This jellyfish can sting

Jonathan Rée

Despite his exotic name, Felipe Fernández-Armesto is an upper-class Englishman of the kind who seem to float on a cloud of contentment, perpetually entertained by the oafish antics of the rest of us down below. His press release describes him as ‘a member of the Modern History Faculty of Oxford University’ and Millennium, his blockbuster on the history of the world, as a ‘highly acclaimed’ bestseller, while translations of his monographs and reference books are ‘pending in twenty languages’. But he is not just a historian. He is also something of a philosopher, and his publishers have now given him the chance to address the world in a format that other authors only dream of: a brief and opinionated essay, with a smart design but a popular price, on the epistemological ills of modern civilisation. I shall not try to conceal my feelings: reader, I envy him.

The title of this venture into mass-market philosophising will remind punters of the much-bought A Brief History of Time. Both titles have a tone of guileless sincerity on first hearing. But their simplicity turns out to be deceptive and, on second take, to reveal a shimmer of paradox. How can you pursue the history of time, given that time itself is presupposed as the framework and medium of history? And how can you describe the history of truth, given that you would need to know what truth is before you could even begin to sniff out its various historical embodiments?

It would seem that a history of truth, constantly turning round on itself and trying to provide a historical explanation of why its own version of events should be accepted as the true one, is bound to degenerate into a tedious game of tail-chasing. Before Fernández-Armesto there were no more than two or three intellectual adventurers who embarked on this formidable task in full consciousness of the dangers. Hegel, at the optimistic start of the 19th century, tried to paint a portrait of the human spirit looking back – autobiographically, so to speak – on the experiences of discovery and disappointment through which it had attained its current vantage, poised on the threshold of Absolute Knowledge. And more recently there was Heidegger who, in a kind of reversed-out recapitulation of Hegel, tried to get away from the notion of ‘spirit’ by providing his anguished times with a history of Being as such – a kind of biography which would show how Being has always coyly concealed its essence from us, especially at those moments when we thought it was finally surrendering to the power of our inquiring minds.

Faint-hearted thinkers might quail at the thought of setting off in the wake of Heidegger and Hegel. Fernández-Armesto, however – the author of a respected book on Columbus – is nothing if not bold. Indeed, he manages to overlook the existence of his forerunners, claiming that his own attempt on the history of truth is altogether ‘unprecedented’. But if he belittles the achievements of Hegel and Heidegger, he cannot be accused of plagiarising their insights. Philosophically speaking, he is the model of an 18th-century eclectic, his conceptual repertoire quite untouched – or untainted, as he might prefer to say – by any of the great revolutions in philosophical inquiry that have occurred in the past two hundred years. Where Hegel makes our heads spin with his symphonic portrayals of the shifting configurations of a self-propelling dialectic, and Heidegger dizzies us with his hermeneutic shuttle between different origins of existence, Fernández-Armesto keeps us firmly on familiar ground, regaling us with curious anecdotes, and reassuring us with simple philosophical checklists and chronologies. In place of a reflexive epistemological argument he offers us a simple inventory of the various ‘means of truth recognition’ which he thinks have been employed, in various combinations, at different junctures in the history of humanity.

Fortunately for the tabloid-minded, his ‘means of truth recognition’ are reducible to four points: 1) the promptings of personal feeling or intuition; 2) the authority of traditions, oracles or holy books; 3) the dictates of reason or logic; and 4) the deliverances of sensory experience. The ensuing history of truth is a whirlwind mystery tour in four stages, in which we are shown how feeling, tradition, reason and sensation have succeeded each other as the dominant mode of truth in successive phases of world history. The journey is full of surprises, with long visits to the ‘argonauts of the Pacific’ and Egyptian pyramid-builders. Fernández-Armesto is a relentlessly vocal guide, moving from story to story without pausing for breath. But he is exasperatingly vague about how we are going to reach our promised destination; and after a while, we may begin to wonder whether he knows the way himself.

It is hard to see, for example, how the kinds of hard chronological evidence that appeal to an event-oriented historian will ever get a useful purchase on the nature of truth in general. Fernández-Armesto tells us, for instance, that it was not until the Renaissance that we acquired the habit of ‘trust in our sensory receptors’, whereas logical thinking goes back to ancient Greece: ‘it was Aristotle who taught us how to think.’ Questions of logic, meaning or knowledge may, however, need to be handled with rather more interpretative tact than this: they do not lend themselves to the construction of such definite periodisations and lines of influence. You do not need to know much about world history to realise that our distant ancestors must have set as much store by their ‘sensory receptors’ as we do by ours. Even if they spent half their time gazing at entrails, they were still following the evidence of their own eyes and ears. They did not need to await the theoretical encouragement of Renaissance philosophers before exploring the world with their bodies. Even Stone Age children must have understood the logical structures of contrariness and confirmation without having to wait for Aristotelian school-masters to lecture them on the Organon.

