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					Talk for the Blackheath Forum by Justine McGill

Truth, truthfulness and internet dating

Are we becoming less truthful? Are the pressures of modern life, the opportunities of
modern technology and the subtleties of postmodern theory leading us all to tell more
porkies? In his last work, British philosopher Bernard Williams attempts a genealogy of
truthfulness, considering the origins, purpose, and historical conditions of truthfulness in
our culture. The motivation for this inquiry is William's concern that a robust practice of
truthfulness (especially in the academic setting) may be the first casualty of the cross-fire
involved in the so-called "Truth wars." But what is it to be a truthful person? Williams
turns to the eighteenth century to answer this question by drawing upon Rousseau's
Confessions and Diderot's Rameau's Nephew. These works suggest that the "Truthfulness
wars" have been running for at least two centuries, and that they are played out not only
in political and scholarly life, but also notably in matters of the heart.


Come rain or shine, my custom is to go for a browse on the internet every afternoon at
about five. I am always to be seen on a certain internet dating site, scanning the latest
profiles of men who've put up their photographs and short descriptions of themselves and
their preferences. It's an unpredictable pursuit – the search can lead me into conversations
with myself on all sorts of subjects: politics, love (of course), taste, even philosophy.
Sitting alone at my computer, I let my thoughts and my fingertips wander in complete
abandon, leaving them free to follow the first wise or foolish idea – or face - that comes
along. On this site, you can send "kisses" for free, which means sending an email
registering interest in the other person's profile. At this stage the process is anonymous,
since everyone uses pseudonyms on their profiles, so you're perfectly free to send
"kisses" to as many people as you like, accosting them all, so to speak, but sticking to
none. If the men who have sent me kisses on a particular day don't appeal to me, or no
one has replied to my kisses, then I take shelter from the sometimes cold and wet weather
of the internet dating world by switching to a chess site, Checkmate.com. There I amuse
myself watching games unfold between players who more often than not are on opposite
sides of the globe. These days, the internet is the place, and this site the place on the
internet where this game is played best. With a bit of luck, you can see masters like the
shrewd Legal, the crafty Philidor and the dependable Mayot sally forth to battle. There
the most amazing moves can be seen and the daggiest exchanges read, for if you can be a
man of wit and a great chess-player like Legal you can also be a great chess-player and a
complete geek like Foubert and Mayot.

At this point, the French names may be arousing suspicion in some of you and inklings of
recognition in others. Most of what I've said up to this point is taken, with a few
interpolations and changes to bring it up to date, from the opening lines of a dialogue by
the great Eighteenth century philosopher, writer, scientist and editor of the world's first
encyclopedia, Denis Diderot. The title of this work is "Rameau's Nephew." In the
original, rather than browsing the internet, the narrator has the habit of going for a stroll
in the Palais-Royal in the centre of Paris every afternoon at about five, and he takes
shelter from inclement weather in the Café de la Régence, a café near the Paris Opera, to
watch great chess games and try not to listen to the tedious conversations that accompany

It's in this café that he encounters an old and odd acquaintance, Rameau's nephew, whom
he describes as "one of the weirdest characters in this land of ours where God has not
been sparing of them." This man is the model for a certain kind of truthfulness – at least
this is the way British philosopher Bernard Williams has interpreted him. Williams goes
so far as to argue that Rameau's nephew displays an awareness of his own mind and his
relations with other people that can be most useful to us, as a guide to the practice of
sincerity in both personal and political life.

So what is Rameau's nephew like? Well, this is a bit hard to say. The narrator of the
dialogue introduces this Rameau by saying that "nothing is less like him than himself."
He is extraordinarily changeable. This is not a sign of deceptiveness or falseness,
however – or not only that. Rameau's ability to transform his appearance, and contradict
himself with conviction, arises from his spontaneous and skilful sensitivity to the
demands of the moment. He is not limited in this adaptability by the common concern of
reputation – he is no hypocrite. He is entirely frank about his motivations, whether they
are base or lofty – and he is capable of both. In general, he doesn’t seem to care what
people think of him, so long as he can entertain them, and get what he needs from them.
He says of himself: "As a rule my mind is as true as a sphere and my character as honest
as the day: never false if I have the slightest interest in being true, never true if I have the
slightest interest in being false. I say things as they come to me; if sensible, all to the
good, but if outrageous, people don't take any notice. I use freedom of speech for all it's
worth. I have never reflected in my life, either before speaking, during speech, or after.
And so I give no offence." This last statement, as the narrator points out, is not always
true. Rameau also contradicts his own description of his habits a little later in the
conversation when his companion urges him to get on with a story he is telling. "Can't be
done," he replies. "There are days when I have to reflect. It's an affliction you have to let
run its course…"

