New threats to truth or just the old ones?

David Macarthur, The University of Sydney

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom Why Truth Matters, London, Continuum, 2006 (202 pp). ISBN 0-82647-608-2 (hard cover) RRP $39.95.

In a court of law witnesses are asked to swear an oath ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’. That raises the question: Is there a truth to tell? If so, is it an unqualified, unvarnished, unconditional kind of truth? And, supposing such truth exists, why does it matter? The authors of Why Truth Matters, Benson and Stangroom (henceforth, B&S), want to convince us that these important questions are not simply the stuff of philosophical debate in the academy. They see a threat to ‘the reality, meaning, possibility and importance of truth’ within contemporary culture, manifested in a wide variety of ideological and philosophical positions including ‘postmodernism, epistemic relativism, anti-realism, anti-foundationalism, neopragmatism, feminist epistemology, the strong programme in the sociology of knowledge, [and] postcolonialism’ (p. 18). The aim of their book is to defend truth or, rather, something they variously call ‘absolute’ or ‘foundational’ or ‘real truth’ (p. 40, p. 43) against the challenge supposedly posed by these various ‘–isms’.

Within philosophy it is hard to find anyone willing to openly endorse relativism about truth although the position is said to be popular with undergraduates. Yet there are always debates about what is true and in some disciplines such as history, ethics, and politics many suspect that what presents itself as truth is nothing but a cover for some form of power or ideology or interest. Countries, institutions, politicians, and people like to present themselves in the best light, and, as we all know, that can involve omitting or bending the truth, as well as simply denying it. Such familiar truth-avoidance techniques lend weight to the unmasking strategies of modernist masters such as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. And their influence, in turn, has no doubt led some postmodernist thinkers to routinely see talk of ‘science’ or ‘objectivity’ or ‘knowledge’ in purely political terms. But is there an influence running in the other direction? Do postmodernist discourses largely confined to the academy really pose a serious threat to truth within the culture at large? And, if so, are they any different in kind from the familiar everyday threats of lying, delusion, foolishness, fantasy, and consolation?

The Diagnosis

B&S describe the subject of this book as ‘various (but related) forms of scepticism and relativism about truth and the possibility of knowledge’ (p. 18). Let us consider the first part of this diagnosis, scepticism and relativism about truth. If that’s supposed to be the problem then there really should not be much to worry about since these doctrines are so obviously self-refuting. When the sceptic says ‘There is no truth’ isn’t he supposing that the sceptical thesis is itself true? If so, his general thesis is false. And when the relativist says ‘All truth is relative to the speaker (or a society)’ one can reply, ‘Is relativism itself true or just true for you?’ Either way, it seems that the relativist must concede the existence of non-relativist truth after all. So relativism, too, fails.

It is hard to find a philosopher willing to openly endorse relativism about truth.

The blatant inadequacy of scepticism and relativism about truth ought to make us suspicious whether B&S are right to trace contemporary suspicion of science and truth to these absurdities. The authors cite no texts to support the case that anyone actually holds these views so, at the very least, it seems implausible and uncharitable to suppose that scepticism or relativism are implicit in the views they consider. For instance, they provide no evidence that Derrida—one of their prime targets—is a truth-sceptic or truth-relativist.

A second problem for the diagnosis is that B&S paint with much too broad a brush. They treat scepticism and relativism about truth as part of the same threat or syndrome as traditional scepticisms, ancient and modern. But this is a serious mistake for two reasons. First, neither ancient nor modern scepticism raise any threat to the meaning or possibility of truth. Indeed they presuppose that there is truth out there to discover. What they raise doubts about is whether we have adequate reasons to show that we are entitled to our beliefs (ancient scepticism) or our claims to knowledge (modern scepticism). For example, ancient sceptics of the Pyrrhonist school proceed by asking of any given belief whether we have good reason for holding it. If we do, they ask what reason we have to accept this reason, and so on. It seems to be a requirement on reasons that we cannot appeal to anything that has already been called into question on pain of arguing in a circle. And we cannot stop the regress of reasons for reasons by simply assuming something without reason, for that would be unacceptably ad hoc and arbitrary.

