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Do We Need Truth?

Jacques Bouveresse

apenas a conferncia proferida citvel

demands to be itself begotten. Every antiquity, every


causality, every principle of the things, are fabulous
inventions and obey to the simple laws.
What would we be without the help of what
does not exist? Not much, and our minds, having
almost no work to do, would languish if fables,
1.What would we be and could we do without the
help of the false? msunderstandings, abstractions, beliefs and monsters,
hypotheses and so-called problems of metaphysics
were not there to populate with images devoid of
Peter Hacker, in Appearance and Reality, says of any object our natural depths and darkness1.
truth that it generally has the dignity, but not the
charm. We are much more easily seduced by the Falsity has, it seems, over truth, the same kind of
illusions of philosophy than by the humble truths advantage as stupidity over intellligence. Musil,
it is able to discover and communicate. That is, it in The Man without Qualities, asks the following
seems, true not only in the case of philosophy, but ironical question concerning stupidity: if it did
quite generally. It could be said also of truth that it not manifest all the appearances of intelligence,
usually has the respect and the praises, but not the could it continue to exist? If stupidity, seen
favour and the honours. It is not by truth that we are from the inside, were not so hard to tell apart from
the most spontaneously attracted and captivated, talent, if, seen from the outside, it did not have
and it is not truth that is most beloved and believed. all the appearances of progress, genius, hope and
With falsity, the exact opposite seems to be the improvement, nobody would like to be stupid and
case. It has in principle the disgrace, but that does there would be no stupidity. It would, at least, be easy
apparently not prevent it from having, nevertheless, to ght it. Unfortunately, however, it has something
most of the time the success and the power. extraordinarily natural and convincing2. It is,
Ofcially, it is depreciated and even discredited, obviously, possible to ask the same sort of question
but it has the advantage of being generally much about falsity: if it did not, in most cases, resemble so
more attracting than truth and to obtain more easily much truth and be so hard to tell apart from it, how
acceptance. could it be so easily and stubbornly believed? It too
There are, therefore, good reasons to think that, of can have, like stupidity, something extraordinarily
the two notions, the one that is rst and fundamental natural and convincing which makes it particularly
ist probably not truth, but falsity. That seems to be difcult to ght.
what Paul Valry wanted to suggest when he said: The complicated and painful problem one has
to face here is that for being perceived and
It is a kind of absolute law that everywhere, in all acknowledged as true it is by no means necessary
places, in every period of the civilisation, in every to be such, and that the fact of being true may even,
belief, with the help of any discipline whatsoever on that point, constitute a serious drawback: the
and in any respects - the false supports the true, the best way to be accepted as true is not necessarily
true gives to itself the false as ancestor, as cause, as the one consisting in being, in effect, true. It is a
author, as origin and as end, without exception nor thing which, for Nietzsche, tends to become still
remedy - and the true begets the false by which it more striking in times like the one we are now

C O N F E R N C I A G U L B E N K I A N > Q U E V A L O R E S P A R A E S T E T E M P O ? 1
living in, which is the time of masses and theater. taken for. In other words, even if science is supposed
Musil quotes a passage of Der Fall Wagner, where to represent the domain par excellence in which one
it is said that: []In cultures of decline, [] in all succeeds in arriving at propositions which deserve
situations in which the decision falls into the hands to be called true, it is not impossible that, when
of the masses, authenticity becomes superuous, they are considered from a certain point of view,
disadvantageous, retrograde. Only the actor can still the truths of science appear as being also nothing
raise the great enthousiasm. In consequence, the more than errors which it succeeds in presenting and
heyday is coming now for the actor3. Nietzsche, getting accepted as true.
on that question, refers precisely to the saying of an Nietzsche says that the truthful man (der
actor, Talma, which he takes as an exact symbol of Wahrhaftige) [], such as he is presupposed by the
our epoch: belief in science, afrms [] another world than
the one of life, nature and history; and in as far as
One is actor, by the fact that he has an insight he afrms an other world, should he not, then,
(Einsicht) in advance with respect to the rest of precisely by the same token negate its counterpart,
mankind: what is supposed to act as true must not this world, our world? (Die frhliche Wissenschaft,
be true. The sentence is stated by Talma: it contains 344, p. 275) In other words, the will of truth,
all the psychology of the actor. It contains - lets have which is at the foundation of science, leads to the
no doubts about that! - also his moral. Wagners construction of a world which is supposed to be the
music is never true. true one, the one which can be found behind the
But it is taken to be such; and in that way things are appearances and constitutes the origin, the cause
put in order4. and the explanation of these. But it could turn out,
precisely, that it is that world that has the least of truth
We had better, it seems to me, leave entirely to and reality, that it has anyway much less of them
Nietzsche the responsibility for the distinction he is than the world of phenomena, in other words that
trying to make between a music which can be called it is a false one and that the lie it is has nonetheless
true and another one which has to be rejected succeeded in imposing itself, like many others,
as false. But we can retain of what he says that essentially because it proved to be very useful and
we might, in effect, have reached a stage where even, after a certain time, indispensable..
everyone has more or less assimilated the actors
principle, which states that, if we want a certain 2. Can one want the true and why is it wanted?
thing to make the impression of being true and be
accepted as such, it is not only not necessary for it Even if falsity and error are, as Valry says, ancestors
be true, but it can even be better not to be such. of truth and knowledge, they are ancestors which, for
At rst sight, science rests on a an exactly opposite evident reasons, they do not like much to admit and
principle: the things it afrms are supposed to be that they have even, generally, a very strong propensity
true and what speaks for them is essentially the fact to deny with a certain solemnity. Philosophers, on the
that, at least in an important number of cases, they whole, have been rather inclined to suppose that truth
are true ; but it is far from being the case that they, is a thing that can be wanted for itself and searched
generally, give the impression to be such and they for itself, and to speak of a passion for knowledge,
even frequently contradict beliefs which belong one of the most remarkable results of which has been
to the category of those to which we cling most science, as we know it. That is a way of considering
strongly and truths which apparently are of the most the situation which has been radically contested
unshakeable kind. Nietzsche, nevertheless, considers by Nietzsche, who maintains that science can very
as quite legitimate and even indispensable to ask well have grown up and become adult without that
the question whether science itself could not be the supposed passion for knowledge: The good belief
genuine daughter of an epoch in which, in questions in science, the prejudice which is favourable to it, by
of truth and falsity as in everything else, what matters which our States are now directed (earlier it was even
is not what a thing is, but what it succeeds in being the Church that was), rests nally on the fact that that

