"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Beneath all the divisions of contemporary society — between, say, the religious and secular worldviews, red-state conservatives and blue-state liberals, the bicoastal “cultural elite” and the heartland “moral values” set — philosopher Simon Blackburn sees something deeper. These are all distorted manifestations, he thinks, of a “war of ideas and attitudes” that underpins the way contemporary human beings view their world. This is a war over what we know, or think we know, and how we know it. It’s a war over the nature of truth.
All human societies — and all individuals, Blackburn argues — must confront the problem of truth. Although common-sense reasoning is a useful part of our armature (unlike some philosophers, Blackburn defends it), it isn’t entirely sufficient. Can we say with certainty that things we think are true really are? Is the earth really a sphere 93 million miles — or 150 million kilometers, if you prefer European truth — from the sun? Is democracy a superior form of government, and capitalism its necessary corollary? Are slavery and female genital mutilation morally wrong? Did the Red Sox really win the World Series?
Or are these and all other so-called truths merely cultural and political constructs, more or less useful fictions we blind and feeble animals create as we stumble through an unknowable universe? To quote the great American philosopher William James (as Blackburn does often), “Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?” To quote your stoned sophomore-year roommate, “How do we know any of this is real, man?”
By now you may be nodding sagely, or you may be flinging your half-decaf latte across the room in a white-hot rage. But whichever side you’re on, and even if your impulse is to stake out some kind of pseudo-agnostic middle ground, Blackburn’s lively new book “Truth: A Guide” will challenge and surprise you. Furthermore, Blackburn wants to turn your political assumptions about this dispute upside down. He is clearly a leftist and an opponent of the Iraq war, who uses any opportunity to take gratuitous digs at George W. Bush and Tony Blair. But he believes the left has damaged itself irreparably because of its postmodern refusal to talk about truth and its avoidance of the open disagreement such claims inevitably bring. Meanwhile, the right wing has waged crusade after crusade while wrapped in the mantle of absolute truth, despite the fact (he argues) that its notion of truth is a slippery, cynical one.
Contrary to the impulses of some conservatives, the conflict Blackburn describes did not begin with the 1960s, or result from the invasion of American and British universities by incomprehensible Frenchmen. Those were symptoms, rather than causes, of a conflict that goes back to the beginnings of philosophy as a discipline. The two opposing camps in this war have had various names and shifting loyalties over the centuries. One could speak, Blackburn writes, of “traditionalists versus postmodernists, realists versus idealists, objectivists versus subjectivists, rationalists versus social constructivists, universalists versus contextualists, Platonists versus pragmatists.” While admitting that these contested sets of labels are by no means all equivalent, Blackburn insists these dogs are fighting over the same bone: an absolute view of truth vs. a relative one.
Blackburn is clearly sympathetic to the absolutist cause. Indeed, the opening passage of “Truth” thunders like an absolutist call to arms: “There are real standards. We must fight soggy nihilism, skepticism and cynicism. We must not believe that anything goes. We must not believe that all opinion is ideology, that reason is only power, that there is no truth to prevail.” This should surprise no one; Blackburn is a distinguished figure in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, with a long teaching career at Oxford, North Carolina and Cambridge (his current home). He skates past Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, the dragons of Continental postmodernism, with scarcely a sideways glance.
Relativists, Blackburn tells us, sneer at notions like truth, reason and objectivity. They “see nothing anywhere that is plain, unvarnished, objective, open, transparent or unfiltered. They debunk and deny … They insist upon the universal presence of happenstance, brute contingencies of nature or culture or language or experience, that shape the way we see things.” Emblazoned on the relativist coat of arms we find Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”
Yet Blackburn is too slippery a fish to be caught in his own net. As he writes, his book is likely to make dogmatic adherents of both positions unhappy. (His opening passage, it turns out, is something of a rhetorical device.) He does indeed believe that there is “something diabolical in the region of relativism, multiculturalism or postmodernism, something which corrupts and corrodes the universities and the public culture.” But he isn’t coming at this question the way you might expect, by literally or figuratively thumping the Bible and proclaiming the death of morality and decency. His disdain for Christianity (and for religious zealotry of all kinds), in fact, is only matched by his disdain for what he sees as the opportunism of the political right.
