To the Sunlit Uplands

Richard Rorty

  • Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy by Bernard Williams
    Princeton, 328 pp, £19.95, October 2002, ISBN 0 691 10276 7

‘Spinozist’ used to be what ‘Postmodernist’ is now, the worst thing one intellectual could call another. For reasons explained in Jonathan Israel’s fascinating The Radical Enlightenment,[*] there was, in 1680, a simple litmus test for intellectual and moral responsibility. You failed this test if you believed, as Spinoza did, that motion is intrinsic to matter, for that would imply that God didn’t have to give it a nudge. From there it is a short step to Spinoza’s conclusion that ‘God’s decrees and commandments, and consequently God’s Providence are, in truth, nothing but Nature’s order.’

In those days, if you defended the absurdly counter-intuitive claim that matter could move all by itself, it was clear you could hardly be expected to have any moral scruples or intellectual conscience. You were frivolously dissolving the social glue that held Christendom together. You represented the same sort of danger to moral and intellectual virtue as Arians had posed, in the days of St Augustine, by arguing that although Christ was certainly of a similar substance to the Father, he could hardly be the same substance.

Nietzsche said that ‘we simply lack any organ for knowledge, for “truth”: we “know” (or believe or imagine) just as much as may be useful in the interests of the human herd.’ If you cite this sort of passage from Nietzsche (or similar ones in William James or John Dewey) in order to argue that what we call ‘the search for objective truth’ is not a matter of getting your beliefs to correspond better and better to the way things really are, but of attaining intersubjective agreement, or of attempting to cope better with the world round about us, you are likely to find yourself described as a danger to the health of society: philosophers sympathetic to this line of thought now find themselves called Postmodernists, and are viewed with the same hostility as Spinozists were three hundred years ago. If you agree with Dewey that the search for truth is just a particular species of the search for happiness, you will be accused of asserting something so counter-intuitive that only a lack of intellectual responsibility can account for your behaviour.

Most non-philosophers would regard the choice between correspondence-to-reality and pragmatist ways of describing the search for truth as a scholastic quibble of the kind that only a professor of philosophy could be foolish enough to get excited about. A few centuries back, the same sort of people were equally dismissive of controversies concerning the relation between matter and motion. But reading books like Israel’s helps us remember that those who grow passionate on one or the other side of arcane and seemingly pointless disputes are struggling with the question of what self-image it would be best for human beings to have. So it is with the dispute about truth that has been going on among the philosophy professors ever since the days of Nietzsche and James. That dispute boils down to the question of whether, in our pursuit of truth, we must answer only to our fellow human beings, or also to something non-human, such as the Way Things Really Are In Themselves.

Nietzsche thought the latter notion was a surrogate for God, and that we would be stronger, freer, better human beings if we could bring ourselves to dispense with all such surrogates: to stop wanting to have ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ on our side. Only then, he thought, will humankind ‘be delivered from revenge’. He hoped that his books would help ‘to erect a new image and ideal of the free spirit’. Spinoza might have used the same words to describe his aim in writing the Theological-Political Treatise and the Ethics.

Contemporary philosophers who invoke Nietzsche, James, Dewey, Donald Davidson and Jürgen Habermas in order to strengthen their criticisms of the correspondence theory of truth typically share Nietzsche’s hope. They believe that the institutions and practices their critics see as threatened will in fact be strengthened by adopting pragmatist philosophical views. Analogously, Christians who hid their copies of Spinoza’s writings under their beds, and who were inspired by them to dream of a secularised culture and a politically liberal society, believed that the true message of Christ would be better understood once the distinction between God and Nature had been collapsed. The persecuted Arians thought of themselves as making a last brave stand against irrationalist mystery-mongerers (such as Augustine) and their rigid orthodoxies.

Bernard Williams’s term for those usually lumped together as Postmodernists – the targets of his polemic in Truth and Truthfulness – is ‘the deniers of truth’. Unfortunately, he leaves the requirements for membership in this group vague. He does not list any specific propositions you have to deny in order to join. Simply rejecting the correspondence theory of truth, as Davidson and Habermas do, is clearly not enough to get you in. For Williams himself accepts Nietzsche’s view that, as he puts it, ‘there is no standpoint from which our representations as a whole’ can be measured against the way the world is ‘in itself’.

