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Isn’t It the Truth?


Bernard Williams has been a distinctive presence on the intellectual scene for more than three decades. He might be described as an analytical philosopher with the soul of a general humanist. Notably sharp-minded and dialectically skilled, he is also impressively learned in history, classical scholarship, literature, politics, and music. He opposes the widespread contemporary desire to model philosophy on science, preferring to locate philosophy within its historical and cultural context; there are other ways to be intellectually serious than by aping the physicists. His interests have focused on ethics, in which he has contested the rationalist and universalist claims of both Kantianism and utilitarianism—though he has also written a first-rate book on Descartes and pioneered in the discussion of personal identity. He possesses a mind that is both flexible and muscular: open and imaginative on the one hand, rigorous and no-nonsense (and occasionally stinging) on the other. No one else can lance an opponent with a comparable twinkle in his eye. The phrase “withering wit” is unavoidable when witnessing Williams in action.

And yet no theory bears his name, nor has he made any notable technical contribution to the subject. In contrast to his late contemporary R.M. Hare, whose name will forever be associated with “prescriptivism” in ethics—the idea that moral utterances do not describe states of affairs but prescribe courses of action—Williams has not produced anything deserving to be called an ethical theory. Indeed, he has consistently mocked such theories. He gives the impression of having seen through all that—that he is simply far too intelligent and sophisticated to do anything as naive and crude as propose an analysis of moral discourse.

His influence lies more in the style with which he has discussed moral issues: his insistence on not losing sight of actual moral life, his sensitivity to moral subtleties, his Nietzschean disdain for high-minded moral posturing. 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). Williams is a principled anti-moralist, a brilliant anti-theorist, an original blend of logic and humanism, an insider’s outsider. There is no one in philosophy quite like him.

Williams’s new book, the defiantly titled Truth and Truthfulness, bears all the marks of its author. The argument is heavily armored, both in its range of reference and in the structure of its sentences, which almost always coil around some anticipated objection and skewer it; Williams is always one step ahead of his reader. Every sentence seems constructed in such a way as never to need withdrawing; it is fully shielded, immune from refutation. Williams is so well protected that it is sometimes hard to make out the shape of his position. The sentences seldom descend to elegance, and lucidity seems less highly prized than impregnability, though there are certainly flashes of humor and no lack of verbal resource. Williams is often praised for his prose style, but I find his sentences frequently lopsided and lumpy (he is excessively fond of the phrase “very significantly”), and his transitions are often opaque. Still, there is no doubting his verbal firepower, his subtlety, and his argumentative strength.

His book is about a very important subject, especially in the current academic climate: the centrality of the concept of truth in our intellectual lives, and the value of respecting it in our speech and the formation of our beliefs. Williams argues that truth is both indispensable to responsible discourse and unscathed by recent “postmodernist” critiques (such as Richard Rorty’s). Such critiques “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.” But his main concern is with what he calls, felicitously, “the virtues of truth,” which he divides into two, labeled Accuracy and Sincerity. Accuracy is the disposition to take care that in acquiring our beliefs we do our utmost (within reasonable limits) to ensure that we have the best evidence possible, that we weigh it impartially and thoroughly, and that we remain always ready for counter- evidence—that is, that we do everything we can to make our beliefs sensitive to the truth. This means not indulging in wishful thinking and self- deception, as well as being alert for propaganda, bias, and sheer laziness.

Sincerity is related to communication between people: speaking the truth, expressing what one really believes, avoiding deception. These are virtues, and not merely dispositions, because there are temptations and obstacles, both external and internal, that interfere with achieving Accuracy and Sincerity (Williams capitalizes these words to indicate their somewhat technical use). A cigarette company executive, for example, may know accurately the evidence of his product’s harmfulness, but may not be willing to assert what he really believes. Or he may sincerely believe that cigarettes are harmless, having wishfully ignored the best evidence. Or he may simply lie. Fantasy and wish are strong forces in the psyche, and there is often a lot to be gained by lying. The truthful person, as Williams rightly says, is truthful spontaneously and naturally; his beliefs are linked to his speech without hesitation or calculation. He just comes out with the truth.