2 C O N F E R N C I A G U L B E N K I A N > Q U E V A L O R E S P A R A E S T E T E M P O ?
propensity and that impulse have so rarely shown wisdom of God - the principal motive in the soul of
themselves in it and that science is valuable not as the great english men (like Newton) -, partly because
passion, but as condition and Ethos (Die frhliche of the belief in the absolute usefulness of knowledge,
Wissenschaft, 123, p. 164). That knowledge wants particularly in the innermost link between moral,
to be more than a means and to constitute itself as science and happiness - the principal motive in the
the object of a passion is, according to Nietzsche, soul of the great french men (like Voltaire) -, partly
a novelty: in the Antiquity, even in its most ardent because of the belief to have and to love in science
defenders, the most beautiful praise which could be something disinterested, harmless, self-sufcient,
delivered to science was the one which consisted truly innocent, in which the bad impulses of man
in presenting it not as an end, and still less as the have absolutely no part - the principal motive in the
supreme end, but as the best means to reach virtue. soul of Spinoza, who, as a knowing being, felt divine
Nietzsche claims that, in the human being, in contrast - therefore, with reasons which amounted to three
with what happens in the animals, who have much errors (Die frhliche Wissenschaft, 37, p. 83).
better weapons in the struggle for live, the art of hiding
and cunning, which is the most appropriate means of We might, to simplify and without worrying too
conservation for the weakest beings, has reached the much about historical exactness, call the three
heights. But it is precisely in hiding and cunning that errors to which Nietzsche refers, the theological
the intellect develops its main forces, so that: There conception, the conception of the Enlightenment,
is almost nothing more incomprehensible than the and the spinozistic conception. Musil, who has
way an honest and pure impulse to truth (Trieb zur been inuenced to a considerable extent by
Wahrheit) could appear in human beings. They are Nietzsche, rejected, as he did, the rst and the third
deeply immersed in illusions and dream-like images, conceptions, but he maintained that the second
there eye can only slip around them on the surface one should not be taken, even now, as a complete
of the things and they see forms, their sensation mistake: contrary to a tendency that was, in his time,
leads nowhere to the truth, but satises itself with the very strong and has, it seems, become more and
reception of excitations and the playing so to speak more dominant, he did not see the ideas and the
of a groping game on the back of the things5. If ideals of the Enlightenment as being really outdated
one is willing to consider the situation in that way, and, in spite of Nietzsches radical criticism, he
he cannot fail to conclude that science, contrary was still less ready to accept the now so popular
to what its defenders believe, does not constitute postmodernist idea that perhaps we had now better
the best and most reliable way leading to truth, simply renounce using notions like truth or
but rather a way of moving back at the sight of the objectivity at all and try to replace them by other
truth and shrinking from it, at least from the superior ones. What has happened, according to him, is not
kind of it, the one with respect to which the truth that the european humanity has realized at a certain
that the scientists call objective is, at best, only a moment that they rested on a fundamental mistake
subordinate form, in reality much closer to useful lie or constituted themselves a mistake of that kind,
tnan to genuine truth. but that we have simply renounced too quickly and
The irony of the situation consists precisely in the lost, at the rst serious difculty and failure, heart,
fact that, in order to justify the primacy of truth determination and enthousiasm.
and kowledge over falsity and ignorance, the only Musil accepts completely the idea that science is
possible solution was, once more, to draw on not the product of disinterested contemplation, but
the false. Those who tried to justify the privilege of a a will and an ethos or an habitus of a certain
attributed to science have indeed, to that end, relied kind. But he does not share the depreciation of the
on three typical mistakes: theoretical man that results, for Nietzsche, from that
observation; and he maintains that the ethos that
In the last centuries, science has been favoured, gave birth to modern science has kept until today
partly because of the hope, with it and through it, an exemplary character, from which literature itself
to reach a better understanding of the goodness and could learn much more than it generally does. One

