the real structures and motives that lie behind them. Always familiar in politics, it stretches to historical understanding, to the social sciences, and even to interpretations of discoveries and research in the natural sciences.
Together with this demand for truthfulness, however, or (to put it less positively) this reflex against deceptiveness, there is an equally pervasive suspicion about truth itself: whether there is such a thing; if there is, whether it can be more than relative or subjective or something of that kind; altogether, whether we should bother about it, in carrying on our activities or in giving an account of them. These two things, the devotion to truthfulness and the suspicion directed to the idea of truth, are connected to one other. The desire for truthfulness drives a process of criticism which weakens the assurance that there is any secure or unqualifiedly stateable truth. Suspicion fastens, for instance, on history. Accounts which have been offered as telling the truth about the past often turn out to be biassed, ideological, or self-serving. But attempts to replace these distortions with "the truth" may once more encounter the same kind of objection, and then the question arises, whether any historical account can aim to be, simply, true: whether objective truth, or truth at all, can honestly (or, as we naturally put it, truthfully) be regarded as the aim of our inquiries into the past. Similar arguments, if not quite the same, have run their course in other fields. But if truth cannot be the aim of our inquiries, then it must surely be more honest or truthful to stop pretending that it is, and to accept that . . . : and then there follows some description of our situation which does without the idea of truth, such as that we are engaged in a battle of rhetorics.
We can see how the demand for truthfulness and the rejection of truth can go together. However, this does not mean that they can happily co-exist or that the situation is stable. If you do not really believe in the existence of truth, what is the passion for truthfulness a passion for? Or-as we might also put it-in pursuing truthfulness, what are you supposedly being true to? This is not an abstract difficulty or just a paradox. It has consequences for real politics, and it signals a danger that our intellectual activities, particularly in the humanities, may tear themselves to pieces.
The tension between the pursuit of truthfulness and the doubt that there is (really) any truth to be found comes out in a significant difficulty, that the attack on some specific form of truth, such as the case I have mentioned, historical truth, itself depends on some claims or other which themselves have to be taken to be true.1 Indeed, in the case of history, those other claims will be claims of the same sort. Those who say that all historical accounts are ideological constructs (which is one version of the idea that there is really no historical truth) rely on some story which must itself claim historical truth. They show that supposedly "objective" historians have tendentiously told their stories from some particular perspective; they describe, for example, the biasses that have gone into constructing various histories of the United States.2 Such an account, as a particular piece of history, may very well be true, but truth is a virtue that is embarrassingly unhelpful to a critic who wants not just to unmask past historians of America but to tell us that at the end of the line there is no historical truth. It is remarkable how complacent some "deconstructive" histories are about the status of the history that they deploy themselves. A further turn is to be found in some "unmasking" accounts of natural science, which aim to show that its pretensions to deliver the truth are unfounded, because of social forces that control its activities. Unlike the case of history, these do not use truths of the same kind; they do not apply science to the criticism of science. They apply the social sciences, and typically depend on the remarkable assumption that the sociology of knowledge is in a better position to deliver truth about science than science is to deliver truth about the world.3
The point that the undermining of some history needs other history is correct and not to be forgotten, but it cannot by itself remove the tensions and put an end to the problem. Such arguments may merely be added to the problem and, as has often happened in recent years, accelerate a deconstructive vortex. Of course all such discussions have their time, and the intense criticism in this spirit that was for a while directed to such things as literary interpretation and the possibility of objective history may now, to some extent, be passing. But this does not mean that the real problems have gone away. Indeed, the real problems have been there, as Nietzsche understood, before the label of "post-modernism" made them a matter of public debate, and they remain there now. Moreover, there is a danger that the decline of the more dramatic confrontations may do no more than register an inert cynicism, the kind of calm that in personal relations can follow a series of hysterical rows. If the passion for truthfulness is merely controlled and stilled without being satisfied, it will kill the activities it is supposed to support. This may be one of the reasons why, at the present time, the study of the humanities runs a risk of sliding from professional seriousness, through professionalization, to a finally disenchanted careerism.
My question is: how can we address this situation? Can the notions of truth and truthfulness be intellectually stabilized, in such a way that what we understand about truth and our chances of arriving at it can be made to fit with our need for truthfulness? I believe this to be a basic problem for presentday philosophy.
The tensions in our present culture that are generated by this problem, the tensions (as I summarily put it) between truth and truthfulness, break out in several styles of conflict. One is that between two views of the Enlightenment. It is a familiar theme of contemporary criticism, one that has been inherited from some members of the Frankfurt School,4 that the Enlightenment has generated unprecedented systems of oppression, because of its belief in an externalized, objective, truth about individuals and society. This represents the Enlightenment in terms of the tyranny of theory, where theory is in turn identified with the external "panoptical" view of everything, including ourselves. Now there is in any case a question whether the Enlightenment's models of scientific understanding do lead to the denial of political freedom and, if they do, by what social and intellectual routes. I shall argue that there are, equally, positive relations between the concepts of scientific truth and political freedom. But, even apart from that question, there is a another current in the Enlightenment, which is that of critique, a critique that has indeed been a main expression of the spirit of political and social truthfulness. It is in this respect, I believe, that the Enlightenment has been a particular associate of liberalism. In the course of the book, I shall try to explore some associations between liberal critique, on the one hand, and truthfulness on the other-truthfulness, moreover, in its association with truth. Some writers have tried to detach the spirit of liberal critique from the concept of truth, but I shall claim that this is a fundamental mistake. An influential figure in this company is Richard Rorty,5 and I shall refer to his formulations in various connections. The position he calls "liberal irony" has particularly attracted attention by not wanting to affirm its own truth, but that is not the most important issue it raises. The most significant question is not about the truth-status of political or moral outlooks themselves. It is about the importance that those outlooks attach to other kinds of truth, and to truthfulness.
