Jeremy Campbell. The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Paperback, 362 pp.
Campbell, a correspondent for The Evening Standard, starts his book with a thought-provoking argument: Lying is not necessarily deviant behavior but at least is partially hardwired into our brain by evolution. Pointing to deceitful tactics in the animal and plant kingdom, he reiterates Darwin’s conclusion that Nature is a liar.
I expected to see this opening idea carried forward into a detailed discussion of our modern civilization’s pervasive penchant for lying and deceitfulness, but Campbell surprised me with a wide-ranging and well-written treatment of the notions of truth and truthfulness and their opposites in classical and modern philosophy. He shows how many thinkers—from Plato on—have pointed to the presence of multiple falsehoods in our thinking and lives.
This is a sobering exercise, not suited for the timid, in exorcizing from the mind the rampant self-delusion that we are noble and virtuous creatures that face reality fairly and squarely. More than anything, this book is a critical portrayal of the philosophical and moral relativism of our postmodern era, which indeed is replete with intellectual and moral pretense and failure. At the same time, Campbell’s demolition job may leave some readers with the wrong impression that we humans have no capacity for truth. Unfortunately, it is not clear where the author stands on all this. His book addresses only one side of a complex equation, but it does so with gusto and in a highly readable manner.
Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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