Truth and Truthfulness

Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy

Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 344
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    Truth and Truthfulness
    Book Description:

    What does it mean to be truthful? What role does truth play in our lives? What do we lose if we reject truthfulness? No philosopher is better suited to answer these questions than Bernard Williams. Writing with his characteristic combination of passion and elegant simplicity, he explores the value of truth and finds it to be both less and more than we might imagine.

    Modern culture exhibits two attitudes toward truth: suspicion of being deceived (no one wants to be fooled) and skepticism that objective truth exists at all (no one wants to be naive). This tension between a demand for truthfulness and the doubt that there is any truth to be found is not an abstract paradox. It has political consequences and signals a danger that our intellectual activities, particularly in the humanities, may tear themselves to pieces.

    Williams's approach, in the tradition of Nietzsche's genealogy, blends philosophy, history, and a fictional account of how the human concern with truth might have arisen. Without denying that we should worry about the contingency of much that we take for granted, he defends truth as an intellectual objective and a cultural value. He identifies two basic virtues of truth, Accuracy and Sincerity, the first of which aims at finding out the truth and the second at telling it. He describes different psychological and social forms that these virtues have taken and asks what ideas can make best sense of them today.

    Truth and Truthfulnesspresents a powerful challenge to the fashionable belief that truth has no value, but equally to the traditional faith that its value guarantees itself. Bernard Williams shows us that when we lose a sense of the value of truth, we lose a lot both politically and personally, and may well lose everything.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2514-1
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. 1-19)

    Two currents of ideas are very prominent in modern thought and culture. On the one hand, there is an intense commitment to truthfulness—or, at any rate, a pervasive suspiciousness, a readiness against being fooled, an eagerness to see through appearances to the real structures and motives that lie behind them. Always familiar in politics, it stretches to historical understanding, to the social sciences, and even to interpretations of discoveries and research in the natural sciences.

    Together with this demand for truthfulness, however, or (to put it less positively) this reflex against deceptiveness, there is an equally pervasive suspicion about...

    (pp. 20-40)

    The subject of this book is truthfulness: various virtues and practices, and ideas that go with them, that express the concern to tell the truth—in the sense both of telling the truth to other people and, in the first place, telling the true from the false. My aim is to explain the basis of truthfulness as a value, and to suggest ways in which we can think about the forms that it has taken, and elaborations that it has received, in different historical circumstances. The kind of explanation I shall appeal to is agenealogy; and one of my...

    (pp. 41-62)

    In the State of Nature there is a small society of human beings, sharing a common language, with no elaborate technology and no form of writing.

    In supposing that these people are a linguistic community, I shall assume that they speak a language which we (you, I, other human beings) could come to understand. We need not make this assumption too strong. In particular, we need not assume that if we came to understand their language, we could translate everything they said into an equivalent in our own language. We would be able to do this, if only roughly, for...

    (pp. 63-83)

    What about truth itself? If we are going to say that beliefs and assertions in some sense aim to be true, or, as the State of Nature story has assumed, that it is a good idea (at least from some of the participants’ point of view) that they should be true, should we not say something about what it is for them to be true?

    We should say something, but not very much. In particular, we should resist any demand for adefinitionof truth, principally because truth belongs to a ramifying set of connected notions, such as meaning, reference,...

    (pp. 84-122)

    The previous chapter showed that truth has an internal connection with beliefs and assertions. In a sense, truth figures in that connection as a value. Genuinely asking a question, wondering how things stand, I aim at a true answer. Assertions can be assessed for truth, and they would not be assertions if they could not. The assessment of beliefs and assertions as true is a favourable one. These facts involve valuations in terms of truth. In one direction, all this takes us quite a long way in the direction of truth as a value. The situations in which these things...

    (pp. 123-148)

    We left the fictional genealogy, and moved toward real history, in considering what happens under more realistic conditions to the virtue of Sincerity. We must now follow a similar route with the virtue of Accuracy. At the very beginning of the State of Nature story we assumed that the people in the story were capable of reflection; we could not understand them as people, and in particular as having even a minimal virtue of Accuracy, unless they were capable of thinking, to some extent, about what they were doing. However, at the most elementary levels the demands on people’s reflective...

    (pp. 149-171)

    In the two previous chapters we have moved in more than one direction from the State of Nature story into real history. In the case of Sincerity, the main point has been that a disposition to express one’s real beliefs would not be robust enough to perform even the function identified for it in the State of Nature unless it were seen, to some extent, as having an intrinsic value, and it could not be coherently seen as having this value unless it were allied to or expressed some other disposition that had a value. What this disposition was, and...

    (pp. 172-205)

    The invention of historical time in the fifth century B.C. brought about a conception of the past that had not been available earlier. Equally, it was not anticipated in the State of Nature story, though it can be seen, when we look back, as virtually an inevitable extension, given the invention of writing, of ideas that exist universally and are represented in the State of Nature. The invention, with its new conception of what it is to tell the truth about the past, was a new development in the conception of Accuracy.

    In this chapter I turn to another and...

    (pp. 206-232)

    What are the most general relations between truthfulness and politics? Few or negative, the saloon bar cynic will reply, and he has a case. It applies most familiarly to governments’ deceit of the citizens and to candidates’ deceit of the electors, but also when sincerity and authenticity supposedly generate their own politics, as I suggested they do in the case of the politics of identity. Diderot warns us, in effect, that it will be exceptional if the politics of identity can be lived wholeheartedly, without self-deception and without strain; the communitarian self can usually, and often creatively, be subverted by...

    (pp. 233-270)

    When we try to make sense of a particular happening, we often tell a story about a sequence of events that led to it. If we do make sense of it (or explain it, or come to understand it), we must take the elements of the story to be true, but that of course is not enough: the sequence of events has to make sense to us, and make sense of the outcome. Such a story is one kind of narrative. It may be a very short and unambitious narrative, which we can call a “mini-narrative,” a type that comes...

  13. Endnote. The Vocabulary of Truth: An Example
    (pp. 271-278)

    I said at the end of chapter 3 that there was no history of the concept of truth, though there is of course a history of theories of truth, of ways to find out the truth, of ideas about the true nature of the world, and so on. There is also a history—one with which this book has been concerned—of particular conceptions associated with the virtues of truth. I have tried to explain how there have been various conceptions of Accuracy and of Sincerity, and how it is that conceptions which differ from one another can nevertheless be...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 279-308)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 309-320)
  16. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 321-322)
  17. Index
    (pp. 323-328)