This ancient form of scepticism is apparently well motivated and has resisted all attempts to refute it. It is certainly not ‘self-defeating’ (p. 40) as the authors casually suppose. Modern scepticism is no less intuitive and no less difficult to refute. The contrast with scepticism-and-relativism-about-truth could not be starker: here we have problems that are unintuitive and all too easily refuted! So, even if we agree with B&S that scepticism is false—a diagnosis, by the way, that presupposes that scepticism is perfectly intelligible—we surely do not know why that is so.

The Targets of Criticism

As we have seen, B&S’s hit-list of the enemies of science and truth include political/cultural trends (post-modernism, postcolonialism) as well as various diverse philosophical positions in epistemology (epistemic relativism, anti-foundationalism, neopragmatism, feminism, radical sociology of science) and metaphysics (anti-realism). The authors tend to think of many of these trends or positions as ‘postmodernist’ although they provide little in the way of support for this claim and no definition of ‘postmodernism’. In fact, they provide only a small sample of texts for criticism, apparently preferring to build their case against postmodernism by association—assuming, for example, that postmodernism is responsible for Holocaust deniers such as David Irving (p. 19)—and by appeal to authority (for example, to David Lehman’s jeremiad against ‘deconstructivism’ (p. 150–151) and Alan Sokal’s criticism of Bruno Latour (p. 55, p. 58)).

Benson and Stangroom paint with much too broad a brush.

That the authors fall in behind Sokal is worthy of further discussion. You may recall that several years ago the mathematical physicist, Alan Sokal, wrote a satirical article full of half-truths, falsehoods, non-sequiturs, and nonsense sentences that was published in Social Text, a leading cultural studies journal (1996a). Its aim, as Sokal put it, was to parody ‘a fashionable postmodernist/poststructrualist/social constructivist discourse’ (Sokal 1996b, p. 339). But, for all its deliberate flaws, Sokal’s article does not look or sound like the work he is intending to parody; for example, it is, unlike many postmodernist texts, neither obscure nor jargon-ridden. Consequently, it is quite unclear what the implications of its publication are supposed to be. It might seem that all we are entitled to conclude is that the editorial standards at Social Text are lax. Any wider moral depends upon seeing a close connection between Sokal’s article and work in the field of cultural studies. Yet, how can we draw such a connection if, as Sokal suggests, it is so hard to understand postmodernist discourse in the first place?

B&S do not explicitly discuss the Sokal Affair but they do follow Sokal’s questionable tactics. They, too, attack the writings of the French sociologist Bruno Latour, the feminist epistemologist, Sandra Harding, and the cultural commentator, Andrew Ross. They, too, cast a very wide net, launching criticisms at postmodernist ‘Theory’ including ‘postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, queer theory, gender studies, whiteness studies, disability studies, critical race theory and critical legal theory’ (p. 154). They, too, deride postmodernism in terms such as this: ‘It’s arguable that obfuscation is what postmodernism is all about’ (p. 9); and they equate Theory with ‘complicated but empty pseudo-theory’ (p. 168) without evidence or argument. In each case the reader is unable to come to any independent opinion because the authors offer nothing in the way of detailed commentary and careful criticism.

At times B&S reveal intellectual prejudices that go well beyond an aversion to postmodernism. A striking example is their suggestion that the entire Continental tradition of philosophy (a tradition that includes no less than Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger) is wilfully obscurantist! (p. 55)—as if its complexities were not very often a function of the difficulties inherent in its subject matter. Another example is their simple-minded equation of religion with mere wishful thinking (p 16–17). However sceptical or suspicious we might be of a good deal of postmodern or cultural theory, however difficult the writings of Continental philosophers, and however hard it is to accept religious language as literally true, the interests of Enlightenment reason are not served in the least by these largely rhetorical and unthinking attacks.

