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.

Williams had much to say but – unusual in a moral philosopher – a fine sense of how much was enough. In a short talk on existentialism, he wonders at the idea of someone being so free as to be bereft of any resource at all with which to think and act. More surely had to be said. The talk was commissioned by the BBC World Service in 1962; a facsimile of the letter of invitation, prompted it says by a request from a listener in South Vietnam, is reproduced in this volume. What the letter doesn’t explain is that the Vietnamese service might have been seizing an opportunity to get one over on more elaborate treatments of existentialism broadcast by the Société de radiodiffusion de la France d’outre-mer. In this it no doubt succeeded. Fairness to the French requires that one also read Williams’s similarly short and by no means wholly critical piece on Sartre on the emotions, though even here he could not resist pointing to the difficulty that phenomenology can get itself into when it abandons the idea of a reflexive mind in favour of the curious view that experience itself tells us what we’re thinking. In a talk he gave on the Third Programme in 1977, by contrast, he went through the many different kinds of objection people had given to abortion and argued that most of them had no place in the case; in each and every instance, what mattered was the particular predicament of a particular woman. ‘What seems to demand more moral material,’ he once wrote, ‘makes sense in terms of what demands less.’ Many moral arguments can often be too many.

Unusual too in a moral philosopher, Williams did not seek to have the Last Word. Writing about Thomas Nagel’s book of that name, he couldn’t but agree that there comes a point at which we have to accept that to encourage thinking locally or ‘thickly’ about ethics, thinking about what the options are for us ‘now and around here’, rests on a non-local conception of what it is to be local. Nagel concluded that we can therefore go on as usual, thinking thoughts that ultimately rest on general truths. But there is no general truth, Williams said, that can explain why in the last three hundred years or so we in the West have become so self-consciously liberal; liberal about thought itself, the conviction that prompted Nagel’s book, and liberal in our morals and politics. For most of the known human past this hasn’t been so, and we can’t say that our ancestors were benighted or wrong; that’s to start from within liberalism itself. Williams welcomed the revival of liberal political philosophy in the United States in the 1960s, and his reviews of John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin remain some of the most acute there are. But these philosophers started from within. They may have been prompted to write by the establishment of civil rights in the 1960s and the domestic consequences of the Vietnam War, but these events don’t explain why Rawls and Dworkin and others wrote what they did. Those of us who, as Charles Taylor put it in Sources of the Self, ‘feel particularly strongly the demand for universal justice and beneficence, are particularly sensitive to the claims of equality, feel the demands to freedom and self-rule as axiomatically justified, and put a very high priority on the avoidance of death and suffering’ still need to understand why we do.

Taylor is one of the philosophers with whom Williams most liked to talk. Liberalism, as Taylor sees it, is not cut from ‘whole cloth’. There is of course a history. He suggests that liberal aspirations emerged from ‘a naturalism of disengaged reason’ in the 17th and 18th centuries, which in the 19th then engaged with Romanticism’s reflections on the self. Williams accepted this (he said elsewhere that there had been ‘a rather nervous competition’ between himself, Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre, a philosopher who was similarly engaged but despaired of liberalism, over which of them could write ‘the most irresponsible history’), but again, although the past may explain how we think, it still fails to explain why we value what we do. Taylor, like MacIntyre a Catholic, says that it’s because we crave to be ‘rightly placed’ in relation to the good and that this is a craving given to us by God. Williams did not share their faith; and Protestantism too, he noted, can be far from liberal. Nonetheless, Christianity is part of the legacy that Westerners have and it has to be faced. To invent something more elevated and comfortable, the kind of thing that Robert Nozick offered in his Philosophical Explanations (a book that Williams described as an attempt at the ‘Great American Novel of philosophy’), will not do. Some of the analytical arguments in the book were brilliant, but at the end Nozick departed from America and planet Earth altogether in declaring that ‘value seekers, trackers of bestness’, have a ‘cosmic role’: ‘to aid in the realisation of value, in the infusion of value into the material and human realm’. That, said Williams, can’t possibly be how to put what we need. It can’t possibly be how to put anything.

