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Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy Paperback – February 22, 2004

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Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy + The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy + Essays and Reviews: 1959-2002
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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Williams examines the modern tension between valuing and demanding truthfulness vs. doubting that there is truth or regarding it as relative or subjective. His philosophical analysis, which includes both real history and fictional "state of nature" narrative, aims at specifying basic human needs, powers, and limitations so as to account for truthfulness and its value. He regards accuracy and sincerity as the two basic virtues of truth and therefore discusses their relationships to belief, education, authenticity, historical truth, political liberalism (liberty and distributive justice), etc., and also analyzes trustworthiness and deceit in terms of Gricean conversational implicatures. Williams also has some strictures against Rortian pragmatism. Regrettably, his seven-page endnote chapter is sprinkled with untranslated ancient Greek. Otherwise, the book is a model of clarity and discernment.
Robert Hoffman, York Coll. of CUNY
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Honorable Mention for the 2002 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Philosophy, Association of American Publishers

"[Truth and Truthfulness] shows all Williams's characteristic virtues. He is always a pleasure to read, and as it has often done before, his deft, sparkling intelligence newly illuminates an old philosophical subject, scattering light into many surprising corners as it does so. . . . He is consistently amusing, but at absolutely no cost to the depth of the enterprise. And what a wonderful life it would be if even a small proportion of philosophers could write so well."--Simon Blackburn, Times Literary Supplement

"Its virtuoso blend of analytic philosophy, classical scholarship, historical consciousness, and uninhibited curiosity marks Truth and Truthfulness unmistakably as a work by Bernard Williams. He responds to Rousseau and Diderot; Thucydides, Herodotus, and Homer; Nietzsche, Hume, Plato, and Kant; Rorty, Habermas, and Hayden White."--Thomas Nagel, New Republic

"Anyone who wants to understand the relations between the relatively arcane issues concerning truth debated by philosophy professors, and the larger question of what self-image we human beings should have, would do well to read Williams's new book. It is a major work."--Richard Rorty, London Review of Books

"Many colleagues consider Williams the most influential voice in contemporary moral philosophy. . . . [This book] may well have a noteworthy impact. It is Williams' reflection on the moral cost of the intellectual vogue for dispensing with the concept of truth. . . . The patient reader will enjoy the rare experience of watching philosophical and historical scaffolding installed, or revealed, beneath everyday expectations and practices of honesty, trust, doubt, deceit and wishful thinking."--Kenneth Baker, The San Francisco Chronicle

"A model of clarity and discernment."--Library Journal

"[A] brilliant and disturbing book. . . . This is a fascinating and riveting work, and it shows, in a way which no other recent work of philosophy has done, that the subject can be both important and comprehensible--and that is a very considerable achievement indeed."--Alasdair Palmer, Sunday Telegraph

"The book is never dull or nerdy. It is suffused by a sly Oxonian humor and a keen feeling for pleasures and philosophical argument. . . . Yet this playfulness does not detract from its underlying seriousness of purpose: this is a defense of the value of truth against those modern skeptics who deny its existence. . . . [I]t offers the rare pleasure of a first-rate philosophical mind at work."--Edward Skidelsky, New Statesmen

"A new book by Bernard Williams is a big event, and it is not difficult to see why. He writes on important and fundamental issues that are of interest not only to philosophers but also to anyone who wants to understand contemporary culture and society. . . . And above all, he writes with the kind of eloquence, elegance and wit that used to characterize the work of our greatest minds but that has now all but disappeared from academic life. What he writes, people want to read, and what he says, people want to hear."--Ray Monk, Times Higher Education Supplement

"Deftly, and with a certain relish, [Williams] explores the barefaced lying and the many subtler forms of deception and self-deception we practice. . . . The array of arguments he marshals to cast light on the problem leaves little doubt: If you wish to develop your talents, earn the love of another, or pursue justice, then cultivate the virtues of truth."--Peter Berkowitz, Washington Post Book World

"Truth and Truthfulness is the book which has meant the most to me this year. . . . This vigorous, crystalline book is an intellectual landmark."--Richard Sennett, Times Literary Supplement

"Truth and Truthfulness is an ambitious work, and its journeys into history give it a breadth unusual in these days of increased academic specialization. . . . William's book combines real history and fictional constructs to tell a revealing story that makes us reconsider the meaning of familiar concepts."--Julian Baggini, The Philosophers' Magazine

"Elegance and subtlety are the hallmarks of Bernard Williams's philosophical style, both in the quality of his thought and the manner of his prose. His contributions have enriched philosophical debate for decades, and as this absorbing book about the truth and the vocations of truth shows, they continue to do so. . . . Williams's careful, eloquent and searching analysis . . . makes a valuable contribution to philosophy."--A. C. Grayling, Literary Review

"Bernard Williams has been a distinctive presence on the intellectual scene for more than three decades. . . . His writings do not offer the dubious exhilaration of grand philosophical theory, in which messy reality is tamed and caged, but the thrill of seeing pretension punctured by a kind of high-voltage common sense (backed up by impressive erudition). . . . There is no one in philosophy quite like him."--Colin McGinn, New York Review of Books

"Williams observes that unsettling questions about truth have been on the table at least since Nietzsche. . . . Truth and Truthfulness addresses these questions in a clear and cogent . . . manner."--Thomas Hibbs, The Weekly Standard

"Elegance and subtlety are the hallmarks of Bernard Williams's philosophical style, both in the quality of his thought and the manner of his prose. His contributions have enriched philosophical debate for decades, and as this absorbing book about truth and the vocations of truth shows, they continue to do so. . . . [E]ven those who disagree with aspects of Williams's careful, eloquent and searching analysis will acknowledge that it makes a valuable contribution to philosophy."--Literary Review

