Bernard Williams beats postmodernism with the stick of historical truthfulness, but that doesn't make the truth itself any easier to defineby Richard J Evans / November 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Book: Truth and Truthfulness Author: Bernard Williams (Princeton University Press, £19.95)
Modern society, says Bernard Williams in this important (although in places quite technical) book, places a very high value on truthfulness. If politicians are caught being untruthful about their private life, serious damage is done to their standing because public opinion assumes they cannot be trusted to be truthful in their public life. The modern gladiatorial sport of the high court libel action derives its popularity from the fact that a drama of truthfulness is being played out: who is being truthful, who isn’t? The British television schedules are now full of police or detective dramas whose d?nouement at the end of two hours or so of untruthfulness from all the suspects almost always has the murderer delivering a truthful confession.
Yet the more value we place on truthfulness, the more suspicious we seem to become about whether the truth can ever be discovered about anything; whether, indeed, there is such a thing as truth at all. Postmodernist writers routinely place the word truth in quotation marks, as if it is a dangerous concept that needs to be surrounded by a cordon sanitaire of inverted commas to stop the reader from assuming that it actually exists. This is itself a dishonest, indeed untruthful, procedure perhaps reflecting the fact that its authors are aware of the awkward paradox that if you do not believe there is such a thing as truth, then you cannot expect anybody to believe anything you are saying yourself is true, including the statement that there is no such thing as truth. In a milder version of the same paradox, some radical historians attack all accounts of the past as biased and hence untruthful, while failing to realise that if this is the case, then their own account of the past will be biased and untruthful as well.
Sceptical philosophers have of course tried to get round this basic problem by a number of methods, for example by adopting an ironical position that deliberately refrains from asserting its own truthfulness, as in the work of Richard Rorty. Against these “deniers,” Williams pits the “commonsense party” who know that there is such a thing as truth because they encounter it all the time in everyday life-you know it is true that you are reading Prospect at the moment, for example, or that you are sitting in an armchair, or travelling in an aeroplane or whatever you happen to be doing right now. Those deniers who try to justify their scepticism about truth by referring to linguistic theories arguing that language is an arbitrary association of signs are easily dismissed because, after all, however it has evolved, a word like “dog” is a sign for a dog, and a dog is a dog, and not a word.
But everyday arguments of this kind are, Williams rightly says, not very important. What is really at issue are larger structures of thought, like history or politics, where establishing the truth is a more complicated and more difficult matter than kicking a stone and taking the pain in your foot as evidence that it really exists. You can accept a commonsense notion of truth in everyday life and still reject it when it comes to, say, the claim that a history book is telling the truth about the past. Some, like the disciples of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, think that in more abstract areas like history or politics or sociology, we believe something is true only because we are being told it is true by someone who exerts power over us-the state, the ruling class, the medical profession and so on. But, as Williams points out, truth cannot simply be reduced to a matter of power; nor, in the end, can what people believe in, which has much more to do with the authority or otherwise of the ideas in question than with the power of those who hold them.
Williams is scathing about those literary theorists and others who deny the existence of truth, because by doing so they alienate themselves from the real world, and thus damage the reputation of the humanities. They may think they are politically radical but, he says, they are just exponents of “the caf? politics of ?migr?s from the world of real power.” Academic authority, in fact, rests on accuracy and sincerity, taking care to establish the truth, and then telling it without dissembling. Academics, he says, “should resist the comforts of a knowing evasiveness.”
So belief in truth has to go beyond the everyday. We cannot stick to everyday truths without trying to put them together in narratives and interpretations, where the nature of truth becomes more complex. This is even more obvious in the case of the past. Williams’s book takes history as its central case study because history’s claim to distinctiveness, since the time of Thucydides, has been its ambition to tell the truth about the past. He uses history, therefore, as a way of defending truthfulness and truth.
Williams asserts-contrary to the more extreme postmodernists-that historical facts are discovered, not created by the historian and, says Williams sensibly, “it is hard to believe that anyone (really) thinks otherwise.” It is easy to agree on most historical facts. But how they are shaped into narratives and explanations is quite a different matter. Williams says you have to use mini-narratives or minimalist narratives to make sense of the past at a very basic level, as a means of arriving at a basic structuring of the facts you are dealing with. The interpretations do indeed depend on us-“the past will not make sense unless we make sense of it.”
We cannot stick to a chronicle-like recitation of facts. “The claim that there is no overall or larger-scale sense to be made of the past is itself a larger-scale claim, and it has to be earned, like any of the others.” Thus it is emphatically not the case that minimalist accounts describe the past “as it really was,” and other, larger-scale attempts to make sense of it are just fictions. Williams says, rightly, that every level of historical narrative, including mini-narratives, involve a degree of explanation. Historical explanation is no different from any other form of explanation. There is nothing special about the past; “it is simply what used to be the present.” The principles of explanation are the same in past and present. Historians’ professional skills of interpreting old documents, or ruins, or artefacts, “are in fact skills in explaining the present, in the form of the papers, stones, or shards that lie in front of them.”
Can we discover the truth about the past? We can certainly discover true things: for example, that Caesar led his army across the Rubicon, and that this had an ascertainable political significance because the law decreed that he should not do so. But, says Williams, “this does not mean that there is such a thing as the truth about Caesar or, come to that, about the Rubicon; there are indefinitely many truths about them.” So “there is no such thing as ‘the truth’ about the historical past”-even Williams is forced to resort to quotation marks here-because there is not just one basic question we can ask about it. But this does not mean that there are no truths about the past. “It means that while we must demand that interpretations of the past should tell us the truth, in the sense that they should not lie or mislead, what we need them for is not to tell us something called ‘the truth about the past.’ We need them to be truthful, and to make sense of the past-to us.”
There are many more or less compatible stories told about the past from different angles; but just as important, some of these may clash because they disagree about what mattered most, (economics or diplomacy or cultural factors in the origins of the first world war for example). Similarly, different groups in society will demand different narratives, not just to satisfy themselves, but to convince other people, which also means that these narratives have to aim at telling the truth. Feminist historians, after all, do not only write for each other, but also to convince non-feminists that women have been oppressed in the past, and have tried to do something about it. People can be convinced by force of argument, or evidence. Minds can be changed.
We need history, Williams concludes, rather than myth, because accuracy and truthfulness are necessary to society, and history has to be truthful to be convincing. A liberal society helps make truthful history possible, and ensures that groups who want to tell their own story can do so, and others have reasons for wanting to hear them. More importantly, a liberal society “needs truthful history,” which will remind it of what it costs to human society “if a mythical order takes over,” and thus helps people to avoid what people everywhere have reason to avoid (death, destruction, tyranny, and so on).
This conclusion has to be heartening to any historian, such as myself, who has been concerned about the nihilism of those postmodernists who have declared that all history is myth, or that there is no use for history in today’s society any more. For anyone familiar with current debates, Williams’s critique of the historical theories of Hayden White makes particularly interesting reading. Unlike so many philosophers or theorists of history, who show no signs of having read any history books or thought seriously about the past, it is good to read a philosopher who knows what he is talking about. History is going through a remarkable boom, in this country at least, and Williams’s justification of it as central to the wellbeing of a liberal society, perhaps above all in a post-ideological age, can be taken as a confirmation that the boom is more than just a product of fashion.