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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.
 
His own gift for rational philosophical argument was unquestionably prodigious. His philosophical acuity was extraordinary, as was his ability to demolish other people's ideas effectively and mercilessly — as I discovered when he supervised my thesis. Like many other exceptionally intelligent people, he was easily bored, and he often reacted to what he found boring with contempt, a reaction he found it particularly difficult to suppress when confronted by ideas he thought shallow, superficial or silly — as I also discovered. But when he was engaged by something, he was a fascinating conversationalist and a wonderful teacher.

His intelligence wasn't only used for destructive purposes: he could be creatively critical. Still, what he is probably remembered best for now is his capacity for taking apart philosophical ideas and showing how they were incoherent, or unsupported, or incredible. That talent is on spectacular display in this always engrossing, and frequently scintillating, collection of his essays and reviews.

There is, for instance, a delightful review of Robert Nozick's Philosophical Explanations. Williams recognises Nozick's analytical and logical brilliance. He castigates him for "trying to do a dreadful thing: to lead philosophy back to the aspiration to be edifying". He says that Nozick's attempts at edification end up sounding like a commercial for breakfast cereal.

One of the themes that winds its way through many of the essays republished here (and they cover his writings from the age of 30 until just before his death) is his scepticism about the possibility of providing an objective foundation for ethics and morality. In a review of Iris Murdoch's The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, he criticises Murdoch for accepting Plato's doctrine that "reality and goodness must after all be one", and says it means that "her most eloquent writing is in the cause of a world view which we and she must know is an illusion."

His scepticism became more marked, and more thoroughly worked out, the older he got. Several of the reviews in this book focus on what he saw as the essential contrast between science and ethics. Science could turn out to be what it seems to be, an objective account of the world that we come to know and discover because that account is true. But ethics cannot have an objective foundation: our ethical beliefs cannot be explained as the result of our coming to believe objective moral truths.

Two reviews of books by the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty take up that theme. They are wonderfully effective in showing the incoherence of Rorty's idea that we should give up on the idea of scientific truth. Rorty claims that scientists who insist that they are discovering "what is really out there" are mistaken. He argues that the correct philosophy shows they shouldn't say such things, because it shows that there is no "out there": there are only the different vocabularies we have for telling stories, of which physics is only one, and one which can no more tell the truth about "objective reality" than can poetry or literary criticism.

Williams responds with a very pragmatic point. He notes most scientists believe that their work, if successful, will discover objective truths about the world. Moreover, having such a belief is an important part of their ability to continue to do scientific research: if they thought they were merely telling stories in the manner of poets or literary critics, they wouldn't be able to practise science in the way they do. So as a pragmatist — which Rorty claims to be — Rorty should endorse and accept  scientists' own description of the sort of activity they are engaged in.

More fundamentally, in order to assert that scientists cannot possibly discover objective truths, Rorty has to occupy the transcendental position that his own philosophy says is not there to be occupied. As Frank Ramsey memorably said about Wittgenstein: "What you can't say, you can't say — and you can't whistle it either."

Williams' insistence that it is possible that science achieves objective truths about the world implicitly raises the question: what about ethics? Can we know objective ethical truths? Two reviews of books by Thomas Nagel in this volume explore that issue. Nagel is convinced of the objectivity of ethics. Indeed, he is convinced that even those who say they are sceptical about the objectivity of ethics are deluding themselves: really, they are committed to believing that there are objective ethical truths.

Williams patiently and clearly explains why and how he thinks Nagel is mistaken. He says that Nagel cannot account for the evident fact that, throughout most of human history, human beings have not accepted the moral beliefs that Nagel thinks are the only correct ones."If Liberalism is correct", Williams asks, "and is based in universal human reason, as Nagel seemingly takes it to be, why is it that earlier times did not think of it or accept it?" Nagel, he says "lacks a ‘theory of error' for what he calls moral correctness".
 
