Bernard williams truth and truthfulness

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bernard williams truth and truthfulness

Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy by Bernard Williams

What does it mean to be truthful? What role does truth play in our lives? What do we lose if we reject truthfulness? No philosopher is better suited to answer these questions than Bernard Williams. Writing with his characteristic combination of passion and elegant simplicity, he explores the value of truth and finds it to be both less and more than we might imagine.


Modern culture exhibits two attitudes toward truth: suspicion of being deceived (no one wants to be fooled) and skepticism that objective truth exists at all (no one wants to be naive). This tension between a demand for truthfulness and the doubt that there is any truth to be found is not an abstract paradox. It has political consequences and signals a danger that our intellectual activities, particularly in the humanities, may tear themselves to pieces.


Williamss approach, in the tradition of Nietzsches genealogy, blends philosophy, history, and a fictional account of how the human concern with truth might have arisen. Without denying that we should worry about the contingency of much that we take for granted, he defends truth as an intellectual objective and a cultural value. He identifies two basic virtues of truth, Accuracy and Sincerity, the first of which aims at finding out the truth and the second at telling it. He describes different psychological and social forms that these virtues have taken and asks what ideas can make best sense of them today.



Truth and Truthfulness presents a powerful challenge to the fashionable belief that truth has no value, but equally to the traditional faith that its value guarantees itself. Bernard Williams shows us that when we lose a sense of the value of truth, we lose a lot both politically and personally, and may well lose everything.
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Bernard Williams - The Human Prejudice (4 of 8)

What role does truth play in our lives? What do we lose if we reject truthfulness? No philosopher is better suited to answer these questions than Bernard Williams .
Bernard Williams

2003.09.15

What does it mean to be truthful? What role does truth play in our lives? What do we lose if we reject truthfulness? No philosopher is better suited to answer these questions than Bernard Williams. Writing with his characteristic combination of passion and elegant simplicity, he explores the value of truth and finds it to be both less and more than we might imagine. Modern culture exhibits two attitudes toward truth: suspicion of being deceived no one wants to be fooled and skepticism that objective truth exists at all no one wants to be naive.

The work of Bernard Williams will be argued and written about by philosophers for many years to come. He was widely viewed as one of the most if not the most important British philosophers of his generation, and his many noteworthy books, including such well-known works as Problems of the Self , Moral Luck , Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy , and Shame and Necessity , have deeply influenced contemporary debates about the nature of moral knowledge. We will miss him. In Truth and Truthfulness , his last published book, Williams has left us with a powerful argument for the importance of the notion of truth to our attempts to think and talk about the world. Having done so, he proceeds to detail some of the important ethical consequences of that need, in several historical genealogies of the concepts of truth and truthfulness, and related ideas such as authenticity and self-deception. The book is roughly divided into two parts. The first half, chapters 1 through 6, revolve around a State-of-Nature story Williams tells in chapter 3 to illustrate and defend the importance of truth for successful human interaction.

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Richard Rorty. In those days, if you defended the absurdly counter-intuitive claim that matter could move all by itself, it was clear you could hardly be expected to have any moral scruples or intellectual conscience. You were frivolously dissolving the social glue that held Christendom together. You represented the same sort of danger to moral and intellectual virtue as Arians had posed, in the days of St Augustine, by arguing that although Christ was certainly of a similar substance to the Father, he could hardly be the same substance. If you agree with Dewey that the search for truth is just a particular species of the search for happiness, you will be accused of asserting something so counter-intuitive that only a lack of intellectual responsibility can account for your behaviour. Most non-philosophers would regard the choice between correspondence-to-reality and pragmatist ways of describing the search for truth as a scholastic quibble of the kind that only a professor of philosophy could be foolish enough to get excited about. A few centuries back, the same sort of people were equally dismissive of controversies concerning the relation between matter and motion.

Bernard Williams enjoys such preeminence as a moral philosopher that it is easy to overlook his interests and achievements in other philosophical areas, including metaphysics, epistemology, and history. These other interests are splendidly on display here, although there is still a sense in which the book is centrally a contribution to moral philosophy. He is always a pleasure to read, and as it has often done before, his deft, sparkling, intelligence newly illuminates an old philosophical subject, scattering light into many surprising corners as it does so. In general analytical philosophy has had rather an unsatisfactory relationship with the topic of truth. On the one hand there is considerable hostility to those descendants of the sophists who pronounce themselves suspicious of the very idea. Williams calls these the deniers, recognizing that there is often some indeterminacy in just what they are denying.

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