Bernard Williams

Bernard Williams died in 2003. Thomas Nagel wrote about his posthumously published essays in the LRB of 11 May 2006.

Why Philosophy Needs History: On Truth

Bernard Williams, 17 October 2002

. . . our ideas of truthfulness are under a great deal of strain at present. On the one hand, we tend to be pervasively suspicious, anxious not to be fooled, eager to see through appearances to the real motives and structures that underlie them. On the other hand, there is an equally powerful suspicion about truth itself.

On Hating and Despising Philosophy

Bernard Williams, 18 April 1996

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

Do not disturb

Bernard Williams, 20 October 1994

This is a book about therapeutic philosophy, the philosopher as doctor. It is a historical work, concerned with the schools of philosophy that developed in the Hellenistic period, the period in which, after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Greek culture adapted itself to existing in the large and loosely organised states that took the place of the independent city-states in which most Greek life had gone on in the Classical period. These schools continued to develop and to have influence in the Roman world, and indeed some of the principal sources on which Martha Nussbaum draws in her rich and interesting book were written in Latin. It is a work of scholarship, with many references and exegetical notes, but Nussbaum makes it very clear throughout that she regards the issues raised by these ancient styles of philosophy as urgent for us, and she sets out her claim for this in a fluent, unpedantic, and sometimes emotionally urgent style which invites us to get close to what these long dead teachers may have had at heart.

Drawing lines

Bernard Williams, 12 May 1994

Best known as an eloquent campaigner against pornography, Catharine MacKinnon is a lawyer – a Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School. Not all of this book (based on talks given at Princeton) sounds much like legal argument, and particularly when she is talking about pornography she gives a rhetorical display which may well have been breathtaking in the lecture hall. But the book does in fact offer a legal argument, one which is interesting, and also deeply American, in the sense that MacKinnon discusses the problems raised by pornography and also by speech that constitutes sexual or racial harassment in terms of American law and the American Constitution. MacKinnon herself does not accept those terms as presently defined, and her book is an eloquent plea to Americans to move beyond what she sees as the prejudiced limitations of current doctrine, in particular of current liberal doctrine. As a plea to Americans, it takes for granted several aspects of American discussions. Some of this a British reader may find rather bewildering.

Freer than others

Bernard Williams, 18 November 1993

Every modern state and every modern political philosophy believes in equality of something. As Amartya Sen points out in this book, even libertarians, who think that there should be no politically imposed limits on what people may retain of what they gain without force or fraud, believe in the equal right to exert oneself in the market and not to be taxed. Those who think that more effortful or productive or responsible work deserves higher rewards think that this principle should be applied equally to all citizens. The important issue, then, as Sen has helpfully insisted over many years, is not whether we are in favour of equality, but rather: equality of what?

A Fair State

Bernard Williams, 13 May 1993

It is over twenty years since John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was published. It was recognised at once as an immensely significant contribution to modern political philosophy, and its reputation has only grown since. There are many questions, about social justice, toleration and the stability of a modern state, that can scarcely be discussed unless one starts from ideas that have been shaped by Rawls.

In the first book that Marx and Engels wrote together, The Holy Family, there is a passage about the Jacobin leader Saint-Just, who was famous not only for the ruthlessness with which he helped to conduct the Terror, but for the intensity with which he urged on the Revolution ideals of civic virtue drawn from the ancient world: his demand, as he expressed it, that revolutionary men should be Romans. ‘There is something tragic,’ Marx and Engels wrote, ‘in Saint-Just’s illusion. On the day of his execution he saw hanging in the Hall of the Conciergerie the great tables of the Rights of Man, and with pride and self-esteem declared: “After all, it was I who did that.” But those tables proclaimed the rights of a man who could no more be the man of ancient society than his national-economic and industrial relationships could be those of antiquity.’

Terrestrial Thoughts, Extraterrestrial Science

Bernard Williams, 7 February 1991

There is a wonderful passage in Nietzsche’s Daybreak, about the ageing philosopher. ‘Subject to the illusion of a great moral renewal and rebirth, he passes judgment on the work and course of his life, as though it were only now that he had been endowed with clear sight.’ He ‘considers himself permitted to take things easier and to promulgate decrees rather than demonstrate’; and the inspiration of ‘ this feeling of well-being anti these confident judgments is not wisdom but weariness’.