He does, however, specify that the deniers include Bruno Latour, Sandra Harding and the present reviewer. He strongly suggests that Foucault, too, is one of them. He hesitates about including my colleague Hayden White, who is on most lists of Postmodernist bad guys: Williams treats White’s Metahistory with respectful caution. He does not mention Derrida by name, but would probably count him as a denier, for he brackets those who ‘saunter off with the smug nod that registers a deconstructive job neatly done’ together with those who confine themselves to ‘demure civic conversation in the style of Richard Rorty’s ironist’.

Most people who warn that Postmodernist relativisms are endangering all that we hold dear reject most of Nietzsche’s criticisms of Plato and Kant. Williams endorses most of them. There were few kind words for Plato in Shame and Necessity, Williams’s admirably iconoclastic study of ancient Greek ideas about moral virtue – a book filled with echoes of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. He has derided what he calls ‘the rationalistic theory of rationality’: the claim that rationality consists in obedience to eternal, ahistorical standards. His most widely read book, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, mocked Kantian approaches to moral philosophy.

Over the years, Williams has been citing Nietzsche with greater and greater sympathy and appreciation. In this new book he presents himself as someone concerned to defend Nietzsche against those who have misinterpreted and distorted his teachings. He thinks that Nietzsche was entirely right to reject philosophies, such as Plato’s, in which ‘the concept of truth is itself inflated into providing some metaphysical teleology of human existence.’ He has no more patience than Nietzsche did with Kant’s attempt to formulate ‘an exceptionless and simple rule, part of a Moral Law that governs us all equally without recourse to power’. There is, he says, ‘no such rule. Indeed, there is no Moral Law.’

Such remarks will convince many people that Williams has long since gone over to the dark side, and is hardly the right person to mount a defence of truth against the bad guys. Having conceded so much to the opposition, he has to work hard to secure a middle-of-the-road position – to avoid drifting either to the Platonist right or to the pragmatist left.

Nietzsche would not have wanted his admirers to be either demure or smug, but he wouldn’t have approved of them being political liberals either. Yet the most salient feature of Truth and Truthfulness is Williams’s passionate devotion to the political heritage of the Enlightenment. He admits that many of the deniers whom he targets share this devotion. But he thinks them inconsistent: they cannot be both effective defenders of liberalism and deniers of truth. He says that my own attempt to, as he puts it, ‘detach the spirit of liberal critique from the concept of truth’ is ‘a fundamental mistake’. He counts me among the ‘moderate deniers’ – by which he means, I think, that I share many more views with him than with Foucault. But he insists that we moderates ‘as much as the more radical deniers need to take seriously the idea that to the extent that we lose a sense of the value of truth, we shall certainly lose something, and may well lose everything.’

Williams argues that it is essential to the defence of liberalism to believe that the virtue he capitalises as ‘Sincerity’ has intrinsic rather than merely instrumental value. He defends this claim in the course of telling a ‘genealogical story’, one that attempts to ‘give a decent pedigree to truth and truthfulness’. We need such a story, he believes, since the notion of truth might be thought tainted by its associations with Platonism. So he undertakes to show that the value of truth can be ‘understood in a perspective quite different from the Platonic and Christian metaphysics’, and that the deniers have thrown out the baby of intrinsically valuable truth with the Platonist bathwater. He thinks that Nietzsche did not make this mistake, and cites the famous passage from The Gay Science in which Nietzsche seems directly to contradict what he says in the passage (from the same book) I quoted above: ‘it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests – that even we knowers of today, we godless anti-metaphysicians, still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by the thousand-year-old faith, that Christian faith which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth; that truth is divine.’

To get his genealogy under way, Williams offers a familiar and uncontroversial account of why social co-operation requires trust between members of the community: why you cannot have such co-operation without widespread respect for the virtues he calls Sincerity and Accuracy. Language-learning requires trust that people will make roughly the same reports in the presence of the same objects. People not only have to avoid lying, but also have to be open and honest in their joint efforts to get and distribute accurate information. No widespread truthfulness and reciprocal helpfulness, no social institutions.