C O N F E R N C I A G U L B E N K I A N > Q U E V A L O R E S P A R A E S T E T E M P O ? 3
could even say that it is an example from which Musil did not accept the subordination of all things,
we have serious reasons to continue to draw our in particular of the interest for truth, to the interest
inspiration, for none of the rivals that are usually of truth itself for life. He rejected, in consequence,
opposed to it is in the least bit convincing and can the primacy of practical over theoretical truth, or
seriously pretend to be a solution. Musil considers of a so-called truth of life over truth of any other
that, generally, the substitues that have beeen kind, which was supposed to be derivable from
proposed until now to replace rationality and Nietzsches philosophy; but he was quite conscious
science are very poor and completely insufcient. of the impossibility to continue to ignore a very
I can understand, he says, that what they [those important nietzschean question, namely: How can
who complain about the damages caused by theoretical truth, especially if we take seriously the
Enlightenment, rationality and science] like the form which has been given to it by the sciences in
least is rst mathematics, then exactness, and their present state, be made practical?
nally intelligence. But when they oppose to that
vitality, life, intuition, blood, race, instinct, myth, 3. Science, evil and maliciousness
as it is already since many years a literary fashion,
these are miserable surrogates. Because a feeling According to Nietzsche, truth has manifested
that does not include in itself the reference to truth itself only very late, and as the least strong of the
and reality remains as thin as an undeveloped child forms of knowledge (Die frhliche Wissenschaft,
or becomes as thick as soap bubble (MoE 5, p. 110, p. 152). The reason of that is that it seems
1919-1920). in contradiction with life, since the organism can
Musil says of his hero Anders, the future Ulrich of apparently subsist only on the basis of some useful
The Man without Qualities that he does not accept and even essential errors, that Nietzsche considers
the nietzschean idea that science is only a kind as fundamental, particularly those of sensible
of subtle self-defence against truth, a way out, perception. The search for truth was, therefore,
and that the victory of the theoretical man has to seriously disabled by the fact that error seems,
be understood as a typical sign of decline: There generally, much more useful than truth, and that, as
A[nders] parts company with Nietzsche, because Nietzsche says, the force of knowledges does not lie
he has a passion for the theoretical man. Otherwise in their degree of truth, but in their age, the way they
one comes indeed to a silly idolatry of life; but have been integraded to the body, their character of
Anders himself run aground in the sand with his conditions of life . (ibid., p. 153) Whenever life and
nal ataraxia of the theoretical man (MoE 5, p. knowledge have given the impression to come into
1778-1779). conict with each other, there was never a serious
Musils main target was the so-called philosophy confrontation, it was always life, and consequently
of life and the way it was used in literature and art. natural error that won. But knowledge and striving
That is, of course, no longer exactly our problem. for truth did nevertheless become themselves also
But that does not dispense us with the need of an a need that has been integrated to the system of
answer to the kind of questions he asked concerning human needs in general, a situation that has created
the substitutes that are currently proposed to replace nally a problem which Nietzsche considers as
the notions we, supposedly, can now very well and absolutely decisive:
probably must get rid of. If we are sensitive to the
urge of some postmodernist thinkers concerning Knowledge has become [] itself a piece of life
the outmoded character of notions like truth or and, as life, a power that grows without interruption;
objectivity, there will inevitably be the question until the time when nally the knowledges and the
of what things such as an after-truth science or an very ancient basic errors of which we have spoken
after-truth democracy will be like. And the kind of have bumped into each other, both of them as life,
answer which is given to that, when there is one, both of them as power, both of them in the same
is, to say the least, generally much too vague and man. The thinker, that is now the man in whom the
rhetorical to be quite reassuring and convincing. impulse to truth and those errors that conserve life

