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What  to  make  of  the  Minos  Crisis  


A  critical  note  on  Chapter  7  of  Williams’  Truth  and  Truthfulness  
Kathleen  Louw  
Kathleen  Louw  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               LWXKAT006          

 
 
The   title   of   Chapter   7   of   Bernard   William’s   Truth   and   Truthfulness   asks   “What  
was   wrong   with   Minos?”.   Minos   precipitated   a   crisis   in   historiography.  
Herodotus  could  not  count  a  demigod  amongst  the  first  naval  powers,  together  
with  mundane  human  historical  figures,  but  neither  could  he  explicitly  say  that  
Minos   was   a   myth.   Herodotus’   type   of   history   included   gods   and   mortals,   but  
separated   them   in   explanatory   terms   from   the   world   of   the   audience   by  
relegating   the   gods   to   an   unspecified   distant   past.   Putting   Minos   in   the   same  
context   as   human   historical   figures   disrupted   this   dichotomy   of   worlds   –   the  
gods  did  not  mingle  with  the  normal  people  of  the  present  –  so  how  to  explain  
Minos   mingling   with   the   great   grandfathers   of   the   audience?   Thucydides  
replaced   Herodotus’   destabilised   history   by   writing   a   new   type   of  history,   where  
the  world  of  the  past  is  the  same  world,  with  the  same  explanatory  laws,  as  the  
world  of  the  present,  and  events  are  located  in  an  orderly  fashion  on  the  timeline  
of   history.   Williams   views   this   movement   from   a   local   history,   exemplified   by  
Herodotus,  to  an  objective  history  in  temporal  time,  exemplified  by  Thucydides,  
not  as  a  correction  of  error,  but  rather  like  the  invention  of  a  new  mental  tool.  I  
shall  attempt  to  demonstrate  the  merit  of  this  position,  as  opposed  to  either  an  
absolutist  or  a  relativistic  interpretation  of  the  change.    
 
History,  as  we  know  it  today,  with  an  objective  view  of  the  past  as  having  been  
some   other   person’s   present,   and   our   present   being   some   future   person’s   past  
(Williams,  163),  was  first  written  by  Thucydides.  This  linked  together  historical  
time  with  historical  truth:  for  an  event  to  have  really  happened,  to  be  a  historical  
fact,  it  must  be  definitely  located  in  historical  time.  Of  course,  we  might  not  know  
when   a   particular   event   happened,   but   this   is   not   the   same   as   saying   that   the  
question  of  when  does  not  make  sense.  For  example,  trying  to  identify  the  time  
and   place   where   the   event   occurred   that   Ovid   described,   of   Zeus   in   swan   form  
impregnating   Leda,   is   fool’s   errand   in   the   strongest   sense.   We   cannot   know   (and  
it  does  not  make  sense  to  ask)  where  in  history  these  mythical  events  occurred.  
There   is   no   determinate   answer,   as   the   event   in   question   did   not   happen   in  
historical  time  (Williams,  2002:162).    However,  it  is  notable  that  someone  who  

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Kathleen  Louw  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               LWXKAT006          

says  “the  being  whom  Leda  was  impregnated  by  was  Zeus  in  the  guise  of  a  swan”  
would  not  be  asserting  something  false  (Williams,  2002:169).    
 
Herodotus’   local   history   was   quite   different   to   the   (objective)   history   practised  
today  –  in  this  paradigm,  gods  as  well  as  mortals  walked  the  earth,  and  there  was  
no  distinct  separation  between  the  fictional/mythical,  and  the  factual/historical.  
Events  were  not  located  in  a  strict  order  as  “before”  or  “after”  one  another,  and  
not   every   event   had   a   fixed   place   in   time.   Of   course,   the   arrow   of   time   flowed  
from  yesterday  to  today  into  tomorrow;  it’s  just  that  this  framework  wasn’t  used  
to   locate   events.   Rather,   audiences   (I   say   audiences,   rather   than   readers,   to  
reflect   the   prevalence   of   oral   tradition)   conceived   of   the   past   as   a   profoundly  
different  world,  like  the  fairy-­‐tale  land  located  “once  upon  a  time,  far  far  away”  
so   familiar   to   children   today.   This   is   why   the   “Minos   question”   was   so  
destabilising  to  Herodotus’  type  of  history  -­‐    “Was  Minos  the  demi-­‐god  real  like  
me  or  my  neighbour?”  is  essentially  the  same  question  as  “When,  in  relation  to  
today,  did  the  gods  walk  the  earth?”.  This  question  invites  a  direct  comparison  of  
mythical   past   and   mundane   present   that   Herodotus’   paradigm   of   the   past   as  
qualitatively  different  to  the  present  cannot  accommodate.        
 