Among the prominent relativists of our time, he suggests, are George W. Bush and Tony Blair and their cynical supporters. The relativist rolls with the political tide, he writes, and understands reality as existing only inside its ebbs and flows. (The relativist, for instance, might constantly change his story about why invading another country was a good idea.) It is the absolutist who believes that laws like the Patriot Act, which trample on basic rights of due process, are not legitimate laws at all, “but only the commands of a gang that happens to have gained power.”
Furthermore, while it’s unfair to give away the ending of the story, let’s just say it’s not easy to summarize exactly where Blackburn comes down. Yes, he is morally and intellectually drawn toward absolutism, but he concludes that absolutists have ceded so much philosophical ground over the years that it’s not clear they can claim any kind of victory. In his crisp and vigorous history of the debate, he argues that both sides have scored some telling hits and that, contradictory as it may seem, in the final analysis the truth — that is, the truth about truth — lies somewhere in between.
The conflict between absolutists and relativists goes back at least 2,400 years, to the day when Socrates confronted the followers of Protagoras in the Athenian marketplace (as recounted in Plato’s dialogue “Theaetetus”). Blackburn thinks it was already an old feud by that time. Protagoras had written a volume called “The Truth” (now lost), which famously argued that man is the measure of all things, “of those that are, that they are, of those that are not, that they are not.” As Blackburn notes, there isn’t much consensus among later philosophers as to what was meant by this cryptic utterance, but Socrates reads it as a relativist doctrine, an argument that “truth and falsity are dependent upon individual impressions.”
Naturally Socrates (and Plato) set out to demolish this, pointing out to Theodorus, one of Protagoras’ acolytes, that the premise is self-refuting. Since most people believe in objective truth, and Protagoras suggests that truth lies with the individual, Protagoras is in effect “conceding the truth of the opinion that he is wrong.” Theodorus of course relents, and the authority of absolute, independent reason and truth — what the Greeks called “logos” — is restored. (Blackburn takes a moment to muse on what the Socratic dialogues look like without Socrates’ speeches — a succession of comments like “You’ve got me there, O Socrates” and “There’s no resisting that, O Socrates.”)
As Blackburn explains, Socrates is using a classic “‘recoil’ argument” employed against relativists to this very day. Sometimes the self-refutation of relativist principles is obvious; Blackburn cites as an example the statement “In recent years, historians have discovered that there is no historical truth.” (Really? And when was that?) More generally, the idea is that those who reject absolutism must resort to some notion of reason or truth, even in the act of denying that truth exists. If Foucault or Paul Feyerabend argue that science, history and all other areas of human knowledge are nothing but contingent expressions of political power and a specific cultural moment, do they claim to stand outside those processes?
But the recoil argument wasn’t enough to refute relativism. Blackburn argues that Socrates is, as usual, spinning his opponent’s argument in an especially unfavorable light in order to present a Manichaean choice between reason and anarchy: If we don’t accept “logos,” with its guarantee of fixed and immutable truth, we descend into the maelstrom. But from Protagoras to Hobbes to Nietzsche to Richard Rorty, the relativist camp has never argued that concepts such as truth and falsity were meaningless. Instead, they’ve pointed out the ways in which our understanding of these things is variable and subjective — and is more a matter of practical consequences than of ultimate authority.
Essentially, the relativist argument boils down to the idea that words such as “rational” and “true” are useful and meaningful in certain contexts, but that the concepts behind them are always “socially constructed.” If the absolutist wants a “special validation” for his opinions — the confidence that he is speaking absolute truth — the relativist insists that no such thing exists. If we believe that murder is wrong, or that the earth revolves around the sun, those are the norms of our society, and we shouldn’t make assumptions about what philosophers call their ontological status.
