Once upon a time, he tells us, philosophers believed in absolute truth. Then along came relativism, the doctrine that no truths are absolute. In Blackburn's analogy, a relativist is like an archer who shoots an arrow at a barn door, paints a target around it and claims a bull's-eye: "There is no success or failure in this game."
Blackburn sees the moving bull's-eye everywhere in the modern world. The Truth has been downgraded to "truth", in "sneer quotes". Much of this book is about long-running battles between absolutists and relativists. As Blackburn tells it, peace breaks out only when the quasi-realists arrive and suggest we should probably just get on with things. The truth remains a reasonable target, principally because it gets results. In the real world, there are winners and losers: winners draw up accurate maps and design mobile phones, losers read tea leaves and gaze into crystal balls.
An accomplished populariser, Blackburn uses topical examples, from global warming to fox-hunting, and has some nice bons mots. But he offers no statistical evidence for his conviction that there is a "stampede to weird faiths and strange cults". The vast majority are not undergoing Mayan rebirthing ceremonies or being probed by aliens.
Blackburn is a sensible man and wants people to be sensible. He hates astrology, homoeopathy, feng shui and self-help, and has the discriminating mind one might expect of a professor of philosophy at Cambridge. He is firmly in the analytical camp and misses no opportunity to take potshots at Continental philosophers, although he doesn't really engage with them. To his credit, he is unusually sympathetic to Nietzsche and is interesting on Wittgenstein, David Davidson and Richard Rorty.
In Blackburn's view, the quest for truth has utility: "By following scientific method, we get things that work." He wants philosophers to have confidence in the words they use, and to "take the postmodernist inverted commas off things that ought to matter to us: truth, reason, objectivity." After all, as Nietzsche observed, "Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species could not live."
Ian Pindar's biography of James Joyce is published by HausReuse content