A pragmatic primer on a contentious topic.
A distinguished philosophy professor in both his native England and the United States, Blackburn (Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love, 2014, etc.) aims his analysis at general readers, but it requires close attention and willingness to follow the reasoning, which is steeped in centuries of philosophical inquiry. And inquiry is very much the point here, because even if we can never agree on absolute truth, or even the possibility of it, the author maintains that having a process of inquiry by which we can get closer to it, and agree on its utility and social value, is not only possible, but crucial. “Living outside the reality-based community is not actually an option,” writes the author, while acknowledging that the Trump era has some thinkers postulating that we have entered a brave new world of post-truth and alternate facts. He continues, “the basic reason why the concept of truth will never die is that to believe anything at all is itself to take a stand on its truth.” We acknowledge the truth of a speeding train as it hurtles toward our car at the crossing and of the hot stove that might burn us if we touch it. Beyond such basics, are there truths upon which we can agree? Here we turn to process and to consensus and how general agreement on general principles can promote welfare. “Sometimes we have to settle for mere opinion or guesswork, but the god of truth is better served by attendant deities, such as reason, justification and objectivity,” writes Blackburn. “Once we have it, truth radiates benefits such as knowledge and, perhaps most notably, success in coping with the world.” In the second half of the book, the author shows how arts criticism, ethics, and religion might even approach their own kinds of “truth.”
A slim volume that offers as much clarity on the topic as one could expect from the often opaque world of philosophy.