Review: Why Truth Matters

Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom addresses how, in recent times, truth has often been put aside for the sake of other concerns and discusses why this is a problem.  It covers the postmodern view that many different truths are in some way acceptable and that there are useful “ways of knowing” besides science. I hoped and expected that Why Truth Matters would provide insights into many dubious claims and show how harmful woolly thinking can be in the real world.

My expectations were only partially met.

I can’t say I disagree with the authors’ aims. In the course of writing and researching this blog, I’ve certainly found plenty of people who, whether knowingly or not, see the truth as a secondary concern. Why Truth Matters provides some fascinating examples of this, many of which were new to me, for example the historical revisionism that has been associated with Afrocentrism and the widespread dislike of certain ideas within sociobiology.

Others, such as the creationist dilemma of nineteenth century naturalist Philip Gosse, were more familiar, although the commentary frequently added some fresh insights. For example.

This is the crux of the dispute… What should trump what. Should rational enquiry, sound evidence, norms of accuracy, logical inference trump human needs, desires, fears, hopes? Or should our wishes and beliefs, politics and morality, dreams and visions be allowed to shape our decisions about what constitutes good evidence, what criteria determine whether an explanation is supported by evidence or not…

What’s wrong with the book is not so much the content and the thinking behind it, as the way it is presented. Yes, there are some intriguing quotes and reports and the book certainly has a naturalistic theme, but you never get the feel of an argument being constructed. The examples, while interesting, are arguably too long and I found I often lost track of the thread of the chapter’s argument. The book  is billed as being “accessible and exciting” and at under two hundred pages I hadn’t expected to have to do any extra homework to follow it. However, much of it seems to rely on knowledge of previous philosophical writers that I would consider outside of the mainstream.  The style of writing varies from the lucid to the impenetrably convoluted. There are some sentences “so clear you could swim in them”, as the Independent review described, but there are others which frankly, made my brain hurt. For example, chapter three “The Truth Radicals” opens with

Neopragmatism, a postmodernist view of pragmatism which sees truth variously as, in the words of its best-known exponent, Richard Rorty, ‘a rhetorical pat on the back’ or ‘whatever one’s contemporaries let one get away with’, began in the backwash of the political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Morris Dickstein points out that the revival of pragmatism is a complicated phenomenom with a lot of cross-currents; among them he cites a ‘new impetus to radical thinking’ in the 1960s, the shift of that impetus to the universities after the New Left collapsed, and the renewed disappointment with Marxism which caused apocalyptic thinking and ‘the grand narratives of earlier systems’ to go out of fashion, at which juncture the work of Rorty ‘formed a bridge between a Deweyan faith in liberal democracy and a postmodern antifoundationalism’.

Erm… what?

To be fair this is probably the worst example in the entire book, but there are lesser incidents where names are dropped in without introduction and unfamiliar schools of philosophical thought are referenced with little explanation. I’m not sure if these are examples of philosophical showmanship or merely a difficulty empathising with dilettantes such as myself. Either way, it makes parts of the book almost incomprehensible.

To conclude, Why Truth Matters is a mixed bag. It contains some insightful content cleverly disguised in a confusing structure and overly-academic prose.