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Reason's Empire

2003 to 2004
University of Glasgow

In his introduction, Blackburn describes this work as a cursory investigation of the philosophical schools and figures that constitute the debate between relativism and absolutism. Truth is a matter of great importance for all people, but it is particularly significant for those in scientific, philosophical and religious communities. It is to these groups of people that Blackburn’s analysis is directed.

In chapter 1, ‘Faith, Belief and Reason’, Blackburn forms his discussion around the early twentieth-century debate on the nature and limits of belief between Cambridge mathematician William Clifford and American pragmatist William James. Clifford believed that beliefs are exceedingly pervasive in their ability to affect dispositions and effect behaviour. It is better, for Clifford, to risk total unbelief than to engage in beliefs that cause unjust actions. This is not an admonition to radical scepticism, but a turn to radical testing, where beliefs are measured daily against the yardstick of practice. James, in his critique of Clifford, advocated the objectification of belief, arguing that beliefs can be taken up and put down at will—one’s capacity to accept a belief is a matter of inner judgment. Blackburn enlists Wittgenstein in support of Clifford and argues that truthful discourse can only be truthful if it compels one to action. One’s adherence to truth is expressed and determined through what he terms the ‘diagnostic’ of ‘animation’ (p. 17). Thus, truth is not found in one’s belief or assent to discourse, but in one’s acting out or being animated by such discourse.

Protagoras’s often-quoted aphorism, ‘Man is the measure of all things’, and Socrates’ refutation of the same, forms the crux of Blackburn’s argument in chapter 2, ‘Man the Measure’. Though Protagoras is often framed as the epitome of relativism, Blackburn seeks to reinterpret Protagoras by situating the idea of ‘man as the measure’ within a less relativistic, yet by no means absolutist, context. In sum, the truly good is found by an appeal to constructs or rules that are not derived from an alien authority, but stem from the structures of human community itself.

In chapter 3, ‘Ishmael’s Problem and the Delights of Keeping Quiet’, Blackburn addresses the problem of dogmatic relativism, whereby a relativist approach to truth asserts that absolutism is absolutely impossible! This assertion is regarded as clearly fallacious, and is used to highlight the problems one faces when pursuing dialogue between relativists and absolutists. To resolve this antinomy, Blackburn turns to the minimalist approach to truth. For minimalism, it is not the meta-logical question of ‘what is truth?’ that is of paramount concern, but the particular nature of truth in a given situation. Though potentially useful in resolving the conflicts between absolutism and relativism, the minimalist rejection of second-order discourse is not without its drawbacks. Namely, it fails to address the processes of judgment, the nature of the context from which first-order reflection arises and the role of the logos in determining truth. For answers to these difficulties, Blackburn continues his discussion with an appeal to Nietzsche.

Chapter 4, ‘Nietzsche: the Arch Debunker’, examines Nietzsche’s perspectival relativism as a reaction to absolutism. Blackburn develops his discussion of Nietzsche around hisTwilight of the Idols, exploring the means by which Nietzsche attacks metaphysics and the certainty of language. Blackburn concludes by noting that Nietzsche provides his reader with the desire for a clearer understanding of how scientific truth is found, thus leaving the door open for further reflections on epistemology.

In chapter 5, ‘The Possibility of Philosophy’, Blackburn draws back from the preceding discussion of individual historical figures in the study of epistemology, and instead offers a more general survey of the problem of truth. He describes four representative schools of thought: eliminativism, realism, constructivism and quietism. In the spirit of Hume, eliminativism argues that first-order discourse should be done away with. Though knowledge about the world may exist, within eliminativism, one can never be sure that one possesses such knowledge. Rather, one must merely think and be content in one’s thinking. In contrast, realism argues that reality can be truly known and real facts about reality can be grounded on knowledge derived from the logos. Quietism, on the contrary, denies one access to the logos and instead echoes the minimalist sentiment that one can only know what one knows from one’s specific perspective. The constructivists, Blackburn argues, follow a more Nietzschean course, and assert that truth about the world exists, but deny that there is either an overarching truth or a ‘meta-story’ that fully encapsulates truth. He concludes this discussion by positing the work of Wittgenstein as a solution to the competing voices of the four schools, advancing that there is no need for a person to hold to just one theory, but that the truthfulness of a discourse depends on the language rules that operate within a given mode of discourse.

In chapter 6, ‘Observation and Truth: from Locke to Rorty’, Blackburn traces the decline of absolutism. He touches on the shift away from empiricism in Locke and Berkeley as they contribute to the rise of holism in Kant’s thought. He spends the majority of the chapter dismantling Rorty’s position that truth is only a matter of interpretation, and exploring the negative implications of Rorty’s thought within postmodern discourse.

Chapter 7, ‘Realism as Science; Realism about Science’, points out how despite the Rortian-fuelled postmodern leaning towards relativism, in a scientific context, truth can be known ‘realistically’ because the theories of truth are successfully proven in the experimentation of the sciences. Echoing his early comments on truth being that which leads to action, science is understood to be realistically reasonable because its actions shape its theories and its theories are expressed in its actions.

Having raised the epistemology of the sciences above the relativism of the postmodern set, in his final chapter, chapter 8, ‘Historians and Others’, Blackburn follows the work of David Hume in describing a way of ascertaining human nature in relationship to truth, belief and the pursuit of universal solidarity.


  • Michael W. DeLashmutt, University of Glasgow