One might say he is consistent in his inconsistency. "I am myself," he declares, "and I
remain myself, but I act and speak as occasion requires." He advises his companion to
"bear in mind that in a matter as variable as behaviour there is no such thing as the
absolutely, essentially, universally true or false, unless it is that one must be what self-
interest dictates."

Early on in the dialogue, the narrator tries to link Rameau's attitudes with the view that
one must accept things as they are, look after our own affairs, and resist judging anything
else as either good or bad, instead affirming the existing order of things as simply
necessary. This could be taken as a Stoic, or perhaps a Spinozan attitude of affirming
necessity and taking joy in what is, or alternatively as a position of practical and
epistemic prudence, recognising the limits of our sphere of interest and knowledge, and
refusing to make moral judgements about matters that lie beyond this sphere. However,
Rameau reacts badly to this attempt to read principles into his behaviour:

"I don't follow much of what you're holding forth about," he says. "It is apparently
philosophy, and I warn you that I give that a wide berth. All I know is that I would like to
be somebody else, at the risk of being a man of genius, a great man. Yes, I must confess
something tells me I would. I have never heard any of them praised without feeling
secretly furious. I am envious. So when I hear something disreputable about their private
lives, I listen with pleasure. It brings us nearer together and makes my own mediocrity
more bearable… I have been and am still angry at being mediocre. Yes, yes, I am
mediocre and angry… In fact I was jealous of my uncle, and if at his death there had been
some fine compositions for keyboard still unpublished, I wouldn't have hesitated to
remain myself and be him too."

In these days of internet communication, Rameau might have found it considerably easier
than in Eighteenth century Paris to remain himself and be his uncle, and any number of
other people, too. Activities like internet dating encourage or even demand that the
individual reinvent him or herself, and many seem to jump onto the world wide web in
order, like Rameau, to "use freedom of speech for all it's worth." This raises the question
of what is happening to the value of sincerity as we learn to interact in virtual reality.
What kind of personal and political resources are required to hold onto a sense of
truthfulness in a rhizomatic world, where information or disinformation spreads like fire
in grass, and rendez-vous take place along evanescent technological highways and
byways, with no central oversight or control, let alone any absolute, essential, universally
accepted standard of truth and falsehood that doesn't boil down to the pursuit of self-
interest? And what will be lost if the resources of truthfulness fail?

"…to the extent that we lose a sense of the value of truth, we shall certainly lose
something and may well lose everything." These dramatic words conclude the first
section in the introductory chapter of Bernard Williams' last book, Truth and
Truthfulness. Given that Williams goes on to endorse Rameau's nephew as a model of
sincerity, and that the epigraphs to the book are taken from Proust and Nietzsche, we
might guess that Williams' own mode of truthfulness is one that can encompass
contradiction, and makes use of style to provoke understanding rather than delivering it
on a plate. He is candid, however, in wanting to direct our attention away from
definitions of truth or attempts to prove that it does or doesn’t exist. Instead he asks us to
consider the value of truth, the interests that are tied up with it, and the price to be paid if
we lose our sense that truth and truthfulness must be linked. More important than the
philosophical positions we take on the question of truth might be the ways in which we
take these positions. Not only our beliefs, but also our senses of ourselves are brought
into question in this inquiry. What is it to be a truthful and trustworthy person and
thinker? What guarantees the authority that comes with this status, either in personal,
academic or political life?

