The Magazine

Truth Will Out

The honest philosophy of Bernard Williams.

Apr 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 29 • By THOMAS HIBBS
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Truth and Truthfulness

An Essay in Genealogy

by Bernard Williams

Princeton University Press, 336 pp., $27.95

WHAT DOES IT SAY about the state of the humanities, or the prospects for the intelligent defense of democracy, that leading academics in philosophy, history, and literature have for years now embraced the denial of truth as if it were the culminating stage in humanity's liberation from tyranny? Nothing good, thinks the prominent British analytic philosopher, Bernard Williams. In "Truth and Truthfulness," Williams takes direct aim at the insouciant skepticism found in the "café politics" practiced by the "Secret Agents of literature departments."

Lambasting academia for its postmodern eschewal of truth is nothing new. In some conservative circles, it is the one sport that never goes out of season. What remain in short supply, however, are compelling and philosophically rigorous accounts of truth, its nature, function, and importance in human life. In "Truth and Truthfulness," Williams intends to supply just such an account.

Although his investigation of truth has implications for the whole of human life, especially for the role of truth in liberal democracy, it returns repeatedly to the crisis of truth in the humanities. Williams is particularly impatient with those historical revisionists who want to dump truth along with what they call "patriarchal" history. To be taken seriously, arguments on behalf of revising our understanding of history must be seen as making claims to truth. He laments those who, instead of making truth-claims, "fall back pitifully on minority status." The denial of truth breeds irresponsibility and mediocrity in scholars, who are tempted to celebrate not so much truthful speech and accuracy in research and argument, as performance, cheering those who "saunter off with the smug nod that registers a deconstructive job neatly done."

All of this is welcome, but it remains quite odd that Bernard Williams would be the philosopher to come to the defense of truth. Throughout his career, he has himself been a great denier and destroyer of inflated philosophical theories, a practitioner, in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre, of philosophy as "guerrilla warfare." For many years Britain's leading moral philosopher, Williams has devoted himself with a certain gusto to the demolition of systems built by proponents of the two great modern moral systems, Kantianism and utilitarianism. Williams is a political liberal, but he nonetheless has distaste for liberal myths, including John Rawls's great project of justifying liberal society. Consistently dismissive of religion as a slowly but surely dying anachronism, Williams once compared Rawls's wager on behalf of liberalism unfavorably to Pascal's wager on the existence of God.

What's more, Williams's criticisms of neo-Kantians like Rawls are exceeded only by his pithy assaults on contemporary utilitarians, whose methods wreak havoc with the sort of moral reflection conducted by ordinary human beings. Utilitarians are resourceful in rejecting the morally repugnant consequences that seem to flow from their insistence upon the maximization of happiness, pleasure, or whatever they deem the highest good. So they reject the idea that maximization could ever require the murder of the innocent for the sake of quelling domestic unrest or a preference for utter strangers over beloved relatives. Take the hypothetical case where one must choose to save either a renowned pianist or one's ungifted child from a burning building. The tortured reasoning of the utilitarians for saving one's child provides the parent with "one thought too many," Williams wryly observes. Anyone who adverts to utilitarian calculation before saving his child is someone we would already find morally reprehensible.

WILLIAMS IS, in fact, the great anti-theorist and anti-rationalist of our time. As befits a critic, his preferred genre is the terse philosophical essay, the most representative of which are found in "Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980." His discussions of moral luck spawned the career of Martha Nussbaum, the insight for whose first big book, "The Fragility of Goodness," came directly from Williams. His few and restrained essays on moral dilemmas have given birth to an unfortunate industry in what is now a philosophical sub-specialty.