But it is not clear how this genealogical explanation of the fact that all human societies prize Sincerity and Accuracy supports Williams’s claim about intrinsic value. He makes it ‘a sufficient condition for something (for instance, trustworthiness) to have an intrinsic value that, first, it is necessary (or nearly necessary) for basic human purposes and needs that human beings should treat it as an intrinsic good, and, second, that they can coherently treat it as an intrinsic good.’ The utility of this definition obviously depends on there being a way of telling when people are treating something as an intrinsic good, and it is not clear what behavioural test Williams has in mind here. Is it that people find themselves stymied by the question, ‘Why do you think it a good?’ and can only reply: ‘Well, it just is’? But anybody asked that question about anything they regard as a very good thing (truth-telling, marital fidelity, doing what the Leader says, staying alive) will be able and willing to cite other goods that the particular good in question helps them to get. In the case of trustworthiness, they can be counted on to say something like: ‘Think what would happen if everybody lied! Society would break down!’ But maybe they are not giving their real reasons for thinking trustworthiness good? Maybe they are just being tricked into sounding utilitarian and pragmatic? Maybe they really think it is good in itself? Maybe. But what is the behavioural test for detecting people’s real reasons?

It seems unlikely that Williams can make either the notion of ‘intrinsic value’ or that of ‘real reason’ respectable without first of all taking a lot of Platonic-looking baggage on board. When he tries to exploit the intrinsic-instrumental distinction, he can no longer hope for Nietzsche’s approval. For Nietzsche treated that distinction as one more example of the bad Platonic-Aristotelian practice of distinguishing the really real from the merely human, the in-itself from the for-us.

Those dualisms are still deeply ingrained in common sense, which is why pragmatism is so counterintuitive. Williams wants to keep just enough of them to defeat the deniers, while still being able to side with Nietzsche against Plato. He also wants to retain the conviction, common among analytic philosophers who distrust pragmatism, that the quest for truth is not the same thing as the quest for justification. This amounts to the claim that inquiry has two distinct aims: on the one hand, acquiring beliefs that can be justified to the relevant audience (your fellow citizens, for example, or your fellow experts), and, on the other hand, acquiring true beliefs. From a pragmatist point of view, this looks like regression to the Platonist idea that we have responsibilities not only to our fellow humans, but to something non-human. But for Williams it is a way of reinforcing the point that truth has intrinsic value, that it is something to be pursued for its own sake.

Pragmatists try to coalesce the quest for truth and the quest for justification by trotting out what Williams labels ‘the indistinguishability argument’. They claim that the activity of reaching agreement with others about what to believe looks exactly like the activity of trying to acquire true beliefs, and that there is no point in postulating two distinct aims for a single enterprise. Williams says that the basic objection to this argument is that ‘a justified belief is one that is arrived at by a method, or supported by considerations, that favour it, not simply by making it more appealing or whatever, but in the specific sense of giving reason to think that it is true.’ Brainwashing often brings agreement, as do exchanges between scientists in meetings of the Royal Society, but only the latter counts as acquiring truth. So, Williams says, ‘the pragmatist owes us an answer’ to the question of how we tell methods for acquiring truth from other methods of producing consensus.

As he rightly suggests, the only answer the pragmatist can give to this question is that the procedures we use for justifying beliefs to one another are among the things that we try to justify to one another. We used to think that Scripture was a good way of settling astronomical questions, and pontifical pronouncements a good way of resolving moral dilemmas, but we argued ourselves out of both convictions. But suppose we now ask: were the arguments we offered for changing our approach to these matters good arguments, or were they just a form of brainwashing? At this point, pragmatists think, our spade is turned. For we have, as Williams himself says in the passage I quoted above, no way to compare our representations as a whole with the way things are in themselves.

Williams, however, seems to think that we philosophy professors have special knowledge and techniques that enable us, despite this inability, to show that the procedures we now think to be truth-acquiring actually are so. ‘The real problems about methods of inquiry, and which of them are truth acquiring . . . belong to the theory of knowledge and metaphysics.’ These disciplines, he assures us, provide answers to ‘the question, for a given class of propositions, of how the ways of finding out whether they are true are related to what it is for them to be true’.

Williams would seem to be claiming that these metaphysicians and epistemologists stand on neutral ground when deciding between various ways of reaching agreement. They can stand outside history, look with an impartial eye at the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, and then, by applying their own special, specifically philosophical, truth-acquiring methods, underwrite our belief that Europe’s chances of acquiring truth were increased by those events. They can do all this, presumably, without falling back into what Williams scorns as ‘the rationalistic theory of rationality’.

