Books: Political corrections

A leading historian claims the search for truth is under threat from trendy dogma. Lisa Jardine will be the judge of that; Truth: a history and a guide for the perplexed by Felipe Fernndez-Armesto Bantam Press, pounds 12.99
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It is a brave man who offers us a History of Truth, but then Felipe Fernndez-Armesto is nothing if not intellectually fearless. In his previous best-selling book, Millennium, he embarked boldly on nothing less than a definitive retrospective on the past 1,000 years of world history. Eschewing traditional Eurocentric approaches, he tackled his ambitious project from the point of view of an imaginary alien observer at the farthest remove from our own culture, a "Galactic Museum Keeper" from 10,000 years in the future. He then homed in engagingly on the detail of 10 centuries of the past, arranging these myriad gems of information into a mosaic of patterned, resonating significance.

I suspect it was that dauntingly large project which set him on the intellectual path to his present one. One of the most striking things about Fernndez- Armesto's dazzlingly-executed world history was the sublime confidence with which he wheeled his historian's gaze from corner to corner of the global landscape and across immense vistas of time, bringing the same steady light to bear upon Makassar and Timbuktu as upon Europe and America.

"I tried to adopt multiple perspectives," he recalls, "seeing the past from many different points of view closer to the events. For history is like a nymph glimpsed bathing between leaves: the more you shift perspective, the more is revealed. If you want to see her whole, you have to dodge and slip between different viewpoints." The more thoroughly one takes such an approach, the closer the resulting history will approach objectivity: "Even the most dedicated subjectivist should be able to imagine what it would be like: objectivity would be the result of compiling or combining all possible subjective points of view. Every time we take notice of each other, therefore, we get a little closer to truth."

In practice, however, the effect on the reader of Millennium's ambitious reach was a growing sense of personal insignificance, a dawning understanding that their individual grasp of the world was dwarfed by the sheer scale of global history. "Truth" appeared to be dissolving into myriad "points of view".

In his new book, Fernndez-Armesto sets out as a matter of urgency to reclaim absolute truth from the sticky grasp of those who doubt that it is ever accessible to us. The villains of his vigorously partisan piece are the relativists, subjectivists and postmodernists for whom scepticism is a way of life. "The retreat from truth is one of the great dramatic, untold stories of history," he tells us. He proceeds brilliantly to unravel the strands of human ingenuity which have, through history and around the entire globe, pursued "a reality which exists independently of how we, or any number of us, or any individual creatures, perceive or conceive it".

According to Fernndez-Armesto, all truth-seeking techniques fall into four types: the truth you feel; the truth you are told; the truth of reason; and the truth you perceive through your senses. These four sections make captivating reading. He weaves his sources seamlessly together, capturing with succinct elegance each school or train of thought. He integrates his anthropological informants with easy confidence. He plucks anecdotes and ethnographers' tales from the air to persuade us that his deftly constructed story is utterly plausible.

I cannot remember having read anything as intellectually deft on so ambitious a subject. Fernndez-Armesto never patronises his reader, nor does he give any hint of the conceptual dexterity he has exercised in bringing his material into a readable form. Truth: A History is an enthralling and delightful read.

My own reservations inevitably arise in the last two sections, when Fernndez- Armesto tries to reach beyond the rich diversity of his survey and to offer some kind of blueprint for a non-sceptical intellectual future. Like the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides, from whose Guide for the Perplexed this book takes its subtitle, Fernndez-Armesto badly wants to reconcile the world's philosophical systems: to bring Talmudic scripture and the philosophy of Aristotle under one umbrella-truth. But he cannot in the end conceal his personal preference for western authority-based systems: "Authority may not be a reliable guide, but at least its claims are prior to one's own and therefore have a measure of guaranteed independence ... The humility of deferring to consensus or authority, when their views differ from one's own, does one some sort of good, even if its final reckoning is only an exchange of falsehoods."

Nor are we in the end convinced by the repeated claim that this is a conclusion arrived at impartially, after an even-handed survey of all the evidence. In large part, this is due to Fernndez-Armesto's own virtuosity as a writer. His delightful personal interjections have the cumulative effect of tethering his account, in spite of its non-Eurocentric aspirations, firmly to somewhere in North Oxford. Just as Descartes had his asides about the stove in his study, and Merleau-Ponty his glancing references to the pipe on his table, so Fernndez-Armesto has his engaging local detail - the smell of pear drops when a woman applies nail-varnish; the squeak of chalk on the blackboard.

Fernndez-Armesto himself passionately believes we ought to retrieve the conviction that access to truth is possible, and that this is a pursuit in which we are morally obliged to engage. Anything less is tantamount to throwing in the towel: "We can ululate in meaningless frustration, like Miro's dog howling at the moon. Or we can face our limitations, outface doubt and try to make a life for ourselves after it." His own strategy is made clear quite early on: "I exasperate my family by my unwillingness to take any report on trust or any opinion on the merit of the opiner; yet I have no difficulty in being a Catholic and deferring to the authority of the Church, as superior to whatever my own reason or experience might tell me, on matter reserved to ecclesiastical authority." As far as he is concerned, our author is happy to hedge his truth-seeking bets.

Hence Truth: A History presents us with a kind of paradox. Fernndez- Armesto provides us with a dazzling array of strategies for arriving at the truth. He convinces us that the pursuit of truth is a universal human drive. But he also clearly shows how each culture's attempts at certainty are undermined, prove incomplete, and give rise to sectarian attempts to prove that the truth is impossible to arrive at. The more he tries to show me that all these attempts can be made to converge on a single, universal something recognisable to all of us as "the truth", the more doubtful I become.