The best “crossover” academic books are those which allow lay readers to see daily life with a new kind of theoretical understanding—opening up hidden depths in the familiar. Writers such as Daniel Kahneman and Dan Arriely—and even much-maligned crowdpleasers like Malcolm Gladwell—have this down to an art-form. Many less good crossover books, however, swap genuine illumination for the promise of making readers feel smarter. Unfortunately, John D Caputo’s new book Truth (Penguin, £8.99)—the first in a new series of intelligent but accessible volumes of philosophy for people to read on their way to and from work—falls into the latter category.
In the standard story about academic philosophy—a story which nearly everyone acknowledges to be overly reductive, yet nearly everyone continues to repeat—there are two kinds of philosophy. On one hand there is “analytic philosophy”—according to its opponents, a kind of pedantic bean-counting that alienates philosophy from its project of understanding the deep questions of life, existence and the human condition, replacing them with self-satisfied distinctions such as that between three different uses of the word “so.” On the other hand, there is “continental philosophy”—according to its opponents, a vague and pretentious approach, expressed in unclear prose which conceals a mixture of banalities and blatant falsehoods. Think of it this way: whilst continental philosophy gets better as you get drunker, analytic philosophy gets worse.
If Truth falls into either uncharitable category, it is clearly the latter. But it departs from the stereotype in a crucial way. Unlike the often tortuous prose of “continental philosophers” such as Hegel and Heidegger, Caputo’s writing is straightforward and highly readable. Yet this surface clarity is deceptive: at its heart, Truth is a deeply unclear book, in search of a central question.
Given the title, one might think that the central question of a book like this would be “what is truth?” Ten pages in however, Caputo announces that this question has no answer, for “there is no such thing. Instead there are truths—many of them, in the plural and lower case.” Caputo sets himself the task of trying to defend this claim while, on one hand, avoiding the absolutism of “One Big Truth” and on the other…