Williams thinks there is a simple reason for this: there can't be such a theory, because there is nothing of which moral beliefs can be true. The only explanation of why we think what we do about ethics is one which looks to our particular, contingent history and how it has shaped our thought. That history cannot show our ethical beliefs are true — although it may help to vindicate them by showing that having such beliefs makes it possible for us to live together successfully.

That, in essence, is why "philosophy needs history", and it is the title of one of the most interesting essays in this book. But it begs one very basic question: what are the consequences of there not being any objective ethical truths? One of them may be that there cannot be any objectively true history. Even if objective historical truths can be established without ethical ones, history won't be much help in resolving political and moral conflicts when our ideological inheritance comprises several different and incompatible systems of ethical belief.

Williams's philosophical hero is Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he calls "the greatest moral philosopher of the last century". Nietzsche was sure that the consequences of recognising that the claims of ethics to objectivity were illusory would be drastic. He thought that Christian morality, and its descendants, socialism and liberalism, would be replaced by something equivalent to the worship of power and domination.

Nietzsche was convinced that once you had "seen through" the bogus claims of morality and ethics, you would realise that there was nothing left except (as Hobbes put it) "a perpetual and restless quest for power after power, that ceaseth only in death". The participants in that struggle could only be judged by how successful they were in the competition to take power from other people and maintain it over them.

Williams does not follow Nietzsche on this point. But it is not altogether clear why not. Williams seems unworried by Nietzsche's conclusion that, once we realise its claims to objective truth are an illusion, what we now think of morality will be eliminated and replaced by an obsession with power. He thinks we can find reasons for keeping up our commitment to, say, liberalism, which will survive our recognising that convictions about ethical values have no objective foundation.

Perhaps it is his conviction that philosophical arguments never change anything very much that leads him to that conclusion. Whatever the reason, there seem to me to be grounds for more anxiety on this matter than Williams recognises, or at least than he reveals. The foundations of liberal social order are less secure than they seem: one only needs to consult the history of the last 100 years to see how swiftly they can collapse in order to feel distinctly queasy about the extent they could survive the generalised conviction that all there ever is, or could be, is a struggle for power. Working out what you, or your group, need to do in order to be the most powerful around is very different from working out what needs to be done in order to comply with the demands of justice — or even simple human decency.

I have focused on the issue of the objectivity of ethics, but it is only one of many important philosophical problems that Williams addresses in these illuminating and instructive essays and reviews. This is a book which should inspire its readers to go and read — or perhaps re-read — Williams's other works. Whichever one they pick up, they will encounter a restless, questing intelligence, and a determination to be as precise and clear as possible.
 
And yet they may also encounter the melancholy sense that philosophical argument cannot improve people. In Williams's writing, you can sometimes hear a distant echo of lines from W.B. Yeats's disturbing poem "Blood and the Moon":

                 No matter what I said,
For wisdom is the property of the dead
A something incompatible with life; and power,
Like everything that has the stain of blood,
A property of the living.

It is not a comforting message. But as Williams insisted, philosophy should not be edifying. It should be true.
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Christopher Eddy
March 29th, 2014
11:03 AM
Here is an argument in support of the claim that there are certain types of action which are absolutely prohibited to all responsible agents. It succeeds by considering types of action not in the abstract, but as proposed within the context of real discourse by one speaker to another. (1) A moral appeal is an appeal to the integrity of a responsible agent.. (2) My integrity is not compromised unless I contravene a rule to which I have consented. (3) Whoever proposes a rule to me thereby implicitly asks me to consent to it. (4) Therefore, if the rule he proposes is one to which my consenting would entail a contradiction, then the proposal entails a contradiction also and must be withdrawn. (5) To justify a rule is to give reasons for consenting to it, but a rule which cannot without absurdity be proposed cannot without absurdity be justified: such a rule would be absolutely unjustifiable for all responsible agents. (6) I cannot without absurdity consent to be compelled; that is to say, I cannot without absurdity consent to be subjected to types of action that could occur, by definition, only without my consent; I cannot therefore consent to the rule "that, if certain conditions were met, I should be insulted, enslaved, raped, tortured or murdered". (7) These types of action are therefore absolutely impossible to justify and therefore prohibited to all responsible agents by the requirements of their integrity. This argument resists the efforts of consequentialists to reduce ethics to arithmetic.