4 C O N F E R N C I A G U L B E N K I A N > Q U E V A L O R E S P A R A E S T E T E M P O ?
ght their rst battle, after truth has demonstrated postmodernist thinkers, who dispense themselves
that it too was a power that conserves life. With much too quickly from the most difcult part of
respect to the importance of that battle, all the rest the work and prefer to jump directly to the easiest
is indifferent: the ultimate question concerning the conclusion. It is quite true, Musil admitted, that we
condition of life is asked here, and the rst effort is suffer from an overabundance of facts and of the
made to answer it by experiment. To what extent painful absence of any satisfactory synthesis. But
does truth suffer embodiment (Einverleibung)? - That the solution does certainly not consist in repeating,
is the very question, that is the very experiment after Nietzsche, that there are no facts, but only
(ibid., p. 154-155). interpretations.
There are now, Musil said ironically, people who
It is certainly not necessary to insist on the degree deny the facts, and call that thinking. The same
to which that nietzschean question: Is truth could certainly be said of our time and even,
compatible with life? Or is it intrinsically impossible unfortunately, to a higher degree than of his.
to live in accordance with truth, and should we not, Poincar said once that the only thing which the
therefore, be prepared to admit that the passion for scientist creates in a fact is the language in which
truth and knowledge could, in the end, turn out he expresses it. But it is a belief and an assertion
to be fatal to life? is also a musilian one. If the that would nowadays be considered as very naive,
passion for truth, as Nietzsche seems to be ready since after decades of deconstructionist and
to grant it, can also be integrated into life and has postmodernist thinking, it seems more and more
even succeeded in giving the proof of its utility fort difcult, not to say impossible, to understand how a
it, we will, inevitably, have to answer the question real distinction could be made between creating a
whether it could succeed without transforming way of expressing an independent fact and creating
itself by the same token into an useful error and the fact itself.
an error that has perhaps only the advantage that it In defending the idea that facts can have a reality
appeared nally to be more useful that most others. independent of language and of the activities
It is the whole problem of the very possibility of of the scientists, Poincar reacted to the claims
objective knowledge that we have to face here; and of people like Edouard Le Roy, a philosopher of
we can describe Musils position by saying that, in science (but also of moral and religion), who is now
spite of the difculties that have arisen and of what forgotten and whom our postmodernist thinkers
has been said on this point by many epistemologists generally do not know, in spite of the fact that
and philosophers, including Nietzsche itself, he did he could very well be considered as one of their
not see any convincing reason to consent to give up important predecessors. Le Roy maintained that the
the idea that the human mind is really able to know scientic facts are well-named, since they are, in a
the things in an objective way. more a less literal sense, made (in French, faits)
But that is clearly not the conclusion that was drawn or manufactured by the scientist. They are only
by the majority of Nietzsches disciples. And that is constructions wich have been articially extracted
true as well of his disciples of the right wing, like from the given for the satisfaction of some of our
Spengler, as of those of the leftist orientation, like, needs and interests. If I have evoked that episode
for example, many french deconstructionists. What of the history of philosophy and epistemology in
Musil reproached some real or supposed heirs of France, that is because the question whether facts,
Nietzsche, like Spengler, for, was their tendency particularly scientic facts, are mainly created by
to consider themselves as exempted from the us or possess an autonomous reality and existence
difcult task of examining seriously what he calls is not only important for the philosophy of science.
that mixture of subjective and objective factors It may appear to be also crucial and have decisive
of knowledge, whose distinction constitutes the consequences from the moral and political point of
hard work of sorting out which has to be made by view.
epistemology6 . One could, it seems to me, say That is certainly the way it was considered by
something similar of many deconstructionist and thinkers like Bertrand Russell or George Orwell, who

