- Bernard Williams
Bernard Williams Full name Bernard Williams Born 21 September 1929
Died 10 June 2003(aged 73)
Era 20th-century philosophy Region Western philosophy School Analytic philosophy Main interests Moral philosophy
Notable ideas Internal v. external reasons for action
Sir Bernard Arthur Owen Williams (21 September 1929 – 10 June 2003) was an English moral philosopher, described by The Times as the most brilliant and most important British moral philosopher of his time. His publications include Problems of the Self (1973), Moral Luck (1981), Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), and Truth and Truthfulness (2002). He was knighted in 1999.
As Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and Deutsch Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, Williams became known internationally for his attempt to reorient the study of moral philosophy to history and culture, politics and psychology, and in particular to the Greeks. Described as an analytic philosopher with the soul of a humanist, he saw himself as a synthesist, drawing together ideas from fields that seemed increasingly unable to communicate with one another. He rejected scientism, and scientific or evolutionary reductionism, calling "morally unimaginative" reductionists "the people I really do dislike." For Williams, complexity was irreducible, beautiful, and meaningful.
He became known as a supporter of women in academia, seeing in women the possibility of a synthesis of reason and emotion that he felt eluded analytic philosophy. The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum said he was "as close to being a feminist as a powerful man of his generation could be." He was also famously sharp in conversation. Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle once said of him that he "understands what you're going to say better than you understand it yourself, 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."
Early life and education
Williams was born in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, the only son of a civil servant. He was educated at Chigwell School, and read Greats (Classics) at Balliol College, Oxford, graduating in 1951 with a congratulatory first-class honours degree, before spending his year-long national service in the Royal Air Force flying Spitfires in Canada. While on leave in New York, he met his future wife, Shirley Brittain-Catlin—daughter of political scientist George Catlin and novelist Vera Brittain—who was studying at Columbia University. At the age of 22, after winning a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford in 1951, Williams returned to England with Shirley to take up the post. They were married in 1955.
Williams left Oxford to accommodate his wife's rising political ambitions, finding a post first at University College London, where he worked from 1959 until 1964. He was later appointed Professor of Philosophy at Bedford College, while his wife worked as a journalist for the Financial Times. For 17 years, the couple lived in a large house in Kensington with the literary agent Hilary Rubinstein and his wife. During this time, described by Williams as one of the happiest of his life, the marriage produced a daughter, Rebecca, but the development of his wife's political career kept the couple apart, and the marked difference in their personal values—Williams was a confirmed atheist, his wife a devout Catholic—placed a strain on their relationship, which reached breaking point when Williams had an affair with Patricia Law Skinner, then wife of the historian Quentin Skinner. Williams and Skinner subsequently married and had two sons. Shirley Williams said of her marriage to Williams:
... [T]here was something of a strain that comes from two things. One is that we were both too caught up in what we were respectively doing—we didn't spend all that much time together; the other, to be completely honest, is that I'm fairly unjudgmental and I found Bernard's capacity for pretty sharp putting-down of people he thought were stupid unacceptable. Patricia has been cleverer than me in that respect. She just rides it. He can be very painful sometimes. He can eviscerate somebody. Those who are left behind are, as it were, dead personalities. Judge not that ye be not judged. I was influenced by Christian thinking, and he would say "That's frightfully pompous and it's not really the point." So we had a certain jarring over that and over Catholicism.
Williams conceded that he could be tough. "I like to think that this is usually when I'm confronted with self-satisfaction. In philosophy the thing that irritates me is smugness, particularly scientistic smugness." He was appointed Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge in 1967, vacating the chair to serve as Provost of King's College from 1979 until 1987. He left England in 1988 to become Deutsch Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, citing the relative prosperity of American academic life, and the so-called "brain drain" from England of academics moving to the U.S. He told a British newspaper at the time that he could barely afford to buy a house in central London on his salary as an academic. He told The Guardian in November 2002 that he regretted his departure becoming so public: "I was persuaded that there was a real problem about academic conditions and that if my departure was publicized this would bring these matters to public attention. It did a bit, but it made me seem narky." Bemoaning the challenge of cross-cultural adjustment, he observed "it's harder to live out there with a family than I supposed."
He held several positions at Berkeley (1986–2003) where he was Mills Professor (1986–1988), Sather Classics Lecturer and Sather Professor (1988–1989), and Monroe Deutsch Professor of Philosophy (1988–2003), and also served, at the same time, as White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford (1990–1996), eventually becoming a Fellow of All Souls College again in 1997.
