Bernard Williams: a restless, questing intelligence
Bernard Williams, who died a decade ago, was one of the most striking figures in English philosophy of the last century. He scaled the heights of every academic mountain: Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge; White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford; Fellow of All Souls; Provost of King's College, Cambridge; Munroe Deutsch Professor at the University of California, Berkeley; knighted for his contribution to philosophy.
His career as an academic philosopher was a brilliant success. But it was part of his very great personal charm that he was given to wondering whether all the acclaim he received counted for anything. He had a sneaking admiration for Callicles, the figure in Plato's dialogue Gorgias, who has (as Williams put it) a "glistening contempt for philosophy itself, and it is only by condescension or to amuse himself that he stays and listens to its arguments at all".
Williams could share that contempt. He thought a lot of academic philosophy was "unhelpful, boring, sterile". He often wondered whether it served any useful purpose, and whether Callicles wasn't right: it was all very well for a young man, as part of his education, to take part in philosophical discussion, but there was something ridiculous, even demeaning, about its being turned into a lifelong occupation.
His own experience may have reinforced his scepticism about the value of philosophy. He produced several scintillating philosophical refutations of utilitarianism, for instance. He was confident that, intellectually, he had killed off the doctrine. "The day cannot be too far off," he wrote, "on which we hear no more of it."
But what has happened in the more than 40 years since Williams predicted utilitarianism's imminent demise? It has gone from strength to strength, serenely unaffected by his evisceration. It remains central to economic and political theory. Most government policies are implemented on utilitarian grounds. Even within the area of moral philosophy, many of the weightiest tomes — those by philosophers such as Derek Parfit, for example — are written with an explicitly utilitarian emphasis.
It would be hard to blame Williams for concluding that philosophical argument is just not a very effective way of changing the way people think on ethical matters.
He did in fact think this and it was a consequence of some of his own arguments that it should be so. He did not quite take Hume's view that "reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions". But he got quite close to it. Just as there is with Hume, there is something paradoxical about how this supremely rational man could produce so many persuasive arguments showing that the power of reason is an illusion: reason cannot persuade anyone to lead an ethical life if ethical concerns are not already central to their motivations.