A new collection of Bernard Williams’s essays and reviews serves as a reminder of the academic’s restless 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 deadA 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.