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The sceptic cannot live by his philosophical beliefs
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?