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Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed Paperback – 25 May 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (25 May 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141014253
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141014258
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 226,806 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Review

"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, Salon.com"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"Gently leads the reader on a guided tour of one s

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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The sub-title of this book is of course borrowed from the 12thc. Rabbinical Philosopher, Moses Maimomides, but the irony in Blackburn’s use of it, is that we face a truth that the truth is no longer believed to be simple – as some would have us believe. In the Introduction he says: ‘I try to write with the creed that we need to think and to reflect, if we are to be in control of our words and ideas rather than be controlled by them. In this case that means we should not be slaves to simple relativisms or equally simplistic absolutisms. And whatever way our temperaments pull us, we should at least know where we are, and what there is to be said on the other side.’

This conflict between an absolutist perspective and a relativistic perspective is first found in the dialogues of Plato. In one sense these perspectives are spectrums of opinion, and what Blackburn calls the simplistic end, I would call the most assertive, so for example a fundamentalist approach which requires the establishment of an interpretive authority which determines its own prerogative to assert that the truth is the most literal interpretation – which not only excludes any other interpretation and any other self-appointed body that claims its own prerogative is seen as heretical. Equally, the relativistic extreme is a distortion of the recognition that people may have their own opinions, in so far as those opinions are seen as ‘truth’ and that each individual has a prerogative to proclaim them as such. So where can there be any certainty, and while those politicians who have lied to us, have to live with their lie – for which of course you need a really thick skin, the rest of us have to live with the consequences of the lie that were never considered.
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Format: Paperback
I found Blackburn's Truth to be an unnecessarily difficult read. Of course, the subject he battles with is a complex one. Yet he seems to take us down a winding road, which leaves you wondering where you are, labouring some ideas and rapidly introducing others. It would massively benefit from some kind of glossary and other ways to clarify the field. Perhaps this one is over my head, but I wish Blackburn had made this slightly more navigable because it's such an interesting concept (if truth is a concept at all!).
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An engagingly-written guide to the battle between realists and relativists that has raged since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Blackburn's mission is to remove the "sneer quotes" placed around "truth" by relativists and pragmatists, whilst admitting the flaws in the realist position. The quest for truth, he believes, is a worthwhile one: even if we cannot prove that our truth corresponds to the world out there, we can say that the quest for it gives us answers that work.
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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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I enjoyed Simon Blackburn's book. 'Truth' is a concept which has being under attack for ever. On the one hand the religious dogmatists want to claim it for their own, raise it up above its homely ordinary use and beat people over the head with it, and on the other 'postmodernists' and relativists want to say it no longer does any real work, expose it as a folk myth and smile at the naïveté of those who desperately wish to retain its prestige.

Of course these are caricatures but they represent extreme poles in the controversy. Blackburn does a pretty good job of debunking the religionists pretentions and not a bad job of knocking the postmodernists (mainly Rorty). Truth really is as simple as we thought it was and, yes, it is still worth a lot. On the way Blackburn gives us a fair summary of Hume, Nietzsche and Davidson (all worth knowing well).

Well worth a read, especially if you are interested in the idea of truth - as I am - but even if you are just interested in philosophical controversy.
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