Blackburn is right that both sides will groan at his summary of their arguments (and still more at this summary of his summary), but the great achievement of “Truth” is to encapsulate the major lines of argument on this intractable question within the covers of a book you can read in a day or two. His chapter on Nietzsche, the fountainhead of modern philosophy and the patron saint of relativism, is worth the price of admission by itself, whether or not you buy Blackburn’s view of the great mad German as a skeptical, Darwinian pragmatist.
The tour also includes brief visits with Berkeley, Locke, Kant and Heidegger (for whom Blackburn can’t conceal his dislike). In our own time, Donald Davidson, Thomas Nagel and Hilary Putnam fail to rescue the absolutist cause, while the arch-pragmatist Rorty is seen as abandoning any workable notion of truth and lending solace to “the relativistic postmodernists and their ilk, the ‘bullshitters’ of the academy.” Most important, though, is Blackburn’s eccentric pair of philosophical avatars, the thinkers he sees as attempting to collapse this dispute and define a habitable middle ground: David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
But before getting to Hume and Wittgenstein — and in fact before getting to Socrates and Protagoras — Blackburn begins with an obscure 19th century debate over the nature of religious belief between William James and the mathematician William Clifford. It’s a peculiar and puckish opening chapter, in which Blackburn seems to delay his central discussion in order to mount an attack on the validity and power of religious faith. “‘Faith’ is a word with a positive ring to it,” he observes acridly, “although of course it rings really positively when it means ‘faith like ours’ rather than the conflicting faiths of others.”
Taking Clifford’s side in his dispute with his illustrious opponent — who defended the private, “passional” nature of religious belief — Blackburn finds an argument that underpins the rest of “Truth.” Clifford was no atheist, but he contended that there was “a duty to believe carefully, in the light of reason alone.” Reason could be identified not by its results but by its method: It consists “not in propositions or statements which are to be accepted and believed on the authority of the tradition, but in questions rightly asked, in conceptions which enable us to ask further questions, and in methods of answering questions.”
Blackburn goes on from here to suggest that people animated by religious ideas of truth do not literally believe in the power of Jesus or Mohammed, or at least not in the same way they believe in more mundane categories of truth, like the necessity of gasoline or mortgages. There may be something to this if we’re talking about bourgeois Westerners and “mainline” religions, but Blackburn seems almost unaware of the possibility that for some people religious belief can be even more potent than belief in the everyday world. Given the history of the 21st century so far — and given the fact that Blackburn spent several years living and teaching in the American South — this is a bizarre oversight.
Religion may be Blackburn’s biggest bete noire, and arguably his biggest blind spot (although many readers will also question his cranky and unsophisticated reading of French-fried postmodern philosophy). After a hilarious and patently unfair riff on Bertrand Russell’s parody of Christianity– in which Russell imagined a world religion that worships a flying teapot, which cracks and then becomes whole again — Blackburn moves on with his real mission. This is to connect Clifford’s faith in the methodical asking and answering of questions to the problem of truth. Blackburn sees both Hume, the hardheaded 18th century Scotsman, and Wittgenstein, the 20th century Viennese dreamer, as embracing an empirical approach to truth and rejecting supernatural and metaphysical modes of philosophy. (He does not elide the differences between them: Hume was openly hostile to religion, whereas Wittgenstein respected religious belief and was attracted to religious rituals — he even considered becoming a priest — but thought they had nothing to do with reason.)
Most important, neither Hume nor Wittgenstein can confidently be defined as an absolutist or a relativist. Both are more concerned with how we think and talk than with whether what we say reflects any outer reality, so in that light both are relativists. Hume believed that reason did not lie at the root of human thinking, and Wittgenstein saw all of human philosophy and science as a “language game,” in which judgments of absolute value become impossible.
But within Hume and Wittgenstein’s shared rejection of any Platonic ideal of “logos,” Blackburn finds room for a notion of truth as something more than a fragile social agreement. Both saw the natural and physical sciences as inherently different from more abstract realms of thought; Hume admitted that we could see consistent patterns in the world around us, and Wittgenstein said that physics or mathematics, unlike philosophy, involved propositions that could be borne out or disproved by reality.
