At the heart of Truth and Truthfulness
lie a number of questions about truth. What does it mean to be truthful? What role does truth play in our lives? What do we lose if we reject truthfulness? Bernard Williams sets out to answer these questions by identifying two prominent and conflicting currents of ideas in modern thought and culture. On the one hand there is the commitment to truthfulness and on the other there is a pervasive suspicion about truth itself. The suspicion amounts to a questioning of the idea that there is such a thing as truth and, if there is, a doubt as to whether it can be more than subjective or relative.
The commitment to the idea of truthfulness on the other hand relates to what Williams calls "the two basic virtues of truth", which he calls Accuracy and Sincerity: "you do the best you can to acquire true beliefs, and what you say reveals what you believe." The tension between truthfulness and truth is, Williams suggests, expressed in a familiar contrast between two different and opposed ways of doing philosophy. Williams highlights the strengths and weaknesses of both positions while giving his own virtuoso philosophical display during the course of the book.
The real problems for the reader begin with the overall explanatory framework. Having differentiated between "truth" and "truthfulness" and between the two different philosophical outlooks Williams states that his main concern throughout is with what "may summarily be called 'the value of truth'". It is with the introduction of this term that the equivocation--between "truth" understood as a philosophical term (the idea of "truth itself") and "truthfulness" understood as a virtue, or set of virtues--begins.
Williams talks as if "truth itself" and the virtue of truthfulness, while conceptually distinct, are somehow all of a piece. It is one thing to say, with Williams, that we (as individuals and as a society) stand to lose a great deal (and "possibly everything") if the virtues of being truthful were discarded throughout western liberal democracies. But it is quite another to say that to stop talking about "truth itself" would mean the end of liberal democracy. In other words it is difficult to share Williams' conviction that something as big and important as the fate of liberal democracy might depend on the resolution of these philosophical disputes.
For all the impressive display of philosophical expertise Williams' way of mapping the present philosophical terrain is not as useful as he might have hoped and the book as a whole requires a good deal of time and sustained concentration to get through to the end. Try reading Rorty's Truth and Progress alongside Williams' Truth and Truthfulness for illuminating contrast effects. --Larry Brown
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Honorable Mention for the 2002 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Philosophy, Association of American Publishers
"[Truth and Truthfulness] shows all Williams's characteristic virtues. He is always a pleasure to read, and as it has often done before, his deft, sparkling intelligence newly illuminates an old philosophical subject, scattering light into many surprising corners as it does so. . . . He is consistently amusing, but at absolutely no cost to the depth of the enterprise. And what a wonderful life it would be if even a small proportion of philosophers could write so well."--Simon Blackburn, Times Literary Supplement
"Its virtuoso blend of analytic philosophy, classical scholarship, historical consciousness, and uninhibited curiosity marks Truth and Truthfulness unmistakably as a work by Bernard Williams. He responds to Rousseau and Diderot; Thucydides, Herodotus, and Homer; Nietzsche, Hume, Plato, and Kant; Rorty, Habermas, and Hayden White."--Thomas Nagel, New Republic
"Anyone who wants to understand the relations between the relatively arcane issues concerning truth debated by philosophy professors, and the larger question of what self-image we human beings should have, would do well to read Williams's new book. It is a major work."--Richard Rorty, London Review of Books
"Many colleagues consider Williams the most influential voice in contemporary moral philosophy. . . . [This book] may well have a noteworthy impact. It is Williams' reflection on the moral cost of the intellectual vogue for dispensing with the concept of truth. . . . The patient reader will enjoy the rare experience of watching philosophical and historical scaffolding installed, or revealed, beneath everyday expectations and practices of honesty, trust, doubt, deceit and wishful thinking."--Kenneth Baker, The San Francisco Chronicle
"A model of clarity and discernment."--Library Journal
"[A] brilliant and disturbing book. . . . This is a fascinating and riveting work, and it shows, in a way which no other recent work of philosophy has done, that the subject can be both important and comprehensible--and that is a very considerable achievement indeed."--Alasdair Palmer, Sunday Telegraph
