Julian Baggini Unravels the Truth and Recommends the Best Philosophy Books for Students
As Oscar Wilde had it “the truth is rarely pure and never simple” but in a “post-truth” world it seems the truth is not just complicated, it might not even exist at all. Here, in an exclusive introduction to his new book A Short History of Truth, celebrated philosopher Julian Baggini takes on the thorny problem of veracity, uncovers ten types of truth and examines why, now more than ever, it’s our most valuable commodity.
It is said that we live in a post-truth world, but most of us, most of the time, still value and understand well enough the difference between fact and fantasy, truth and lies. Why then has truth become so problematic, so contested?
Truth is complicated because it has many different sources, some more contested than others. For example, for most of its history, Western civilisation has accepted the existence of certain eternal truths, revealed through sacred texts and religious leaders. Today, however, many people see these as human inventions while even those who still believe in eternal truths argue about which are genuine and how to interpret them. The problem here is not so much an absence of truth but an over-abundance of truth claims.
Religion aside, there have always been many authoritative truths, things we have little choice but to accept on the basis of the expert testimony of others. I accept that “E=mc2”, for example, even though I barely understand what it means. However, we no longer agree – if we ever did – who the reliable authorities are. Scientists, historians and economists are all treated with a suspicion that is only in part justified.
No one can be trusted entirely because the methods by which we discover truth have built-in limitations. Take the reasoned truths that we arrive at by the power of logic and deduction alone. Such truths achieve a precision and certainty at the price of being purely abstract. You can prove that “1+1=2” but that tells you nothing about what what happens when two objects or people in the world are brought together. To find that out you need empirical truths based on evidence and observation. But these are always provisional and uncertain, never more than probable. There is never any guarantee that next winter will be like previous ones, for example. Even the belief that the laws of physics are constant is not proven beyond doubt. Add to that the problem of finding, selecting and interpreting the best evidence and it is clear empirical truth leaves much uncertain.
Indeed, much is unknown, some of it wilfully concealed. The fact that there are some esoteric truths creates the problem that we do not always know what we do not know and we cannot verify the existence of that we cannot see. This means we have to walk a tightrope between being too credulous of official narratives, believing that nothing is being hidden from us, and paranoically seeing conspiracies where there are none.
Truth not only has different sources, it also has different uses. There are powerful truths, used to control others. People do not only suppress truths that could undermine their interests, they present falsehoods as truth to protect their privilege. In order to speak truth to power we have to be aware of how power seeks to control what is spoken of as the truth.
Truth is not simply a matter of what we say, however. It is also a matter of what we do. There are creative truths, things that become so because of our doing. Poverty levels are not just brute facts, they are the result of political decisions. We need to use this power to create truth well and distinguish it carefully from the kind of “creativity with the truth” which is simply a euphemism for deceit.
Truth is a matter of doing in another sense too. We talk of moral truths, what we hold to be genuinely good and bad, right and wrong. Moral principles may not be facts in a straightforward sense but truth clearly matters for morality. Moral progress is often made by seeing more clearly, for example, that no “race” or gender is superior to another, that animals have the capacity to suffer, that pollution harms the environment.
There are many, however, who resist the whole idea of “the Truth”, seeing it as oppressive and monolithic. Why not accept that what is true for me may not be true for you, that there are only relative truths? But that can't be right. Realism demands that we accept that some things are true whether we like it or not. We cannot simply will truth into being. The truth in the relativist impulse, however, is that it takes many different perspectives to get as full a picture as possible and we should never allow one point of view to trump all others.
All truths are at the end of the day holistic truths. Our beliefs form interwoven webs. They do not stand or fall alone. If we want to get to the truth we have to stand back and see how different claims to truth fit together. This is why we need to be sensitive and careful when discussing our disagreements. Beliefs are threads that if picked at can unravel the entire fabric they help keep together. Challenge someone’s truth and often you challenge their whole world.
Books for a new philosophy student
Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig
There are many good short introductions to philosophy but Edward Craig's stands out. No one knows more about philosophy than Craig, who spent decades of his life editing the mammoth Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. And yet he managed to retain the sense of wonder and surprise that academic study can sadly drain out of people. Craig's mind is razor sharp, bright and sparkly.
The Dream of Reason and The Dream of Enlightenment by Anthony Gottlieb
To get a good overview of the history of Western Philosophy, nothing beats Gottlieb's two volumes, with a third to come. Gottlieb, a former executive editor of The Economist, combines the intelligence of a philosophy with the clarity of a journalist. Anyone with a philosophical bone in their body who reads this book will be inspired to read more.
Philosophy: Basic Readings, ed. Nigel Warburton
I think anyone interested in philosophy should start reading original classics as soon as possible. This anthology of readings is an excellent way in. It contains well-chosen extracts from historical giants like Hume, Kant, Mill, Hobbes and Descartes alongside contemporary greats such as Robert Nozick, Bernard Williams and Peter Singer. It offers an opportunity to sample a number of thinkers across a broad range of topics and opens up many avenues for further reading.
Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes
Of all the classics, Descartes' Meditations is perhaps the most accessible. It's not too long and can be read as it was structured: as six meditations over six days, a kind of philosophical retreat. Descartes gives people new to philosophy an opportunity to follow and critique clearly laid out arguments, to think alongside one of the masters.
On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche is the antidote to the common misconception that philosophy lacks passion. But On the Genealogy of Morals is also an intelligent, carefully reasoned argument, one which questions all received wisdom about the the nature of morality. Philosophy should challenge us and this book certainly does that.
The View from Nowhere by Thomas Nagel
Contemporary philosophy can be very academic and abstruse. Fortunately, some of its best practitioners are also extremely clear writers. Thomas Nagel is one such philosopher and his The View from Nowhere is a contemporary classic. It takes the age old question of what knowledge is and answers it in a way that I think shows two millennia of thinking about it has not been in vain. It is an answer which has significance for our morality and even how we understand what it means to be a person.
Elbow Room by Daniel C. Dennett
The question of whether we have free will is one of the most fascinating and important ones in philosophy. In Elbow Room, I think Dennett gets us as close to the final answer to it as is possible. Dennett's strategy is to do away with the idea that there is one thing called “free will” which we have or do not have. Instead, he talks about the “varieties of free will worth having”. The book is full of insight and is a masterclass in clarity of expression and argument.
Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference by Thomas P. Kasulis
All my selections so far are of Western philosophy. This is my training, which typically of Western universities barely acknowledged other traditions. I have belatedly come to feel the loss of this and Kasulis has been instrumental in helping me to remedy it. Intimacy or Integrity shows us how Eastern and Western philosophies have different orientations, but that these differences are a matter of degree and emphasis, not absolutes. It opens up the possibility of fruitful engagement across cultures, something that is very much needed both better to understand others and ourselves.