Inconvenient

‘On Truth’
Simon Blackburn (Jeff Morgan 06 / Alamy Stock Photo)

What should one expect of a philosophical theory of truth? One possible answer is that such a theory should shed light on what truth itself is, revealing to the inquirer what the truth of a thought or statement consists in. Another is that a theory of truth should be a theory of how truth can be arrived at or discovered, to the extent that this discovery is possible in any given case. Finally, we might want a theory of truth to account for why truth is valuable, a theory that explains why we should care about getting at the truth and disapprove of views that are false or merely conventional.

The best outcome, it seems, would be to have a theory that manages to do all three of these things at once, telling us what truth is while also explaining why it is something of value that in certain circumstances we are able to discover. Moreover, ideally the answers to our three original questions will inform and reinforce one another: for surely the questions of what truth is, how we are able to get at it, and what value there is in doing so, are not entirely independent of one another.

What makes it difficult to carry off this task is that the concept of truth is so fundamental in our thinking about the world that it can seem impossible to elucidate this concept in terms of any other concept that is better understood. If we want a theory of gold, then we can explain what it is by appeal to its chemical composition, explain how to identify it by noting which of its superficial properties are most revealing of its nature, and explain its value by appeal to the contingent human attraction to shiny things. Truth, by contrast, seems impossible to analyze along such lines. When we try to speak generally about what it is, we fall back on formulations—like the infamous slogan, “truth is correspondence with the facts”—whose meaning a person cannot really grasp except by reference to the very concept in question.

The philosopher Simon Blackburn’s recent book On Truth attempts to work around this dilemma by approaching his topic piecemeal. Blackburn considers several different domains, including ethics, aesthetics, religion, and the interpretation of legal documents and other written texts, in which we tend to care about the truth while also regarding it as difficult or even impossible to ascertain. The hope is that, by means of these focused investigations, we will get ourselves in a position to think more fruitfully about what is at stake in our concern with truth in general.

It is only through truth that we can ever be freed from our chains, brought into a shared reality that transcends our subjectivity.

In Blackburn’s hands, the thrust of this inquiry favors a broadly pragmatist account of truth and its value, though one freed of some of the anti-realist tendencies that became prominent in the pragmatist tradition through the writings of William James and Richard Rorty. Stated baldly, pragmatism is the view that truth is what works for us, what helps us succeed in achieving our aims. It should be no surprise that views of this sort have tended to invite various forms of relativism, for human goals are various and contingent, and some of the things we aim for, such as satisfaction with our lives and confidence that things will work out in the end, seem better served by a refusal to face unpleasant realities than by apprehending how things really are. Since Blackburn rejects these implications, holding for example that James was wrong in thinking that religious belief could be justified by the subjective satisfaction that it brings, he needs to show how the pragmatist approach can lead us in the end to a view of truth as something both objective and ascertainable.

In a short chapter on the value of reason, for example, Blackburn points out that skepticism of the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable thoughts and actions would entail regarding all movements of the mind as nothing more than a chaos of sensation and feeling. If our thinking and acting are unconnected with truth, then they are not really thinking and acting at all, and all our talk and action amounts to nothing more than a series of movements and sounds. Abandoning the concept of truth in this domain means losing our grip on many of the phenomena that make human life amount to something more than pure chaos.

In other cases, however, Blackburn’s pragmatist analysis ends up offering some rather thin gruel. For example, in his chapter on truth in ethics, the core of Blackburn’s argument is that practices like speaking the truth, keeping our promises, and repaying our debts are good because they are useful for us in living together. This position invites the response of Thrasymachus in the opening books of Plato’s Republic: while it is indeed useful to have other people abide by these conventions, as far as I am concerned the value seems to lie very often on the side of ignoring them. From this perspective, it is only out of weakness or irrationality that a person would respect the interests of others when doing this is not to his or her own advantage. It’s true that society itself would collapse if too many people lived by such a code. But it is possible for there to be some such people, and their lives may seem hugely successful. (They might even be elected president.) A proper account of ethical truth needs to support an explanation of why it is wrong to live this way even when it is expedient to do so.

Another fundamental question that Blackburn’s pragmatism is ill-equipped to address is that of whose interests are really served when conventional moral norms are widely taken for granted, enforced by social sanction and even the power of law. Blackburn writes confidently of what “we” desire, and of “our” shared interests in the goods that can be obtained through cooperative behavior, but since this “we” can pick out neither everyone nor a mere majority of any given population, one needs to decide what to do with the perspectives of those whose flourishing seems not to be served by our usual ways of going on. And Blackburn does not have much more to offer here than an appeal to common sense and natural human propensities. Such an approach may help us guard against metaphysical excess and skeptical despair but, when offered as the final word on the subject, it locks us into conservatism and complacency, and effectively precludes any radical reconsideration of the extent of the moral community and our relation to a common end.

In the Republic, Plato’s response to Thrasymachus’s challenge turns on his famous image of a cave, in which those at the lowest level are chained in place as they witness a spectacle of shadows. The only means of freeing them from this imprisonment is through a long and painful process of education that begins with a literal turning around, away from the shadows and toward the light by which those shadows are cast. For the prisoners themselves, tales of a world beyond shadow are heard at first as an expression of lunacy, and the reorientation that Plato envisions begins with coercion rather than choice. Truth is inconvenient, unsettling, contrary to our standing purposes, blinding at first to eyes that have grown accustomed to what is merely conventional. Yet for all that, it is only through truth that we can ever be freed from our chains, brought into a shared reality that transcends our subjectivity, and permitted to apprehend a good that is no person’s private possession.

On Truth
Simon Blackburn
Oxford University Press, $12.95, 160 pp.

Published in the June 14, 2019 issue: 
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John Schwenkler is associate professor of philosophy at Florida State University and the author of Anscombe’s Intention: A Guide (Oxford University Press). You can follow him on Twitter @johnschwenkler. This essay draws on materials from the Collegium Institute Anscombe Archive at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. This research was supported by a grant from the Collegium Institute.

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