C O N F E R N C I A G U L B E N K I A N > Q U E V A L O R E S P A R A E S T E T E M P O ? 5
were both convinced that belief in the existence of Orwell did, that there can never be a long distance
objective facts and a certain respect for them and from disparaging notions and values like objectivity
for objective truth is a necessary constituent of the and truth to threatening political and intellectual
democratic attitude and mentality. They thought that freedom itself.
one of the most signicant characteristics of dictatures
is that they need falsity and lie in a way which has 4. What could be learned fom Nietzsche
probably no equivalent in other political systems,
and certainly none in the democtaric and liberal Bernard Williams, in his last book, Truth and
ones. One of Orwells most fundamental convictions Truthfulness, suggests that all the questions which
was that there is an essential link between totalitarian are now discussed in the deconstructionist and
thinking and pratice, on the one hand, and lie, on the postmodernist circles concerning the reality (or
other. It would be very naive to believe that the link unreality) of things like a will of truth, a need of
could be only accidental, temporary and motivated truth and a necessity of truth had already been asked
by special historical circumstances. Orwell thought and thoroughly examined by Nietzsche. And that is
that it would inevitably persist even after the perfectly true. But it is also true that the lesson we
concentration camps have disappeared. In other are supposed to have to draw from what Nietzsche
words, there is absolutely no hope that the real facts said is far from being perfectly clear. And that comes
will simply be kept secret for a moment and be later certainly in part from the tension that Bernard
disclosed in due time. Orwell said that in totalitarian Williams describes between truth, on the one hand,
regimes history is created, and not learned. He and truthfulness, on the other. We surely want truth,
was frightened by the degree to which it has now but we also want to be truthful in our beliefs and
become, in effect, possible to create historical facts assertions, and be sure that what we have reached
and historical truths, and he saw in that process of is really the truth, and not an appearance or an
falsication of the historical reality a major danger illusion of some kind that we have mistakenly taken
for our time and for humanity in general. for the truth. To take for truth and to try to impose as
In 1938, he observed both that there is now a risk, truth what in fact, is not truth and may even be the
in our modern societies, to see the very notion of contrary of it, can indeed have devastating and even
objective truth fade away and nally disappear, catastrophic consequences. False beliefs, doctrines
and that the conditioning of the masses, in the and systems can kill and have killed as surely and
last twenty years, has become a new science. The massively as the most perfected weapons.
two things were, naturally, in his mind essentially But together with the demand for truthfulness or
connected to each other. It is, of course, quite clear the reex against deceptiveness, there is almost
that we are now very far from the kind of situation inevitably, as Williams says, an equally pervasive
he was referring to and that, in the present state of suspicion about truth itself: whether there is such a
our contemporary democratic socities, the threat of thing; if there is, whether it can be more than relative
the advent of a dictature of any kind may appear or subjective or something of that kind; altogether,
extremely remote, not to say purely non-existent. whether we should bother about it, in carrying on
We can therefore, it seems, very well allow some our activities or in giving an account of them7. The
of our most advanced and reputed intellectuals to need of truthfulness, in making us more and more
play quite freely with the idea that, even in our cautious and critical, can, therefore, easily lead to
democratic societies, the attachment to and the a form of radical suspicion concerning the very
respect for objective truth, at least for objective notion of truth and to the idea that there is, in the
truths of the most elementary kind, has ceased to end, no truth of any kind that can be known with
be really necessary and might even have become certainty and asserted without any reservation, or
an obstacle to freedom, creativity, and social and that we should not bother about truth, since, after
political progress. But that does not free us with the all, we have no real means to distinguish it from an
obligation to give a real answer to the perplexities advantageous falsity or illusion of some kind.
and anxieties of people who continue think, as Is it not, in the end, precisely to that conclusion that

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Nietzsche was led by his radical demand for honesty that it is a fundamental mistake to suppose, as
and truthfulness, especially in moral matters, some have done, that the spirit of liberal criticism,
but also in matters of knowledge and science in which implies truthfulness as one of its essential
general ? Bernard Williams does not agree with the components, can without serious damages be
conclusion nor, incidentally, with the tendency to separated from the concept of truth.
attribute it to Nietzsche himself. And I think that he As I have said, I agree with him on that point
is right on both points But it is certainly, to say the and, therefore, disagree with the philosophical
least, not easy to determine exactly to what kind of conceptions Rorty and his followers are now trying
answer Nietzsche did nally arrive concerning the to promote of the relative importance (or rather
question of the use humanity can still make and must unimportance) of truth and truthfulness themselves
try to make of things like knowledge, truth, science, for social and political liberalism and criticism. And
rationality, and the heritage of the Enlightenment. I am inclined to agree also with him in what he
There has been, particularly in the Frankfurt School, says about the case of Nietzsche, when he remarks,
a tendency to insist on the way the Enlightenment rst, that the postmodernist thinkers who maintain
has contributed, directly or indirectly, to engenden that social and political criticism would improve
oppressive systems of an unprecendented kind, considerably its chances to contribute effectively to
mainly in consequence of their belief in an absolute the defence of freedom and justice if it decided to
truth that can be reached by scientic means, not abandon not only any claim to truth for itself, but
only in the case of the natural world, but also in also any reference to the notion of truth, would be
that of the individuals and the societies to which well advised to read him or to do it more seriously,
they belong. And for a long time it is an idea of that and, secondly, that, in spite of what some of his
sort that has dominated largely the reection on formulations could suggest, Nietzsche remained
the politics of the Enlightenment and the political persuaded of the fundamental importance of the
heritage it has left to us. But there is, for Bernard concept of truth and did not try to persuade us to get
Williams, a very different way to consider the rid of it ot to accomodate it as we want. Williams
things, which is much more positive and at least as conviction is that Nietzsche did not see truth as
legitimate as the rst. a thing we can dispense with and was above all
In the view which has become more or less usual, asking how to make it sufferable. He had, in the
the Enlightenment is characterized by a kind of end, no real doubts on the fact, that, independently
tyranny of the theory, and theory, in its turn, as a of the philosophical interpretations, including those
kind of completely external, panoptical vision he tried to construct himself, there are facts which
of everything, including ourselves. And a vision have to be respected.
of that sort, which aims apparently at knowledge, I have, for myself, the impression that Nietzsches
but in reality mainly at control and power, seems position on that point remained until the end
likely to lead and has in effect led to a negation probably more ambiguous und undecided than
of political freedom. But Bernard Williams belongs Williams suggests. But it seems to me difcult to
to the category of thinkers who, like Bertrand envisage that a philosopher who insisted so much
Russell, Noam Chomsky and many others maintain on the necessity to be ready to accept difcult
that there can also be positive links between sacrices for the service of truth and was of the
objective and particularly scientic truth, on the opinion that the value of a man could be measured
one hand, and political freedom, on the other. by the amount of truth he is able to suffer, could
Moreover, independently of that aspect, there have wanted at the same time to encourage his
is another current in the Enlightenment, which is readers to consider themselves as allowed to ignore
that of critique, a critique that has indeed been a the facts or to make of them what they like.
main expression of the spirit of political and social Bernard Williams has headed his book with
truthfulness (op. cit., p. 4). But the Enlightenment two quotations, the one of Proust and the other
was not willing to break the association between of Nietzsche. In Prousts novel, the baron de
truthfulness and truth; and Bernard Williams thinks Charlus, in a discussion of the position of the

