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Tetralogue and the Fate of Truth

Review of Timothy Williamson’s Tetralogue, by Oxford University Books, ISBN 978-0-19-872888-7.

Tetralogue Throughout Western philosophy, the dialogue has served honourably as a means of expressing arguments accessibly whilst still bearing subtleties. One particular use of the dialogue approach has been to lampoon a weak argument by contrasting it to stronger positions. This is the form of Hume’s remarkable Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published after his death in 1779, and also of Galileo’s famous 1632 Dialogue, that sets out a (partially correct) argument for a heliocentric cosmos. Hume has Cleanthes express an orthodox position that is artfully dismantled by the subtler Demea and Philo, the latter of whom probably represents Hume’s own views. Similarly, Galileo has Salviati represent his own position, Sagredo as a layman whose role is to be won over, while Simplicio (whose name is often taken to imply ‘simple-minded’) espouses the views of the medieval scholastics. Galileo uses this conversation to argue in favour of Copernicus, which he unfortunately supports with a model of tidal behaviour that transpired to be entirely incorrect.

We forget, sometimes, that Galileo was a philosopher – a natural philosopher – since the concept of a scientist was not invented until several centuries later. His Dialogue is an intriguing example not because of the kinds of philosophical subtleties found in Hume’s final book but because of the different interpretations that have since been placed on its characters. The conventional view, as espoused by Arthur Koestler in 1959, is that Simplicio is “the clown who is kicked in the pants” – a view that helps explain why Galileo’s former ally, Pope Urban VIII, turned upon him. But others, such as Joseph Agassi, argue that this overstates the matter: for a start, Galileo was a faithful Catholic, and was surprised that his fortunes turned sour as a result of this book. Thus from the one text we have competing accounts of the truth: either Galileo was a quarrelsome egoist (as Kostler has him), or he was a noble advocate for clarity of thought with a mere touch of vanity (as Agassi has him). Who is right and who is wrong?

This question, taken in its most general form, is the basis for Timothy Williamson’s short but intriguing text Tetralogue. The marketing department at Oxford University Press even smother the cover with the words “I’m Right, You’re Wrong”, which unfortunately creates the impression that this is the title of the book – which in turn implies that Williamson thinks he’s right, and everyone else is wrong. Indeed, despite the suggestion of the book’s blurb that it “invites readers to make up their own minds about who is right and who is wrong”, it’s very hard to imagine anyone thinking that Tetralogue’s Simplicio is right, or its Salviati is wrong. This is a book, rather like Galileo’s Dialogue, that is out to make a point, and the only ambiguity concerns our conclusions about its author.

The book is expressly stated to offer an accessible introduction to philosophy, for which it is well-suited – although it also claims to pose “serious questions” for “old hands”, which is a harder assertion to fathom. Not that experienced philosophers won’t find interesting material here – far from it! Williamson interjects a great many insightful observations into the conversation. But the rhetorical force of the book as a whole presents a case for epistemic and moral realism that is not going to create any fresh discussions among those who already adhere to these positions, and is pragmatically incapable of converting the reader from rival positions because it never truly takes those alternatives seriously.

The story commences as an argument between two travellers upon a train – Sarah, a hard-headed rational positivist, full of faith in the superiority of the sciences, and Bob, who believes his neighbour is a witch responsible for his garden wall collapsing on his leg. Into the fray steps Zac, the relativist, who attempts to negotiate between the two but instead ends up with philosophical egg on his face. Later, they are joined by the brusque and implacable Roxana, who applies logic to everyone’s statements in order to reveal their internal fallacies. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Williamson’s work can probably guess how this is going to go: as a first-class logician who is committed to realism, Bob and Zac take the Cleanthes/Simplicio position of clown, while Roxana stands for Williamson’s professional knowledge as a charmless Philo/Salviati, and Sarah as Demea/Sagredo gets to make a few points that the author supports, but is largely there to be rationally persuaded of the truth.

It is often noted that Galileo allowed Simplicio to be charming, presumably so that he would have something positive about him. Bob and Zac are equally afforded likeable temperaments; Zac functions as the buffoon, whose pants have a big red ‘X’ painted upon them, while Bob serves mostly as comic relief. Both characters are significantly problematic because neither shows any sign that the author takes seriously the positions they are supposed to represent. By comparison, Sarah is rather irritating since she is glibly smug about the correctness of her viewpoint (even when her justifications for it fall apart), and Roxana has been given the personality of sandpaper, perhaps because making her pleasant as well as the mouthpiece of an experienced, professional philosopher would have been overkill.