Williams did not himself resolve the question about liberalism. But as Nozick remarked, a philosopher can stop short of the last word and be a thug even so, reaching for arguments that have the ‘power’ to be ‘knockdown’ and ‘force’ the reader to accept what he or she says. That wasn’t Nozick’s way and it wasn’t Williams’s either. ‘The authority of the intellectual,’ he wrote in a review of a silly book on that species by Paul Johnson, ‘depends on the uncommanded response of those it affects.’ Where he differed from Nozick and many other contemporaries was in his refusal to seek conclusions that would be nice if they were true. On the contrary. He saw no reason to worry that what Nietzsche called the ‘plain, bitter, ugly, foul, unchristian, immoral’ truths of the past had played a part in producing our present conceptions; some might be truths for us still. Neither can he be said to have worried about the fact that liberal reflection might undermine the thick knowledge we have about how to live. We are what we are and need to muster as much truthfulness as we can about ourselves and have confidence in that. ‘Gaiety’, he took Nietzsche to have been saying in The Gay Science (the German, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, is more exactly translated as something like ‘Humanism with an Encouraging Face’), is not itself contentment; it rejects solemnity and the spirit of gravity because it is the only way of taking life seriously after the disappearance of God and the philosophies that were designed to replace Him.

Nietzsche himself had little in his life to be gay about. Williams, as he well knew, had much better luck. The comparative openness of the public worlds he inhabited, together with his exceptional abilities, fine voice, good looks, professional success and capacity to engage people and make them smile, gave him the confidence to deploy his understanding of where we are ‘now and around here’ in suggesting how things might be improved. This did not mean he was happy to turn up with a folder of formulas for what people ‘ought’ to think and do: he disliked preaching and took little pleasure in procedure. Anyone disposed to believe with Nietzsche that ‘any life worth living must involve daring, individuality and creative bloody-mindedness’ could not sit easily through the Saturday morning meetings of the heads of college in Cambridge. It says much about him that when he privately asked Jack Plumb, a fellow head and no preacher himself, how he responded to student protests against awkward investments, he was shocked to be told: ‘Lie, of course. What do you do?’ I wonder how Williams reacted. Perhaps, as he could when angry, he just went frighteningly still. He preferred to take a perplexing item in the world and with care and an unglamorous patience that would have surprised those who only encountered him at speed, consider what actual people actually thought about it and seek to find as humanly sensible a conclusion as he could.

Much of what Williams found most satisfying came with his role on the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship in the late 1970s. The Obscene Publications Act of 1959 had emphasised the harm that obscene matter could cause, and made exceptions only where such material could be shown to contribute to the public good. By the 1970s, no one was content. Some thought that the act and the raft of related statutes and common law offences were too restrictive, others that they weren’t restrictive enough, and those charged with administering the law knew that it no longer worked as anyone could have intended it to do. In 1977 the then Labour home secretary, Merlyn Rees, set up the committee to sort things out and asked Williams to chair it. After much reading, fieldwork and discussion, he brought its members to agree that ‘obscenity’ could not usefully be defined, that none of the vast amount of existing research showed that notionally obscene matter caused harm, and that the ‘public good’ was too vague and shifting a substance for law. The committee was nonetheless clear that films which might offend should be clearly marked and that films in which the participants were harmed simply suppressed. The committee’s report, which Williams himself drafted, appeared in 1979, six months into Thatcher’s new government, and although her home secretary, William Whitelaw, was sympathetic, many on the Conservative benches were not. The Obscene Publications Act remains and in subsequent legislation has in some ways been extended. But the report did result in the revision of film classification and the grounds for censorship, and it remains a model of good sense. It vindicated Williams’s conviction that philosophical thinking could have a public bearing. The report itself does not figure in this collection, but Williams’s thinking in it comes out in two pieces that he wrote for the LRB: on John Sutherland on literary ‘decensorship’ in Britain, in which he tells some of the story behind the committee; and on Catharine MacKinnon’s discussion of the tangle that Americans get into with constitutional amendments guaranteeing free speech and ‘equal protection’, a review in which he cuts MacKinnon free from some tangles of her own.[2]

