[Paleopsych] Guardian: (Blackburn) Whose truth?

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Mon May 23 19:45:36 UTC 2005

Whose truth?

    John Banville follows Simon Blackburn on the ultimate philosopher's
    quest in Truth
    John Banville
    Saturday May 21, 2005

    Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed by Simon Blackburn
    210pp, Allen Lane, £12.99

    In his keynote campaign speech delivered prior to the Vatican
    election, the man who would be pope, Cardinal Ratzinger, startled the
    world, or that section of it that was bothered to listen to him, with
    a tirade against what he saw as a modern-day surrender to relativism.
    We might have expected and certainly would not have been surprised by
    an abjuration of concupiscence and lust, say - although it is true
    that as Benedict XVI he did fulminate against the "filth" afflicting
    even his own church, and when a Catholic cleric uses such words we
    know he is talking about sex - but on the face of it relativism might
    have seemed pretty low down in the peccancy order. Not so, and
    certainly not so if, as the cardinal did, you have spent the past few
    decades heading up what used to be known as the Inquisition.

    The point for Papa Ratzi, as the friskier outlets of the Italian media
    lost no time in dubbing him, is that relativism, however wishy-washy
    and New Ageist it may seem to the rest of us, strikes at the very
    foundation stone of the church, which is the conviction that there
    exist truths which are eternal, unchallengeable and verified by faith
    - in a word, absolute. Without absolute truths, and the reiterated
    insistence of their enduring reality, the Catholic church would have
    no basis, a fact to which Ratzinger and, we assume, the vast majority
    of cardinals, were acutely alive when they sealed themselves into the
    Sistine Chapel to choose a successor to their dead capo di capi.

    But are there absolute truths, outside the cloistered imaginations of
    the Princes of the Church and their more submissive subjects? One is
    tempted to adapt Kafka's remark about hope, and say that no doubt
    there is truth, an infinite amount of truth - but not for us.

    Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at Cambridge, and the
    author of fine popularising books such as The Oxford Dictionary of
    Philosophy and Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics. He is
    learned, astute, admirably sensible, and possesses an elegant and
    clear prose style. Truth is based on the texts of the Gifford lectures
    delivered last year at the University of Glasgow, and on other,
    occasional lectures and articles written over the past four or five
    years. One would never use the word ragbag to describe a work by such
    a graceful synthesiser, but some parts of the book have the air of
    having been shoehorned in, for instance a short, closing chapter
    defending David Hume's philosophical cosmopolitanism against attacks
    by the likes of Donald Davidson, and part of another chapter
    spiritedly repudiating what might be termed Richard Rorty's radical
    pragmatism; both these excursuses have the air of being frolics of
    their own.

    Blackburn opens his introduction with a rousing call to arms, which
    might be a preparation for an assault on the likes of Rorty and other
    "fuzzy" - the adjective is Rorty's own - postmodernist philosophers
    and pundits, and which would likely be much to the taste of the latest
    Vicar of Christ:

    "There are real standards. We must fight soggy nihilism, scepticism
    and cynicism. We must not believe that anything goes. We must not
    believe that all opinion is ideology, that reason is only power, that
    there is no truth to prevail. Without defences against postmodern
    irony and cynicism, multiculturalism and relativism, we will all go to
    hell in a handbasket."

    Immediately, however, a caveat is entered - indeed, a broad bannerful
    of caveats is unfurled. Many, Blackburn allows, will regard our
    beliefs and insistences as mere noise, the crackling of thorns under
    an empty pot. "There are people," he writes, "who are not impressed by
    our conviction, or by our pride and our stately deportment." These
    will include relativists, postmodernists, subjectivists, pragmatists.
    However, it is Blackburn's intention, he tells us, not to join battle
    in the philosophy wars but to tread his way delicately among the
    warring parties, with us at his heels and under his protection. His
    book, he writes, is "about a war of ideas and attitudes".

