Sunday 1 March 2015


Oxford University Press have kindly sent me a review copy of Tetralogue: I'm Right, You're Wrong, by Timothy Williamson. It is an introduction to a wide range of philosophical problems, presented as a conversation between four people on a train.

Dialogues have a distinguished history in philosophy: think of Plato, Berkeley and Hume. Many such dialogues steer the reader gently but firmly towards the author's preferred solutions. This one is different. The problems are put in front of us. Some sketches of solutions are identified, and are explored sufficiently to show us that they could not easily be worked up into fully developed solutions with which all would be comfortable. But we are neither told nor shown that one sketch is the right one upon which to concentrate. The reader who asks "What sort of thing does Timothy Williamson want me to think about this?" will get no answer, whether "this" be relativism, vague language, the primacy of science, the status of logic or the nature of ethical claims. Readers can reach their own conclusions, but they need to work at reaching them for themselves. They also need to be wary of identifying with any one of the four participants and then casually agreeing with the chosen one. The participants have such different outlooks that it would be easy to take to one and against the others. Bob insists on making room for the unscientific, Sarah has no truck with such nonsense, Zac is a relativist who always knows that he can be helpful, and Roxana is the Queen of Logic.

For whom is the book? The beginner in philosophy will engage with serious philosophical questions without realizing it. Those who are steeped in the western philosophical tradition will enjoy the many allusions to writers, problems and solutions that are hidden in the dialogue. The benefits to these contrasting readers draw our attention to a third reader, who will get more out of the book than either of the first two. This is the beginner who has the benefit of guidance from an expert who can show where there is more to the dialogue than meets the eye, and who can push the beginner to use the dialogue as a springboard for his or her own arguments. This would be a very good book to use in an informal course for adult or teenage beginners, a course that was aimed at broadening the mind while having fun rather than at passing an examination.

The allusions pose a puzzle. Some of them must be deliberate. For example, on pages 35-36 Zac adopts the voice of Plato's Socrates to commit Sarah to a position with which she is not at all comfortable. Others may or may not have been planted by the author. On page 134, we have a suggestion that we should take into account only the views of those who can look at things from all relevant points of view (those who are both accountants and soccer fans in this case). Is this a deliberate allusion to Mill's justification for preferring the opinion of Socrates to that of the fool, and the opinion of the human being to that of the pig (Utilitarianism, chapter 2)? Or is that connection created solely by the reader? And if the author did not intend the allusion, does it still qualify as an allusion? We might go on to distinguish the case where it was unintended but the words were a consequence of the author's having read Mill from the case where there was no causal connection between that reading and what the author wrote, and then argue about whether the concept of causal connection was the right concept of connection in this context, and so on. Thinking about the author and the reader, rather than solely about the contents of the book, can set off such a torrent of questions. At least we can be confident that the author will be perfectly happy to have given us a meta-problem to ponder, whether he did so accidentally or deliberately.

The last section of the book is about ethics, and the tone changes. The gap between the dialogue in the book and how a discussion might go in a philosophy class shrinks. This is a reminder that ethical issues arise in all of our lives, so that a direct presentation of the issues can engage anyone. It is not only philosophers who see that the issues are important. But this change of tone is no let-down. Like the train blending smoothly into the dusk at the end of the book, the book blends philosophy smoothly into the life of the reader. This is a serious book that is also a lot of fun.

Tetralogue: I'm Right, You're Wrong, by Timothy Williamson. Oxford University Press, 2015, 160 pages, hardback £10.99. ISBN 978-0-19-872888-7.

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