WHAT DOES IT SAY about the state of the humanities, or the prospects for the intelligent defense of democracy, that leading academics in philosophy, history, and literature have for years now embraced the denial of truth as if it were the culminating stage in humanity's liberation from tyranny? Nothing good, thinks the prominent British analytic philosopher, Bernard Williams. In "Truth and Truthfulness," Williams takes direct aim at the insouciant skepticism found in the "café politics" practiced by the "Secret Agents of literature departments."
Lambasting academia for its postmodern eschewal of truth is nothing new. In some conservative circles, it is the one sport that never goes out of season. What remain in short supply, however, are compelling and philosophically rigorous accounts of truth, its nature, function, and importance in human life. In "Truth and Truthfulness," Williams intends to supply just such an account.
Although his investigation of truth has implications for the whole of human life, especially for the role of truth in liberal democracy, it returns repeatedly to the crisis of truth in the humanities. Williams is particularly impatient with those historical revisionists who want to dump truth along with what they call "patriarchal" history. To be taken seriously, arguments on behalf of revising our understanding of history must be seen as making claims to truth. He laments those who, instead of making truth-claims, "fall back pitifully on minority status." The denial of truth breeds irresponsibility and mediocrity in scholars, who are tempted to celebrate not so much truthful speech and accuracy in research and argument, as performance, cheering those who "saunter off with the smug nod that registers a deconstructive job neatly done."
All of this is welcome, but it remains quite odd that Bernard Williams would be the philosopher to come to the defense of truth. Throughout his career, he has himself been a great denier and destroyer of inflated philosophical theories, a practitioner, in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre, of philosophy as "guerrilla warfare." For many years Britain's leading moral philosopher, Williams has devoted himself with a certain gusto to the demolition of systems built by proponents of the two great modern moral systems, Kantianism and utilitarianism. Williams is a political liberal, but he nonetheless has distaste for liberal myths, including John Rawls's great project of justifying liberal society. Consistently dismissive of religion as a slowly but surely dying anachronism, Williams once compared Rawls's wager on behalf of liberalism unfavorably to Pascal's wager on the existence of God.
What's more, Williams's criticisms of neo-Kantians like Rawls are exceeded only by his pithy assaults on contemporary utilitarians, whose methods wreak havoc with the sort of moral reflection conducted by ordinary human beings. Utilitarians are resourceful in rejecting the morally repugnant consequences that seem to flow from their insistence upon the maximization of happiness, pleasure, or whatever they deem the highest good. So they reject the idea that maximization could ever require the murder of the innocent for the sake of quelling domestic unrest or a preference for utter strangers over beloved relatives. Take the hypothetical case where one must choose to save either a renowned pianist or one's ungifted child from a burning building. The tortured reasoning of the utilitarians for saving one's child provides the parent with "one thought too many," Williams wryly observes. Anyone who adverts to utilitarian calculation before saving his child is someone we would already find morally reprehensible.
WILLIAMS IS, in fact, the great anti-theorist and anti-rationalist of our time. As befits a critic, his preferred genre is the terse philosophical essay, the most representative of which are found in "Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980." His discussions of moral luck spawned the career of Martha Nussbaum, the insight for whose first big book, "The Fragility of Goodness," came directly from Williams. His few and restrained essays on moral dilemmas have given birth to an unfortunate industry in what is now a philosophical sub-specialty.
Given the bent of his thought, he might seem a natural ally of an anti-theorist and pragmatist like Richard Rorty. But Williams derisively describes Rorty's pragmatism--with its plea that we quit "fussing" about truth and address ourselves instead to "social benefits, solidarity, democracy"--as "running on empty." He marvels at Rorty's blithe indifference to the way commitments to truthfulness are integral to the successful advancement of liberal political ideals. Williams has, moreover, never embraced the deconstruction of science as but one language game among many, let alone as a phallocentric tyranny. Indeed, Williams's ethical anti-theorism--expressed most clearly in his book "Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy"--rests squarely on the lack of analogy between science (with its rational methods and clear progress toward truth) and ethical discourse (where consensus is elusive and resistance to rational justification is entrenched).
Truth in the humanities, especially in history, can never achieve the clarity and consensus to which the hard sciences naturally aspire. Yet the value of truth and the virtues of truthfulness are no less operative in the humanities than in the sciences. To sort out the role of truth in our lives, Williams offers in "Truth and Truthfulness" a sort of genealogy of human society, arguing that the need for cooperation and trust in any society places a premium on truthfulness.
At this point in his argument, he seems to be claiming that truthfulness has merely instrumental value--which makes the reader wonder whether truthfulness could still possess utility if everyone saw it as having only instrumental value. But Williams goes on to argue that uncovering the value of truth and the virtues of truthfulness requires more than the pragmatist or utilitarian can supply. One of the most telling disadvantages of theories that dispense with truth is that they cannot sustain the distinction between better and worse methods of achieving knowledge or between fantasy and reality.