"If philosophers ever became kings, they would all be like Mr. Williams. His books were clear, funny, dramatic and readable, like great novels. . . . His final book, Truth and Truthfulness, has come along at exactly the right moment. It both describes our current crisis of truth and offers hope for a resolution."--Doug Saunders, Toronto Globe and Mail

"Bernard Williams' last book is the most interesting set of reflections on the values of truth and truth-telling in living memory. His grasp of philosophical arguments is astonishing. . . . The book manages to be both learned and passionate without being pretentious. And of course witty; . . . Williams' analytic expertise is combined with an acute sensibility to historical facts, or claims to fact, about the history of practices of telling the truth about the past, or about oneself. He writes about what Western civilisations do and have done in trying to find out and to tell the truth. The book presents what are argued to be human universals about the values of truth, as opposed to the historical circumstances in which particular ways of finding out come into being."--Ian Hacking, Canadian Journal of Philosophy

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (February 22, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691117918
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691117911
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #316,858 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By D. R. Greenfield on October 30, 2009
Format: Paperback
Bernard Williams had the reputation of being an extraordinarily gifted writer; his prose style has always been admired by his peers. Reading this book is therefore a treat for anyone who loves carefully crafted prose. Beyond that, he was also witty and extremely perceptive, a very rare combination for an English philosopher. Having never read Williams before, I figured he might be a bit of a stuffy intellectual snob. That was definitely not the case; once I got beyond the first few pages, and began really getting into the text, I saw frequent flashes of wit and fine humor. There is also a sparkling intellect behind the written word that makes one continue reading, looking forward to the next insightful observation, of which there are very many.

The book presents a long, detailed look at the genealogy of truth and truthfulness. Williams proposes that the virtues of accuracy and sincerity are attributes of truthfulness. For the most part, he adopts Nietzsche's account of truth (unflinching, brutal honesty), and argues that Nietzsche should not be numbered among the so-called deniers -- postmodern and pragmatist thinkers who subscribe to the idea that truth is completely relative. As such, his reading of Nietzsche differs from the standard view. That is one of the more interesting aspects of the book: that a relatively conservative analytical English philosopher like Williams would validate the work of Nietzsche. Williams strongly maintains that Nietzsche was not a relativist with respect to truth, but that he, like Williams himself, subscribed to the idea that truth must be sought in complete honesty and with unflinching courage, laying aside all the comfortable cultural encrustations that it has come to possess.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Niklas Anderberg on August 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Published in 2002, this was to be Bernard Williams's last book. The concept of Truth has had a rough time since Rorty and company have done their best to bring it in discredit. The dominant trend has been to question the validity of any universal truth and to render everything relative. Your truth is as good as mine. Or alternatively, since truth is not obtainable one should rather seek what is workable. We speak of a giraffe "because it suits our purposes to do so," as Rorty says in Philosophy and Social Hope. We construct the world around us according to our needs and wishes. Knowledge and truth are no more than subjective features of our daily lives. Anything goes... This is, or rather was, the fashionable tenor in academia. Since the first decennium of this century, voices have been raised against this view and in defence of a more commonsensical understanding of truth and truthfulness. "How did so many contemporary scholars come to be convinced of a doctrine as radical and as counterintuitive as equal validity?" asks Paul Boghossian in his 2006 Fear of Knowledge. "The work of Richard Rorty provides striking examples of what in this respect might be described as running on empty," as Williams puts it (p. 59). Consequently, Williams doesn't believe there is such a thing as a history of the concept of truth. It has always and everywhere been the same. "The inquiry, then, is rather into human concerns with the truth" (p. 61).
Williams traces his genealogy with Nietzsche as guiding-star. Contrary to received knowledge, Nietzsche was no enemy of truth; "there are facts to be respected" and "there are such truths" (p. 16). Williams himself stresses the double-edged character of the Enlightenment's relation to truth.
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63 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Flounder on September 10, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Williams is a philosopher of extraordinary depth and insight, and this book is a splendid example of how members of glistening Ivory Towers can indeed address the concrete concerns of those who bustle among the popular hordes of relativism. Williams--a wise veteran philosopher--takes up the topic of truth. He approaches the notions of trust, authenticity, and sincerity, and by contrast, he engages the problems of lies, deception, and infelicity. There are numerous lessons to be learned in these pages, some of which the present reviewer notwithstanding most dutifully needs to assimilate into his own deliberative set.
I cannot stress enough how important this book is in our current social and academic milieu. It reaches into the thoracic cavity of philosophy and liberates its hardened, cold heart by messaging throbbing life into it.
Those persuaded by the respective New Age, Poststructuralism, Relativism bent are highly encouraged to read this book. If your nightstand reading is A Course on Miracles or anything pertaining to Ayn Rand, C. Castenada, S. Maclaine, Lacan, Adorno, Rorty, Derrida, K. Silverman, J. Butler, Krishnamurti, tantric sex, or the healing properties of desert rocks, you MUST read this book. If you believe sand fleas are space aliens and are responsible for the human population of Mother Gaia, order now. Hear Ye, Cultural Relativists and anthropology majors!
I also recommend: Nozick, Invariances; Searle, Social Construction; Krausz, Relativism; Nagel, Last Word; and the Williams corpus.
The fundamental point of discussion here is a tension between the pursuit of truthfulness and a certain skeptical doubt as to whether truth is to be had. This book embraces the nature and scope of philosophical inquiry with subtle, clear, and rigorous arguments.
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