As a philosopher, Williams is worried that the authority of those in the academy,
particularly in the humanities, is being undermined by a corrosive debate between two
styles of thought regarding truth and truthfulness. On one side, there are those he dubs the
"deniers" – thinkers who, as Williams puts it, "extravagantly, challengingly, or – as their
opponents would say – irresponsibly deny the possibility of truth altogether, wave its
importance aside, or claim that all truth is "relative" or suffers from some other such
disadvantage." (quote adjusted). On the other side there is the party of "common sense" –
those who see truth as a self-evident basis for everyday communication, something that
can only be denied at the cost of giving up any claim to be making good sense. These two
parties, as this quick characterisation might indicate, are usually talking past one another.
The first problem in this debate over truth and truthfulness is that neither side takes what
the other says seriously. To put it another way, both feel incredulous that the other side
could possibly fail to share their own point of view. This incredulity leads to a suspicion
that the other party must be not merely wrong, but also either stupid or more likely,
acting in bad faith, and therefore not to be trusted. And so we end up talking about "truth
wars," rather than "truth romances." You can be sure that if a denier and a common
senser happened to come across one another on an internet dating site, chances are they'd
quickly flick to the next profile. As yet, as far as I know, there's no box in which to
express your position on truth on internet dating profiles, but I'm sure they'd be able to
recognise the enemy on the basis of what comes up in the sections on reading and film.

So what's to be done? In a way, William's book can be read as a clever, even wily attempt
to play the part of go-between, perhaps even match-maker to these two opposing groups.
"Make love not war" might be his slogan in response to the truth wars, but if so, it is a
secret slogan. He's well aware that to turn up in the no-person's land between the deniers
and the common-sensers preaching a message of truth as love, or more salaciously
suggesting a bit of online hanky-panky between the two parties, would be to invite
crucifixion or ridicule. So instead he has written a sometimes curiously ambiguous book,
which can be read either as if it were written in the mode of "common sense," or in
sympathy with the so-called "deniers." The surprises of the text come when you've been
lulled into thinking of him as a "common senser," for instance, and then he pulls out
Rameau's nephew as a model of sincerity.

There are plenty of signs right from the beginning, however, that Williams is not going to
take either side in the war over truth, but will rather occupy a position beyond this kind of
judgment – beyond good and evil, you might say. For instance, he begins by
acknowledging that the "deniers'" position is motivated by an intense commitment to
truthfulness, and it is this commitment that has given their position its power. The
problem is that this demand for truthfulness at any price gives rise to suspicion about all
established structures of knowledge, and ultimately about the very concept of truth. As
this critique gains momentum, it seems to corrode its own basis, leaving the thinker
floating, perhaps drowning, in a stormy sea of power relations, where all claims to truth
are merely masks for ideology.

Williams' cites David Mamet's play Oleanna as a good illustration of what can happen to
academic authority in this setting. He points out the young woman in that play, who
eventually destroys her lecturer's career by accusing him of sexual harassment, begins by
complaining that having made sacrifices to come to college, and learn things she didn't
already know, finds herself offered only an unstructured permissiveness. Rather than
providing a clear structure of authority within which she can progress as a student, her
teacher gives her the message that anything goes, intellectually speaking. But this is not
just a matter of the intellect. Minds and bodies cannot be neatly separated in this scenario,
and the student begins to suspect that her teacher also thinks anything goes in terms of the
way he treats her personally: failing to exercise the authority of an institutionally-
mediated commitment to truth, he is left only with the raw power of his position, a
situation that turns out to be threatening to both of them. When relations break down, the
only option seems to be a kind of sexually and legally-charged variation on the theme of
the truth wars. Williams is sympathetic to the lecturer, saying that his actions do not
constitute the sexual harassment that the young woman, with her feminist version of
"common sense," perceives, but he also points out that the man's conduct has created a
space in which almost anything could be understood that way.

What ought to fill this space, so that it doesn't deteriorate into a battle-ground on which
everyone loses? Here Williams points to the merits of the common-sense view of truth.
He thinks that we need to hold firm to the idea of everyday truth. But the point of this is
not in order to lay claim to the correct definition of truth. Rather it is to ensure a reliable
basis for truthful communication, in academic as in personal or more broadly political
relations. Quite simply, Williams argues that if academics want to claim authority, they
must take care to acquire true beliefs, and they must not lie. This is to say that we must
cultivate two basic "virtues of truth": accuracy and sincerity. But we should not be too
quick to assume that we know what these virtues entail. In particular, we should not fall
into the trap of thinking that our "common sense" intuitions about everyday truth can do
all the work here. The challenges posed by the "deniers" have an equally important role –
we need to ask how the role of "everyday truth" is related to larger structures of thought
which are essential to our personal, social and political self-understanding. Here Williams
asks a series of questions that will lead him, several chapters later, to Rameau's nephew.

