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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Relative Absolutism...

I've been meaning to post this link for sometime now. It's a book review of "Truth: A Guide" by Simon Blackburn.

Beneath all the divisions of contemporary society -- between, say, the religious and secular worldviews, red-state conservatives and blue-state liberals, the bicoastal "cultural elite" and the heartland "moral values" set -- philosopher Simon Blackburn sees something deeper. These are all distorted manifestations, he thinks, of a "war of ideas and attitudes" that underpins the way contemporary human beings view their world. This is a war over what we know, or think we know, and how we know it. It's a war over the nature of truth.

All human societies -- and all individuals, Blackburn argues -- must confront the problem of truth. Although common-sense reasoning is a useful part of our armature (unlike some philosophers, Blackburn defends it), it isn't entirely sufficient. Can we say with certainty that things we think are true really are? Is the earth really a sphere 93 million miles -- or 150 million kilometers, if you prefer European truth -- from the sun? Is democracy a superior form of government, and capitalism its necessary corollary? Are slavery and female genital mutilation morally wrong? Did the Red Sox really win the World Series?

Or are these and all other so-called truths merely cultural and political constructs, more or less useful fictions we blind and feeble animals create as we stumble through an unknowable universe? To quote the great American philosopher William James (as Blackburn does often), "Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?" To quote your stoned sophomore-year roommate, "How do we know any of this is real, man?"

By now you may be nodding sagely, or you may be flinging your half-decaf latte across the room in a white-hot rage. But whichever side you're on, and even if your impulse is to stake out some kind of pseudo-agnostic middle ground, Blackburn's lively new book "Truth: A Guide" will challenge and surprise you. Furthermore, Blackburn wants to turn your political assumptions about this dispute upside down. He is clearly a leftist and an opponent of the Iraq war, who uses any opportunity to take gratuitous digs at George W. Bush and Tony Blair. But he believes the left has damaged itself irreparably because of its postmodern refusal to talk about truth and its avoidance of the open disagreement such claims inevitably bring. Meanwhile, the right wing has waged crusade after crusade while wrapped in the mantle of absolute truth, despite the fact (he argues) that its notion of truth is a slippery, cynical one.

You go read the rest of the review here

I'm going out to buy the book.