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I read Simon Blackburn’s book On Truth, and wrote a review of it. Check it out.
A Review of Simon Blackburn’s On Truth
There are many ways in which I get to enjoy philosophy in my daily life. There are plenty of books to read, books from the history of philosophy and on the history of philosophy, contemporary texts to dive into, etc. I am always intrigued at what exists out there, and I enjoy philosophy podcasts, such as The Partially Examined Life and Philosophize This. There are many ways in which I get to enjoy philosophy, and that is wonderful.
The Partially Examined Life was how I learned about Simon Blackburn’s new book, On Truth. Blackburn himself considered this a brief essay, but as I was reading it, I realized that it was a little bit more complicated than just an essay.
I have read Blackburn before, including his highly technical book, Essays in Quasi-Realism. He is an interesting contemporary philosopher, and I find his perspective refreshing. I especially felt this with his new book. On Truth delivers compelling arguments about how we find truth for ourselves, by touring through four theories of truth itself, including the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, pragmatism, and deflationism.
The book isn’t as technical as some of Blackburn’s other books, and this made the philosophy more interesting in my opinion. While I have been influenced by some of the technical aspects of Blackburn’s work, I felt as though this new book was a more conversational book, while also possessing the prowess of the philosopher.
Truth is an important thing to talk about. Blackburn starts by thinking about what happened in the 2016 election, and how actual truth was not an important theme, and it seemed that people are willing to believe whatever they wanted. He critiques the postmodern tradition of questioning truth with a kind of highly intense skepticism and nominalism, with postmodernism being more fashionable rather than actually useful or truthful. As I was reading the opening of this book, I felt comforted by the idea that these themes of the postmodernists were working with and that we are experiencing in our modern times, have always been with us in some ways, even if we aren’t aware of it. Blackburn remarks that indeed, we have always had people lie, we aren’t really in a post-truth era, because there are many people who do not tell the truth throughout history.
But the book continues, by going through the various theories of truth. There are problems with each theory, we find, even with the one that Blackburn himself seems to settle on, the deflationary perspective of truth, or minimalism. It seems that minimalism is the best theory, because pragmatism ultimately still believes unproven claims, specifically regarding religion, while correspondence and coherence theories don’t seem to deliver the goods, so to speak, and are somewhat incomplete in their approach. Minimalism, then, seems to be the best theory, because it doesn’t presume too much. With minimalism, the notion of truth isn’t necessarily truth with the capital T. Highlighting Frege, Blackburn focuses on the idea of a statement being true because it has been stated as being true. Perhaps the theory is a little bit redundant, but Blackburn answers some of these issues, and we are left with an interesting analysis of deflationary theory.
I for one, can imagine this specific perspective, as perhaps seeming redundant at first, but then proving to be useful upon further exploration. Especially the notion of not necessarily highlighting truth in such an abstract and grand way, but rather, thinking about truth as consisting of statements that are useful to us.
I myself have always thought that correspondence theory or coherence theory make a lot of sense, but it was interesting to read the critiques of these points nonetheless. I especially like coherence theory because Hegel helped create the theory, as Blackburn points out, and even though there are certain problems with the philosophy of Hegel, I at least find it useful for thinking about things like coherence. I don’t necessarily agree with all of these claims, but I find them to be important critiques against certain notions of truth, with Blackburn clearly searching for accuracy in the way of looking at the world that is going to produce results. For Blackburn, minimalism does that, and despite some of the potential issues and errors, it seems to work the best because of its simplicity and elegance.
Blackburn continues through discussions of aesthetics and ethics. As anyone who tries to assert their ethics and morality will know, essentially, anything is possible and because there is no God, everything is permitted. Just as, anyone who is an artist will know that their work is dependent on the subjective whims and opinions of the people around them.
Or, is it that simple? Blackburn argues that it isn’t, that there is more to the truth of ethics and aesthetics than mere subjectivist perspectives. It makes sense to say that it’s all subjective, but this relativism is unsatisfactory, as Blackburn illustrates. The way that I understand it, Blackburn talks about how when it comes to something like art, we know that some art is better than other art, but this is an important distinction, because it helps us delineate which pieces of art are truly good. Personally, I understand what he is saying. I don’t feel as though I am explaining it as precisely as he would, but I realize that making value judgments, especially in something like art, is important, and it’s the same thing with ethics, ethics and morality of which inform our daily lives in so many ways.
Everything is not permitted, because we know that some decisions are better than others, and it is possible to live a more ethical life than perhaps another potential standard. This is something that people often don’t think about, when they are practicing relativism. But by talking about ethics, and through thinking about ethics, we can come to conclusions about what actually is important for us to do, and not everything has to be relativistic.
These are really important arguments, because it shows that there are criteria that we can use to judge ethical and aesthetic statements. This is a point that I have often thought about myself, and wondered, when I was trying to justify an assertion that I had, particularly when it comes to my ethics. Blackburn seems to insinuate that talking about these things is probably the most important step, and that certainly makes a lot of sense. We have to be able to talk about it, or otherwise, we aren’t making progress on these discussions. Talking about it, and judging for ourselves, is an important part of the process, and I think it’s important overall.
Even though Blackburn is an analytic philosopher, and he comes from a very specific tradition, he is very charitable in expressing the different types of philosophies that have existed throughout time, ranging from Aristotle, to Hegel and William James, to the postmodernists. It is mostly definitive and comprehensive, and this helps ground the arguments in the book and the arguments that have been made throughout time and philosophy. I think Blackburn is well read, and even though he is working within a specific tradition, like any philosopher, he is just searching for truth. I truly think that he offers a lot to my own perspective of philosophy, because he focuses on so many important themes, and really analyzes why truth is such a valuable concept. I know in the past it has been easy for me to be too skeptical and be too postmodern about my claims, but I have learned to push back against such positions, really challenge myself to assert something meaningful and perhaps even true. The value in Blackburn’s book is that he describes these really important themes and goals in a very accessible way, not just in terms of style, but also in terms of the interest in which he conveys when talking about these ideas. Blackburn’s perspective offers a true philosophical account of themes for our modern, contemporary times, and I really appreciated the contemporary aspect and freshness of this book. I think the book does a good job showing why philosophy is important, and I hope that others will take the book just as seriously. There is a lot that the book offers, and I think that many people would benefit from giving it a shot, especially if they are worried about how to come to their own understanding of truths in the world, and validating their assertions.
In the year 1078, a Benedictine monk named Anselm of Canterbury completed a proof for the existence of God that would leave a certain brand of thinkers stumped over the next millennium. The argument basically hinges on the assumption that for something to be perfect, it must also exist, since existence is supposedly an obvious attribute of perfection. While this line of thinking apparently convinced folks who desperately wanted Anselm to be correct, as well as a few others who believed that everything in life can be boiled down to a handful of simple grammatical rules, it doesn’t work for me. For one, some of the most perfect books I’ve come across in my reading don’t exist at all.
In fact, non-existent books tend to have a consistent advantage over real ones. After all, no matter how magnificent a book is in concept, the inevitable element of human imperfection comes…
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