"How far are the narratives that support our understandings of ourselves and of each
other, and of the societies in which we live, capable of truth? Is truth what they need to
have? Or can they be truthful without being true?" (6) I would add the question of
whether they can be true without being truthful. Think, for instance, of the recent
explosion of narratives about the sexual abuse of indigenous Australian children. The
outpouring of discussion is recent, but it is obvious to anyone who has read some colonial
history that the stories filling our newspapers bear a close family resemblance to tales
dating back a couple of centuries. The story of how indigenous children are sexually
exploited by both white men and men from their own or neighbouring communities is
certainly not new. And who could deny that it is true? But this truth does not guarantee, I
would say, that this narrative will be deployed truthfully, in ways that live up to the twin
ideals of accuracy and sincerity that Williams identifies as giving structure to the practice
of truthfulness. On the contrary, this is a situation in which a horrifying and long-
neglected truth can be used to block truthfulness – to prevent liberal critique from
operating freely or with the sophistication of which it is capable, as people scramble to
establish themselves on the "right" moral and political side of a question drawn in very
broad brushstrokes.
Williams, who does not hide his commitment to a healthy tradition of liberal critique,
indicates his own position on the relationship of truth and truthfulness by saying that
"[w]hile truthfulness has to be grounded in, and revealed in, one's dealings with everyday
truths, it must go beyond truth as displayed in everyday truths. That itself is a truth, and
academic authority will not survive if it does not acknowledge it." (12)

To understand this truth about truthfulness, Williams, following Nietzsche, suggests that
we will need more than pure philosophy, as an abstract analysis of the logical structure of
everyday understandings. We will also need a certain kind of historical sense – indeed we
will need ordinary old history, too – except, of course, that any contemporary historian
can tell you that what constitutes ordinary old history is as controversial as what
constitutes truth, if not more so. We will need historical (as opposed to "common") sense
because ways of being truthful do not just drop down ready-made from heaven. Accuracy
and sincerity, like lying and abuse, and like history and philosophy, are human practices
which have developed over time, responding to social, economic and intellectual
developments, including changes in the understanding of time. Williams has a whole
chapter in his book devoted to tracing the emergence of the notion of historical as
opposed to mythological time in the work of Thucydides in the 5th century BC. Roughly
speaking, he's talking about the emergence of history as the record of public events,
notably military campaigns, wars over truth and power fought out on real battlefields,
organised in linear time which marches ever onwards. This is contrasted with a sense of
time that we in Australia refer to as the dreaming, a time of creation in which cultural and
spiritual imagination and ritual give slowly evolving meaning to human relationships and
relationships to land. Here Williams shows that our understandings of time and history
have a history and a cultural basis, too. Clearly this complicates our reliance on historical
truths and means that contemporary history must have recourse to a kind of philosophical
sense to understand its own various modes of truthfulness: to paraphrase Rameau's
nephew, "There are days when we have to reflect. It's an affliction you have to let run its
course…" Of course, Rameau's nephew also demonstrates that there are days when we
have to act. And they will typically be the very same days, which is to say, every day.

But speaking of Rameau's nephew, let's come back to the question of how this
extravagant character finds his way into a book about truth and truthfulness. Part of what
Williams does in his book is to attempt to write a genealogy of truthfulness, analysed in
terms of the virtues of accuracy and sincerity. He wants to understand where our
everyday assumptions about and ways of embodying these virtues have come from. What
are the ideas or figures that have shaped our imagination and our movements, our ways of
talking and acting, our styles of conflict and seduction, when it comes to the practice of
truthfulness? In the case of the virtue of sincerity, this inquiry leads him to France in the
Eighteenth century where he finds the older value of sincerity being displaced by a more
modern concern: that of personal authenticity.