"The book is never dull or nerdy. It is suffused by a sly Oxonian humor and a keen feeling for pleasures and philosophical argument. . . . Yet this playfulness does not detract from its underlying seriousness of purpose: this is a defense of the value of truth against those modern skeptics who deny its existence. . . . [I]t offers the rare pleasure of a first-rate philosophical mind at work."--Edward Skidelsky, New Statesmen
"A new book by Bernard Williams is a big event, and it is not difficult to see why. He writes on important and fundamental issues that are of interest not only to philosophers but also to anyone who wants to understand contemporary culture and society. . . . And above all, he writes with the kind of eloquence, elegance and wit that used to characterize the work of our greatest minds but that has now all but disappeared from academic life. What he writes, people want to read, and what he says, people want to hear."--Ray Monk, Times Higher Education Supplement
"Deftly, and with a certain relish, [Williams] explores the barefaced lying and the many subtler forms of deception and self-deception we practice. . . . The array of arguments he marshals to cast light on the problem leaves little doubt: If you wish to develop your talents, earn the love of another, or pursue justice, then cultivate the virtues of truth."--Peter Berkowitz, Washington Post Book World
"Truth and Truthfulness
is the book which has meant the most to me this year. . . . This vigorous, crystalline book is an intellectual landmark."--Richard Sennett, Times Literary Supplement
"Truth and Truthfulness
is an ambitious work, and its journeys into history give it a breadth unusual in these days of increased academic specialization. . . . William's book combines real history and fictional constructs to tell a revealing story that makes us reconsider the meaning of familiar concepts."--Julian Baggini, The Philosophers' Magazine
"Elegance and subtlety are the hallmarks of Bernard Williams's philosophical style, both in the quality of his thought and the manner of his prose. His contributions have enriched philosophical debate for decades, and as this absorbing book about the truth and the vocations of truth shows, they continue to do so. . . . Williams's careful, eloquent and searching analysis . . . makes a valuable contribution to philosophy."--A. C. Grayling, Literary Review
"Bernard Williams has been a distinctive presence on the intellectual scene for more than three decades. . . . His writings do not offer the dubious exhilaration of grand philosophical theory, in which messy reality is tamed and caged, but the thrill of seeing pretension punctured by a kind of high-voltage common sense (backed up by impressive erudition). . . . There is no one in philosophy quite like him."--Colin McGinn, New York Review of Books
"Williams observes that unsettling questions about truth have been on the table at least since Nietzsche. . . . Truth and Truthfulness
addresses these questions in a clear and cogent . . . manner."--Thomas Hibbs, The Weekly Standard
"Elegance and subtlety are the hallmarks of Bernard Williams's philosophical style, both in the quality of his thought and the manner of his prose. His contributions have enriched philosophical debate for decades, and as this absorbing book about truth and the vocations of truth shows, they continue to do so. . . . [E]ven those who disagree with aspects of Williams's careful, eloquent and searching analysis will acknowledge that it makes a valuable contribution to philosophy."--Literary Review
"If philosophers ever became kings, they would all be like Mr. Williams. His books were clear, funny, dramatic and readable, like great novels. . . . His final book, Truth and Truthfulness
, has come along at exactly the right moment. It both describes our current crisis of truth and offers hope for a resolution."--Doug Saunders, Toronto Globe and Mail
"Bernard Williams' last book is the most interesting set of reflections on the values of truth and truth-telling in living memory. His grasp of philosophical arguments is astonishing. . . . The book manages to be both learned and passionate without being pretentious. And of course witty; . . . Williams' analytic expertise is combined with an acute sensibility to historical facts, or claims to fact, about the history of practices of telling the truth about the past, or about oneself. He writes about what Western civilisations do and have done in trying to find out and to tell the truth. The book presents what are argued to be human universals about the values of truth, as opposed to the historical circumstances in which particular ways of finding out come into being."--Ian Hacking, Canadian Journal of Philosophy