C O N F E R N C I A G U L B E N K I A N > Q U E V A L O R E S P A R A E S T E T E M P O ? 7
jusquauboutistes, those who want to see the war that way. Certainly, no spectacular improvement
continue until the complete destruction of Germany, would be produced by the change of attitude
says: I have always honoured those who defend logic philosophers like Russell were ghting for. As the
or grammar. One realizes, fty years later, that they baron de Charlus would have said, he thought that
have averted great dangers. Those who have tried, we should honour the men and the solutions which,
in the context of contemporary french philosophy, as far as we can know, are most likely to avert the
to defend logic, grammar and the respect for facts greatest dangers and to render the worst, if not quite
have, to say the least, not exactly had a good and impossible, at least a little less sure.
easy life. But the rst reactions to the publication of
the french translation of Williams book suggest that 5. On the indispensability of truth
perhaps the situation has begun slightly to change
and that a kind of return of truth or return to I have said almost nothing on the reasons why it
truth has ceased to be completely unthinkable would probably be not only much more dangerous,
and could even very well be announced in the near but also much more difcult, than it is generally
future almost as a scoop and as a great novelty by supposed to be, to try seriously to give up our
our cultural newspapers. To quote or paraphrase concern about truth and our tendency to search
Proust again, il semble que quelque chose soit for truth itself, rathet than for one of its apparently
nouveau en train de changer en France . more modest and manageable substitutes. Bernard
If that is true, it is not quite impossible that Nietzsche Williams has chosen to designate collectively as the
will begin to be read in a signicantly different way deniers the representatives of a style of thought that
and also that a philosopher like Bertrand Russell, extravagantly, challengingly, or as its opponents
who considered as evident that we would run the would say irresponsibly denies the possibility
risk of catastrophs of the worst kind if we tried to of truth altogether, waves its importance aside, or
rid ourselves of the notion of truth or to adapt it claims that all truth is relative or subjective or
to our convenience will be taken more seriously. suffers from some other such disadvantage (op.
Russell and Orwell (who, not surprinsingly, was one cit., p. 5). One of the common characteristics of
of his admirers) never failed to remind intellectuals the deniers is that they have generally concentrated
how dangerous can be the pretension and illusion their attention mainly on the philosophical, rather
to be exempted from the obligation to respect the than the ordinary, uses of the concept of truth, and
facts, particularly the historical ones, and to feel on the well-known difculties and insufciencies of
authorized to despise the kind of modest truths that the philosophical theories of truth, rather than on
we can learn from science. For it is certainly not the concept of truth iself, as it is really used. But,
a kind of positivistic respect for the facts, but an considered in that way, the task which consists in
alleged right to ignore them, in the name of some trying to stop bothering about truth and maybe to
superior insight and mission, that makes the dictator dispense with the concept of truth altogether does
and has made the worst and most criminal of them certainly appear much easier than it is in reality.
in the twentieth century. The task of the philosopher, says Dummett, is neither
There is, therefore, simply no reason to believe to belittle truth nor to exalt it, neither to deny it nor
that those who keep to the idea that the search for to defend it, but to explain why we need the concept
truth is an important task and that the way science and what it is to possess it8. Dummett thinks that
contributes to it cannot be ignored by philosophy Williams is certainly entitled, as a justicationist, to
and in general, can only be people who dream of maintain, against Rorty, that truth, and not simply a
something like the theory that would possess both justication of some kind, is and remains the goal
the absolute truth and the power without limits that of inquiry. But, he observes, since he [Rorty] gives
goes with it and represent, for that reason, from so little account of what, in his view, constitutes
the start a potential danger for some ot our most linguistic meaning, and how it is related both to truth
fundamental liberties. But we must not, of course, and to evidence, he has done little to vindicate his
overestimate the results that could be obtained in entitlement (ibid.). The fundamental mistake that