The interests of Enlightenment reason are not served by rhetorical and unthinking attacks.

Turning to the philosophical positions I mentioned above, B&S are way off target. None of these positions involve a commitment to relativism about truth or a denial of its possibility. 1) Epistemic relativism about justification holds that what counts as justification (or evidence) for a claim can change with context (for example, the availability of evidence, the difficulty and importance of obtaining it, our audience, our standards of evidence and so on)—a position that is fully consistent with belief in non-relative truth. 2) Anti-foundationalism has nothing to do with truth, but holds that knowledge does not require a base of self-evident foundations. 3) Anti-realism defines truth in terms of conditions of warranted assertion but that is not the same thing as relativism; and, in any case, it is typically a local doctrine. An anti-realist about moral discourse is very often also a realist about scientific discourse (see, for example, Ayer 1983). So, again, there is no general threat to truth here. 4) Neopragmatism, like traditional Peircean pragmatism, is not even in the business of defining truth. Its job is to explain what role the concept of truth plays in our lives. And not all versions of feminist epistemology nor of the study of the political, social, cultural or gender-specific influences on scientific research imply either that scientific truth is relative or that it is impossible.

How could two philosophers have gotten these philosophical positions so very wrong? Because it is not the positions that are to the fore in this book but the work of particular philosophers that the authors associate with these positions. B&S make a breathtaking assumption about the relation between the individuals they consider and these general positions. Their attitude to Sandra Harding is indicative. Her work is taken to be representative of all forms and versions of feminist epistemology without any discussion of what these forms and versions are. In the cases of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953) and Thomas Kuhn (1962), it is not even the individual philosopher but his supposed influence that is in question however much it may depart from his actual views! Such claims are hard to assess and they carry little weight. Does the fact that Wittgenstein and Kuhn have been misinterpreted (perhaps grossly) imply that we should not study them?

This is not the occasion to investigate in detail the (de)merits of each of B&S’s accounts of the thinkers they consider. But I’d like to draw attention to the following passage as typical of their general approach:

The story which has unfolded here about scepticism, relativism and doubt could easily have featured a different cast of characters. It would have been just as pertinent to have talked about Kant’s noumenal world; Nietzsche and perspectivism; Peirce’s pragmatism; Derrida and deconstruction; Foucault on power/knowledge; and Rorty’s neopragmatism (p. 40).

Elsewhere Heidegger and Freud are added to the list for good measure. The trouble is that none of these thinkers hold the simple-minded view that truth is relative, nor are they sceptical of the possibility of truth. And none of them denies the possibility of knowledge either. Some of them are sceptical about particular kinds of knowledge (for example, metaphysical knowledge) and some of them hold views about the relativity of knowledge or justification to various factors (human sensibility, history, culture, power, conversational context and so on) but such epistemic relativism is by no means a self-refuting doctrine; nor is it obviously false. Whether we agree with it or not, it is not to be dismissed out of hand without argument! Indeed how can such ad hominem dismissal be squared with the author’s avowed concern for argument and rational enquiry?!

How could two philosophers have gotten these philosophical positions so very wrong?

