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
Published in November 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.