Williams seems to believe that analytic philosophers have scrubbed metaphysics and epistemology clean of Platonism, and are now in a position to explain what makes various classes of propositions true. If there really were such explanations, then our spade would not be turned where the pragmatists think it is. But of course we who are labelled ‘deniers of truth’ do not think there are. We think the sort of metaphysics and epistemology currently practised by analytic philosophers is just as fantastical and futile as Plato’s Theory of Forms and Locke’s notion of simple ideas.

As far as I can see, Williams’s criticism of ‘the indistinguishability argument’ stands or falls with the claim that analytic philosophers really can do the wonderful things he tells us they can – that they are not just hard-working public relations agents for contemporary institutions and practices, but independent experts whose endorsement of our present ways of justifying beliefs is based on a superior knowledge of what it is for various propositions to be true. Williams would have had a hard time convincing Nietzsche, Dewey or the later Wittgenstein that they had any such knowledge.

Williams says that he will not, in this book, take up any metaphysical or epistemological issues, but will stick to the question: ‘granted that there are methods of inquiry that are, for different kinds of properties, truth-acquiring, what are the qualities of the people who can be expected to use such methods reliably?’ The last four of the ten chapters that make up Truth and Truthfulness are intended to answer this question. In them, Williams puts aside the debate with the deniers, and instead offers a historical account of the development of the common sense, and the intellectual and moral virtues, of the educated classes of the modern West. He describes himself as turning from ‘a peculiar philosophical mode of fictional genealogy’ (the part of the book that tells us how social co-operation grew up hand in hand with trustworthiness) to ‘real genealogy – to cultural contingencies and to history’.

I had trouble seeing the continuity between the first half and the second half of Williams’s book; the connections between the more philosophical part and the more historical part are not perspicuous. But, whatever one may think of the arguments of the earlier chapters, few readers will fail to be struck by the verve, imaginativeness and subtlety of the later ones. The historical portion shows Williams at his best – not arguing with other philosophers, but rather, in the manner of Isaiah Berlin, helping us understand the changes in the human self-image that have produced our present institutions, intuitions and problems. (My preference for the second half of the book may, of course, be due to the fact that it is only in the first half that my own oxen are gored.)

The last four chapters do not form a continuous genealogical narrative. Rather, they are snapshots of certain episodes that have been important in determining what we in the modern West have in mind when we talk about truth and truthfulness. They begin with an absorbing, and very plausible, account of the difference between Herodotus and Thucydides. Williams argues that ‘Thucydides imposed a new conception of the past, by insisting that people should extend to the remoter past a practice they already had in relation to the immediate past, of treating what was said about it as, seriously, true or false,’ thereby making a crucial contribution to the Western insistence that we distinguish sharply between truth and fantasy – between what actually happened and what we should like to have happened.

Williams seems to me right in saying that a lot of what is distinctive, and best, about the modern West depends on remorselessly enforcing the distinction between truth-seeking and wish-fulfilment – though I don’t think he has succeeded in showing that the pragmatists blur this distinction. Pragmatists will heartily agree that some non-Western cultures are, in various areas and to a certain extent, still undesirably Herodotean. ‘Cultural relativism’ is largely an imaginary bugbear, but to the extent that it actually exists it undermines Thucydides’ achievement, and should be resisted. Even if we shall never succeed in seeing ourselves as metaphysicians and epistemologists have hoped to see us, we nevertheless have no reason to doubt that the West is best at acquiring truth. That Eurocentric claim of superiority cannot, pragmatists believe, be defended by non-circular arguments before a tribunal of ahistorical reason, but is none the worse for that.

The next chapter, ‘From Sincerity to Authenticity’, flashes forward 22 hundred years. Here Williams distinguishes two notions – Rousseau’s and Diderot’s – of ‘what it is to be a truthful person’. Rousseau thought that you could be authentic simply by laying yourself bare, but Diderot explained why it was not that easy. Williams thinks that Diderot did us a great service in helping to break down Plato’s simplistic reason-will-emotion distinction, and in showing us why we should be suspicious of the belief-desire model of human agency currently in fashion among philosophers. He shows why Diderot’s proto-Freudian account of the agent as ‘awash with many images, many excitements, merging fears and fantasies that dissolve into one another’ leaves us with the need to construct a self to be true to, rather than, as Rousseau thought, the need to make an already existent self transparent to itself.