The problem is not just that the four strands of truth which Fernández-Armesto promises to trace may be more elastic, more all-encompassing, or more tangled up than he is prepared to admit: they may not be separable at all, even in theory. Can it make sense to imagine successive generations opting for different cocktails of feeling, tradition, reason and sense-perception in their quest for truth? What kind of choice could that be? Our ancestors’ feelings were surely a kind of sensation, and their sensations a kind of feeling; their feelings and sensations must have been shot through with logical or conceptual thought; and their concepts and canons of reasoning cannot have failed to be part of their linguistic and cultural inheritance. Fernández-Armesto’s four sources of truth are not genuinely independent of each other, and his attempt to construct a history of truth by tracing their changing fortunes is like juggling with a jellyfish.

And this jellyfish can sting. As Hegel and Heidegger knew, the special thrill of writing a history of truth is that it has to put itself in its own line of fire. It has to begin by making certain assumptions about truth and how to distinguish it from erroneous opinion: but then it must, recursively, test these assumptions to see if they may not themselves be in error. Fernández-Armesto appears to be unaware of this reflexive problem. He repeatedly advises us to make maximum use of the best available sources of truth – logical thought and sensory perception – but without attempting to justify this advice, either historically or by any other kind of argument. He thinks all four sources of truth should be treated with respect if not reverence, but fails to notice that – since they are meant to cover the whole spectrum of human experience – they must be the sources of all our errors, too. Truth: A History is a book that peaks too soon. After its scintillating title, it degenerates into a scrapbook of the sorts of thing certain people have held to be true at various times and places. It is not a history of truth but quite the opposite: a history of opinions.

On the other hand, if opinions are what you want, Fernández-Armesto is your man. He has enough of them to set the Clapham omnibus in uproar. The world is under threat because we are losing our ‘confidence in the concept of truth’, so it is his duty to buttonhole us and ask us for our help. For the relativists are everywhere these days: on TV, in the papers, in politics, in the new universities and even – God help us – the ancient ones. And they go round with impunity, openly spreading their ‘annihilating virus’ and shamelessly corrupting the young. They may call it ‘existentialism’ or ‘deconstruction’ or ‘subjectivism’, but it all comes down to the same thing: relativism, the mind-corroding, morality-subverting doctrine that objectivity is an illusion.

These enemies within are also, somewhat confusingly, the ‘barbarians at the gates’, and Fernández-Armesto calls on us to help him keep them out. Or perhaps I should say: help him keep us out. For after a while I realised why his depiction of intellectual depravity seemed so familiar: like anyone else who admires modern European philosophy I see it in my mirror every morning. I may think of myself as cautious, gentle and shy, but I have to admit that I am one of Fernández-Armesto’s ‘vandals’, a threat not only to his Roman Catholicism but to modern scientific and historical discipline as well. Perhaps our time is up, and we should now turn ourselves in, admit to our complicity in ‘trashing truth and objectivity’, and allow him to ‘hound’ us, as he puts it, with his ‘aggressive defence’ of objective truth.

But somehow Fernández-Armesto’s love of wit, good breeding and fine detail keeps getting the better of him, thwarting his attempts to put the boot in or to impersonate a wrathful populist. He is a bookish man, and cannot resist the impulse to share fragments of information with us, even when they have no bearing on his case. Given that Paris has, apparently, been the international capital of relativism since the Sixties, it is at least mildly interesting to learn that cynical old Ferdinand de Saussure ‘began his courses of lectures on general linguistics in Paris in 1907’. And it is diverting to be told that the ferocious Friedrich Nietzsche was a ‘sexually inexperienced invalid’ who ‘hated people but loved animals’ and ‘died defending an abused horse’. And it is delightful to reflect that the ‘selfish’ Søren Kierkegaard was so idle that he ‘published little in his lifetime’.

Readers may also be entertained to find, however, that Fernández-Armesto’s colourful details have a tendency to be wrong. Saussure gave his celebrated lecture courses in Geneva, beginning in 1906; Nietzsche lived on for 11 awful years after the sad incident with the horse; and Kierkegaard’s moments of idleness must have been few and far between, since, by the time of his death at the age of 42, he had seen 34 books through the press – many of them five times as long as Truth: A History, and none of them ever dull or cantankerous. All this, too, from an author who denounces the ‘indifference to accuracy’ that ‘now fills academic books with errors’. Some of Fernández-Armesto’s errors are more serious. It is not the case, for example, that Foucault ‘does not say’ how the 19th-century will-to-truth differs from its predecessors: he explains the point pretty persuasively in Birth of the Clinic and The Order of Things, and it is one of the clearest and strongest elements in his work. And it is wrong to say that, for Saussure, ‘no language could ever yield formulations assuredly true of anything except its own terms.’ The Course on General Linguistics is written in French, but it is not about French, and it is as confidently realistic about linguistic diversity and the extra-linguistic world as any old Oxfordian buffer could wish.

