Truth vs. Truthfulness

Timothy Snyder and Tony Judt reflect on the distinction between truth and truthfulness:

Timothy Snyder:

Let’s begin with the Dreyfus Affair, with the entrance of the intellectual into modern politics, on a question of what you call smaller truth: whether or not a man betrayed his country. A French army officer of Jewish origins was falsely accused of treason, and defended by a coalition of French intellectuals. This moment, January 1898 in Paris when the novelist Emile Zola published his famous letter, “J’Accuse,” is seen as the beginning of the history of the political intellectual. But it strikes me that this moment cannot be seen only in historical terms, that from the beginning an ethical element is built into our sense of what an intellectual is.

Tony Judt:

Bernard Williams posits a distinction between truth and truthfulness. The Dreyfusards were trying to tell the truth, which is truthfulness, rather than acknowledging higher truths, as their opponents wanted them to. By “higher truths,” they meant that France comes first, or that the army must not be insulted, or that the collective purpose trumps individual interests. This distinction is what lies behind Zola’s letter: the point is simply to tell it as it is, rather than to find out what the higher truth is and then adhere to it. You tell whatever you know in the form in which you know it.

Now: that’s not what intellectuals end up doing in the twentieth century; very often, they end up doing exactly the opposite. In some ways, the model for the twentieth century intellectual was as much the anti-Dreyfusard as the Dreyfusard. Someone like the novelist Maurice Barrès was not interested in the facts of the Dreyfus case. He was interested in the meaning of the Dreyfus case. And I’m not sure that we have always fully understood the nature of the origins of twentieth-century intellectual exchange. This was a split in the personality which stays with us throughout the century.

(From Thinking the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, Penguin, 2012)

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