The tensions in our culture between truth and truthfulness are also expressed in a familiar contrast between two different ways of doing philosophy. I do not mean by this the supposed distinction between "analytic" and "continental" styles in philosophy: besides being, on any showing, dramatically misnamed, this does not represent any one contrast at all. On the questions that concern me here, there is a different distinction. On one side, there is a style of thought that extravagantly, challengingly, or-as its opponents would say-irresponsibly denies the possibility of truth altogether, waves its importance aside, or claims that all truth is "relative" or suffers from some other such disadvantage. To help the argument along, I need a general term to pick out those who adopt this kind of outlook. The term will necessarily be vague: several different views fall within the outlook, and some writers who have the outlook do not distinguish too carefully the particular view they hold. In earlier drafts of this book I called them sceptics about truth, but that was misleading, because "scepticism" brings with it from the philosophical tradition too heavy a suggestion that the problems concern our knowledge of the truth, where it is agreed that there is something that we can know or fail to know; whereas the people in question here are more disposed to dismiss the idea of truth as the object of our inquiries altogether, or to suggest that if truth is supposed to be the object of inquiry, then there is no such thing and that what passes itself off as inquiry is really something else. They might be called "subverters," but this has the disadvantage that it is what many of them would be too pleased to call themselves. I shall call them simply "deniers," where that means that they deny something about truth (for instance, at the limit, its existence) which is usually taken to be significant in our lives. What exactly various of them deny will be a central question in the book.
On the other hand, against the deniers, we get reminders from the philosophy of language, particularly in the "analytic" mode, that these reckless claims are plainly false and are not believed by the people who make them, who know perfectly well, for instance, that it is true that it is Tuesday night and that they are in the United States. Moreover, the claims could not be true, since no-one can learn or speak a language unless a large class of statements in that language is recognized to be true. These lines of argument are quite correct, so far as they go, and they will play a part in my discussion. But how far do they get us? This second party-call it the party of common sense-having rehabilitated truth in some of its everyday roles, usually assumes that there is not much to be said about the rest of the deniers' critique. But there may well be much of the critique that the reply leaves untouched: the suspicions about historical narrative, about social representations, about self-understanding, about psychological and political interpretation-all of this may remain as worrying as the deniers suggest.
The commonsense party's attitude to the deniers is based on a misunderstanding. It thinks that since the notion of truth is indeed fundamental, the fact that the deniers are muddled about elementary applications of that notion undermines what they say about everything else. Some deniers have indeed been attached to confused formulations in the philosophy of language, in part derived from a mangling of Saussure, to the general effect that language consists of "arbitrary signs" which "get their meaning" from their relations to other signs, and since this is so, it cannot relate to a non-linguistic world. This is a tissue of mistakes. If dog is an "arbitrary" sign for a dog, it is at any rate a sign for a dog, and that must mean that it can refer to a dog: and a dog is a dog, not a word. I shall not go on about this kind of thing. There are more interesting ideas to consider among the deniers' materials. Deniers do not get their views just from simple mistakes about language and truth. Rather, they believe that there is something to worry about in important areas of our thought and in traditional interpretations of those areas; they sense that it has something to do with truth; and (no doubt driven by the familiar desire to say something at once hugely general, deeply important, and reassuringly simple) they extend their worry to the notion of truth itself.
The collective result of these various misunderstandings is that the deniers and the party of common sense, with their respective styles of philosophy, pass each other by.6 We need to understand that there is indeed an essential role for the notion of truth in our understanding of language and of each other. We need to ask how that role may be related to larger structures of thought which are essential to our personal, social, and political self-understanding. How far are the narratives that support our understandings of ourselves and of each other, and of the societies in which we live, capable of truth? Is truth what they need to have? Or can they be truthful without being true? In facing these questions, we had better be open to the idea that these larger structures can be the object of serious suspicion.
I shall be concerned throughout with what may summarily be called "the value of truth." In a very strict sense, to speak of "the value of truth" is no doubt a category mistake: truth, as a property of propositions or sentences, is not the sort of thing that can have a value. The commonsense party will deny that there is a value of truth in this strict sense, and this is easily accepted. The phrase "the value of truth" should be taken as shorthand for the value of various states and activities associated with the truth. Much of the discussion will be directed to the value of what I shall call the "virtues of truth," qualities of people that are displayed in wanting to know the truth, in finding it out, and in telling it to other people.7 The deniers, on the other hand, claim that in this deeper sense there is no value of truth: they think that the value of these states or activities, if they have any, is not to be explained in terms of the truth, and it is this I reject. For instance, they may say that even if some people think it very important in itself to find out the truth, there is not really any value in having true beliefs beyond the pragmatic value of having beliefs that lead one toward the helpful and away from the dangerous. Some who hold just this much may be very moderate deniers; so far as the everyday concept of truth is concerned, they may even belong to the commonsense party.
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Stephen Greenblatt, Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University
Alexander Nehamas, author of "Virtues of Authenticity"
Meet the Author
Bernard Williams was Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge (1967-1979) and Provost of King's College. He held the Monroe Deutsch Professorship of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley (1998-2000) and was White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford (1990-2003). He was Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford until his death in 2003.
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