Williams served on a number of royal commissions and government committees. He chaired the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship, which reported in 1979 that: "Given the amount of explicit sexual material in circulation and the allegations often made about its effects, it is striking that one can find case after case of sex crimes and murder without any hint at all that pornography was present in the background." The Committee's report was evidently influenced by the liberal thinking of John Stuart Mill, a philosopher greatly admired by Williams, who used Mill's principle of liberty to develop what he called the "harm condition," whereby "no conduct should be suppressed by law unless it can be shown to harm someone." Williams concluded that pornography could not be shown to be harmful, and that "the role of pornography in influencing society is not very important ... to think anything else is to get the problem of pornography out of proportion with the many other problems that face our society today." The committee reported that, so long as children were protected from seeing it, adults should be free to read and watch pornography as they see fit. Margaret Thatcher's first administration put an end to the liberal agenda on sex, and nearly put an end to Williams's political career too; he was not asked to chair another public committee for almost 15 years. Apart from pornography, he also sat on commissions examining the role of British private schools in 1965–70, drug abuse in 1971, gambling in 1976–78, and social justice in 1993–94. "I did all the major vices," he said.
Williams was interested in opera from the age of 15, and served on the board of the English National Opera for 20 years. He wrote the entry for "opera" in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and a collection of his essays, On Opera, was published in 2006, edited by his widow, Patricia.
Honours and death
Williams was knighted in 1999. He became a fellow of the British Academy and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters (Litt.D.) by the University of Cambridge in 2002. He died on 10 June 2003 while on holiday in Rome. He had been suffering from multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. He was survived by his wife, Patricia, their two sons, and a daughter from his first marriage.
Approach to moral philosophy
In Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (1972), he wrote that "whereas most moral philosophy at most times has been empty and boring... contemporary moral philosophy has found an original way of being boring, which is by not discussing issues at all." The study of morality, he argued, should be vital and compelling. He wanted to find a moral philosophy that was accountable to psychology, history, politics, and culture. In his rejection of morality as what he called "a peculiar institution," by which he meant a discrete and separable domain of human thought, some people have seen a resemblance to the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Despite at first seeing Nietzsche as a crude reductionist, Williams came to admire him, once remarking that he wished he could quote him every twenty minutes.
Although Williams's disdain for reductionism could make him appear a moral relativist, he argued in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy that moral concepts could be "thick" or "thin". The former—such as courageous or cruel—are about real features of the world, and disputes about them can be resolved objectively.
Critique of utilitarianism
Williams was particularly critical of utilitarianism, a consequentialist position, the simplest version of which is that actions are good only insofar as they promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
One of his best-known arguments against utilitarianism centers on Jim, a botanist doing research in a South American country led by a brutal dictator. One day Jim finds himself in the central square of a small town facing 20 Indians who have been randomly captured and tied up as examples of what will happen to rebels. The captain who has arrested the Indians says that if Jim will kill one of them, the others will be released in honor of Jim's status as a guest, but if he does not, all the Indians will be killed. For most consequentialist theories, there is no moral dilemma in a case like this; all that matters is the outcome. Simple act utilitarianism would therefore favour Jim killing one of the men. Against this, Williams argued that there is a crucial moral distinction between a person being killed by me, and being killed by someone else because of an act or omission of mine. The utilitarian loses that vital distinction, turning us into empty vessels by means of which consequences occur, rather than preserving our status as moral actors and decision-makers. He argued that moral decisions must preserve our psychological identity and integrity.
We do not, in fact, judge actions by their consequences, he argued. To solve parking problems in London, a utilitarian would have to favour threatening to shoot people who parked illegally. If only a few people were shot for this, illegal parking would soon stop; thus the utilitarian calculus could justify the shootings by the happiness the absence of parking problems would bring. Any theory with this as a consequence, Williams argued, should be rejected out of hand, no matter how plausible it feels to argue that we do judge actions by their consequences. In an effort to save the utilitarian account, a rule utilitarian — a version of utilitarianism that promotes not the act, but the rule that tends to lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number — would ask what rule could be extrapolated from the parking example. If the rule were: "Anyone might be shot over a simple parking offense," the utilitarian would argue that its implementation would bring great unhappiness. For Williams, this argument simply proved his point. We do not need to calculate why threatening to shoot people over parking offenses is wrong, he argued, and any system that shows us how to make the calculation is one we should reject. Indeed, we should reject any system that reduces moral decision-making to a few algorithms, because any systematization or reductionism will inevitably distort its complexity.
Critique of Kantianism
One of the main alternatives to utilitarian theory is the moral philosophy of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Williams's work throughout the 1970s and 1980s outlined the basis of his attacks on the twin pillars of utilitarianism and Kantianism. Martha Nussbaum wrote that his work "denounced the trivial and evasive way in which moral philosophy was being practised in England under the aegis of those two dominant theories".
