Truth: A Guide

  • Simon Blackburn
  • Mar 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Simon Blackburn, Truth: A Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 238 pages. $25.00. ISBN 0-195-16824-0.

Simon Blackburn’s recent philosophical writing includes several texts aimed at a wider audience seeking an entry into philosophy. Truth: a Guide does not follow the mode of recent books in this genre, however, since it lacks references to “Seinfeld” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Instead, Blackburn’s exploration of the topic demands careful attention and only infrequently relies on flashpoints of popular culture. He challenges his reader by introducing a technical vocabulary associated with the concept of truth, and by establishing this vocabulary through an examination of the idea in the history of philosophy. These combined approaches acquaint the reader with the abstract concept of truth, while providing intellectual and historical location for what Blackburn terms the “truth wars.”

This war rages between what Blackburn identifies as absolutist and relativist camps. The absolutist view of truth holds that there are mind-independent facts (truth-makers) that confirm or deny the content of a proposition p. The absolutist believes “there to be a stamp of truth, independent of us, and independent of our wishes, emotions and desires” (27). True propositions have authority, since true propositions are the instruments through which one gains knowledge about the world. The relativist doctrine advances the idea that individual feelings and desires are the gauge of truth. There are no universal norms or standards against which our propositions, ideas, or values might be measured. The sole measure is the individual human and his or her basic desires. The relativist holds that truth has only particular authority, extending only to the individual, and that this is based on her attitude or desires. The casual observer will notice the unflinching, dogged persistence that either camp displays, for the battle appears to be at an impasse. She should be disgusted and seek a way through the dilemma to a “truce” for truth.

According to Blackburn, both the absolutist and the relativist have made a kind of category mistake when it comes to truth; they are guilty of a shared misunderstanding about the nature of truth. The dispute over authority – which mobilizes the absolutist against the relativist – is, thus, energy misdirected. The “truce” Blackburn proposes comes in the form of a minimalist view of truth. This view recommends, “you tell me what the issue is, and I will tell you what the truth about the issue consists in” (60). The minimalist view suggests capital-T Truth be replaced with truth-for p, where p is any pressing matter. This limits the scope of truth, not to a grand story or individually pursued ends, but rather to a particular issue or proposition. Man is the measurer of all things, judging “truth” according to those propositions that become issues from time to time.

Blackburn contends that in real conversation, “we do not raise the temperature by talking of truth” (58). Rather, one simply agrees with a proposition, disagrees with it, or suspends judgment. For example, the statement, “the price of petrol is rising,” requires little more than simple agreement or disagreement. To posit “true” as a quality of this proposition is to attach extra baggage to the exchange. As Blackburn says, “Our only problem is set by what we say” (58).

The minimalist view is advanced as a satisfactory alternative because it avoids the complications involved in reflecting on ordinary statements. This second-order reflection is the source of difficulty between the absolutist and the relativist. A further feature of this view is its empirical value, analyzing particular claims qua particular claims and not as examples of more general or theoretical ideas. The implication is that minimalism makes truth available to everyone. If one can easily identify the problem in the proposition (i.e., “the price of petrol is rising,”), then one knows enough to know the truth for oneself.

If, therefore, truth only depends on the propositions one utters, the question becomes the discursive value of propositions: “What kind of work do propositions do?” Blackburn’s answer involves identifying four possibilities for how our propositions function, but only two are live options. The realist position holds that commitments correspond to a mind-independent reality, he identifies as Story. Story says propositions describe the world, represent facts, are made true or false with respect to the world, are discovered and not created, and have ontological and metaphysical natures. The realist depends on a Meta-Story to restrict discourse. Meta-Story maintains that Story is the only and best view of propositions and their content. On the realist view, the proposition “the price of petrol is rising” is true because it reflects an independent state of affairs about petrol and its price. Further, the realist says that this is the only and best method for interpreting the proposition.

Blackburn rejects Meta-Story because he believes the function of propositions is more than simply describing reality. They are, among other things, “‘models’ of reality, or useful fictions” (125). The second position, identified as a constructivist position, sees language as a tool, and maintains that any of the above portions of Story can be part of discourse, but are really empty terms because the aspects of Story add nothing to proposition p. Siding with the constructivist, Blackburn proposes “quasi-realism” as the solution to the problem of propositions. The quasi-realist “differs from the realist not by avoiding these terms, but by denying that they are the ones that give the needed theory of our thought” (128). For the quasi-realist, “the price of petrol is rising” says (and means) only “the price of petrol is rising.”

This, however, is little more than disguised anti- realism. When applied to propositions, anti-realism contends that meaning emerges only in reference to the situation that gave rise to the proposition in the first place. On Blackburn’s analysis, the meaning of proposition p is bound to and limited by the situation that occasioned the utterance.

While this anti-realist view on “everyday discourse” (i.e., statements about the weather or the price of gas) seems appealing, weightier things – like ethical claims – become untenable. The ethical claim “killing is wrong,” only means that killing is wrong if it is an issue for someone at a given time. On the anti-realist analysis, the situation determines the content of the proposition “killing is wrong.” It is, for Blackburn, this minimalist view plus the vigor with which one defends the right to make a claim about p that “defines the philosophical options” (128).

In the final analysis, Blackburn’s view does a kind of “end-around” maneuver, avoiding the significant issues involved in the debate about truth. It is unclear how Blackburn’s minimalist view of truth and his rejection of realism and correspondence prevent his analysis from being labeled “relativism.” It is also uncertain how Blackburn’s proposal would be satisfying to the reader, for anyone interested in making strong ethical claims, or maintaining a consistent worldview, will want the content of propositions in these areas to have more than situational force. In the end, Blackburn does not really solve the problem at the root of the truth-wars. Truth: A Guide simply manages to avoid the issue and discount the nature of the debate.

Rebecca Vartabedian
Denver Seminary