It is perhaps worth briefly considering B&S’s hasty dismissal of the last figure on this list, Richard Rorty, if only to suggest that the author’s polemical agenda often gets in the way of the accuracy of their characterisations. B&S are happy to think of Rorty as an enemy of truth and of ‘reasoned argument and the requirement of reference to evidence’, and a ‘postmodern epistemic relativist’ (pp. 40, 171). This is a gross misrepresentation. What Rorty opposes is, in the first instance, the Correspondence Theory of truth, the theory that holds that truths correspond to states of affairs in the world. Rorty follows Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, Robert Brandom, and other neopragmatists in thinking that no one has yet made sense of the relevant notion of correspondence. We might have some idea how a drawing can correspond to a fact in terms of resemblance but sentences have no natural resemblance to worldly facts. As Rorty is fond of saying, the world does not come to us already packaged into sentence-shaped objects. When Rorty criticizes The Way the World Is (capitalised) he is not saying there is no way the world is (uncapitalised): he is opposing a philosophical idea of reality called metaphysical realism, that presupposes that there is a single right description of the world, whether we know it or not. In denying this conception of the world-as-it-is-in-itself B&S wrongly take Rorty to be denying the world itself; and when Rorty denies the Correspondence Theory of truth B&S wrongly take him to be denying truth itself. As for the charge of relativism, Rorty has written, ‘‘Cultural relativism’ is largely an imaginary bugbear, but to the extent that it actually exists it… should be resisted.’ (Rorty 2002).

The Proposed Solution

Philosophical reflection on truth can be broadly divided into two domains:

  1. The Metaphysics of Truth, which attempts to answer the question ‘What is truth?’ and traditionally presupposes that there is a general story to tell, one that is applicable to all truths no matter how various in content.
  2. The Epistemology of Truth, which attempts to answer the question ‘How do we discover the truth?’ where matters of justification, inference and methods of inquiry are to the fore.

In recommending ‘absolute, foundational truth’ B&S are defending two claims: the metaphysical claim that there is something called absolute truth and the epistemological claim that knowledge has foundations. Consider ‘absolute’ truth first. The only argument B&S give for the existence of absolute truth is the self-refuting character of relativism about truth. This is to make the unwarranted assumption that absolutism and relativism exhaust the options, but they don’t. Rather than answer the metaphysical question ‘What is truth?’ one can simply turn one’s back on it. This is the key move of a position called minimalism. It is important to see that the minimalist about truth, although not an absolutist, is not a relativist either. He rightly thinks there are truths. But he also thinks that there is no general story to tell about what makes all truths true, no common thread tying together ‘Murder is wrong’, ‘Bill Clinton was president’, ‘Water consists of hydrogen and oxygen’, and so on. Although B&S give no hint of it, this position is a major player on the contemporary philosophical scene. The heart of minimalism is the claim that the only general truth about truth is this:

‘P’ is true if and only if P.

Typically, for example: ‘The sun is shining’ is true says the same as The sun is shining.

Minimalism is motivated, in part, by the difficulty philosophers have had in providing a plausible metaphysical account of truth. There have been many such theories in the history of philosophy—correspondence, coherentist, and pragmatist among them—but all have been found wanting. Since the minimalist option is available and does not involve the metaphysical difficulties that beset traditional metaphysical approaches one might think that B&S at least owe us a positive argument in favour of absolute truth.

Benson and Stangroom do not say what they mean by ‘absolute’ truth.

To make matters worse, B&S do not say what they mean by ‘absolute’ truth. Is there really any difference between saying ‘The sun is shining is absolutely true’ and saying ‘The sun is shining is true’ other than a difference of emphasis? We might compare it to saying ‘The sun is shining is really true’. Without an alternative account, it is plausible to think that terms like ‘absolute(ly)’ and ‘real(ly)’ add nothing theoretically substantial to the term ‘true’.

As for ‘foundational’ truth, the authors say so little that it is quite unclear what they mean. Foundationalism as it is usually understood is a controversial doctrine which sees the structure of knowledge as an inverted pyramid resting on a small number of self-evident truths (for example, experiential beliefs). It is not, contrary to what the authors suggest, a common assumption shared by philosophers who defend the reality and importance of truth.

Apart from declaring their allegiance to ‘absolute, foundational truth’ B&S are often content to offer staggeringly simplistic remedies for the threats to truth they perceive. Here is a sample:

‘truth matters and … it shouldn’t be subject to our wishes’ (p. 16)

‘we know scepticism and relativism are false’ (p. 42)

‘Theories can begin anywhere, even in dreams. But when it comes to justification more reliable evidence is required’ (p. 64).