Despite Bob being constructed as a person who believes in witchcraft, there can be little doubt that he stands for theism – or at least the kind of popular theism that the media in the United States (and intellectuals in the UK) delight in parading around as a purported paradigm case for religion. This becomes clear when in the first part of the book the discussion of teaching witchcraft in schools is raised – a sideways reference to Intelligent Design. His belief in witchcraft provides a smokescreen in this respect; since few if any theists believe in witchcraft, Bob allows (Williamson seems to assume) the folly of ‘superstition’ to be revealed in Bob’s naive arguments. The character fails because no theist will recognize themselves in Bob, and coming at these ways of life from a position of epistemic realism it is impossible to adequately understand why anyone could live this way.

But Zac does no better – indeed, he fares far worse, in part because Williamson makes the interesting point that in the disagreement between positivists and theists (Sarah and Bob in the book), at least both sides respect each other enough to say that the other is wrong. Zac, with his pop-philosophy relativism, is presented as a perpetual back-peddler whose position is always qualified with “my point of view” – the post-modern retort that like the realist’s “that’s just your opinion” serves primarily to set up a higher ground that is denied to everyone else. Zac cites Nietzsche and Wittgenstein as quips and interjections in a way that makes it very difficult to believe he has read either, and therein lies the biggest problem with the entire conversation: if Williamson does not understand the purpose of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, or the challenges to rationality posed by Nietzsche, his philosophical credentials come into question. But if he does understand their work and simply misrepresents them through Zac’s voice, then his arguments here are fundamentally dishonest.

Tetralogue is first and foremost an attack on relativism, which is painted here as a vaguely reasoned striving for ‘liberation’ dressed up as diplomacy. Yet it is impossible to find the views of any philosopher who has waved that particular banner in what Zac says. Feyerabend, the arch-relativist, is not adequately represented here, and neither is what Bruno Latour termed ‘relative relativism’ anywhere on display, although Williamson would appear to accord with Latour’s claim that Feyerabend-style relativism presupposes an absolute position solely to reject it. Rather, Zac is a woolly-headed post-modernist who seems far more interested in being liked – and ultimately getting laid! – than anything else. Perhaps this is a caricature of common or garden post-modernists, but even if this is so there is something seriously misleading in positioning this against Williamson’s logic skills. There are many great points about the weaknesses of generalized relativist claims in Roxana’s dismantling of Zac, but the arguments thus undermined are not those advanced by any contemporary voice in philosophy. Williamson comes across as ducking the argument.

The result is that the author doesn’t seem to be taking on any serious opponents, and the thrust of the conversation is for Roxana to purify Sarah’s imperfect realism in order to rise above the relativistic bad habits she has unknowingly fostered. Here, Williamson is on much firmer ground: attacking the fact-value distinction and its consequences shows the lunacy involved in positivistic positions that reject ethics as a mere matter of personal choice or try to subjugate morality under some implausible totalizing rubric. On such matters, he has many allies, including both Latour and Mary Midgley, who some forty years ago gave strong reasons for rejecting the arcane split between facts and values. If Williamson’s use of clear logic to make similar points gets this across to more people, that alone would make this book worthwhile, although it should be acknowledged that rejecting strong forms of relativism does not constitute any de facto case for realism.

All of this may make it seem as if Tetralogue is not worth your time – but actually, I found it an irresistible read. From the moment it arrived in my hands I was compelled to push onwards, even though (perhaps especially because!) I have substantial disagreements with Williamson’s positions. This brings us back to Koestler and Agassi’s competing views of Galileo. According to Williamson, at most one of these people can be correct: on any given proposition, someone is right, and someone is wrong. Thus spake classical logic – the fate of truth is tied to the principle of contradiction . But it is possible, indeed plausible, to reject the extreme forms of both relativism and realism and recognize aspects of truth in competing claims, especially since on most topics differences in propositions reflect differences in the practices used to establish their meaning. This is Wittgenstein’s insight, and it is not permitted to enter into Tetralogue’s conversation at all. In its absence, it feels as if the author’s argument, like Galileo’s, goes awry by seeing all too clearly where his opponents go wrong, but failing to perceive the limitations of his own case.


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