Richard Rorty reviews Truth and Truthfulness by Bernard Williams

Nietzsche said that:

we simply lack any organ for knowledge, for truth”—we know” (or believe or imagine) just as much as may be useful in the interests of the human herd.

If you cite this sort of passage from Nietzsche (or similar ones in William James or John Dewey) in order to argue that what we call the search for objective truth’ is not a matter of getting your beliefs to correspond better and better to the way things really are, but of attaining intersubjective agreement, or of attempting to cope better with the world round about us, you are likely to ҄find yourself described as a danger to the health of society: philosophers sympathetic to this line of thought now ҄find themselves called Postmodernists, and are viewed with the same hostility as Spinozists were three hundred years ago. 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.


Those who grow passionate on one or the other side of arcane and seemingly pointless disputes are struggling with the question of what self-image it would be best for human beings to have. So it is with the dispute about truth that has been going on among the philosophy professors ever since the days of Nietzsche and James. That dispute boils down to the question of whether, in our pursuit of truth, we must answer only to our fellow human beings, or also to something non-human, such as the Way Things Really Are In Themselves.

Nietzsche thought the latter notion was a surrogate for God, and that we would be stronger, freer, better human beings if we could bring ourselves to dispense with all such surrogates: to stop wanting to have reality’ or truth’ on our side.


[Williams] has derided what he calls the rationalistic theory of rationality’: the claim that rationality consists in obedience to eternal, ahistorical standards. His most widely read book, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, mocked Kantian approaches to moral philosophy.

Such remarks will convince many people that Williams has long since gone over to the dark side, and is hardly the right person to mount a defence of truth against the bad guys. Having conceded so much to the opposition, he has to work hard to secure a middle-of-the-road position — to avoid drifting either to the Platonist right or to the pragmatist left.


[Williams] counts me among the moderate deniers’ — by which he means, I think, that I share many more views with him than with Foucault. But he insists that we moderates as much as the more radical deniers need to take seriously the idea that to the extent that we lose a sense of the value of truth, we shall certainly lose something, and may well lose everything.’

Williams argues that it is essential to the defence of liberalism to believe that the virtue he capitalises as Sincerity’ has intrinsic rather than merely instrumental value. He defends this claim in the course of telling a genealogical story’, one that attempts to give a decent pedigree to truth and truthfulness’. We need such a story, he believes, since the notion of truth might be thought tainted by its associations with Platonism.


[Williams] makes it a sufficient condition for something (for instance, trustworthiness) to have an intrinsic value that, ҄first, it is necessary (or nearly necessary) for basic human purposes and needs that human beings should treat it as an intrinsic good, and, second, that they can coherently treat it as an intrinsic good.’


He wants to retain the conviction, common among analytic philosophers who distrust pragmatism, that the quest for truth is not the same thing as the quest for justi҄fication.


As he rightly suggests, the only answer the pragmatist can give to this question is that the procedures we use for justifying beliefs to one another are among the things that we try to justify to one another. We used to think that Scripture was a good way of settling astronomical questions, and pontifical pronouncements a good way of resolving moral dilemmas, but we argued ourselves out of both convictions. But suppose we now ask: were the arguments we offered for changing our approach to these matters good arguments, or were they just a form of brainwashing? At this point, pragmatists think, our spade is turned. For we have, as Williams himself says in the passage I quoted above, no way to compare our representations as a whole with the way things are in themselves.

Williams, however, seems to think that we philosophy professors have special knowledge and techniques that enable us, despite this inability, to show that the procedures we now think to be truth-acquiring actually are so. The real problems about methods of inquiry, and which of them are truth acquiring . . . belong to the theory of knowledge and metaphysics.’ These disciplines, he assures us, provide answers to the question, for a given class of propositions, of how the ways of ҄finding out whether they are true are related to what it is for them to be true’.

Williams would seem to be claiming that these metaphysicians and epistemologists stand on neutral ground when deciding between various ways of reaching agreement. They can stand outside history, look with an impartial eye at the Reformation, the Scieintific Revolution and the Enlightenment, and then, by applying their own special, specifically philosophical, truth-acquiring methods, underwrite our belief that Europe’s chances of acquiring truth were increased by those events. They can do all this, presumably, without falling back into what Williams scorns as the rationalistic theory of rationality’.

Williams seems to believe that analytic philosophers have scrubbed metaphysics and epistemology clean of Platonism, and are now in a position to explain what makes various classes of propositions true. If there really were such explanations, then our spade would not be turned where the pragmatists think it is. But of course we who are labelled deniers of truth’ do not think there are. We think the sort of metaphysics and epistemology currently practised by analytic philosophers is just as fantastical and futile as Plato’s Theory of Forms and Locke’s notion of simple ideas.

As far as I can see, Williams’s criticism of the indistinguishability argument’ stands or falls with the claim that analytic philosophers really can do the wonderful things he tells us they can — that they are not just hard-working public relations agents for contemporary institutions and practices, but independent experts whose endorsement of our present ways of justifying beliefs is based on a superior knowledge of what it is for various propositions to be true. Williams would have had a hard time convincing Nietzsche, Dewey or the later Wittgenstein that they had any such knowledge.

The historical portion shows Williams at his best — not arguing with other philosophers, but rather, in the manner of Isaiah Berlin, helping us understand the changes in the human self-image that have produced our present institutions, intuitions and problems.


He concedes to Foucault that the force of reason” can hardly be separated altogether from the power of persuasion, and, as the ancient Greeks well knew, the power of persuasion, however benignly or rationally exercised, is still a species of power.’ Williams’s appreciation of this Nietzschean point makes him wary of the Habermasian idea of the force of the better argument’, and leads him to conclude the chapter by saying It is not foolish to believe that any social and political order which effectively uses power, and which sustains a culture that means something to the people who live in it, must involve opacity, mystification and largescale deception.’


Williams has to work hard here to concede just enough to the opposition, but not too much. He needs carefully to distinguish between justified Nietzschean and Foucauldian suspicions about the supporting stories, and unjustified contempt for the Enlightenment’s political hopes. In making this distinction, he takes on the same complicated and delicate assignment previously attempted by Dewey, Weber and many others. He wants to show us how to combine Nietzschean intellectual honesty and maturity with political liberalism — to keep on striving for liberty, equality and fraternity in a totally disenchanted, completely de-Platonised intellectual world.

The prospect of such a world would have appalled Kant, whose defence of the French Revolution was closely linked to his rationalistic theory of rationality’. Kant is the philosopher to whom such contemporary liberals as Rawls and Habermas ask us to remain faithful. Williams, by contrast, turns his back on Kant. So did Dewey. The similarity between Dewey’s and Williams’s conceptions of the desirable self-image for heirs of the Enlightenment is, in fact, very great, so I am all the more puzzled by his hostility to pragmatism in the ҄first half of his book.

October 29, 2021