The idea of "truth" represents a search for objective reality, but this search has always been conducted through subjective human minds...

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“Truth: A Guide”
by Simon Blackburn
Oxford University Press, 288 pp., $27

The idea of “truth” represents a search for objective reality, but this search has always been conducted through subjective human minds. This has often resulted in people picking and choosing what they wish to be true, then proclaiming that to be The Truth. That’s especially apparent today, as politicians and corporate executives selectively fudge or ignore objective reality to fit their perceptions.

In “Truth: A Guide,” Simon Blackburn, a Cambridge philosophy professor, has taken a long-term view of these dilemmas. He gently leads the reader on a guided tour of one simple question — whether there is a universally applicable set of data that can be called capital-T “Truth” — and its infinite complications.

Blackburn calls this debate “a war of ideas and attitudes.” He defines this war’s principal combatants as the absolutists (who believe there is a single, unassailable truth out there, even if we can’t always detect it) versus the relativists (who see everything as subject to human interpretation).

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He starts back in ancient Greece, with the absolutist-leaning Socrates and Plato confronting the relativist-leaning sophists, whose views we now only know from Socrates and Plato’s refutations of them.

Blackburn then briskly leads us past the contending thoughts of William James, David Hume, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and many others. He pauses for a lingering examination of Nietzsche, whom Blackburn calls “The Arch Debunker.” And as he did in his prior populist-highbrow book “Think,” Blackburn does all he can to bring real-world relevance to the pontifications of these dead white males (and a few living white males, particularly the American “radical pragmatist” Richard Rorty).

In one part, he gently chastises conservative politicians who simultaneously alter claims of fact to suit political expediencies and denounce the “moral relativism” of liberals.

For a more serious example of the misuse of “objective facts” by people in power, he blasts the proponents of “Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy,” which Blackburn calls “a description invented by a British pediatrician for a ‘condition’ in which mothers harm or kill their babies in order to gain attention for themselves. By insinuating the quite false idea that science had ‘discovered’ this ‘condition,’ and therefore in some sense was on the way to understanding it, and then by ceding power to ‘expert witnesses’ who could pronounce upon its presence, the medical profession assisted in the conviction of many innocent mothers whose babies had died of natural causes.”

Blackburn’s own views are moderate and realistic. He starts by disagreeing with the extreme relativists — “There are real standards. We must fight soggy nihilism, scepticism and cynicism. We must not believe that anything goes. We must not believe that all opinion is ideology, that reason is only power, that there is no truth to prevail. Without defences against postmodern irony and cynicism, multiculturalism and relativism, we will all go to hell in a handbasket.”

But he then backs off from fighting words, proclaiming he doesn’t want to be contentious, just to fairly describe truth’s various contenders.

Blackburn concludes by asking us to “resist being slaves of simplistic relativisms or equally simplistic absolutisms … Whichever way our temperaments pull us, we should at least know what there is to be said on the other side.”

“Truth” is an accessible philosophy-for-beginners tome, though the abstract topic makes it a slightly more weighty read than some titles of its type. You might end this guide just as perplexed and lost as when you began — but at least you’ll know the road map.