One wonders in reading through these trivial claims who the audience for this book is supposed to be. Who on earth could possibly find these claims informative or useful? That these claims are not news to anyone ought to have led B&S to question their assumption that it is over such claims that postmodernists and the like are fighting. Elsewhere their remedies are quixotic and simply beg the question at issue:

‘the right answer has more authority than the wrong one’ (p. 63)

‘real enquiry presupposes that truth matters’ (p. 180).

How does truth have more authority that a falsehood that appears true even after careful reflection? Perhaps real enquiry only presupposes that what matters is having the best justification we can muster, as Rorty thinks. If not, why not?

Why Truth Matters is a populist work in the tradition of ‘postmodernism bashing’.

It is worth considering that believers in astrology, or ESP, or political conspiracy theories could easily agree with B&S’s ‘remedies’. A recent example is provided by a 9–11 conspiracy theorist, David von Kleist, who argues on a television program titled In Plane Site, that the US government itself was behind the destruction of the World Trade Center. Despite the overwhelming implausibility of this view it would be hopeless to tell von Kleist that he needs the ‘authoritative’ answer, the one supported by ‘reliable evidence,’ for it is precisely his contention that the evidence does not support the standard view that commercial airliners were high-jacked and flown into the two towers. His program consists in re-examining the documentary evidence, including painstaking frame by frame examination of the video footage of the two planes striking the towers, with the intention of showing that the available evidence is better explained in terms of a conspiracy theory. Crazy, yes, but not because he does not care about ‘the power of science, rational enquiry, logic and evidence to get at the truth’ (p. 176). He demonstrates a clear allegiance to these standards of acquiring truth. The problem is that there are different ways of applying these standards and different ways of interpreting evidence and there are no general rules for doing so. Judgments of the plausibility of any given interpretation are always local, depending on the specific circumstances of the case in question. General programmatic statements about reason, evidence and so forth, despite being perfectly correct, are quite unhelpful in resolving this sort of disagreement.

In sum, Why Truth Matters is a populist work in the tradition of ‘postmodernism bashing’, which is written for those already convinced of its conclusion. Although this reviewer agrees that non-relative truth exists, that it matters, and that science is often our best guide to it (at least in the empirical realm), the way in which B&S defend these themes is completely broken-backed. In the name of truth and the methods of science, rational enquiry, and logic, they are happy to misrepresent their opponents, appeal to authority, and throw mud pies in the form of ad hominem objections and insults. There are serious doubts about their proposed diagnosis, multiple targets, and overly simple therapy. And, finally, a better version of this book already exists. Simon Blackburn’s recent publication Truth provides a philosophically less flat-footed account of the same (questionable!) sense that truth is under serious threat from ‘postmodern irony and cynicism, multiculturalism and relativism’ (2005, xiii). But where B&S want to take sides in what Blackburn calls the Truth Wars—championing absolutistism over relativism—Blackburn wisely opts out of the whole debate, recognizing that minimalism makes available the saving insight ‘that whatever side we were on, we may have been fighting phantoms’ (2005, p. 55).


Ayer, A. 1983 (1936), Language, Truth and Logic, Penguin, New York.

Blackburn, S. 2005, Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed, Allen Lane, London.

Kuhn, T.S. 1962, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Rorty, R. 2002, ‘To the sunlit uplands’, London Review of Books, vol. 24, no. 21, 31 October [Online], Available: [2006, Oct 10].

Sokal, A.D. 1996a, ‘Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity,’ Social Text, vol. 46, no. 47, pp. 217–252.

Sokal, A.D. 1996b, ‘Transgressing the boundaries: An afterword’, Philosophy and Literature, vol. 20 no. 2, pp. 338–346.

Wittgenstein, L. 1953, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, Oxford.

David Macarthur is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at The University of Sydney. His research interests include scepticism, pragmatism, Wittgenstein, and aesthetics. He is co-editor of the book Naturalism in Question (Harvard University Press, 2004).