According  to  Williams,  Herodotus’  local  history  (which  for  brevity  I  will  call  H1)  
only  became  unstable  once  questions  framing  the  time  of  Minos  as  somebody’s  
today   arose.   Once   this   happens,   it   must   be   admitted   that   separation   in   time   does  
not  merit  separation  in  thought  or  explanation:  on  reflection,  the  world  of  Minos’  
future  must  be  the  same  world  that  makes  up  our  present  (Williams,  2002:161).    
 
We   can   agree   with   Williams   that   the   situation   regarding   historical   truth   was  
stable   before   Herodotus’s   time   in   that   no   awkward   questions   arose,   and   was  
destabilised   and   finally   abandoned   in   favour   of   Thucydides   objective   account  
(henceforth  H2).  However,  this  still  leaves  the  question  open  of  whether  H1  and  
H2  were  equally  rational  and  true  to  the  facts.  It  is  tempting  to  say  that  H1  was  
inadequate   and   that   H2   now   gives   us   the   right   picture   of   how   things   are.   H1’s  
local  conception  of  the  past  as  being  subject  to  different  explanatory  rules  than  
today,   invites   the   idea   that   it   is   a   confused   muddle   of   myth   and   history   which  

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Kathleen  Louw  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               LWXKAT006          

Thucydides   untangled   with   rational   ideas   of   temporal   historical   time,   an  


objective  past,  and  an  “explanatorily  homogenous”  world  (Williams,  2002:168).    
William’s   (2002:170)   example   of   the   “cyclopean   walls”   being   explained   by   H1   as  
the   work   of   giants   clearly   gives   H2,   according   to   which   today’s   ruins   were  
yesterday’s   fortresses,   an   explanatory   advantage   (given,   of   course,   a   total   lack   of  
evidence  for  giants).  H2  does  not  invoke  an  unjustified  and  undefended  idea  that  
the  past  and  the  present  are  somehow  not  part  of  the  same  reality.  This  idea  is  
quite  obviously  false:  today’s  world  is  the  same  as  yesterday’s  world,  which  was  
the   same   as   the   day   before   that.   This   chain   can   be   continued   indefinitely  
backwards   until   eventually     that   distant   fog   where   swan   gods   raped   girls   is  
reached.   However,   what   is   impossible   today   was   impossible   then:   there   is   no  
break   in   the   chain   where   our   world   ends   and   the   mythical   one   begins.   This  
seems   to   show   that   H1   and   H2   are   not   simply   different:   H2   is   right.   But   this   is  
precisely  what  Williams  denies.    
 
Let’s   look   more   closely   at   what   H2   offers   above   H1   (I   am   trying   to   defend   the  
idea  that  H2  is  not  a  refutation  of  H1,  just  an  invention  in  the  manner  of  a  new  
tool).   In   H1,   there   are   two   distinct   ways   of   talking   and   thinking   in   which  
assertions  made  in  both  ways  can  be  true,  yet  one  concerns  our  actual  world  and  
the  other,  the  world  of  fiction  or  myth  (Williams  169).  I  shall  call  these  methods  
the  determinate  and  the  indeterminate.  In  the  determinate  way  of  speaking,  we  
say  things  like  “Napoleon  was  defeated  at  Waterloo”  and  “The  past  residents  of  
Baker  Street  do  not  include  S.  Holmes”,  both  of  which  are  true  of  the  actual  world  
–  one  can  check.  In  the  indeterminate  way  of  speaking,  we  have  assertions  like  
“S.  Holmes  lived  on  Baker  Street”  and  “Zeus,  in  the  form  of  a  swan,  took  Leda”.  
These  are  true  of  the  mythical  or  fictional  world,  but  false  of  the  actual  world.  So,  
the   question   “Where   did   Sherlock   Holmes   live?”   is   correctly   answered   by   “Baker  
Street”   (the   answer   “Nowhere”,   while   true   of   the   actual   world,   would   score   no  
points   in   a   pub   quiz).   This   is   because   in   our   framework,   H2,   the   distinction   is  
understood  and  we  implicitly  qualify  “true”  as  “true  of  the  real/mythical  world”,  
as  the  case  may  be.  H1  did  not  qualify  its  truths  after  this  fashion  –  things  were  
either   true   (and   this   included   Leda   and   the   Swan   as   well   as   historical  events   like  
the  Trojan  war)  or  false  –  the  world  qualifier  had  yet  to  be  invented.  Now,  this  

