16 January 1997
Thank you for your letter of 6 January, and your piece on the concept of truth etc.
Nietzsche begins Beyond Good and Evil by raising the question of the 'value' of 'the will to truth': 'Suppose we want truth: why not rather untruth? and uncertainty? even ignorance?' — You will find that one of his major themes is the perspectival nature of human knowledge; the fact that we are not disinterested seekers after truth nor would wish to be; and that a given truth, though beneficial to some, might destroy others. (On the disinterested view, we should seek the truth even at the cost of self-destruction.) So it seems your wife has spoken like a true Nietzschean.
In my cautious view (admittedly based on less evidence concerning your vulnerabilities than is available to your wife) you would be able to read Beyond Good and Evil (and The Genealogy of Morals, Twilight of the Idols, The Anti-Christ) and survive to tell the tale. Though you would perhaps not survive with your views and perspectives unchanged. Nietzsche not only serves as a much-needed antidote to present trends in 'analytic' philosophy, but provides a vital clue to understanding the development of twentieth century culture (and not simply because of Hitler). Anyone who wants to think seriously about ethics and value systems ought to face the challenge of reading him. You can learn from Nietzsche without becoming a Nietzschean, just as you can learn from Marx without becoming a Marxist. In fact, we all have: his ideas permeate modern cultural criticism, just as Marx's ideas permeate sociology and political theory. That aside (though Nietzsche would probably despise me for saying this) we all can do with an occasional change of mental diet; though it might be argued that someone who spent all their time reading him would be liable to develop serious (and possibly intellectually 'life'-threatening) nutritional deficiencies.
There was a book written not so long ago on the Freudian 'scandal'. I wonder whether it can really be true that the Viennese families whose daughters Freud analysed were so incest-ridden. I won't speculate about alternative explanations. Even Popper recognises that no scientific activity could get underway if we did not protect our valued theories with 'auxiliary hypotheses' (as Newton did when he discovered inexplicable perturbations in the orbits of certain planets). — Of course the auxiliary hypotheses chosen might turn out to be the wrong ones!
Re Marx, an early (1933) book by John Macmurray which I just purchased second-hand, The Philosophy of Communism, predicted that the most likely targets for Communist take over were not the developed capitalist countries, but rather 'China, Japan and India'. Communist revolution, he argued, is an 'organic' change that depends upon unthinking mass action. (Macmurray's later Gifford Lectures, published by Faber as The Self as Agent and Persons in Relation, had a big influence on me. I learnt recently that Tony Blair was (is?) a keen fan of Macmurray's work. That seems to explain a lot — though I certainly do not count myself as a fan of Tony Blair.)
Now to your essay:
'Is civilisation making progress?' is a typical Brains Trust question. (I remember hearing a recording of Joad reducing the question to its essentials by pointing out that we first need to define a goal in relation to which success or failure in 'progressing' is to be defined.) But there are two quite separate questions here. One relates to the Fukuyama idea of the 'End of History', and the possibility that a civilisation might reach a kind of plateau. I do not see why that is not impossible in principle. Getting older, learning more, amassing memories do not add up to having a 'history', or 'making progress' in any interesting sense. The other question is whether there is some definable goal (e.g. the Just Society) in relation to which we might be either making progress or falling back. In principle, progress towards such an 'ideal' can be infinite (or asymptotic). There is no need to posit a Utopian end state where the goal would be finally achieved.
My feeling is that while there is infinite scope for improvement, it is also contingently possible that things could get worse and worse (never reaching a Distopia) or reach a plateau. (Nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophers such as Spencer and Alexander were strongly influenced by Darwin's theory, and sought to generalise the idea of evolution. For Alexander in Space, Time and Deity, for example, God did not exist as yet but was the final stage in the evolution of life and consciousness. This is clearly stretching the notion of 'evolution' beyond any intelligible connection with Darwin's idea.)
Regarding linguistic 'truths', Quine's attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction in 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' (reprinted in From a Logical Point of View, Harper) is compulsory reading. I don't recall whether I have mentioned this before. In science, definitions are always provisional, and the relatively few pure equivalences in our language (such as 'batchelor' and 'unmarried man'?) merely point to redundancy. A 'deciduous' tree that was fed a special chemical might keep its leaves all through the Winter. Indeed, the majority of 'deciduous' trees might turn out to have a natural tendency to keep their leaves (and only lose them because of certain adverse conditions) just as pure gold is not yellow, but white. Once it is recognised that coining a concept involves a substantial claim about the world — that concepts can be rejected — the class of purely 'linguistic' truths all- but disappears.
I continue (?) to disagree with you about Tarski. Truth is the only concept that can be plugged into his 'T' schema. That is the value of the schema — in uniquely identifying the concept of truth. But it does not tell us anything about what it is for a statement to be true. In particular, it leaves the realist/anti-realist dispute wide open. (Tarski, I would claim, merely gives a re-formulation of what Ramsay intended by his Redundancy theory: though this view has been disputed.)
The rest I read as an interesting commentary on the 'indefinite defeasibility of verification'. One of the objections to the pragmatist theory of truth, however — which some of the things you say seem to imply — is that 'success' or 'failure' of action or 'good' and 'bad' consequences cannot simply define truth, for the simple reason (as I think Russell put it) that one can raise the question whether it is in fact true that those consequences follow...