Put simply, both these eminent philosophers were pretty happy with the common-sense idea that the world exists, and that if we can never be totally confident that we’re observing it the way it really is, we can be clear about certain categories of truth, within appropriate limits. One aspect of this is the doctrine called “minimalism,” which holds that we can respond to certain kinds of truth claims by responding only to the specific questions they raise, and deliberately ignoring all bigger puzzles and conundrums. For a minimalist, as Blackburn writes, “It is the issue that is the issue.”
In this view, our opening question about the Red Sox and the World Series is answerable in ordinary terms, without engaging the paranoid theories of Yankee fans or approaching the question of whether baseball really exists or is, as Baudrillard might have it, a “simulacrum” designed to drain off political or revolutionary impulses. (Whether the event in question possessed epistemological and even theological consequences for those who witnessed it is quite another matter.)
When it comes to the sun’s distance from the earth, of course most of us don’t really know whether it’s 50 miles or 93 million. But we’re likely to accept Clifford’s notion of method: We believe astronomers have asked the right kinds of questions carefully enough, have double-checked their math and have had their theories picked over by rivals at other universities. So a minimalist accepts the number as true, with the usual scientific asterisks attached: It’s only an approximation (the real distance is always changing, thanks to the planet’s elliptical orbit), and it’s always possible somebody else will come along with a better answer. The point is that the question demands a Google search of astronomy Web sites, not second-order speculation about whether the universe is a delusion or our standards of measurement are hopelessly flawed.
So far so good. Minimalism can produce widespread agreement on questions most of us view as straightforward and factual, and it stands mute, as Hume and Wittgenstein variously do, before huge metaphysical questions. But it can do nothing, Blackburn says, “to diminish the chance of moral conflict” or “to reassure us about the moral truth, the right normative order, the operating manual of the universe.” When the question is about democracy, or capital punishment, or genital mutilation, minimalism leads to disagreement rather than consensus. To Blackburn, this is entirely healthy.
In fact, Blackburn thinks, such open conflict is the way out of the moral swamp of postmodern relativism, in which his opinion of these issues, like George W. Bush’s or Osama bin Laden’s, is just another contingent subject position (or whatever the current jargon would say). Blackburn clearly believes the left has lost the courage of its convictions in the age of persistent and corrosive relativism. Afraid of offending others in this pluralistic, multicultural age — regardless of how barbaric or ill-informed the opinions of others may be — liberals become increasingly incapable of standing on any moral principle whatever. Once upon a time the Democratic Party was clearly in favor of unionizing the workforce, protecting the environment, legalizing abortion and ending the death penalty. Is any of that true today?
This comes close to a modern heresy, although Blackburn is merely preaching something most of us practice: No matter what we think, or what we think we think, there is always a bottom line. It is soggy thinking to argue that we must show respect and tolerance for those who support suicide bombings against civilians, or executing juvenile defendants, or forcibly removing the sexual organs of young women. If we don’t agree with Hamas or Tom DeLay or whoever, then the whole point of our position is that we do not tolerate either their views or their actions. We want to defeat them, and that requires stating confidently that our position is right — something that philosophical relativism, at least in this account, makes almost impossible.
Blackburn also rejects the unhappy postmodern notion that we are hopelessly trapped in our cultural and historical moment, unable to judge or appreciate the perspectives of other places and other times. He shares Hume’s Enlightenment faith that we can find enough uniformity beneath the world’s diversity to treat other people as “conversible,” as our potential economic and political partners. When we encounter “otherness,” in this view, it becomes gradually less alien to us; we change it and it changes us. (Many scholars, it should be said, would cast Hume’s analyses of history in a harsher light.)
You might say that Blackburn thinks the relativists have won all the battles but lost the war. In driving off “logos,” with its “underlying foundational story,” they have done us all a favor, and they remind us that the question of whether to tolerate alternative truth claims or oppose them harshly is always a difficult moral calculus. If we’ve lost absolute truth, we never really needed it — our best efforts at anchoring our beliefs in reason, like Clifford, will have to do.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)