Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Truth: A Guide by Simon Blackburn

An interesting exploration of different notions of truth while presenting an argument for the continued usage of words like “truth,” “reason,” and “objectivity.”
Blackburn writes with wit and knowledge, discussing truthy issues and interpretations from Socrates and Plato to Bacon and Nietzsche, all the way up to Rorty and others.
Structurally, the style didn’t quite work for me. While I appreciated the discussion, I would have preferred more of a text-book layout. The book has the information within, but it was not displayed as accessibly as I would have hoped. It could also be that the subject is a bloody complicated one, what with trying to understand and remember the differences between realism, quietism, minimalism, eliminativism, real realism, constructivism… so what did I expect?

The book was useful in that it reinforced the notion that we can never compare our perception of the world to how it actually is. I did not believe this anyway, but I appreciated the discussion. In fact, of course, the notion that the world is ‘actually’ a certain way is part of the issue (i.e., actually to whom? To what?). I do tend to think there is an objective reality that is differentially experience subjectively and I was not dissuaded from this view after reading Truth. Yet, the book was useful in helping me understand various nuances and appreciate the perspectives of others – Blackburn was often excellently balanced in his treatment of others.

I enjoyed chapter 6 (Observation and Truth: from Locke to Rorty) the most. As it provided such a useful overview of truth concepts, it probably should have occurred earlier on in the book. Chapter 4’s examination of Nietzsche’s thoughts on truth was interesting but as I’ve only read two of his works and was not impressed by either, I didn’t really have the competence to evaluate Blackburn’s arguments. (Once again, it was affirmed that I seem to only like Nietzsche secondarily, when others describe his thoughts and impact.)

I did tend to dislike how Blackburn would so casually state that to see if something is true just go check the facts. For example, is Toronto South of Ottawa? This can be known by checking the fact of whether Toronto is indeed South of Ottawa. That’s all well and good, but some ‘facts’ are far thornier than others. Blackburn did validate the scientific method and the idea of certain descriptions of reality (maps) would be better than others (maps that don’t list where the cliffs are), yet I wanted a little more.

Additionally, Blackburn repeatedly presents the idea that there isn’t a difference between ‘p’ and ‘I believe that p.’ More explicitly, saying ‘the world is round’ and saying ‘I believe that the world is round’ is the same thing. While I understand why he supports this, I think he should have more forcefully acknowledged why they aren’t actually the same – reasons such as tactics or expressing degrees of certainty come to mind. When humans converse, they often appreciate when their discussion partners say things like ‘In my opinion,’ or ‘To me,’ even though it makes one wonder if every other time when the preface isn’t used the person is speaking plagiaristically or ‘to someone else.’ That is the tactical aspect. Similarly, but often differently, a speaker wants to acknowledge the provisional nature of their beliefs and explicitly stating that their beliefs are in fact beliefs and they know this, is one way to attempt to achieve such understanding.

Upon reflection, I probably wanted a neutral examination of the issue of truth, as much as possible, and the most popular perspectives among different groups of philosophers. This would include or be followed up by the main arguments for a particular position and then, one hopes, Blackburn would present his argument for a particular interpretation. Truth: A Guide probably did this, but not in the linear fashion I was seeking.

Still, recommended for those interested in the topic; if only to help them realize the divergence of views regarding truth among the necessary unity of such views so we can function in the world.


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