Such are the defects, for example, of Richard Rorty's interpretation of a passage from George Orwell's "1984," in which the character Winston states, "Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two equals four. If that is granted, all else follows." For Rorty, the issue here is not the freedom to speak the truth, but just the freedom to say what one thinks. While not denying the right to free speech, Williams counters that Rorty's interpretation, which "lets truth and falsity drop out," obscures what is peculiarly enslaving and heinous about an exercise of power that requires the denial of what one knows to be the case. In this case, power "subverts true belief so as to destroy the victim's relation to the world altogether, undoing the distinction between fantasy and reality."
A DIFFERENT SORT of difficulty afflicts utilitarian accounts of the value of truth and truthfulness. Williams revisits here his earlier criticism of an influential strain of utilitarianism, which wants to foster certain kinds of dispositions or habits in individuals as being in the long run the best mechanism for maximizing the good. Aware that individuals lack the necessary information, and that they would likely crack under the strain of attempting to regulate each of their choices by the standard of maximization, utilitarians offer qualified support for dispositions to justice, truthfulness, etc. But this kind of utilitarian program is, as Williams puts it, "unstable under reflection." On the one hand, for the policy to work, individuals must really care about justice and truth. On the other hand, if they have been brought up as good utilitarians, they will be deprived of precisely this sort of attitude toward justice and truth, since they will have been instructed that these values are merely instrumental. There is a "lack of fit between the spirit being justified and the spirit of the justification" that causes the construction to unravel if it is "exposed to reflection."
The task, as Williams sees it, is to account for the intelligibility of truthfulness "without at the same time losing our hold on it." This means that we must acknowledge the intrinsic--and not merely instrumental--value of truthfulness. Williams thinks that we recognize this intrinsic value in many ways in ordinary life: in our praise of forthright speech, for instance, and in our admiration for those who want to "get things right" without regard to the weighing of consequences. And Williams's defense of truth's intrinsic value does not entail universal prohibitions against lying. Instead of universal prohibitions, which he dismisses as "fetishizing assertion," Williams promotes a prudential sense of what we owe in the way of truthful speech, to whom, and under what conditions.
Rather than rules, Williams talks of the virtues of truthfulness, which cluster around the dispositions of sincerity and accuracy. Truth is connected with "trust," with "fidelity, loyalty, or reliability." The question then is what "disposition does a speaker need to have if he is to be trusted to say what he believes about some matter"? Sincerity, a disposition to speak the truth in appropriate ways, is the virtue that renders one trustworthy. It does not require complete truthfulness with everyone on every occasion; conversely, it demands more than merely speaking the truth when one should. It will also entail speaking truth appropriately, for example, to a friend who needs to hear difficult news, but who needs to have the truth delivered in a compassionate way.
The other chief virtue of truthfulness is accuracy, which consists in "a desire for truth for its own sake--a passion for getting it right." It involves the use of appropriate methods of investigation, some of which are more truth-conducive than others. Williams speaks of an "economy of inquiry." Given the limited time and resources any individual can devote to discovering the truth about a particular subject, there are always questions about whether one has done enough work of the right sort to determine the truth. In this, we face all sorts of obstacles, for example, laziness and especially "desires and wishes" that "subvert the acquisition of true belief." Thus, in addition to methods of investigation, accuracy also has to do with the will, with attitudes and desires, the habits of resisting wishful thinking, self-deception, and fantasy.
The need for virtues of truthfulness is an acknowledgment on Williams's part that truth is very often a difficult achievement. We cannot rely upon some breezy faith in the free "marketplace of ideas." Williams has in mind Oliver Wendell Holmes's defense of the First Amendment as the "best test of truth." Williams counters that this would be the case only in an "idealized market." The marketplace of ideas generates all sorts of distracting noise and provides no structural context for real debate. By contrast, the scientific community, even the university community, is a "managed market." Williams is not thinking here of speech codes, but simply of the fact that to teach, or even to become a student, one has to meet certain publicly stipulated criteria. And there are, or ought to be, shared and publicly acknowledged standards for research and argumentation.
Once again, we see Williams's preoccupation with the university. Both liberals and conservatives would do well to take note of his argument on this point in "Truth and Truthfulness." Conservatives tend to counter the liberal imposition of politically correct speech codes with appeals to freedom of speech. In some cases, this is the issue, but it is never the fundamental issue for the intellectual health of the humanities. Without an acknowledgment of the virtues of truthfulness, the humanities risk becoming an anarchic marketplace of ideas--a void into which political correctness marches to establish order.
Williams observes that unsettling questions about truth have been on the table at least since Nietzsche, whom Williams does an excellent job of rescuing from the often-shrill and always-dogmatic deniers of truth. "Truth and Truthfulness" addresses these questions in a clear and cogent--if, finally, no more than introductory--manner. The academic alternative to taking up the challenge of truth is not an invigorating revolutionary politics, but something rather banal. "The study of the humanities runs a risk of sliding from professional seriousness," Williams wisely observes, "through professionalization, to a finally disenchanted careerism."