| The examined life
Bernard Williams, who pass- ed away on June 10, 2003, was arguably the greatest post-war British philosopher. While Williams’s commanding intellect, penetrating arguments and thoroughly original conception of the subject would have secured him a place in any pantheon of important philosophers, his pre-eminence is itself a measure of his transformative impact on philosophy. He is known mostly as a moral philosopher, although his impact on the philosophy of mind and on cultural criticism was immense.
In some ways, his pre-eminence is surprising. He was always a lucid writer, but is never easy to read; the intensity and complexity of his thought always remain something of a challenge. He is not identified with any system, did not found any new school, and unlike many of his contemporaries, his legacy is not easy to characterize. While J.L. Austin is still the stuff of common-room legend, he wrote little, and his impact has largely been on the philosophy of language. A.J. Ayer wrote a good deal and very stylishly, but in the end, his positivist allegiances were too arid to incite much excitement.
Peter Strawson and Michael Dummett dominated Oxford since the Sixties, valiantly trying to disprove the opinion that most contemporary philosophy, at least at Oxford, was a series of extended commentaries on Wittgenstein. Both had a wide-ranging impact: Strawson in metaphysics and Dummett in the philosophy of language and philosophical logic, but neither gave philosophy many resources to address the greatest challenges it was to face as a discipline.
Bernard Williams’s great impact stems from the fact that he was squarely in the middle of this challenge. This challenge can best be described as the assault of historicism on philosophy. This is the view that concepts are historically embedded, and one cannot say much meaningfully about them unless one locates them in a particular conceptual history. One cannot therefore answer questions such as “What is truth'” and “What is meaning'” in the abstract, as philosophers are often prone to do. In ethics, Williams argued that our ethical ideas are “a complex deposit of many different traditions and social forces, and they have themselves been shaped by self-conscious representations of that history.” What history will reveal is always the contingency of any concept, and any philosophy that does not engage with this contingency, and comforts itself by claiming the authority of “necessary truths” is liable to self-delusion.
In making this argument, Williams was indebted above all to Nietzsche. And his greatest achievement lies in the fact that he was the sole British philosopher to take Nietzsche’s exposure of philosophy seriously and confront it. His last book, Truth and Truthfulness, does magnificently for the concept of truth what Nietzsche had done for morality: show its contingent origins and functions. But unlike the flippant Nietzscheanism of a Derrida or a Rorty, which ultimately ends in a kind of “anything goes” position, Williams’s genius was to argue that revealing the contingent nature of these concepts strengthened their hold upon us rather than weakening it. His book was a powerful assault on those who propounded the fashionable belief that truth has no value, as it was an attack on those who thought that the traditional faith in truth guarantees itself.
Williams’s second great achievement was to take moral philosophy seriously. Almost having been banished from philosophy departments, moral philosophy has come back with a vengeance, and its rehabilitation has something to do with both the revival of Kantianism under John Rawls in America, and the critique of that revival provided by Williams. Williams was a life-long critic of system-building and arid conceptual analysis. He began his book, Morality, by chastising his colleagues for refusing to write anything of importance or making it impossible to take them seriously. No one ever levelled this charge against Williams. Indeed, his distinctiveness stems from the fact that he philosophizes with an enormous sense of life, raising difficult questions, resisting cheap answers and using the most vivid examples.
His essay, Moral Luck, is a critique of a priori rule-based moralities such as Kant’s. It argues that our sense of what is justified often depends on how our life, as a whole, turns out and is not immune to luck. The fact that Gauguin turned out to be great painter might put the act of his leaving his family in a different light than if he had been a failure. In Utilitarianism, he argued that utilitarianism consistently underestimates the importance of integrity. In his most systematic work on ethics, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, he argued that ethical knowledge was a form of knowledge, but could not be thought of as analogous with science. Indeed, assimilating knowledge to a scientific paradigm weakens the authority of moral concepts. He once accused a philosopher of “having one thought too many”, the point being that philosophy has to be answerable to the complexities of life rather than the other way round. He is a penetrating moral psychologist, an essential quality for a great moral philosopher.
He wrote extensively on the nature of reasoning, on personal identity, on the character of consciousness, power, rights, equality, bioethics, and on assorted topics such as Descartes, Greek ethics, music and even a classic essay on the tedium of immortality. My personal favourite is Shame and Necessity, an account of Greek ethics which reveals much about our own.
Watching him over innumerable talks and conferences, I can say this with confidence: with the possible exception of Alasdair McIntyre, I don’t think I have encountered anyone who was as impossible to win an argument against as Williams used to be. He was always penetratingly clear and would illuminate, like a search-light, the core issue, while his interlocutors were still groping in the dark. He was never pretentious, always probing and often witty and sardonic. He believed that the best way of respecting your colleagues and students was to expose their folly, and he had the extraordinary capacity to say something original about a subject that you thought had been talked to death.
Williams was a public intellectual in the best sense of the term. Born in 1929, he served in the royal air force, was appointed to a fellowship at All Souls at the age of 22, then moved, first to London, then to Cambridge, where he was Knightsbridge Professor of Philosophy. He went on to become provost of King’s College, Cambridge, before moving to Berkeley. He returned to Oxford as White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy. The Williams committee report on obscenity and censorship was his handiwork, and is a tour de force of clear reasoning on a difficult public policy issue. He was previously married to the labour politician, Shirley Williams, and is now survived by his wife, Patricia Skinner, and three children; he was knighted in 1999.
He once said that there was no point being a philosopher unless you were very good. In other disciplines, someone with modest gifts could at least produce something others could build on. But what would a less than excellent philosopher do' This concern reflected his absolutely fierce intellectual standards, and he unfailingly lived up to them. Like Nietzsche, his great hero, he “philosophized with a hammer”, puncturing great pretension and relentlessly exposing illusions. And, like Nietzsche, he never let philosophy rest in the aridities of conceptual analysis, the false simplicities of neat systems and most important, never let it run away from the complexity of life. For those who reduce philosophy simply to technical prowess, there will always be other heroes. For those who think of philosophy as an aid to the examined life, in the best sense of the term, Williams will always remain an inspiration.