The thinker who has given Fernández-Armesto most difficulty is Kant, whom he insists on seeing as a romantic dreamer with a fatal ‘attraction to mysticism’, and a sworn enemy of scientific objectivity who ‘after dethroning reason ... effectively crowned intuition in its place’. But if our guide had been lucky enough to read to the end of the first sentence of the Critique of Pure Reason, he would have realised that the word ‘intuition’ is used in English translations of Kant to refer to ordinary sensory data, not wild mystical visions.

He then goes on to remark that ‘Kant used the word “transcendent” so often, in so many different contexts, that it became an incantation or perhaps a hypnotist’s gewgaw, lulling readers into almost mesmeric distraction.’ In fact, Kant did not use ‘transcendent’ much at all, and only as a warning, not in a gush of enthusiasm. Fernández-Armesto has confused it with ‘transcendental’; and the muddle is less trivial than it might seem. For Kant, the idea of ‘transcendent’ knowledge was a mirage that led to the dogmatic fanaticism of pure reason: the only antidote was ‘transcendental’ knowledge concerning the scope of experience and the exact conditions under which objective knowledge is attainable. It may be true and it may be false, but Kant’s transcendental philosophy is the opposite of ‘transcendent’, and it hardly amounts to the intoxicated barbarism that Fernández-Armesto takes it to be.

The greatest of his blunders is his statement that Kant denied the possibility of ‘objective truths’. He is approximately right to report that Kant believed there could be no knowledge of ‘things in themselves’, but he fails to see that the tendency and purpose of this doctrine was not to undermine objective knowledge but to underpin it. For Kant had devised a new conception of experience, one which allows for our knowledge to be objective even if it may never be absolute. We do not need to transcend the human cognitive condition, according to Kant, in order to construct an objective science of nature: on the contrary, it is the structure of our subjective faculty of knowing that makes natural science possible. Objectivity and subjectivity are not the two ends of a see-saw, with one going up whenever the other comes down: they are inseparable, like action and reaction in Newtonian physics. And if this is so, the value of scientific objectivity does not need to be protected from the fact of human subjectivity. Objectivity, in other words, is not absolute but relative – to the possible forms of our experience. Even if we could conceive of a more absolute kind of objectivity, it would make no difference since by definition we could never know anything about it. So Kant was no enemy of objectivity, but one of its wiliest and most intelligent defenders. The unlucky Fernández-Armesto would seem, in his fury, to have picked on someone who could have been his friend.

But Truth: A History is an ideological tract rather than a philosophical inquiry. Fernández-Armesto and his publishers are playing up to the new turn taken by intellectual conservatism since its traumatic loss of the Communist bogey. ‘Relativism’ is the new evil summoned up to fill the gap, with the long-suffering Sixties once more put on trial. It was reported recently that ‘charitable trusts’ in the United States have donated $210 million over the past two years to propagate the new conservative cause in American universities, so Fernández-Armesto is not alone when he denounces ‘the morally indifferent generation ... victims of Sixties permissiveness’, the ‘baby boomers’ who have ‘dropped truth’ or ‘devoured truth’ for the sake of political correctness. But one may wonder whether he and his fellow militants are any better at identifying the enemies of objective truth than they are at acknowledging its friends.

In the Fifties, conservative ideologues were in the habit of warning the world about the threat to civilisation posed by Marxist fundamentalists who believed themselves to be in secure possession of a righteous moral code, an objective science of society, and an absolute certainty about the coming end of history. In the Sixties, the conservatives added a patronising contempt for the moral certainties of earnest young opponents of Cold Warriordom and the Vietnam War. In the grown-up world, they told us, things are not so clearcut as the radicals like to think: facts are never plain, and goodness seldom simple, so we had better grow out of our uncompromising absolutism before it gets too late.

Since 1989 the conservatives have begun to dress themselves up in the once despised garb of the radicals. They are now taking their turn to bear witness to those straightforward truths and unassailable values which, they say, tend to get forgotten in the cynical modern world. Like born-again Marxists, they expatiate on the end of history and the coming age of authentic freedom. And instead of castigating their imaginary leftist doppelgängers for exorbitant moral and epistemological certainty, they have begun to accuse them of subjectivism, nihilism and relativism.

They have misread the philosophical landscape, however. They have overlooked the vast conceptual domain opened up by Kant: the territory in which all the most creative philosophical thinking of the past two centuries has taken place, and where the only kind of relativism worth discussing links arms with the only kind of objectivity worth wanting, so that relativism turns out to be the benign companion of objective knowledge, not its treacherous destroyer.

It is not such a difficult point to grasp. Anyone can see that objective measurement always depends on a chosen standard – the degree celsius, the watt or the hertz – and relativists simply extend the principle to knowledge as a whole. Next time round – with a little more thought perhaps, and a little less influence from right-wing foundations – the conservatives who currently imagine themselves to be the last beleaguered defenders of truth may have to recognise that it is relativism which will, in the end, prove to be truth’s best friend. And with luck they will be able to restrain poor Felipe Fernández-Armesto from rushing in again, where angels fear to tread.