This contrast is admirably drawn, and it prepares the ground for the next chapter, in which Williams contrasts Habermas’s and Foucault’s way of looking at the relation between truth and power. Habermas plays Rousseau to Foucault’s Diderot. He thinks that ‘undistorted communication’ can bring us to recognise the truth, and he sticks pretty closely to the old Platonic triad of faculties. Foucault, like Diderot, Nietzsche and Freud, has little use for the idea that reason can, by triumphing over emotion and will, clear away distortions and make our souls transparent to truth. He does not think, as Habermas does, that we can eliminate what Marxists used to call ‘false consciousness’ – the kind of consciousness produced by the machinations of power. For Foucault, truth will never be disentangled from power. The most we can do is to try to exert power ourselves, by reprogramming the social institutions that he called ‘mechanisms of truth’.

Williams shares Habermas’s hopes that the application of ‘critique’ to contemporary institutions and practices will promote the goals of the Enlightenment. But whereas Habermas offers a quasi-Kantian, universalist account of the search for truth and justice, Williams urges ‘an approach that is “contextualised” or “immanent” rather than in the Kantian style’. He concedes to Foucault that ‘the “force of reason” can hardly be separated altogether from the power of persuasion, and, as the ancient Greeks well knew, the power of persuasion, however benignly or rationally exercised, is still a species of power.’ Williams’s appreciation of this Nietzschean point makes him wary of the Habermasian idea of ‘the force of the better argument’, and leads him to conclude the chapter by saying ‘It is not foolish to believe that any social and political order which effectively uses power, and which sustains a culture that means something to the people who live in it, must involve opacity, mystification and large-scale deception.’

Not foolish, he continues, but not necessarily true. Williams’s splendid final chapter, ‘Making Sense’, discusses the role that truthful history, and narratives of the onward-to-the-sunlit-uplands sort, can play in continuing to demythologise the cultures of liberal societies. Here he offers a very judicious and sensible treatment of Hayden White’s much-criticised account of the role of rhetoric in historiography. He agrees with White that we have to be ‘especially careful of the idea’ that truthful history can ‘tell us what the past is “really” or “in itself”’, but goes on to explain why, even if it cannot do that, it can still do us a lot of good – why Thucydides did not live in vain. ‘Liberalism may have destroyed in some part its distinctive supporting stories about itself,’ including stories of the sort Habermas tells about reason’s ability to disclose universal validity. Nevertheless, it is important for us liberals to realise that ‘there is no conscious road back, that the Enlightenment is intellectually irreversible.’

As in the first part of the book, Williams has to work hard here to concede just enough to the opposition, but not too much. He needs carefully to distinguish between justified Nietzschean and Foucauldian suspicions about the supporting stories, and unjustified contempt for the Enlightenment’s political hopes. In making this distinction, he takes on the same complicated and delicate assignment previously attempted by Dewey, Weber and many others. He wants to show us how to combine Nietzschean intellectual honesty and maturity with political liberalism – to keep on striving for liberty, equality and fraternity in a totally disenchanted, completely de-Platonised intellectual world.

The prospect of such a world would have appalled Kant, whose defence of the French Revolution was closely linked to his ‘rationalistic theory of rationality’. Kant is the philosopher to whom such contemporary liberals as Rawls and Habermas ask us to remain faithful. Williams, by contrast, turns his back on Kant. So did Dewey. The similarity between Dewey’s and Williams’s conceptions of the desirable self-image for heirs of the Enlightenment is, in fact, very great, so I am all the more puzzled by his hostility to pragmatism in the first half of his book. But that is just to repeat that I am unconvinced by his argument that the defence of political liberalism requires us to rehabilitate such Platonic/Kantian notions as ‘intrinsic value’. I still cannot see why the project of those whom Williams calls ‘the moderate deniers of truth’ is a ‘fundamental mistake’.

Whether it is or not, anyone who wants to understand the relations between the relatively arcane issues concerning truth debated by philosophy professors, and the larger question of what self-image we human beings should have, would do well to read Williams’s new book. It is a major work by a man plausibly described, in Princeton’s advertisements, as ‘Britain’s greatest living philosopher’. That is not hyperbole. Since the death of Isaiah Berlin – with whose work Williams’s has many continuities – no philosophy professor in that part of the world has been more deeply, or more deservedly, admired by his peers.

[*] Reviewed in the LRB by Jonathan Rée (24 January).