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on 31 March 2009
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. Blackburn's opening sentences hold out the promise of finding a way through this maze: "There are real standards... We must not believe that anything goes."

Indeed, we "have a duty to believe carefully, in the light of reason alone" as the following story illustrates. A shipowner who acquires "a sincere and comfortable conviction" that his vessel is thoroughly safe and seaworthy, and who ignores any doubts to the contrary, is putting his trust in a higher power and putting his passengers at risk when he allows the vessel to sail. His belief in the safety of his ship has not been earned "in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts."

This is from the essay "The Ethics of Belief" by William Clifford, who argues that it is always morally wrong to take an intellectual shortcut and believe on faith alone. Blackburn agrees. Someone "sitting on a completely unreasonable belief is sitting on a time bomb. The apparently harmless, idiosyncratic belief of the Catholic Church that one thing may have the substance of another" (transubstantiation, a process still believed to fuel the Eucharist) "although it displays absolutely none of its empirical qualities, prepares people for the view that some people are agents of Satan in disguise, which in turn makes it reasonable to destroy them." Lack of faith is not a deficiency, and a refusal "to believe something is not a kind of faith." I would argue in addition that a lifetime of exposure to such false beliefs corrodes our powers of critical thought. How else to explain Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's recent assertion that secularists are not "fully human"?

"Making ourselves gullible or credulous, we lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them" and risk "sinking back into savagery". Children, who are naturally open to all sorts of beliefs and have their lives before them, must therefore be protected from their own credulity just as we protect them from running into the road. An important first step is to recognize that children "are born human beings, but nothing else."

Blackburn has a wonderful way of bringing a discussion about truth down to earth and can write the kind of sentence you're unlikely to find elsewhere: "we do not have to resort to dark forces to explain my status as an announcer of butter". He believes there is butter in the fridge because he has opened the door and seen it. What's more, since the age of around four, when we ceased to be self-centred realists, we have all known that it is possible for others to hold a false belief about there being butter in the fridge - if we have eaten it and not owned up! This appreciation of truth is not metaphysical speculation but an ordinary part of being a functioning human being. No one is "born a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Jew" but we are all born with the potential to work out what is true and what is not true without recourse to supposed higher powers. A just and humane society must nurture and not extinguish such potential.
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on 30 January 2016
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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on 31 March 2010
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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on 4 November 2009
Lucid, thought provoking treatise. A good start for those seeking truth, rather than those who have their 'truths' provided for them by some form of superstition.
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on 19 June 2016
Excellent book - leads you through an enquiry that will really make you think.
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on 26 February 2009
Simon Blackburn's 'Truth'.
Who are the intended readers? The general public, or philosophical specialists? In his preface, Blackburn only says: "[This book] is therefore something of a guide for the perplexed (p. ix)." But where are the perplexed guided to? Does the book merely show that the perplexed are right to be perplexed, and clarify the ways in which they are justifiably perplexed, or are they guided out of their perplexity into a region of philosophical clarity? None of this emerges clearly.

What is the main thrust of the book? In his Introduction (p. xx) Blackburn signals the contrast between the absolutists and the relativists, and says that this issue is `arguably the most exciting and engaging issue in the whole of philosophy". In his concluding remarks, Blackburn hopes that `Peace Breaks Out' between the absolutists and the relativists - let us tolerate our irreconcilable differences.

In between, what emerges constantly is that the anti-realists, the anti-moralists, the sceptics, the relativists, cannot live by their beliefs. Life is impossible unless the sceptic/relativist says, "Well, I don't think there is a table and a glass, or that the glass is on the table, but I will have to act as if these things are really so; and I don't believe in morality, in right and wrong, but I must live (and hope that everyone else lives) as if there is morality, and as if life is governed by ideas of right and wrong."

My own hope is greater. When the University of Chicago in the 1950s published a series of 54 books called the Great Books of the Western World, one commentator said that "Chicago quickly gained a reputation as an `eccentric' place, `where they talked about Plato and Aristotle and [St Thomas] Aquinas day and night' ". Blackburn talks about Plato quite a lot, and mentions Aristotle once and Aquinas not at all.

Real hope for the future of philosophy must begin with a return to common sense, to Aristotle and Aquinas.

Several factors affect the usefulness of the book.

(i) The Index is very poor, though a good index is needed. Very many occurrences of topics discussed and authors referred to in the text are simply omitted even when there is a main index entry for the subject.

(ii) Furthermore, many topics fleetingly (or sometimes even frequently) mentioned in the text fail to have any index entry, and many other topics which I would have considered essential to a discussion of Truth are never mentioned in the text at all. Some such un-indexed or un-treated topics/names are Catholic Church, common sense, empiricism, epistemology, free will, intellect, logic, metaphysics, morality, natural law, norms, pragmatism, probability, senses, story, theist, Thomas Aquinas.

(iii) This exposes a serious weakness in the structure of the book. The topic of Truth is brought into discussion without its being defined or having the ground adequately prepared. There is no discussion of the five senses or the intellect. `Adaequatio mentis et rei', the correspondence between what is in the mind and what is external to it but activates it, is never discussed. Are there not essential physiological and mental foundations for mental realities, for thinking, and therefore for truth and for philosophizing? The author owes us a formal discussion of these topics, especially Epistemology and Logic. Casual references to these topics when dealing with other topics do not suffice.

(iv) This book really needs an extended glossary of the philosophical ideas/terminology introduced in the text, and of many others too that are not in the text but which underlie the discussions, as stressed in my comments on the Index.

(v) Furthermore, and essentially, Truth must be about something more than abstract discussions about whether there is a glass on the table or not. If philosophy, and specifically the study of Truth, goes no further than that, then what is the point of it? It is one huge waste of time. Philosophy must have its techniques, but it must also have worthwhile objects on which to exercise its techniques. Blackburn's book should more fully discuss these objects (whether material or intellectual, political or cultural or religious or whatever), the study of which is the only purpose of bothering at all with the techniques.

What and whence are the universe and our earth, what and whence are we, whither are we, why are we, how do we (how must we?) structure our private and our group lives, is there morality, what is morality's framework, how and why do we think, and appreciate truth and beauty and love, do science, do scholarship, philosophize; is there an Absolute Other (not merely 'other' humans with different views from our own), a Creator God, out there? (It is petty of Blackburn,on page 8 - with similar treatment elsewhere too - to link the "belief that the world is the product of an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing intelligence" with "astrology [and] homeopathy", all considered equally rubbishable.)

A lot of the philosophizing described in this book seems to be meaningless word-play. The big names of the past two centuries invariably contradict one another and regularly deride their own earlier work. What worthwhile vision or subject matter emerge?

Wittgenstein says that his ideas are meaningless. One Google entry on A J Ayer says: "His Language, Truth and Logic ... made rather radical charges against philosophy itself, such as asserting that metaphysics was simply nonsense, that questions of value were nonexistent and that philosophers should concern themselves almost solely with language. ... In fairness ... Ayer himself realized many of the shortcomings of Language Truth and Logic. ... Then again, to declare oneself an out-and-out supporter of Ayer is to be left with such an emaciated version of 'philosophy' that it shouldn't be too difficult to become an expert in it."

And Nietzsche? Heidegger? Derrida? Sartre? What and where have they left us?
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on 17 December 2012
Takes you through the ancient and modern philosophical attempts to nail down truth, discusses the merits and flaws as you move through the centuries and suggests the most reasonable positions. If you thought truth was obvious - it's time to think again!
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