    He does not state his own position directly - as why should he? - but
    it may be helpful to the reader to know that he is of the
    quasi-realist school. If realism holds that there is a world
    independent of mind and our judgments are based on it, quasi-realism
    takes the Humean position that our judgments may have no independent
    object yet that they behave as if they had. This may sound like the
    have-your-cake-and-eat-it as against the slash-and-burn schools of
    philosophy, but it is a perfectly sensible position to occupy.

    He opens with the melancholy observation that for the classical
    sceptic "a clash of countervailing arguments ... led to peaceful
    suspension of belief, whereas in our own times it is seen more as a
    licence for people to believe what they like". He illustrates this
    decline much further on in the book, in the pages devoted to opposing
    the all-accommodating Rorty. For Rorty, language is for "coping, not
    copying", and he sees, as he has written, "the employment of words as
    the use of tools to deal with the environment, rather than as an
    attempt to represent the intrinsic nature of that environment ... "
    Blackburn links Rorty with William James, whom Blackburn had earlier
    accused of flirting with the danger of "abolishing the distinction
    between wishful thinking and accuracy", a danger into which Rorty, in
    Blackburn's reading, frequently strays with unangelic fearlessness.
    Rorty is quoted on feminist accounts of the difference between men and

    "The question of whether these differences were there (huddled
    together deep down within the entity, waiting to be brought to light
    by deconstructing excavators), or are only there in the entity after
    the feminist has finished reshaping the entity into a social construct
    nearer her heart's desire, seems to me of no interest whatever."

    This displays surely a breathtakingly cavalier attitude to the
    possible facts of the matter, and sounds remarkably like a Humpty
    Dumptyan determination that words shall mean what the speaker commands
    them to mean.

    The sceptical argument that undercuts the quest for truth Blackburn
    christens the "variation of subjectivities", and traces it back to the
    codification drawn up by Sextus Empiricus in the second or third
    centuries AD. Sextus posits various modes of scepticism, all of which,
    Blackburn writes, "try to show that things appear differently to
    different sensibilities, that there is no neutral or authoritative
    decision procedure awarding victory to just one of these; hence that
    we should suspend judgment about things themselves". It is the
    elusiveness of the "thing itself", the Kantian Ding an sich, which
    continues to give philosophers a headache. What may we know, and by
    what means may we know it?

    At the heart of the book these questions falter almost into silence
    before the great ice wall that is Nietzsche, the "arch debunker", as
    Blackburn's chapter heading has it. For Nietzsche, "facts is precisely
    what there is not, only interpretations", and "Truth is the kind of
    error without which a certain species of life could not live." In The
    Will to Power he states the thing baldly: "There exists neither
    'spirit', nor reason, nor thinking, nor consciousness, nor soul, nor
    will, nor truth: all are fictions that are of no use." We immediately
    ask, No use to whom? and, If not these fictions, what is there that we
    can use? But Nietzsche spurns all our querulous wheedlings, and
    wonders how in our "constant fluttering around the single flame of
    vanity ... an honest and pure urge for truth could have arisen among

    "They are deeply immersed in illusions and dream images; their eye
    glides only over the surface of things and sees "forms"; their feeling
    nowhere leads into truth, but contents itself with the reception of
    stimuli, playing, as it were, a game of blind man's buff on the backs
    of things."

    Despite its subtitle, Truth is less a guide for the perplexed than a
    guided tour through the philosophical perplexities in which, despite
    three millennia of hard thinking, man is still mired. Time it is that
    defeats all our attempts to fix reality, facts, truth. Perhaps it
    would be possible to glimpse the really existing truth of things if we
    could halt the onward rush of time, but we cannot, hence we are left
    floundering in a Heraclitean flux, a blurred immanence which we call
    reality. For all the excitement of the chase after truth, perhaps we
    would do best to follow the example of the ancient sceptics, for whom,
    Blackburn writes, "it was an admirable consequence of their scepticism
    that they lost conviction, lost enthusiasm as it were for holding one
    opinion rather than another. With epoche or suspension of judgment,
    came the desired ataraxia or tranquillity."

    One suspects Professor Blackburn would deplore any such retreat into
    quietistic bliss, and would instead admonish us with the title of
    another of his books: Think.

    o John Banville's Prague Pictures is published by Bloomsbury

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