At the heart of Truth and Truthfulness lie a number of questions about truth. What does it mean to be truthful? What role does truth play in our lives? What do we lose if we reject truthfulness? Bernard Williams sets out to answer these questions by identifying two prominent and conflicting currents of ideas in modern thought and culture. On the one hand there is the commitment to truthfulness and on the other there is a pervasive suspicion about truth itself. The suspicion amounts to a questioning of the idea that there is such a thing as truth and, if there is, a doubt as to whether it can be more than subjective or relative.
The commitment to the idea of truthfulness on the other hand relates to what Williams calls "the two basic virtues of truth", which he calls Accuracy and Sincerity: "you do the best you can to acquire true beliefs, and what you say reveals what you believe." The tension between truthfulness and truth is, Williams suggests, expressed in a familiar contrast between two different and opposed ways of doing philosophy. Williams highlights the strengths and weaknesses of both positions while giving his own virtuoso philosophical display during the course of the book.
The real problems for the reader begin with the overall explanatory framework. Having differentiated between "truth" and "truthfulness" and between the two different philosophical outlooks Williams states that his main concern throughout is with what "may summarily be called 'the value of truth'". It is with the introduction of this term that the equivocation--between "truth" understood as a philosophical term (the idea of "truth itself") and "truthfulness" understood as a virtue, or set of virtues--begins.
Williams talks as if "truth itself" and the virtue of truthfulness, while conceptually distinct, are somehow all of a piece. It is one thing to say, with Williams, that we (as individuals and as a society) stand to lose a great deal (and "possibly everything") if the virtues of being truthful were discarded throughout western liberal democracies. But it is quite another to say that to stop talking about "truth itself" would mean the end of liberal democracy. In other words it is difficult to share Williams' conviction that something as big and important as the fate of liberal democracy might depend on the resolution of these philosophical disputes.
For all the impressive display of philosophical expertise Williams' way of mapping the present philosophical terrain is not as useful as he might have hoped and the book as a whole requires a good deal of time and sustained concentration to get through to the end. Try reading Rorty's Truth and Progress alongside Williams' Truth and Truthfulness for illuminating contrast effects. --Larry Brown [via]