On the face of it, the virtues of truth necessarily involve truth itself: “If you do not really believe in the existence of truth,” Williams asks rhetorically, “what is the passion for truthfulness a passion for?” So if we can show the importance of these virtues, we will have indirectly shown why truth is a concept we cannot do without (I shall come back to whether this is really so later). Williams identifies a group of thinkers, typified by Rorty, that he calls the “deniers”—those who deny that truth is a useful or coherent or politically defensible concept—and he argues that they are in imminent danger of losing these important virtues: “To the extent that we lose a sense of the value of truth, we shall certainly lose something and may well lose everything.” The academy, and education generally, must define itself as dedicated to the twin virtues of truth or else it will lose its authority and our intellectual activities “may tear themselves to pieces.”

The deniers, Williams insists, must at a minimum accept that there are “plain truths,” such as that it is Tuesday, that I just ate an egg, that Paris is in France; and there is no alternative to the idea that belief is a mental attitude that intrinsically aims at the truth. Something has gone wrong if I believe what is false; indeed, I cannot form beliefs at all just as a matter of my will. By their nature beliefs are dedicated to respecting reality, which is why I cannot decide to believe what I know very well to be false (by contrast, I can easily decide to assert what is false).

Thus, Williams argues, I have a great many beliefs in plain truths, and these are not the result of anyone’s arbitrary exercise of power. This idea of truth as independent of will, and the human obligation to pursue it, is something that Nietzsche insisted upon, contrary to the views of many deniers; this is why, as Williams points out, he emphasized how difficult it can be to face the truth, especially about oneself. Nor is the concept of truth something that varies from culture to culture; the concept of truth is the same always and everywhere (though what people take to be true obviously varies).

This last argument is familiar enough, though worth repeating. Where Williams strikes out in a new direction is with his account of the underpinnings of the virtues of truthfulness. His aim is to “explain the basis of truthfulness as a value,” and his method follows a strategy of Nietzsche’s, namely to sketch a “genealogy” of that value. Nietzsche’s aim was to debunk Christian ethics by claiming that they arose from resentment on the part of the powerless of the power of their superiors. Williams’s aim is to vindicate the virtues of truth by showing that they can have a useful function within a society existing in a state of nature. Thus we are invited to consider a fictional society of primitive speakers who develop the practice of pooling information so that they can take better advantage of their environment: some people have information that others lack, owing to their specific position in relation to the world, and a division of labor develops, whereby information is shared to the benefit of all. Williams offers this genealogical story as a kind of naturalistic explanation of the virtues of accuracy and sincerity, rooting them in pre-ethical ideas of cooperation and human needs. He hopes that by seeing how truthfulness could naturally arise in a primitive society we will come to appreciate its value in a way that avoids Platonic conceptions of the basis of virtue as a special kind of knowledge of a supersensible reality.

A genealogy of this kind can be illuminating if it is unclear how a particular human faculty could have come about, but it is hard to see how it can work to vindicate a value. We can, after all, come to see how various vices might come about (for instance, stealing), but obviously this does nothing to justify them. We have to suppose that what the disposition brings about is itself a good thing in order to vindicate it, so that we need to make a prior judgment of value—which will raise the question of how to vindicate that value. In the case of truthfulness, what the disposition brings about in Williams’s view are the benefits of cooperation—a better life for all. The same might be said for other virtues, such as courage or integrity or generosity: they can all lead to people being better off, so that we can see how people in a state of nature might favor these virtues. Williams does not raise the question of how generally he wishes to apply his genealogical method, but reflection on it reveals the limitations of the method. There are two points, one of which he recognizes, and the other not.

The first is that showing the function that a virtue serves can only give it instrumental value, not intrinsic value: we might learn what the virtue produces in the way of benefits, but we don’t learn why it might be valued in itself. Since Williams insists, rightly, that truthfulness has an intrinsic value, in the sense that we value it for itself and not merely for the good results it might have, his functional story fails, by his own standards, to capture that intrinsic value; so it does nothing, really, to vindicate the intrinsic value of truthfulness.

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