Truth: A Guide
by Simon Blackburn
Oxford University Press, 272 pages, $25

SIMON BLACKBURN’S ABILITY to be at once engaging and rigorous is unrivaled in contemporary philosophy. As a guide to what we ought ultimately to think about truth, however, his latest, Truth: A Guide , is much less impressive. Its modest middle ground between absolutists and relativists, a turning of our attention away from grand theoretical accounts of truth to the normative conditions of truth woven into concrete practices, has been advanced with more vigor and more imagination by any number of other philosophers, from Alasdair MacIntyre to John McDowell and Bernard Williams.

Blackburn’s goal is meek indeed; he simply wants to curb a narrow set of vices or what he takes to be cognitive dysfunctions”you know, the dogmatic proponents of “astrology, prophecy . . . flying saucers, voodoo, angel visits, alien abductions,” along with orthodox Christians and anyone who voted for Bush and Blair.

Perhaps because he deems absolutism obviously indefensible, Blackburn devotes most of his attention to the flaws and dangers of relativism. The supposition, for example, that belief is nothing more than fancy is undermined by the common way in which we contrast the two. Contradiction is unimportant, indeed not even a relevant category description, for fancy, while it is a typical way of describing opposed beliefs. Belief is to fancy as history is to fiction, for in fancy and fiction “the brakes are off.” In his careful analysis of the use of “perspective” as a metaphor for relativism, Blackburn shows that perspective presupposes an identifiable set of relationships or coordinates specifying the locations of viewer and object. What relativism needs as a metaphor is more akin to epistemic vertigo, the loss of all perspective, which Blackburn detects in Nietzsche’s penchant for Heraclitean flux.

Blackburn has little trouble disposing of the incoherence of Richard Rorty’s wanting to shift our attention from copying, the way the mind mirrors or fails to mirror objective reality, to coping, the ability of human language to aid us in getting on with living. The problem is not just that Rorty conflates all conceptions of truth into a crude account of the mind’s copying what is outside it. The real problem is that Rorty wants to deny truth while still holding to distinctions about “better informed” or “more enlightened” descriptions. Rorty makes the far from pellucid inference that, since our current state of knowledge may be provisional, the appropriate attitude toward all our knowledge, especially toward what he calls our ultimate vocabulary, should be one of irony. Blackburn retorts that just because the maps we use to find our way across a terrain have problems, we need not regard the guidance they offer with ironic detachment. Indeed, that would be to misunderstand the function of maps and to invite irreparable confusion.

Blackburn’s modest proposal owes something to Wittgenstein, whom Blackburn wants to rescue from the accusation that he is a “quietist,” one who, in his task of “giving philosophy rest,” wanted to put an end to inquiry and ended up conflating all differences and arguments into a “seamless web of language” over which we can exercise no rational control. Rather, Wittgenstein called for the hard, detailed work of describing what it is we are doing in a variety of contexts, what Wittgenstein himself called “language games” and what others, perhaps more accurately, have called “practices.” The standard for truth as for other things is typically built into these preexisting practices; it is not something that floats free of specific contexts. Blackburn himself is very much given to this, by now, hardly novel way out of the debate between absolutists and relativists. But Blackburn has so little to say about a developed account of this alternative that the book’s positive thesis is a disappointment.

Despite the allusions to Wittgenstein, Blackburn relies more heavily on a very odd pair of philosophical guides: David Hume and Francis Bacon, the twin analysts of “cognitive dysfunction.” Each chapter begins with an aphorism from Bacon’s New Organon on the idols that infect the human intellect in its attempt to reckon with things. Far from dissolving the dispute between absolutists and relativists, Bacon is one of the most strident advocates of the absolutist position. In this respect, he differs not at all from Descartes, except that he wants to ground his quest for certainty and utility in a new method of empirical observations, while Descartes is the founder of rationalism. Bacon is also English, not French”a fact that may have impressed Blackburn. Hume, by contrast, is hardly an absolutist. Instead, he would seem to be the archetype of the quietist, who thinks in the end that there are no debates worth having. As Blackburn aptly quotes him, the only remedy for the contradictions between philosophy and common sense is “carelessness and inattention.”