8 C O N F E R N C I A G U L B E N K I A N > Q U E V A L O R E S P A R A E S T E T E M P O ?
is committed by Williams and still more by Rorty make the concept of truth really indispensable, but
is to ignore the fact that it is impossible to explain only, of course, on the condition that the concept of
the concept of truth independently of the concept of meaning itself has to be considered as indispensable.
meaning: [] What Williams writes comes nowhere The only conclusion that can be drawn, on that
near what is required to elucidate the concept of point, from what Dummett says, is that the concepts
truth an explanation of how we do or can acquire of truth and meaning must necessarily stand or fall
the concept, and an account of that in which our together. And it is difcult to forget that there has
possession of that concept consists; still less does also been, some decades ago, a philosophical
what Rorty writes on the matter. Such an elucidation movement I mean french structuralism, as it was
is possible only when an explanation of the concept called - that proposed seriously to try to make an
of truth is embedded in an explanation of the concept end of metaphysical and/or ideological concepts
of meaning. Williams and Rorty both make the same like those of subject and meaning. As it could
far-reaching mistake, to discuss the concept of truth easily be foreseen, the supposed decline and
otherwise than in the context of a discussion of the disappearing of the subject was followed very
concept of meaning (ibid., p. 107). soon, in the end of the seventies and the beginning
I will, of course, not start discussing here the question of the eighties, by its triumphal return. So that it is
whether Dummetts complaint is really founded and difcult to refrain from asking, as I did, the question
the extent to which it can be considered as decisive. whether there are not serious chances that the same
The important point, for us, is that he and Williams will happen sooner or later with the supposedly
agree on the fact that a kind of indispensability must outdated concept of truth and, more generally,
be attributed to the concept of truth. A chapter of his whether feats like decreting, at a certain stage of
book bears precisely the title The Indispensability the cultural and intellectual evolution, the end of
of truth. According to him, truth is indispensable notions which, from the ordinary, pretheoretical and
and inevitable both from the ordinary and from prephilosophical perspective, continue to appear
the theoretical and explanatory point of view. It as absolutely fundamental and indispensable like,
is indispensable from the ordinary point of view, for instance, those of subject, meaning or truth, are
since the user of a language necessarily has and really within the reach and belong to the possibilities
uses the concept of truth, even if he does not speak of philosophy. The answer to the second question
of it and is not conscious to have and to exercise seems to me to be clearly a negative one.
it: [] The practice of using a language in which But it could be objected that that is by no means
we learn to engage does impart to us an implicit what is really at stake here, since it is quite possible
grasp of the concept of truth (ibid., p. 30). And that, whatever the philosophers may want to afrm
it is indispensable from the explanatory point of ot deny, our modern culture has entered a stage
view, because no theory of meaning, even one of where there is no longer a real place and necessity
the justicationist kind, can fail to use a concept for the concept of truth. Bernard Williams would,
of truth: The concept of truth has its home within of course, consider that supposition as an absurdity,
a theory of meaning, within which it is an essential since, for him, the concept of truth itself has no
theoretical notion (ibid., p. 39); and our theory history, and therefore could hardly have to suffer
of truth is responsible to the theory of meaning some day a real historical decline and dead either.
in accordance with which our language is to be There is, for him, no history of the concept of truth,
understood. We cannot explain truth by taking though there is of course a history of theories of
meanings as given. But we cannot explain meaning truth, of ways to nd out the truth, of ideas about
without referring to what we take the truth of the the true nature of the world, and so on. And there
statements of the language to consist in. is also a history [] of particular conceptions
The solidarity between the two concepts of truth associated with the virtues of true (op. cit., p. 271).
and meaning, which have to be explained together, There is, thus, no need to deny that different and
without the one being considered as given in advance even very different historical conceptions may have
of the other, does indeed seem to contribute to existed concerning the virtues of truth and also of

