Simon Blackburn is a Professor at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Truth: A Guide, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Think, and Being Good, among many other books. Today he weighs in on truth and truthiness, a subject he knows much about since writing his own book on “Truth.” Truth: A Guide offers a penetrating look at the definition of truth using the guidance of history’s most brilliant minds.
There never seems to be the right time to write a book. No sooner had my book on Truth: A Guide
gone to press than new outbreaks of the diseases for which it hoped to be a cure broke out all over the world. The new Pope, on the eve of his election, started fulminating about relativism and the world going to the dogs through not acknowledging the sovereignty of the Roman Catholic Church. And then the White House started sneering at the “reality based community” as the washed-up historical relics of a vanished age. And we have their apparent alternative, ‘truthiness’ introduced by comedian Stephen Colbert. According to Wikipedia this is ‘the quality by which a person claims to know something intuitively, instinctively, or “from the gut” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or actual facts’.
This is certainly bad and certainly a phenomenon of our times. I think Colbert had bigger game in his sights however: truthiness is also something more akin to what a philosopher might call constructivism, or the sense that we are somehow in control of what the facts are, that they can be not only spun but actually constructed in accordance with our own agendas. Other people might call this lunacy, and certainly its more flamboyant appearances, for instance in Bush and Blair, seem very close to that.
Thinking that authority comes from the gut is not quite the same as thinking that reality is at the behest of our own construction. The one vice is something like superstition or credulity. It can go along with knowing that there is a truth out there, it just supposes that the subject can divine what it is by consulting his or her gut feelings. Sometimes that describes something that might happen: what people call their gut feelings may be reliable emotional indicators of things they have latched onto. A gut feeling that the salesman is lying to you might be a valuable indicator that he is indeed lying. Unfortunately a gut feeling that the war in Iraq is going well is not a valuable indicator of success. Evolution may have grown us to be quick and good at reacting to face-to-face cues of deception. But it hasn’t grown us to be good at knowing what is going on half way across the world, not without help.
Thinking that the world is our own construction is rather different and more alarming. I suppose the politician who is not actually a lunatic, if such there be, may really hold only that political reality is our own construction, or in other words there is no final word about the history of events, and hence that he is jolly well going to make sure that the history is told his way. When Blair rabbits on about his “legacy” the concern he voices is nicely ambiguous. Is he concerned about the actual consequences of his doings – thousands dead, a dangerous Europe, recruitment to terrorist causes exponentially up ¬– or is he concerned with how the events are told: brave statesman, resolute enterprise, bold initiatives, wise counsels? I have no idea, and I suspect he doesn’t either.
Constructions, fictions, models, often have a place in our attempts to make sense of the world. One task for the philosopher is to keep them in their right cages; to make sure they don’t spill out where they have no business. Not easy. Help welcome.