On Hating and Despising Philosophy

Bernard Williams

As long as there has been such a subject as philosophy, there have been people who hated and despised it.

I do not want to exaggerate, in a self-pitying or self-dramatising way, the present extent or intensity of this dislike; I am not thinking of the philosopher as emblematically represented by the figure of Socrates, the martyr to free thought who reaches what the pious or conventional regard as the wrong answer. Nor do I suppose that philosophers are often seen as politicians are in Australia, where that profession (I was once told) is regarded as much like that of nightsoil workers. Still less are they like American lawyers, notoriously considered powerful, ubiquitous and horrible.

Few people, after all, think about philosophers much, and some of those who do may well regard them with a mildly bemused respect. But the subject does collect a familiar style of complaint: that philosophy gets no answers, or no answers to any question that any grown-up person would worry about, or no answer which would be worth worrying about, even if the question were. The complaint is, basically, that philosophy is useless: either intrinsically useless, or useless in the form in which it is usually done, a professional or academic form. It is this second view, that philosophy is useless but ought not to be, that is likely to add dislike to mere contempt.

In asking many of their questions – what doing an action is, for instance, or how by making noises we can make sense to each other, if indeed we can – philosophers are motivated by curiosity. But that is not their only motive, and particularly in asking political and ethical questions, about justice, the rightful use of power, and what sorts of life might be worth living, they have wanted to be helpful. They have even hoped, some of them, to redeem or transform humanity.

Of course, not every such question is philosophical. Politics itself, and religion, and people in the bar discuss these things, and they are not all doing philosophy. Philosophy comes into it when the discussion becomes more reflective or theoretical or systematic, and it is typical of philosophy that its discussions of ethics and politics have some connection with those other more theoretical questions, about knowledge, action and psychology. Arguments for political toleration have often been linked to the idea that no one has a monopoly of moral truth. The idea that all human beings share moral freedom has been offered as a basis of liberalism. These examples are modern, but philosophy in the past had similar interests, and equally it was capable of attracting some rather special styles of dislike.

The most radical form of the complaint against philosophy is that it is as such irredeemably useless: that all of it is empty, pointless, word-spinning which wastes time and distracts people from worthwhile work. This style of objection came, once upon a time, from certain religious outlooks: Tertullian, for example, said that he agreed that Christianity was absurd, and that was why he believed it. Other pious people have thought that philosophical reflection was a distraction from the religious life and an evasion from it, putting aridly clever arguments in place of an honest view of life’s commitments. That complaint was directed as much to religious philosophy as to any other: in fact, theology was seen as in some ways the worst kind of philosophy, being a parody of religion as it should really be.

These days, most of those who take this kind of attitude to philosophy are not religious, but scientists, or – more typically – fellow-travellers of science, and they take it not in the name of religion but in the interest of an anti-philosophical and confidently puritanical view of science. Just as the religious haters of philosophy most hated religious philosophy, so these complainers may particularly dislike the philosophy that is nearest to science, such as that which considers the relations between thinking and the brain. The scientific critics are disposed to see this as a lazy substitute for work in the lab.

These complainers have a problem, which is similar to one that their religious forebears had: they cannot hope to justify their story that science is useful and philosophy is useless simply by doing science – in order to justify it, they will have to do philosophy. Their best strategy, then, is not to try to justify their complaint, or even to mention it, but to ignore philosophy and, if they are scientists, get on with science.

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[*] Times (21 September 1995). He was reviewing (as it happens) a collection of essays by myself, Making Sense of Humanity.