It is not Diderot who is responsible for, or emblematic of this development, but another
philosopher and literary author, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau is credited with having
written the first modern autobiography. We might fear that this book ushers in a period of
alarming if enthusiastic self-absorption to judge by the memorable declaration with
which Rousseau begins his Confessions:

"I am resolved on an undertaking that has no model and will have no imitator. I want to
show my fellow-men a man in all the truth of nature; and this man is to be myself.
        Myself alone. I feel my heart and I know men. I am not made like any that I have
seen; I venture to believe that I was not made like any that exist. If I am not more
deserving, at least I am different. As to whether nature did well or ill to break the mould
in which I was cast that is something no one can judge until after they have read me."

Having situated himself beyond good and evil, so to speak, in the debate over truth,
Williams naturally does not take up Rousseau's invitation to judge the moral value of his
unique personage. However he does make some critical points about Rousseau's method
and the cult of authenticity and individual "difference" it helped to establish. He is
particularly concerned about how the cult of authenticity translates into political
practices. In particular, he suggests a link between Rousseau's political project, his
practice of truthfulness as authenticity, and violence. Historically, Rousseau's ideas are
said to have inspired many who were involved in the Terror which followed the French
Revolution. The implication is that a conviction in one's own authenticity and a moral
authority based in this authenticity can too easily harden into a willingness to commit
violent acts in the name of truth and right. This might seem defensible if such authenticity
could be reliably identified with a higher social and political truth, but as Williams points
out, the vagaries of Rousseau's own story, involving plenty of revelations of petty deceit
and less than honourable romantic liaisons, not to mention complete neglect of his own
children's welfare and upbringing, made more shocking by his insistence on telling other
people how children should be educated, amply demonstrates that the self revealed by
sincere self-exposure may not be a citizenly self, but quite the reverse – a selfish,
irresponsible, perhaps troubled and socially alienated self. Rousseau's project of self-
disclosure also suggests that authentic self-understanding may be elusive – in the end, we
may find ourselves in the dark about what we most want or need.

The impetus for setting up authenticity as a characteristically modern value lay in the
attempt to regain in some reflective form the unexpressed certainties that are supposed to
have structured the pre-modern world. Rousseau's Confessions are marked not only by
the affirmation of the uniqueness of the individual, but also by the sense that individual
identity is changeable – I can transform myself by taking on a new social role. But having
taken on this role, I then become it – make it authentically my own, fixing it in my
personal, linear history. The paradox involved in trying to reconcile a sense of the self as
unique with that of an actor playing socially defined roles is a fundamental and
destabilizing structure of modern identity. In Rousseau, it tends to harden into a position
that anticipates and reinforces moral judgment.

Diderot approaches the same problem differently. In the character of Rameau's nephew,
and his exchanges with the more conservative, indeed moralistic narrator of the dialogue,
Diderot leaves the paradox open. There is no self that can be revealed on the spot, and at
the same time, Rameau is, as he says, always himself. Contradiction is the air we breath.
And Rameau's nephew has a great set of lungs, ready to express himself in song and in
extraordinary one man operatic performance as readily as in speech. The fluctations of
his conversation expose rather than cover over his dependence upon others, and his place
in a rapidly shifting social milieu. This is what Williams finds attractive about this
character. In the fanciful flights of his conversation, it may be obvious that Rameau's
nephew does not limit himself to telling the truth, but this is perhaps because he
intuitively or reflectively recognises that the truth is something that cannot be
"authentically" or definitively told. The practice of truthfulness requires this recognition
and the openness to more than one perspective that it implies.

In the end, Williams prefers Diderot’s model of self-creation to Rousseau’s version of
self-definition because in Rameau’s Nephew we find a sense of self that emerges out of
dialogue rather than soliloquy. For Diderot, the self, as a basis for the practice of
truthfulness, is inherently social and political. This means that it is changeable and
impermanent, but also dynamic and responsive to new challenges – like those posed by
new technologies of communication. There is no essential self, no singular role we must
play in order to be truthful. Instead, truthfulness is a practice that we must engage in
together. And both truth and truthfulness will be better served if both the “deniers” and
the “common-sensers” recognise this, loosen their attachment to the “authenticity” of
their own perspectives, and dare to send each other a few philosophical “kisses.”

Having argued that truthfulness can emerge only through dialogue, at this point it
behoves me, as Nietzsche would say, to fall silent, at least long enough for the
conversation between us to begin…