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Stuart Hampshire writes about common decency

Stuart Hampshire, 24 January 1980

... having been in part written by, and supervised by, a philosopher, the chairman of the Committee, Bernard Williams. Philosophy does many things, some plainly useful and some rather remote from common concerns: but at least it always leaves in the mind of those who have studied it an ever-ready set of warning bells, a nagging sense of intellectual ...

Keep quiet about it

Alan Ryan: Henry Sidgwick’s Anxieties, 2 June 2005

Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe 
by Bart Schultz.
Cambridge, 858 pp., £40, June 2004, 0 521 82967 4
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... for is that he asked his readers to consider matters ‘from the point of view of the universe’. Bernard Williams was only one of the recent critics who have argued that the universe has no point of view. In any case, the question is not what the universe thinks, but what we think, and even if the universe had a point of view, it is not obvious that we ...

Against Simplicity

Stuart Hampshire, 18 February 1982

Moral Luck 
by Bernard Williams.
Cambridge, 173 pp., £16.50, December 1981, 0 521 24372 6
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... idea that morality’s claims upon us rest upon reason alone has faded within moral philosophy. Mr Williams attacks this rationalism. A residue of Kant’s doctrine survived in an argument within the philosophy of language, an argument that Mr Williams also attacks: that there is a peculiar and recognised moral use of the ...

On and off the page

Thomas Nagel, 25 July 1991

Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration 
by Edna Margalit and Avishai Margalit.
Hogarth, 224 pp., £25, June 1991, 0 7012 0925 9
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... Francis Haskell on controversies about the transition from Late Roman to Early Christian art; Bernard Williams, in a wonderful and unsummarisable essay called ‘Naive and Sentimental Opera Lovers’, writes about distinctions in operatic taste, the sources of the power of opera, what it is to be an opera lover, and Berlin’s responses to opera in ...


Paul Seabright, 5 September 1985

Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy 
by Bernard Williams.
Collins and Fontana, 230 pp., £10.95, March 1985, 0 00 197171 9
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... Bernard Williams’s new book is the nearest thing to a systematic and comprehensive discussion of moral philosophy we can hope for from someone who thinks a yearning for systematic and comprehensive discussion is the main defect of moral philosophy today. The author identifies ethics as the subject constituted by certain kinds of attempt to answer Socrates’s question: how one should live ...

Life and Death

Philippa Foot, 7 August 1986

The End of Life 
by James Rachels.
Oxford, 196 pp., £12.95, January 1986, 9780192177469
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Voluntary Euthanasia 
edited by A.B. Downing and Barbara Smoker.
Peter Owen, 303 pp., £14.95, February 1986, 0 7206 0651 9
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Moral Dilemmas in Modern Medicine 
edited by Michael Lockwood.
Oxford, 250 pp., £12.95, January 1986, 0 19 217743 5
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... consent, but there are others which either break new ground or are of special topical interest. Bernard Williams, for instance, has contributed an unusual and illuminating piece about the ‘slippery slope’ argument, suggesting that it may often be reasonable to make a sharp normative distinction even where our concepts do not tell us just where it ...


Jonathan Lear, 19 September 1985

Human Agency and Language. Philosophical Papers: Vol I 
by Charles Taylor.
Cambridge, 294 pp., £25, March 1985, 0 521 26752 8
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Philosophy and the Human Science. Philosophical Papers: Vol II 
by Charles Taylor.
Cambridge, 340 pp., £25, March 1985, 0 521 26753 6
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... so as to include and explain the various perspectives on the world, including itself, is what Bernard Williams has called ‘the absolute conception of reality’. Now it may be that the absolute conception is ultimately incoherent; and it may be that in trying to flesh out the absolute conception we find that our conception of objectivity does have ...