Ted Schrey Montreal
March 29th, 2014
1:03 AM
"Whatever is unconditionally prohibited ...looks...like a moral absolute", points out Christopher Eddy, putting the crown on some tidy and taut reasoning. I myself incline to the view that anything temporary, such as e.g. a human being, cannot lay claim to any objectivity--other than the objective fact one will eventually turn into mulch.

Christopher Eddy
March 28th, 2014
2:03 PM
(1) A moral appeal is an appeal to a person's integrity. (2) My integrity is not compromised unless I contravene a rule to which I have consented. (3) To justify a proposed rule to me it is necessary to (a) ask me to consent to it and (b)give me reasons why I should consent to it: a rule which cannot thus be justified to me cannot be binding on me, i.e., cannot impinge on my integrity. (4)I cannot without absurdity consent to the rule "that, if certain conditions were met, I should be insulted, enslaved, raped, tortured or murdered" since these are types of act which could occur, by definition, only without my consent; to put it simply, I cannot meaningfully be asked to consent to being compelled. (5) These types of action are therefore absolutely (i.e., for any reason or purpose) impossible to justify and therefore prohibited to all responsible agents by the requirements of integrity. (6)Whatever is unconditionally prohibited to all responsible agents looks very much like a moral absolute. Moral absolutes emerge only when we situate them in the real context of relations between interlocutors in which one proposes a course of action for others' consent.

Klaus Rohde
March 17th, 2014
5:03 AM
Each species has its own "code" of survival, the result of evolution, and "power" may be an essential ingredient of all "codes". In humans, because of their very great intellectual capacity, the code is most sophisticated and has been abstracted, i.e. put into rules such as Kant's categorical imperative. But such rules are not "truths", they are simply instructions on how to survive and guarantee survival of our species. Nevertheless, ethics can be founded on deep philosophical insights, achieved in hinduism, buddhism and, most clearly for the modern mind, expressed by Arthur Schopenhauer. The insight is that we (i.e., all animals and humans) are basically one, perceived as individuals only because of our intellectual apparatus. "Tat twam asi": if an animal suffers, I suffer, if I suffer, all others suffer. Hence, Schopenhauer concludes that the only foundation of genuine morality is compassion, compassion not only with fellow humans, but with all animals as well. For details see here: http://krohde.wordpress.com/article/arthur-schopenhauer-ethics-and-theor...

Jan Sand
March 13th, 2014
1:03 AM
I am suspicious of any denial of pragmatism. Unfortunately I am not familiar with William's works but it seems to me that ethical behavior does have foundations in the study the biological advantages of interpersonal mutual regard in herd animals and even some substantiation in the growth and survival of colonies of single celled organisms. To generalize merely from the violent antisocial interactions of the human species seems to me to ignoring more generalized behavior of other forms of life. Current human behavior makes it rather evident that humans seem to have social agendas which guarantee species suicide. Considering that current humanity has existed for only a brief flicker of time, a mere couple of million years or so, to generalize from this ephemeral event seems unwise.

philosophile
March 13th, 2014
12:03 AM
I'd say Williams did his fair share in making philosophy "unhelpful, boring, and sterile."