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Kathleen  Louw  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               LWXKAT006          

does  seem  to  make  H1  less  accurate  and  precise,  compared  to  H2.  However,  to  
miss   a   distinction   does   not   necessarily   mean   the   H1   framework   is   irrational   or  
confused   –   I   think   in   this   case   it   is   better   described   as   suboptimal.   It   is   more  
precise  to  say  “It  is  true  that  in  Ovid’s  Metamorphoses,  Leda  is  impregnated  by  
Zeus,  who  took  the  form  of  a  swan”  rather  than  “It  is  true  that  Zeus  took  the  form  
of  a  swan  and  impregnated  Leda”.  However,  the  latter  is  not  false  –  it  is  the  truth  
of   a   simpler   time,   where   the   distinction   between   the   world   of   today   and   its  
determinate   past,   and   the   worlds   of   the   distant   past   and   of   myth,   is   missed  
rather  than  denied  (Williams,  2002:170).  
 
The  idea  of  some  assertions  being  more  true,  or  less  true,  than  others,  paints  a  
misleading   picture   of   truth   as   a   gradient   from   the   absolutely   false,   through  
varying   degrees   of   correctness   to   the   absolutely   true   –   rather   like   how   one  
colour   might   fade   into   another.   But   truth   is   a   binary   –   saying   “P   is   not   true”   is  
equivalent   (in   most   logic   systems,   although   admittedly   not   all)   to   saying   “p   is  
false”.   So   then   surely   to   say   “H1   contains   less   truth   than   H2”   amounts   to   a  
refutation  of  H1  as  inadequate,  and  containing  more  falsehoods,  in  favour  of  H2?    
 
This   is   too   quick.   It’s   not   the   case   that   H1   contains   fewer   truths,   or   more  
falsehoods   than   H2.   The   difference   is   better   understood   as   H1   having   a   more  
limited  explanatory  power  than  H2,  which  is  more  useful.  Analogously,  a  modern  
laptop   computer   is   more   useful   than   a   typewriter   –   we   can   do   more   things   more  
easily   now   –   but   this   is   not   to   say   that   typewriters   have   been   refuted,   or   that  
there  was  something  fundamentally  wrong  with  typewriters.  Just  so,  H1  was  fine  
–   it   was   adequate   for   the   purposes   of   the   people   who   used   it.   But   this   does  
commit  us  to  saying  that  H2  is  no  better.    
 
It   makes   perfect   sense   to   claim   that   H2   is   an   improvement,   and   that   rational  
people   ought   to   prefer   H2,   and   yet   not   denounce   H1   as   false.   This   is   not   a  
relativistic   position:   Williams   is   making   a   normative   judgement   of   H2   as  
explanatorily  superior  to  H1.  What  Williams  denies  is  that  denouncing  relativism  
means   embracing   an   absolutist   outlook,   where   H2   amounts   to   a   refutation   of  
(the  incorrect)  H1.  Williams’  position  that  H2  is  better  than,  but  does  not  refute,  

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Kathleen  Louw  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               LWXKAT006          

H1  is  both  coherent  and  sensible,  and  offers  a  far  more  subtle  and  nuanced  way  
of  viewing  the  evolution  of  what  it  is  to  be  truthful  than  either  extreme  does.      

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Kathleen  Louw  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               LWXKAT006          

 
Works  Cited  
Williams, Bernard. “What was wrong with Minos?” In Truth and Truthfulness: an essay in genealogy.
Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002.

 
 

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