Getting it right

Bernard Williams, 23 November 1989

An energetic thinker with some original ideas may understandably rebel against the oppressive demand to get it right, especially when the demand comes, as it often does, from cautious and conventional colleagues. In responsible subjects such as the natural sciences, such people rebel against the demand only at their peril – or rather, their ideas will succeed only if the demand is, in the end, obeyed, and the colleagues turn out merely to have been too cautious. In philosophy, however, the bets are less clearly drawn: the very idea of getting it right is more problematic. The innovator may see the demand as not just cautious, but in itself restrictive and conventional, asking for correctness, in terms which the new ideas are designed to overthrow. He may be tempted to reject the demand altogether. This reaction is naturally self-fuelling; the further one goes, the more irrelevant the demand may seem.


Bernard Williams, 5 January 1989

In a previous book, After Justice, which came out in 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre claimed that the ideas of justice available in the modern world are like a pile of ruins, historical fragments that can make no coherent sense. Politicians, reformers, administrators, appeal in a haphazard way to items in this deposit. Philosophers and social theorists toil away trying to make sense of it, but they cannot possibly succeed. The ruins are not even the ruins of one building, but the disordered remains of various ethical conceptions. These were, in their time, coherent: they belonged to various traditions. But now we have no coherent conceptions, and because we are trying to solve our social problems with those fragmentary ideas, we are doomed to endlessly inconclusive and conflicting arguments about questions of justice.

A Passion for the Beyond

Bernard Williams, 7 August 1986

‘It seems to me that nothing approaching the truth has yet been said on this subject,’ Thomas Nagel says in the middle of this complex, wide-ranging and very interesting book; and he says it at the end of a chapter (on the freedom of the will) not, as some other philosophers might, at the beginning. The book argues in a determined way about the largest philosophical questions: the nature of reality, the possibility of knowledge, freedom, morality, the meaning of life. It offers, not answers to those questions, but a distinctive and unified approach to them. In that sense, the book is very ambitious. Yet one of its most notable features is its modesty. Nagel regards the problems he has chosen to discuss as more compelling than his own contribution to them, and he is always willing to say that he does not know the answer to a difficulty. His discussions are informed by a sense that what he is saying may be overthrown or overtaken by other views. It is a great relief from the remorsely demonstrative tone that grips the work of analytical philosophers, including some of us who in principle know better.


Bernard Williams, 17 April 1986

When I took part – as it seems, many years ago – in a Committee to recommend reforms in the obscenity laws, we received evidence from an American constitutional lawyer who happened to be in England, was an expert on the subject, and agreed to come and talk to us about it. He explained the complex constraints exercised by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which says that no law shall be made to abridge the freedom of speech. He rehearsed various devices that lawyers and legislators had used to try to get round these constraints in order to control pornography, including the argument that pornography was not, constitutionally speaking, ‘speech’. When he had gone out, one of the lawyers on our committee, Brian Simpson, said: ‘I think I should explain something to the Committee. Americans believe in rights.’’

Resisting the avalanche

Bernard Williams, 6 June 1985

Judith Shklar’s Ordinary Vices is a wise, clever, thoughtful book about the danger and the value of various personal vices – cruelty, hypocrisy, snobbery and others. Professor Shklar asks how important they are; which are worse than others; what they can positively do for society, and how their meanings differ from one society to another. She uses a wide range of writers, but her book gives far more than a well-written set of reflections on what has been thought about these bad characteristics. It also explains and (in a fairly unassertive style) defends a certain view of society and politics, a liberal view, in terms of which these vices can be ordered and understood. The connection works in the other direction, too: if you think that cruelty, for instance, is more important than other vices, that will already lead you in certain political directions. Judith Shklar, like her heroes Montaigne and Montesquieu, thinks that cruelty is more important than anything – that it comes first, as she puts it.’

Letting it get out

Bernard Williams, 18 October 1984

It is often said that the British are obsessively interested in secrecy. It is less often said how deep and peculiar this obsession is, and how much more there is to it than the well-known fact that British authorities are exceptionally secretive. Our interest is in secrecy as much as in secrets: it is the process, the practices and irregularities of keeping and revealing secrets, that concerns us. This interest in process rather than in content, together with the unconstructive and unfruitful nature of the obsession as it is regularly displayed, for instance, in the Sunday papers’ excitement about spies, makes it like an attachment to pornography. It is typical of it that we find it hard to distinguish fantasy and reality. The unceasing scratching at past espionage is obscene partly because fact and fiction have merged: Blunt, Bill Haydon, Smiley, Peter Wright seem by now all at the same distance.

Personal Identity

Bernard Williams, 7 June 1984

Ten or fifteen years ago, the complaint against moral philosophy was that it did not address practical problems, but concentrated on meta-ethics: that is to say, on questions about the status, meaning, objectivity and so forth of ethical thought. That complaint is now out of date. For a decade, analytical philosophy has been conspicuously concerned to display its credentials for being of use in helping us to think about concrete problems.

