Book Review: True to Life - Why Truth Matters

June 01, 2008

Book Review: True to Life - Why Truth Matters

The response to the idea that truth matters can vary from a naïve nod to a cynical smirk. For some, the notion of truth is an irrelevancy that serves only to either simplify complex issues or complicate simple issues. Others, however, hold the pursuit and understanding of truth to be of paramount importance— without obtaining the clarity that truth provides, any action, belief or concept is meaningless, if not dangerous. It is between these positions that Michael P. Lynch’s True to Life: Why Truth Matters is situated.

In this book (of only 181 pages), Lynch lucidly examines the key debates that surround contemporary views of truth, and the implications that these views have for public and private life. Lynch argues that the view one holds about truth will invariably influence personal happiness, political involvement and intellectual integrity. Before examining True to Life more closely I will offer some general remarks.

Whether or not the divide between what is commonly known as Analytic Philosophy and European Philosophy1 is as significant as some commentators maintain, there is a degree of antagonism that makes reasonable and measured discussion between the two a rare occurrence. In True to Life, however, Lynch discusses theorists and theories from both camps without reducing them to shadows of straw men. This is particularly evident in Lynch’s discussion of theorists from the European tradition, who are notoriously reduced to mere caricatures by their Analytic detractors. While by no means exhaustive in his analysis, Lynch discusses the contribution of Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault on the debate about truth without reducing them to ‘postmodernism’ or simple-minded ‘relativism’. Lynch’s discussion of both the Analytic and European traditions gives evidence to the way that he suggests the pursuit of truth should shape intellectual integrity.

A second general remark about True to Life is that Lynch does not have an idealised view of humanity. He does not think that, with the correct grasp of truth, humans will be able to throw off the shackles of X, where X is poverty or war or tyranny or illness. Rather, Lynch is well aware that humans, whether they are children squabbling over the last lolly or scientists over the significance of discovery, will twist circumstances and events to be more favourable for themselves. Lynch is not only aware of the selfishness of humans, but also our limitedness with regard to both experience and intellectual ability. This awareness of the corruption and limitation of humanity gives Lynch’s arguments for the significance and importance of truth a refreshing degree of humility and relevance.

True to Life is divided into three parts: Cynical Myths, False Theories and Why Truth Matters.

The first part, Cynical Myths, serves two purposes. The first is to outline what Lynch calls truisms about truth, while the second purpose is to outline and critique common misconceptions about truth.

The four truisms that Lynch suggests are: truth is objective, truth is good, truth is a worthy goal of inquiry, and truth is worth caring about for its own sake. The first truism is the most significant as it provides the basis from which the other three are developed. By ‘objective’, Lynch does not mean ‘mind independent’ or ‘absolute’; rather he argues that truth is objective in a minimal sense. In arguing for the minimal objectivity of truth, he is not so much arguing for the possibility of being correct, but that we are often mistaken and can not know everything. Lynch argues that by acknowledging that neither we nor anyone else can know all things, we are committed to a minimal sense of truth’s objectivity. From this minimal conception of the objectivity of truth, Lynch develops the argument that truth is a good and worthwhile pursuit that matters.

The second part examines three of the more sophisticated theories of truth—pragmatism, naturalism and deflationism—all of which have an influence over intellectual, political and moral activity. As noted, Lynch surveys different theories and theorists throughout True to Life, however his primary sparring partner is Richard Rorty and his pragmatism. While Lynch doesn’t claim to irrefutably dismantle pragmatism, or any other theory for that matter, he does provide convincing arguments for its rejection. The details of the debate between Lynch and Rorty are too complex to outline here. However, the fact that Rorty felt prompted to respond to True to Life in a review in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research2 is evidence of the force of Lynch’s argument.

The final part of True to Life is where Lynch most strongly puts forward his argument for why truth matters. In this part he argues that truth matters for personal happiness, intellectual integrity and the maintenance of a stable liberal democracy. This final part is perhaps the most interesting and yet the weakest of the book. The reason for its weakness is not so much Lynch’s argumentation but the brevity with which he deals with significant subject matter. For a book of this length it is overly ambitious to attempt a survey of the philosophical debates surrounding truth and to put forward a very ambitious thesis: that if we care about happiness, intellectual integrity and a just government, then we ought to care about truth. It would be beneficial for Lynch to deal with these ideas in a lengthier volume.

In True to Life Michael Lynch covers a great deal of the occasionally hostile and unwelcoming philosophical terrain. The clarity with which he writes makes True to Life accessible without requiring prior philosophical training. Yet, importantly, this accessibility does not come at the price of philosophical rigour. Whether or not one already believes that truth matters, there is much in this book that would appeal to those interested in the questions that surround truth and the relevance they hold for our lives.

True to Life would be of interest to the Christian reader and apologist as Lynch provides an insightful diagnosis of a key issue that plagues the minds of people both inside and outside educational institutions: that truth does not matter. It is sometimes taken for granted by Christians that most people do care about truth, and therefore the task of the Christian is to demonstrate the significance and power of the Christian truth. Lynch, however, argues that either explicitly or implicitly, many people do not in fact care all that much about truth, but rather what is useful, valuable, pleasurable or practical.

A further benefit that True to Life holds for the Christian reader is Lynch’s demonstration of the sloppiness of many common views that either disregard Christian truth, as with ‘simple relativism’, or exclude it, as with ‘reductive naturalism’. Lynch provides a clear survey and rebuttal to many of the common, though misguided, views on truth. This survey would prove helpful in the Christian ministry and life. However, a point of caution for the Christian reader is that while Lynch provides a sturdy but minimal concept of truth, it is a conception that is void of God. That is, while Lynch’s view doesn’t necessarily exclude God, it doesn’t include him. Therefore the Christian will feel that some things are left unsaid.

On the whole, Lynch argues for a conception of truth that contains many points that accord with a Christian worldview. While the Christian would want to say more about truth, Lynch provides a strong primary argument that truth does matter, and from this foundation the Christian can argue for the truth that matters most.


1 The division between Analytic and European Philosophy can be defined on several levels that are obviously far too complex for a footnote. However, general definitions may prove helpful. Analytic Philosophy, also called Anglo-American Philosophy, is concerned with the detailed analysis of concepts and propositions. It holds that confusion in philosophy stems from fuzzy concepts and murky propositions. Analytic Philosophy seeks to achieve such an analysis through method and rigour akin to the ‘hard sciences’. European or Continental Philosophy on the
other hand is concerned with questions about existence, being and our experience in this world. Movements such as existentialism and phenomenology are associated with European Philosophy. European Philosophy is often labelled as post-modern and relativistic; however, such
accusations are less than simplistic and difficult to sustain.
2 Rorty, Richard (2005). True to Life: Why Truth Matters. In Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 71 (1), pp231–231.


Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.