Kant's Critique of Practical Reason and Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals expounded a moral system based on what he called the categorical imperative, the best known version of which is: "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become, by an act of will, a universal law of nature." This is a binding law, Kant argued, on any rational being with free will. Williams argued against the categorical imperative in his paper "Persons, character and morality". Morality should not require us to act selflessly, as though we are not who we are in the circumstances in which we presently find ourselves. We should not have to take an impartial view of the world, he argued. Our values, commitments, and desires do make a difference to how we see the world and how we act; and so they should, he said, otherwise we lose our individuality, and thereby our humanity.
Reasons for action
Williams's insistence that morality is about people and their real lives, and that acting out of rational self-interest and even selfishness are not contrary to moral action, is illustrated in his "internal reasons for action" argument, part of what philosophers call the "internal/external reasons" debate. Philosophers have tried to argue that moral agents can have "external reasons" for performing a moral act; that is, they are able to act for reasons external to their inner mental states. Williams argued that this is meaningless. For something to be a "reason to act," it must be "magnetic"; that is, it must move people to action. But how can something entirely external to us—for example, the proposition that X is good—be "magnetic"? By what process can something external to us move us to act? Williams argued that it cannot. Cognition is not magnetic. Knowing and feeling are quite separate, he wrote, and a person must feel before they are moved to act. He argued that reasons for action are always internal, whether based on a desire to act in accordance with upbringing, peer pressure, or similar, and they always boil down to desire.
In his final completed book, Truth And Truthfulness: An Essay In Genealogy (2002), Williams identifies the two basic values of truth as accuracy and sincerity, and tries to address the gulf between the demand for truth, and the doubt that any such thing exists. The debt to Nietzsche is clear, most obviously in the adoption of a genealogical method as a tool of explanation and critique. Although part of his intention was to attack those he felt denied the value of truth, the book cautions that, to understand it simply in that sense, would be to miss part of its purpose; rather, as Kenneth Baker wrote, it is "Williams' reflection on the moral cost of the intellectual vogue for dispensing with the concept of truth." The Guardian wrote in its obituary of Williams that the book is an examination of those who "sneer at any purported truth as ludicrously naive because it is, inevitably, distorted by power, class bias and ideology".
Williams did not propose any systematic philosophical theory; indeed, he was suspicious of any such attempt. Alan Thomas writes that his contribution to ethics was an overarching scepticism about attempts to create a foundation to moral philosophy, explicitly articulated in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985) and Shame and Necessity (1993), where he argued that moral theories can never reflect the complexities of life, particularly given the radical pluralism of modern societies. Jonathan Lear writes that Williams wanted to understand human beings as part of the natural world, and that the fundamental starting point of moral reflection had to be the individual perspective, the internal reasons for action. To try to transcend one's point of view, Williams argued, leads only to self-deception.
In a secular humanist tradition, with no appeal to the external moral authority of a god, his ideas strike at the foundation of conventional morality, namely that one sometimes does good even if one does not want to, and can be blamed for a failure to do so. Timothy Chappell writes that, without external reasons for action, it becomes impossible to argue that the same set of moral reasons applies to all agents equally, because an agent's reasons can always be relativized to their particular lives, their internal reasons. In cases where someone has no internal reason to do what others see as the right thing, they cannot be blamed for failing to do it, because internal reasons are the only reasons, and blame, Williams wrote, "involves treating the person who is blamed like someone who had a reason to do the right thing but did not do it." Chappell writes that learning to be yourself, to be authentic and to act with integrity, rather than conforming to any external moral system, is arguably the fundamental motif of Williams's work. "If there's one theme in all my work it's about authenticity and self-expression," Williams said in 2002. "It's the idea that some things are in some real sense really you, or express what you and others aren't ... The whole thing has been about spelling out the notion of inner necessity." He moved moral philosophy away from the Kantian question, "What is my duty?" and back to the issue that mattered to the Greeks: "How should we live?"
- Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 1972.
- Problems of the Self. Cambridge University Press, 1973.
- (with J. J. C. Smart) Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge University Press, 1973.
- Descartes: The Project of Pure Inquiry. Harvester Press, 1978.
- Moral Luck. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
- Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Harvard University Press, 1985.
- Shame and Necessity. University of California Press, 1993.
- Making Sense of Humanity. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
- The Great Philosophers: Plato. London: Routledge, 1998.
- Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. Princeton University Press, 2002.
- "Pagan Justice and Christian Love", Apeiron 26.3–4, 1993, pp. 195–207.