Hume’s despairing sense of insuperable arbitrariness at the foundations of human thought informs much of recent philosophy, on both sides of the continental-analytic divide. With respect to the issue of truth, Anglo-American analytic philosophers tend to look with derisive scorn upon continental philosophers, whom they blame for soft, if not perverse, thinking. But, as Blackburn notes, this is more a matter of stylistic differences in the manner of doing philosophy than it is a substantive divergence over the question of truth. The “anything-goes philosophy” is the consensus that no matter how rigorous we may be in laying out what does and does not follow from our starting points, the starting points themselves are arbitrary, mere matters of philosophical preference. It derives a good bit of support from twentieth-century analytic philosophy. “Logos,” Blackburn observes, has been “as absent from Harvard and Oxford as from Paris and Tubingen.”

STILL, BLACKBURN HAS NOT moved far from the logophobia that infects so much of philosophy”just far enough to deflate the radical deflationists, who leave us rational folks with no defense against spin from the likes of “Blair and Bush” and, well, all those damn Christians. This may help to explain the distance from Wittgenstein and the coziness with Hume. For Blackburn’s taste”and it is hard to see it as anything more than taste”Wittgenstein leaves too much in place. He may also be too open to mysticism and the religious impulse.

Had he not had such low and blatantly political aims in mind, Blackburn might have given more attention to the most promising account of truth philosophers have pursued in recent years: the virtues of truthfulness. At the outset, Blackburn sets aside Bernard Williams’ thesis that the “crisis of truth” is a matter of our losing hold of a set of virtues of truthfulness. The worry, Blackburn urges, is not about the “sincerity and anxious care for accuracy of those in the field,” but instead that we are “trapped in partial or perspectival or outright illusory and fictional views, with little or no chance of realizing our plight.”

The problem here, as Blackburn himself intimates in his critique of Donald Davidson, is with the modern project of asking what justifies belief in the abstract. Stanley Cavell trenchantly made the point years ago that modern philosophy begins with a very strange sort of doubt: not doubt about the veracity of persons, but doubt about the world. Blackburn himself urges that we should focus on what justifies persons in their beliefs. We check this by investigating a range of things: a person’s “explorations and investigations, his situation, his observations, experiences.”

In such an investigation, we would try to detect the presence or absence of the relevant cognitive and moral virtues. Blackburn gestures in this direction a few times in the book. For example, in his discussion of Rorty, he astutely observes that Rorty both posits that the question “Does he love truth?” is as unanswerable as the query “Is he saved?” and adds that we rightly distrust those who are “unconversable, incurious, and self-absorbed.” Blackburn notes that the latter points us in the direction of a set of intellectual vices and virtues.

Blackburn nearly launches a fertile investigation into intellectual virtue. Comparing ancient with modern skepticism, Blackburn observes that, while today’s relativists see skepticism as a “green light to believe what they like with as much conviction and force as they like,” in antiquity skepticism was a way of life that led to “tranquility of mind, ataraxia ,” rooted in a suspension of belief. What he does not add is that the ancient skeptics made a case for their way of life as supreme, as most fulfilling the possibilities for human happiness. Moreover, while his comments about reading Platonic dialogues generally never transcend the derisive comments of a clever, anti-philosophical freshman, he does offer one helpful comment about Socrates, namely, that he was not a dogmatist and that his example shows that you “can admit the authority of truth without supposing that you possess it.” Now, this is a suggestive proposal indeed, one that might lead to an interesting discussion of how philosophy might overcome its current logophobia.

In the case neither of the skeptics nor of Socrates is the modesty concerning truth predicated on alienation from logos; instead, an orientation to logos, understood as the best way of life for human beings, undergirds judgments regarding better and worse ways of life and restraint regarding peremptory claims to having comprehended the truth. That such a philosophically foundational conception of truthfulness finds no place in what otherwise might seem an exhaustive overview tells us a good bit about the continuing limitations of Anglo-American philosophy.

Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University. His books include Virtue’s Splendor and Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld.