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Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed [Hardcover]

Simon Blackburn
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

26 May 2005
Truth: A Guide will be an essential sure-footed companion through the territory - a study of truth, and the enemies of truth, and the wars that have been fought between them, from classical to modern times. It will look at relativism and absolutism, toleration and belief, objectivity and knowledge, science and pseudo-science, and explore the moral and political implications, as well as the nuances, of these concepts in the struggle to determine what we mean by 'the truth'.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane; First Edition edition (26 May 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0713997184
  • ISBN-13: 978-0713997187
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 13.4 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,175,534 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Blackburn's lively new book 'Truth: A Guide' will challenge and surprise you.... The great achievement of 'Truth' is to encapsulate the major lines of argument on this intractable question within the covers of a book you can read in a day or two. His chapter on Nietzsche, the fountainhead of modern philosophy and the patron saint of relativism, is worth the price of admission by itself. (Andrew O'Hehir,

Admirably sketching the battle lines currently staked out over the idea of objective truth, [Blackburn] makes his subject lively and accessible even as he parts some of its deepest waters.... Blackburn considers truth 'the most exciting and engaging issue in the whole of philosophy,' and, with wit and erudition, he succeeds in proving that point. (Publishers Weekly)

Fluid, highly literate, and deeply informed.... Highly recommended for academic philosophy and literature collections. (Library Journal)

The pleasure of reading this beautifully written and crafted book is almost sensual, so complete does each sentence seem in its witty unfolding. Blackburn takes up the knottiest philosophical issues (truth, justice, belief, evidence, interpretation)

Gently leads the reader on a guided tour of one simple question (whether there is a universally applicable set of data that can be called capital-T 'Truth')

If you're annoyed, even incensed, at the relativism and ironic nihilism of the youth (or their free-thinking professors), and you're looking for a vicarious voice to denounce the abject postmodern menace and stand up for Western rationalism, this could be the book for you. (Barry Allen, The Globe and Mail)

Between the Scylla of relativism and the Charybdis of absolutism, Simon Blackburn does not merely navigate, but pleasure-sails, visiting and appreciating each. Whether you are appalled by postmodernism, incensed by smug scientism, or simply 'perplexed,' you'll find Blackburn's 'guide' edifying. Learn here what truth is, why it is so elusive, and what hope there is for human knowledge. (Louise Antony, Professor of Philosophy, The Ohio State University) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Simon Blackburn is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and one of the most widely respected philosophers of our time. He is the author of many influential books, including the best-selling Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (1994), Think (1999) and Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics (2001). He edited the prestigious philosophy journal MIND from 1984 to 1990. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a frequent contributor to New Republic, and to discussion programmes on Radio 4 in the UK, and reviews for The Independent and The Sunday Times.

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First Sentence
In the Introduction I mentioned that for classical sceptics, a dearth of arguments, or a clash of countervailing arguments, led to peaceful suspension of belief, whereas in our own times it is seen more as a licence for people to believe what they like. Read the first page
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Only what is true explains what happens 2 April 2009
By Sphex
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Alone it stands, assailed on all sides by priests and postmodernists and prophets and pseudoscientists and practitioners of public relations, how are we ever going to approach a word like "truth" in its solitary majesty? With a philosopher like Simon Blackburn at your side, and with this brilliant book in your hand. The difference between him and them is the degree of commitment to reason, the degree to which obfuscation is avoided and the temptation to hide behind jargon is resisted. Blackburn could easily dazzle most of us with technical arguments, but he wants to clarify, not mystify, and he succeeds. This book is about a "war of ideas and attitudes... not only between different people, but grumbling within the breast of each individual": today, are we a believer, a sceptic, a cynic, a rationalist, an absolutist, a relativist? And tomorrow? Many of us will sensibly shrug off such labels, but we should not and we do not shrug off questions about truth: it matters if "politicians claim that some country has weapons of mass destruction when they know that it does not, or if NASA says that a shuttle is safe" when it is not.

Chapter 1 - "Faith, Belief and Reason" - draws in three more similarly abused and important terms. While this might seem to be multiplying our difficulties before we have begun, these are all connected and their meanings interdependent. People either give reasons for or have faith in the truth of any particular belief. That sounds simple, inclusive and nicely symmetrical, and surely covers all bases. The harmony is an illusion. The absolutist, often of a religious temperament, cannot resist the allure of dogma, while relativism "chips away at our right to disapprove of what anybody says." Both sides bicker over questions of authority.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.9 out of 5 stars  15 reviews
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Is the world a certain way, or can we only see a point of view? 9 Aug 2006
By John Smeltzer - Published on
I had been really thinking about how some people think that the world is a certain way, and how others think that we can only talk about our perspective on it. I had more of the latter perspective, but with a feeling that the former was somehow right too. I couldn't really find a way to reconcile the two except by saying that it's absolutely relative (which seemed more like goofing around than a serious response). I ran across this book serendipitously at the library, and a quick look revealed that the book would be addressing the very issue I had been thinking about. I was a philosophy major so I've been exposed to philosophical writing before. Some reviews before mine allege that he's over analyzing or difficult to read. I think, as far as philosophical writing goes, his writing is fairly accessible. There are good endnotes for follow-up, and he doesn't get too entrenced in specialized language. Someone not familliar with philosophy might have to reference some things (Wikipedia may be a fine place to do so). I think the book is aimed at the non-specialist, and I think it hits the spot. He really does a fine job at explaining where both sides of the issue go wrong, but he's never willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The most common criticism of relativism is self-refutation (i.e. if nothing is true then relativism can't be true either), but even though he's not a relativist he shows how this criticism is too simple. He really does have sympathy for both sides of the issue. I think anyone who takes the time to read this book will come out with a much better understanding of the issues, and will have more interesting things to contribute to their conversations than they did before.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Decent 29 Mar 2007
By R. Albin - Published on
This is an interesting effort to make a general statement of Blackburn's views on epistemology. Aimed at a general audience, Blackburn covers some different aspects of the realist/anti-realist debate including a taxonomy of realist and anti-realist positions and a brief precis of classical skepticism. Blackburn is appropriately skeptical of anti-realism but very cautious about historic realist positions that require strong metaphysical claims. He adopts a position of 'minimalism' which denies strong metaphysical claims but argues that statements carry with them their own criteria of truth. Minimalism turns out to be a surprisingly strong position as the statements that carry their own truth criteria include all of the natural sciences and indeed almost all of routine life. Though this position originates with work of the great logician Frege, it seems almost too good to be true and in Blackburn's relatively simple presentation, a bit of a linguistic trick. Blackburn is better, I think, in his criticism of anti-realist positions. He does a good job of showing the internal contradictions of many attacks on realism. Richard Rorty, in particular, comes in for some pretty stringent (though polite) criticism for attempting to escape some of the logical extensions of his anti-realism by opening a backdoor to what are, de facto, forms of realism. This book has a decent though hardly outstanding bibliography.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Old School", Yet Drives To The Heart 7 July 2006
By Rev. Thomas Scarborough - Published on
At the very heart of this book lies the question of fact and value -- of "is" and "ought". David Hume famously said that it is impossible to derive an "ought" from an "is" (this is called Hume's law).

For instance, one may say that you ARE reading this review -- yet on what rational basis should anyone say that you SHOULD read this review? In fact, on what basis should you do anything at all? To push this yet further, on what basis should courts of law make their decisions - or indeed governments? How does one make the giant leap across the divide, from fact to value? It is a crucial problem, and Blackburn considers it from various angles -- many of them historical.

A secondary question (at least insofar as it does not have the same prominence in the book) is how one may know what in fact "is"? How should one be able to establish the "facts" in the first place?

Generally speaking, Blackburn's writing has explanatory power -- although I did lose the thread at times, particularly where it was assumed that the reader would remember details of the previous chapters. Further than this, what would seem to make the book most worthwhile is Blackburn's ability to think his way into the heart of the problems, and to take one with him. Nor does he veil the real difficulties with premature answers. This has one thinking again and again: "How do we ever get around THIS one?"

In the final analysis, Blackburn is still something of a traditionalist. "We can take the postmodernist inverted commas off things," he concludes. "Truth, reason, objectivity and confidence" are stil very much alive, in spite of some "bewildering" problems. On what basis may we believe this? Blackburn considers: "Once we have an issue to decide, it comes with its own norms." We produce "well mannered animation by whatever is shown to work". This seemed to me not unlike the Polanyian "universal intent" -- the scientific method applied to human action.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Perspectivism Refuted? 10 July 2007
By Thomas Leddy - Published on
Previous reviewers have said many interesting things about this book. But which ones are true? Could Blackburn's theory of truth help us to sort the true interpretations from the false? Blackburn thinks that the idea of perspectivism fails because the metaphor doesn't work: different actual perspectives on the same scene, e.g. the Eiffel Tower, can be combined. But we can always push an analogy too far, or in the wrong direction. A good question would be whether all the interpretations of or perspectives about Blackburn's own book could be combined in the same way that all the visual perspectives on the Eiffel Tower could. I submit that they could not. Each writer in the troop that has preceded me on this Amazon site has his/her own perspective, his/her own vocabulary, and interprets Blackburn in terms of this. There is not even agreement on Blackburn's main point. If Blackburn's theory can't determine which interpretations of his book should be taken to be true, then what good is it? Blackburn is a "scientific realist" who loves to talk about things like tide charts and maps as paradigms of things that are true. Admittedly, a scientific realist theory of truth works particularly well in these areas. But Blackburn's theory of truth is intended to be general, to cover all types of truth, especially the ones that have been the source of much disagreement. Whether a map accurately shows the presence of a cliff is not the kind of question that has ever been hotly contested in the debates between relativists and absolutists. The existence of God is. Blackburn places emphasis on connections between beliefs and causes, noting that "when we write that there is a church on the corner, we take our writing to have been caused by the church..." (171) Yet if we substitute something more philosophically contentious like "When we write that God exists..." we find it doesn't help much to say that we know "God exists" is true because the existence of God causes it to be true or causes us to believe it. Another example of something that has been hotly contested is the nature of truth itself. Blackburn offers his own theory of truth, i.e. that truth is real if accepted in a minimalist way without reference to a first philosophy or underlying foundationalism, and that, contra the postmodernists, we can feel confident in using our traditional vocabulary of explanation and assessment, such as "reason," "objectivity," and "truth," without scare quotes. Other philosophers (including some postmodernists) offer their own theories of truth. Blackburn talks in detail about some of these. I have read many, and my experience each time has been one of entering into a very plausible world in which everything fits together quite nicely. The author's theory always seems, at first, quite superior to the theories of those he/she attacks. Will Blackburn's theory of truth help me to decide between his theory of truth and that of Nietzsche or Rorty. Why should I accept his perspective as superior to theirs? Each is a widely regarded philosopher with an impressive following. Each provides us with strong arguments. Sure, Nietzsche's and Rorty's theories look bad when I am reading Blackburn's account of them. But Blackburn is not a particularly charitable reader, and when I read their actual writings they are at least as impressive as Blackburn himself. In conclusion, I do not see how scientific realism will help to determine which interpretation of Blackburn is the correct one, or which theory of truth is the correct one. By the way, Blackburn does not discuss or even mention Joseph Margolis, who is arguably the leading analytically-trained defender of relativism. See his The Truth About Relativism.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fantastic Foundation for Understanding 15 Sep 2008
By n2suntzu - Published on
The more I read of Simon Blackburn the more I enjoy his work. This book was my initial introduction to the topic of Truth. While I cannot speak to the specifics in the depth of the other reviewers, I can state Blackburn's book is an excellent guide, as stated.

I found his commentary of the various positions regarding truth to be fair and easy to comprehend. Overall, I have come to revisit this book multiple times while writing my dissertation.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in better understanding a widely argued topic.

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Is this the same as "Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed" 0 29 May 2014
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