What Philosophers Dream Of

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Essays and Reviews 1959-2002 by Bernard Williams
    Princeton, 435 pp, £24.95, January 2014, ISBN 978 0 691 15985 0

He ‘understands what you’re going to say better than you understand it yourself’, Gilbert Ryle said of the young Bernard Williams, ‘and sees all the possible objections to it, all the possible answers to all the possible objections, before you’ve got to the end of your sentence’. Williams’s declared enemies in philosophy – ‘reactionaries’ who sweep everything into a single vision, Kantian ‘progressives’ committed to the view that ethical advance lies in the elaboration of connections between ‘freedom, autonomy, inner responsibility, moral obligation and so forth’, ‘deniers’ like Richard Rorty who were inclined to reduce talk of the true and the right to what we find it convenient to believe – were discomfited by his dazzle. But in fact he was a constructive man. Shooting an idea out of someone’s hand as soon as it came up, he would have agreed, was scarcely creative. Yet,

If there could be what serious philosophers dream of, a philosophy at once thoroughly truthful and honestly helpful, it would still be hard, unaccommodating and unobvious. For those reasons, it would doubtless be disliked by those who dislike philosophy as it is. But it might, more encouragingly, succeed in recruiting some new enemies as well, who would do it the credit of hating it for what it said and not just for what it was.

Moral philosophy was not a game, and it was not for philosophers alone.

Williams wrote long and important books – Descartes (1978), Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), Shame and Necessity (1993) Truth and Truthfulness (2002) – but from the start, essays were his natural form. They suited his speed and gave him the opportunity to exercise his unstoppable curiosity. (Trained as a fighter pilot on National Service in the early 1950s, he was told that he was best suited to flying at night: in daylight he was too often distracted by the view.) He lectured across the faculties in Cambridge in the late 1960s and the 1970s, sat on several official commissions, and wrote continually on whichever issues in philosophy and beyond happened to interest him. There are pieces in this collection of essays and reviews on abortion, foetal research, higher education, lying, privacy, opera, pornography and artificial intelligence; on secrecy and the state, socialism and morality in politics; on the perils of behaviourism and the excesses of interpretation, the need to be sceptical, the existence of God, and the grounds of liberalism. There is more than one thing going on in many of the pieces collected here, and setting them all out by date reveals what mattered to Williams and when.

The pieces are informed by two general arguments in his philosophy. One is for the possibility of what he called an ‘absolute knowledge’ of the world that is ‘to the largest possible extent independent of the local perspectives or idiosyncrasies of inquirers’– the kind of knowledge to which scientists aspire. The other argument is against the possibility of any truth of a comparable kind about how we should live. In living, as he put it, we think with thick and particular conceptions of how we might act ethically ‘now and around here’, not with thin and putatively universal notions of ‘the good’ or what is ‘right’. These thick conceptions can vary across the different parts of life, are forever changing, and are almost always in tension with one another. Less obvious, to reflect on them can loosen the hold they have on us. Whether or not one puts family and friends before, say, one’s country depends on the circumstances and the different kinds of claim being made on us; the rights and wrongs of telling a lie depend on what we are being asked and what the consequences of telling the truth may be. As Stuart Hampshire intimated in the LRB more than thirty years ago, the question for Williams was how far he was willing to go with the particular; willing, that is, to accept that to live in a fully human way is to accept the contingency of our convictions and insist that the uncertainties and conflicts within and between them are, in thought at least, often impossible to resolve.[1] The essays here are his answer.

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