Another instance of Williams at his patient best is the talk on abortion I have mentioned already. He begins by conceding that there are some, Catholics in particular, who could not be brought to change their view. He goes on to consider the definitional issues that might worry others, elucidates the arguments about the status of the foetus, fights a short fight with dubious analogies, and concludes that abortion raises questions that nothing else does and cannot therefore fall under any other heading, such as murder. He argues that those who might want to escape from these disputes can’t do so by invoking considerations of utility or right. The matter cannot be decided by anyone but the woman in question, and she will find this difficult enough to do in advance; there are no grounds for claiming that freely to allow abortion will licence killing more generally on grounds of infirmity, age or other conditions; and to invoke a right is to suppose that there’s a plausible authority which can grant or affirm the right. There is no doubt that public feelings on the matter run high (at the time he was writing, in the late 1970s, very high), and these have to be acknowledged. But abortion is not a public act; even if it offends, it does not do so in the way that practices that others have to witness do. The experience and feelings at issue are the experience and feelings of the woman on whom the operation might be performed, and it is she who should be allowed to decide. The argument may be a model, but it is not a model that suggests a reproducible method, as that would imply there are similar issues on which it could be deployed. As Williams showed, there are none.


These and most of the other complicated issues that Williams thought about are real and everyday, and it is not surprising that he has become a lodestar for those who resist simple schemes for a better world. He did not believe that people could be guided to virtue or agreement by theory alone. This is not to say that he was vulgarly ‘realistic’ or resigned to muddling through. Realism includes being realistic about ideals themselves and whom we’re trying to persuade about what. It was important to be as clear about the thoughts we could not have as about those we could. It was good, he said of Tony Benn, that one should be reminded of worthy ends, less good to suppose that by looking zealous enough about these ends one could make the conflicts between them go away. And it was important to recognise where argument had to stop. If opponents can’t be reconciled, as with Catholics on the matter of abortion, Tories on what they wanted to think was obscene, or members of the Labour Party on the reform of Clause Four in the party’s constitution, we would do better to conclude not that one side is right and the other wrong but that one has to win and the other lose. This does not rule out rights. People have to be protected from governments that are unduly ideological and vindictive, among which he counted Thatcher’s as well as General Galtieri’s. But to let too wide a range of outcomes be decided by judges would be to put too much confidence in judiciousness. It is a pity he didn’t write about his visit to Buenos Aires in 1985 with other philosophers to talk to the new democratic government about who should do what, if anything, with those who had been active in the previous regime.

Sitting in a traffic jam in Gower Street one evening in the early 1980s on the way to see a terrible new production at the English National Opera, where he was a trustee, Williams suggested to me that we might together write the programme he had been asked (by Michael Young, as I recall) to draft for the Social Democrats. Events were to overtake the invitation, but even if they hadn’t, I think that by the time we were inching into St Martin’s Lane we knew that we weren’t the right people for the job. That was no reflection on the Social Democrats. In a piece that Williams wrote a year or two later on Judith Shklar, he agreed with her and with Montesquieu that ‘the real point … is not to paint the free citizen as a virtuous person, but to insist that without freedom everyone is intolerably paralysed or demeaned.’ This – what he described as the reconciliation of a state ‘seen merely as impersonal regulation’, protecting people from their fears, with ‘an ethical life understood in terms of personal character and sentiment’ – is at once the most important end in politics and the most difficult to see how to get to. The new party would not have been thrilled to find itself presenting an ideal that it could scarcely describe, let alone see how to achieve.

The Social Democrats do not appear by name in this collection; indeed, very little here could be said to be dated. There is, it is true, a talk from the distant excitements of 1968 on who should have a say about what in universities. There is a sharp piece prompted by the cover-up of the sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands in 1982 on who should have a voice on matters of ‘national security’. And there are thoughts on moral issues that may be less urgent now than they were. But the questions about universities are inherent in the idea of the university itself; those about what Williams saw as the ‘complacent assumptions about British life and the justice of our arrangements’ can hardly be said to have gone away; and issues of the possible harm and offensiveness of various practices, not to mention of how we might live otherwise, are ever present. This apart, Williams’s pieces have a further attraction. Graham Hough said of William Empson’s essays that they have a life of their own, independent of influence: they move beyond what Hough described as literature of information and instruction towards a ‘literature of independent power’ that does not date.[3] So it is with these. Nagel once wrote of Williams’s moral philosophy that whether one agreed with him or not, and Nagel did not, he was ‘at the beating heart’ of the subject. Some of what he said did beat hard and caused pain. As Williams had insisted, there were good reasons why that had to be so. But his essays accommodate the world and the reader, and unlike the world, give one confidence and delight in good argument.