An Invitation to Hand-Wringing

Thomas Nagel: The Limits of Regret, 3 April 2014

The View from Here: On Affirmation, Attachment and the Limits of Regret 
by R. Jay Wallace.
Oxford, 279 pp., $45, April 2013, 978 0 19 994135 3
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... not be prevented or repaired if possible? Third example: Gauguin. In his essay ‘Moral Luck’ Bernard Williams imagined an artist, loosely modelled on Gauguin, who abandons his wife and children in France to go to the South Seas, where he achieves the fulfilment of his talent and ambition, producing the work that gives meaning to his life as an ...

Shoulds and Shouldn’ts

Allan Gibbard: What is blame?, 28 May 2009

Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame 
by T.M. Scanlon.
Harvard, 247 pp., £19.95, September 2008, 978 0 674 03178 4
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... Morality, he thought, deals in indignation, which is an impersonal analogue of resentment. Bernard Williams, in this vein, pictured morality as a ‘blame system’ fixated on guilt and resentment; like Nietzsche, he rejected this fixation. Scanlon works to vindicate morality and blame, but unlike both Strawson and ...


Donald Davie, 11 June 1992

In the Circumstances: About Poems and Poets 
by Peter Robinson.
Oxford, 260 pp., £35, May 1992, 0 19 811248 3
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... old-fashioned. Thus his psychologist is Melanie Klein, not Julia Kristeva; and his philosopher is Bernard Williams, not you-know who. So, too, his prose at its worst recalls Raymond Williams, for whom, ideologically, he has no time. More pertinently, there are no jokes, or none that I can see. This gets to seem ...

Be Spartans!

James Romm: Thucydides, 21 January 2016

Thucydides on Politics: Back to the Present 
by Geoffrey Hawthorn.
Cambridge, 264 pp., £21.99, March 2014, 978 1 107 61200 6
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... the ‘true reasons’. Here he introduces the concept of ‘necessary identity’, borrowed from Bernard Williams, to explain Spartan aggression: ‘an identity such that someone who has it feels bound to act in ways that maintain their identity in the eyes of others’. Sparta’s allies, in particular the Corinthians, demanded that they ‘be ...

In and out of the mind

Colin McGinn, 2 December 1993

Renewing Philosophy 
by Hilary Putnam.
Harvard, 234 pp., £19.95, January 1993, 9780674760936
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... existence. Putnam’s diagnosis of lurking scientism is perhaps plausible in his discussion of Bernard Williams on ethics and science. Certainly Williams is keen to find a telling epistemological difference between the two, to the detriment of ethics; and he locates it in the way we explain convergence of opinion in ...

Not Not To Be

Malcolm Schofield: Aristotle’s legacy, 17 February 2005

A New History of Western Philosophy. Vol. I: Ancient Philosophy 
by Anthony Kenny.
Oxford, 341 pp., £17.99, June 2005, 0 19 875273 3
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... Plato has ‘an uncontestable claim to pre-eminence’ among the ancients. A few years ago Bernard Williams offered his list of the attributes that might make a great philosopher. He looked for intellectual power and depth; a grasp of the sciences; a sense of the political, and of human destructiveness as well as creativity; range and ...

Rat Poison

David Bromwich, 17 October 1996

Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life 
by Martha Nussbaum.
Beacon, 143 pp., $20, February 1996, 0 8070 4108 4
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... recognises certain sharers of her aims: among literary critics, Wayne Booth; among philosophers, Bernard Williams and Stanley Cavell; among social scientists, Amartya Sen. Nussbaum explains her discovery of virtues eloquently, volubly, in the manner of a belated Victorian moralist. The reverse of a dry writer, she is fairly often deeply moved, and you ...

What security is there against arbitrary government?

John Gardner: Securitania, 9 March 2006

Rhetoric and the Rule of Law: A Theory of Legal Reasoning 
by Neil MacCormick.
Oxford, 287 pp., £40, July 2005, 0 19 826878 5
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... not just a simple matter of weighing the rule of law against other ideals. That is because of what Bernard Williams called the ‘Basic Legitimation Demand’: government and law lose their legitimacy if they resort to using terror themselves in their efforts to protect us from terror – if they become, as ...

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