Pornography and Feminism

Bernard Williams, 17 March 1983

John Sutherland has produced ‘a calendar following a series of events (mostly trials) from 1960 to the present day’, which deals briefly and brightly with obscenity cases from Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill to The Romans in Britain. The aim is to investigate changes in public attitudes to ‘offensive literature’. It is a lively survey, but is not the useful history of that process which might be written.

Nietzsche’s Centaur

Bernard Williams, 4 June 1981

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was published in 1872, when he was 27, and while he was a Professor of Classics at Basel. It had the unusual effect, for him, of attracting some attention at the time of its appearance: after that, Nietzsche’s writings virtually ceased to be noticed until the 1890s, by which time he was, for the last 11 years of his life, insane, virtually without speech, and out of touch with the world.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song?

Bernard Williams, 2 April 1981

This peculiar book belongs to a series called ‘Cambridge Studies in the History and Theory of Polities’, but one should not be misled by the name either of the series or of the book: there is very little about the history of politics and nothing about its theory, and not much direct light is thrown on the subject of the title. Cambridge, however, it very much is. The acerbic parochialism, dislike of the modern world and its cultural effects, a distinct sense of Englishness, indeed put one in mind, oddly enough, of another Cambridge writer, the late Dr Leavis, as do some turgid writing and a violent dislike of Lord Snow. Oddly, since Leavis’s intense moralism is the sort of thing that Cowling most detests: but that only makes it clearer how some spirit of the place managed to affect them both.

Modern Discontent

Bernard Williams, 17 July 1980

All around him in American society Lasch sees intellectual and moral feebleness, cultural decay, despair and inner rage. There is no personal love, only a snatching at gratification, or domestic skirmishes in the war of all against all. There is no politics, only manipulation; no radical protest, only street theatre; no education, only organised illiteracy. The ‘elitism’ of earlier educational functions has been purged – by robbing the educational process of content. Sport is corrupted into mass entertainment. Therapy has replaced genuine moral reflection, and superstition has replaced genuine therapy.

Jon Elster’s Brisk Meditations

Bernard Williams, 1 May 1980

There are some pieces of logical or theoretical jargon which are marks of ideological allegiance – intellectual windsocks to display which way the wind is blowing the author. While linguistic philosophers, at least of the older sort, ‘analyse’ some intellectual object, structuralists and their neighbours ‘deconstruct’ it. For Marxists, a set of interrelated problems is usually ‘problematic’; and what gives rise to their problematic, is involved in it, and needs to be overcome, is, standardly, ‘a contradiction’, where that is not something in their or someone else’s discourse, but an objective state of the world.

Knocking Through

Bernard Williams, 6 March 1980

The author of this book was once a builder, working particularly for the ‘knockers through’, as he calls them, who turn two rooms into one in terrace houses and make other well-known changes to convert a collapsing slum into a thing of pride and a joy for ever. Thompson’s sharp descriptions of these operations, and of the contrasts between the attitudes of those who own these gentrified residences and their working-class neigbours, who regard few of their possessions as things of pride or joy, and certainly not for ever, offer some of the few enjoyable passages in the book. They also contain one of the main ideas for it.

Ryle Remembered

Bernard Williams, 22 November 1979

Gilbert Ryle, who died in 1976, was for many years a professor of philosophy in Oxford. He was a man of genially military appearance, with a knobbly, cubic head; rather soldierly in speech and manner, he punctuated his sentences with an abrupt half-cough, highly characteristic of him and much imitated. He was an exceptionally nice man, friendly, generous, uncondescending, unpretentious, and, for a well-known professional philosopher, startlingly free from vanity. He affected an amiable Philistinism, which to some degree was also genuine: ‘no ear for tunes,’ he was disposed to say, if music was mentioned. He was often amusing. He once said of a philosophically-disposed senior Tory politician that he stood like a light out to sea, firmly beckoning ships on to the rocks.

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...

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Bernard Williams had a very large mind. To read these three posthumously published collections of essays (there will be a fourth, on opera) is an overwhelming reminder of his incandescent and...

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Are we any better?

Gisela Striker, 19 August 1993

The Sather lecturers are invited by the Department of Classics at Berkeley, but they are not always Classicists in a narrow sense. Bernard Williams rightly and proudly points to the precedent of...

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Paul Seabright, 5 September 1985

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...

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Human Welfare

Paul Seabright, 18 August 1983

‘It’s pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness: poverty and wealth have both failed,’ says Kin Hubbard’s creation Abe Martin. Since the pursuit of ‘the greatest...

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Against Simplicity

Stuart Hampshire, 18 February 1982

The surprising title, first attached to one essay among the 13 here collected, does suggest the theme that holds the book together. Much of the argument in the various essays is a many-sided...

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