Mattmark
March 12th, 2014
9:03 PM
"When will we abandon our frantic search for The Truth? Ignorance is no bad thing." So is this claim true or false? "Ignorance produces fear, which is also no bad thing." Are you cognizant of this 'truth,' or ignorant of it? "Fear is a natural function of survival." Perhaps some fear is, but it does not follow logically that either ignorance itself or the type of fear to which ignorance is prone to giving rise are beneficial to survival. "Grief is no bad thing either. Grief reminds us that we have imagination." Putting your hand on a hot stove will remind you that burns are painful, so I guess putting your hand on a hot stove isn't a bad thing. "Without imagination we could not make sense of our marvelously adequate yet pathetically imperfect sensory perception." Whatever this claim is trying to mean, it doesn't follow that imagination's benefits can confer retroactive 'goodness' on everything that reminds us we have one. "We are each one become as though infatuated with the sound of our own voice." (?) "Due to ignorance and fear, we have turned to religion, the belief that Faith itself can lead us to The Truth." (?) "Believing that “The Truth will set you free”, we are become obsessed with The Truth, a useful but temporal illusion." (?) "When will we, an embarrassing evolutionary anomaly, finally achieve the humility to admit that The Absolute Truth is inaccessible to us?" Can anything be true without being absolutely true? Even partially true narratives are absolutely true in their truthful parts. "What we now call ‘scientific knowledge’ will always be defined and therefore limited by what we do not yet know and, more importantly, what we may never fully understand about what we can and do, for now, claim to know." If you're trying to say that science doesn't have all the answers, any scientist would be happy to agree with you. How does this relativize the concept of truth? "If only we could abandon this pernicious notion that scientific research has nothing to do with creativity. If only we had not so irrevocably divorced work and play. If only we could but see that scientific research achieves little without a thorough appreciation of art, artifice and imagination.... [etc., etc., etc., to] ...Which will always differ, every time I pay attention to what looks like the same thing." You touch a lot of bases in this ramble, but none of them appear connected with your starting-point or even to belong on the same field . Whatever your grievance against 'limits' you seem not to appreciate that all concepts, including those of truth and falsity, depend for their intelligibility on delimitation. "My point of view will almost certainly change over time." Perhaps there's some hope for you after all. “Experience is the best teacher.” Experience is the school of fools. Fortunately for the survival of the human race, most of us don't have to be eaten by a tiger to realize we wouldn't like it. What ever happened to the imagination, the evolutionary advantages of which you were extolling, above? "Where we have been and what we have learned, or at least what we remember, from what we have done will determine to a large extent how you and I perceive things today. But, for sure, next year all that will be different... [etc., etc., etc., to] ...The one sustaining the other." A confused and confusing tour of personal convictions elevated into generalizations about humanity in general, unsullied by the least trace of imaginative insight into the possibility that the limits of one's own experience might not correspond with those of others. "If you find these words ‘speak to your condition’, that’s not because I have spoken The Truth." Truer words were never spoken. "It’s because you have recognized something ‘between the lines’, something that is not intrinsically there, something I, without benefit of your experience, simply cannot know anything about. That is how we make sense, for now, of what we see and hear, which tomorrow will likely make little sense at all." Whatever the limits of experience, yours apparently do not prevent you from knowing what others think and what the limits of their knowledge are. That's quite a trick... not one I've ever managed to master. What's evident, though, is that there's a certain incoherence in denying humanity's ability to distinguish between true and false while expressing categorical opinions with the finality of doom itself. May I suggest acquainting yourself with an elementary text on logic? While it is indeed important to grasp just what the concept of limits entails for epistemology, it's equally important to develop some sense of logical relevance. Without it, one is apt to commit such a jumble of category mistakes that any guides to the truth experience might otherwise be capable of providing are fatally undermined.

B Merker
March 12th, 2014
6:03 PM
Re. the harderwijkian harangue: the English language has a name for this kind of mélange of clichés and would-be wisdom: philosophastry.