C O N F E R N C I A G U L B E N K I A N > Q U E V A L O R E S P A R A E S T E T E M P O ? 9
associated qualities like exactness or sincerity. we no longer need truth, but he certainly thought that
But even if we are not ready to grant to the concept we need not only truth, but also falsity, and falsity to
of truth the kind of universality and anhistoricity that a much greater extent than philosophers would like
Williams vindicates for it, the fact remains that it is to believe and maybe even than truth itself. Granted
not possible to afrm simultaneously that a culture that we need both truth and falsity, the question he
and language, for example those of archaic Greece, asked is certainly a meaningful and important one.
has a concept of truth and that truth occupies in Consider for example what Anatole France said on it
it a different place and plays a different role from in the conclusion of La Vie en eur:
those our system of thought attributes to them. For,
it should be clear that, if we correctly translate A question which has to be asked is to
some ancient word as true or vrai, and correctly determine whether the human language is
interpret some ancient Greek writings so that they perfectly appropriate to the expression of
yield references to truth or la vrit, then the truth. It has come from the cry of the animals
terms in question must to a signicant extent play and it keeps the characters of the latter ; it
the role that truth does in our thought (Truth expresses the feelings, the passions, the
and Truthfulness, p. 272). In other words, there are, needs, the joy and the pain, the hatred and
it seems, only two possibilities: either the concept the love. It is not made to tell the truth. The
of truth is nowhere to be found in the language and truth is not in the soul of wild beasts: it is not
culture in question or it has approximately the same in ours, and the metaphysicians who have
place that he does in our system of thought. And the treated of it are lunatics.
temptation to give both an absolutist answer to the The only thing I can say is that I have been a
question of its presence or absence and a relativist man of good faith. I repeat, I like the truth. I
one to the question of its place and function, to believe that humanity needs it; but she surely
which so many contemporary philosophers and has a still much greater need of the lie which
historians have yielded, must be rejected as a atters her, comfort her, give her innite
typical incoherence. hopes. Without lie, she would perish from
A language and culture could, of course, very well despair or boredom9.
include no word that is virtually equivalent to true
and has to be translated by that term. But, according But to say that, one needs a notion of truth of some
to Williams: That does not mean that the people kind, that is opposed to falsity and lie. To say that
who use the language in question did not have the we need the false more than the true does by no
concept of truth our concept of truth, if one insist means signify that we do not need the truth and
on putting it that way, though it is no more ours the distinction between it and the false. In other
than it is theirs. It is everyones concept of truth, a words, the question Do we not have seriously
concept which, though they may well not reect overestimated the virtues of truth and is not, in the
on it, they exercise in doing the things that every end, falsity more useful and necessary than truth?
human group can and must do in using language is quite different from the question Do we need
(ibid., p. 271). Consequently, it is not too difcult truth?, as it is understood by some contemporary
to understand how some philosophers may have philosophers, and must not be confused with it. The
come to think and to claim that the concept of truth latter, seemingly much deeper, question belongs in
is probably no longer necessary or important, and fact to a different category and I am not quite sure
is about to lose its place and role in our language that it is possible to give it a real meaning.
and culture, while continuing themselves to use, as
everbody does, the ordinary concept of truth and
to manifest, already in their use of language, their
implicit adhesion to it and the indispensability they
are in practice forced to grant to it.
Nietzsches intention was probably not to suggest that

10 C O N F E R N C I A G U L B E N K I A N > Q U E V A L O R E S P A R A E S T E T E M P O ?
(Footnotes)
1 Paul Valry, Petite lettre sur les mythes (1928), in
uvres I, dition tablie et annote par Jean Hytier,
Bibliothque de la Pliade, Paris, 1957, p. 966.
2 Robert Musil, LHomme sans qualits, traduit de
lallemand par Philippe Jaccottet, Editions du Seuil,
1956, tome 1, p. 68-69 (abrg dornavant HSQ).
3 Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, in Gesammelte
Werke in neun Bnden herausgegeben von Adolf
Fris, Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1978,
Bd. 5, p.1776 (abrg dornavant MoE).
4 Der Fall Wagner, in Werke, herausgegeben von
Karl Schlechta, Ullstein, Frankfurt/M.-Berlin-Wien,
1981, Bd. III, p. 366.
5 Uber Wahrheit und Lge im aussermoralischen
Sinn, Werke III, p. 1018.
6 Esprit et exprience. Remarques pour des lecteurs
rchapps du dclin de lOccident, in Essais, textes
choisis, traduits et prsents par Philippe Jaccottet,
Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1984, p. 101-102.
7 Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness, An
Essay in Genealogy, Princeton University Press,
Princeton and Oxford, 2002, p. 1.
8 Michael Dummett, Truth and the Past, Columbia
University Press, 2004, p. 116.
9 Anatole France, La Vie en eur, cent cinquante-
cinquime dition, Calmann-Lvy, Editeurs, Paris,
1924, p. 348-349.

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