harderwijk
March 12th, 2014
3:03 AM
When will we abandon our frantic search for The Truth? Ignorance is no bad thing. Ignorance produces fear, which is also no bad thing. Fear is a natural function of survival. Grief is no bad thing either. Grief reminds us that we have imagination. Without imagination we could not make sense of our marvelously adequate yet pathetically imperfect sensory perception. We are each one become as though infatuated with the sound of our own voice. Due to ignorance and fear, we have turned to religion, the belief that Faith itself can lead us to The Truth. Believing that “The Truth will set you free”, we are become obsessed with The Truth, a useful but temporal illusion. When will we, an embarrassing evolutionary anomaly, finally achieve the humility to admit that The Absolute Truth is inaccessible to us? What we now call ‘scientific knowledge’ will always be defined and therefore limited by what we do not yet know and, more importantly, what we may never fully understand about what we can and do, for now, claim to know. If only we could abandon this pernicious notion that scientific research has nothing to do with creativity. If only we had not so irrevocably divorced work and play. If only we could but see that scientific research achieves little without a thorough appreciation of art, artifice and imagination. If only we had not so eagerly abandoned our natural playfulness, to venture outside the laboratory, to just go for a walk, think outside the square. Bereft of a healthy sense of humour, life becomes meaninglessness made flesh. Not only do we too easily forget that we don’t know nearly enough to believe we know it all. Not only can we not see things as we ought to presume, but cannot discern, they really are. But the writer will always depend on the competence of the reader. No two people ever see any one thing in exactly the same way. The English language imposes on those who were raised and are comfortable in it a certain mindset, a worldview that is peculiar to native English speakers. That’s not to say English speakers are perverse. All those who are obliged to speak and think in English are obliged to see their world within the context of English vocabulary, grammar and syntax. To say nothing of English history, geography. And the climate. Every language, by definition, be it verbal, gestural or scientific, imposes a severe limitation on the way a thing or idea may be observed, contemplated, written about and discussed. Not only is there no scientific formula for love or freedom, for the meaning of life. The French will never love the Germans, nor they the Russians. The English will never embrace the Japanese. Nor the Scots the Irish. But the English will never understand the English either. What we see is certainly what we get, but we cannot see everything. To make sense of the world, as we know it, we all depend on the pretext (my own foreknowledge) and the context of each situation as only I find it and the subtext, the meaning I append to my observation. Which will always differ, every time I pay attention to what looks like the same thing. My point of view will almost certainly change over time. “Experience is the best teacher.” Where we have been and what we have learned, or at least what we remember, from what we have done will determine to a large extent how you and I perceive things today. But, for sure, next year all that will be different. Everything we see and hear is coloured by what went before, which includes our entire life experience. If you have just finished enjoying the performance of a stand-up comedian, laughing uproariously at pure silliness, you will have difficulty appreciating the seriousness of a sermon at a funeral. If you switch from a lighthearted piece of entertainment to a political debate, you are more likely to find the earnest expressions of national importance patently ridiculous and laughable than would otherwise be the case. Furthermore, it matters absolutely whether you were raised in a traditionally Christian environment, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or whatever ethical belief system your parents and significant others espoused during your formative years. Even the most indefatigable atheists have their sad mythology. Admission to the Christian community is predicated on an admission of personal guilt: “If you confess your sin He is faithful and just to forgive you your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.” Admission to the Jewish community is wholly predicated on the circumstance of birth. (The Bar Mitzva is not an initiation but a confirmation of membership, a natural progression that has nothing to do with a moral choice or admission of personal guilt, requiring redemption by the symbolism of sacrificial blood.) To be a Jew is to be informed by communal responsibility, not personal guilt. To be a Christian is to be informed by self-denial, abandonment of all self-respect and abject submission to a personal epiphany. While Christian perception is deeply affected by a sense of personal guilt, Jewish perception is defined by unequivocal support of the community. “No Jew ever died of poverty, but of pride.” The community will always provide, no matter what sort of scoundrel you are. Christians are traditionally raised to always be mindful of correct behaviour, lest you will be surely condemned, by the whole community before God. The historical predominance of Jewish intellectuals, philosophers and inventors may be due in large part to the intellectually liberating absence of personal guilt (original sin) in a traditional Jewish upbringing. Jewish exceptionalism may therefore be defined by, meaning due to, Christian exceptionalism. And vice versa. A symbiotic relationship – not unlike Zionism and Islamic Jihad. The one sustaining the other. If you find these words ‘speak to your condition’, that’s not because I have spoken The Truth. It’s because you have recognized something ‘between the lines’, something that is not intrinsically there, something I, without benefit of your experience, simply cannot know anything about. That is how we make sense, for now, of what we see and hear, which tomorrow will likely make little sense at all.

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