- "Cratylus's Theory of Names and Its Refutation", in Language, ed. Stephen Everson, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- "The Actus Reus of Dr. Caligari", Pennsylvania Law Review 142, May 1994.
- "Descartes and the Historiography of Philosophy", in Reason, Will and Sensation: Studies in Descartes's Metaphysics, ed. John Cottingham, Oxford University Press, 1994.
- "Acting as the Virtuous Person Acts", in Aristotle and Moral Realism, ed. Robert Heinaman, Westview Press, 1995.
- "Ethics", in Philosophy: A Guide Through the Subject, ed. A. C. Grayling, Oxford University Press, 1995.
- "Identity and Identities", in Identity: Essays Based on Herbert Spencer Lectures Given in the University of Oxford, ed. Henry Harris, Oxford University Press, 1995.
- "Truth in Ethics", Ratio 8.3, 1995, pp. 227–42.
- "Contemporary Philosophy: A Second Look", in The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy. N. F. Bunnin (ed.), Blackwell, 1996.
- "History, Morality, and the Test of Reflection", in The Sources of Normativity. Onora O'Neill (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1996.
- "Reasons, Values and the Theory of Persuasion", in Ethics, Rationality and Economic Behavior, ed. Francesco Farina, Frank Hahn and Stafano Vannucci, Oxford University Press, 1996.
- "The Politics of Trust", in The Geography of Identity, ed. Patricia Yeager, University of Michigan Press, 1996.
- "The Women of Trachis: Fictions, Pessimism, Ethics", in The Greeks and Us, R. B. Louden and P. Schollmeier (eds.), Chicago University Press, 1996.
- "Toleration: An Impossible Virtue?" in Toleration: An Exclusive Virtue, ed. David Heyd, Princeton University Press, 1996.
- "Truth, Politics and Self-Deception", Social Research 63.3 (Fall 1996).
- "Moral Responsibility and Political Freedom", Cambridge Law Journal 56, 1997.
- "Stoic Philosophy and the Emotions: Reply to Richard Sorabji", in Aristotle and After, R. Sorabji (ed.), Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies Supplement 68, 1997.
- "Tolerating the Intolerable", in The Politics of Toleration. ed. Susan Mendus, Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
- "Philosophy As a Humanistic Discipline", Philosophy 75, October 2000, pp. 477–496.
- "Understanding Homer: Literature, History and Ideal Anthropology", in Being Humans: Anthropological Universality and Particularity in Transdisciplinary Perspectives. Neil Roughley, ed. de Gruyter, 2000.
- Posthumously published
- In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument, ed. Geoffrey Hawthorn, Princeton University Press, 2005.
- Philosophy As A Humanistic Discipline, ed. A. W. Moore, Princeton University Press, 2006.
- The Sense Of The Past: Essays In The Philosophy Of History, ed. Myles Burnyeat, Princeton University Press, 2006.
- On Opera, Yale University Press, 2006.
- ^ a b c d e "Professor Sir Bernard Williams", The Times, 14 June 2003.
- ^ a b Professor Sir Bernard Williams The Daily Telegraph, 14 June 2003.
- ^ McGinn, Colin, "Isn't It the Truth?" The New York Review of Books, 10 April 2003.
- ^ a b c Baker, Kenneth. Bernard Williams: Carrying the torch for truth, San Francisco Chronicle, 22 September 2002.
- ^ a b c Nussbaum, Martha. "Tragedy and Justice", Boston Review, October/November 2003.
- ^ a b c d e f g h i j Jeffries, Stuart. "The Quest for Truth" The Guardian, 30 November 2002.
- ^ A List of Sather Professors, University of California, Berkeley, accessed June 14, 2009.
- ^ a b Bernard A. O. Williams, University of California, accessed June 14, 2009.
- ^ Fodor, Jerry. "Life in tune", The Times Literary Supplement, January 17, 2007.[dead link]
- ^ a b c d O'Grady, Jane. Professor Sir Bernard Williams The Guardian, 13 June 2003.
- ^ a b Smart, J.J.C. and Williams, Bernard. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge University Press, 1973, p. 98 ff.
- ^ a b c Chappell, Timothy. Bernard Williams, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, February 1, 2006.
- Also see Williams, Bernard.Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 117.
- ^ Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (1972); Problems of the Self (1973); Utilitarianism: For and Against with J.J.C. Smart (1973); Moral Luck (1981); and Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985).
- ^ Williams, Bernard. Moral Luck. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
- ^ Williams, Bernard. "Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame", 1989, reprinted in Making Sense of Humanity, and other philosophical papers. Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 35–45.
- Also see Williams, Bernard. "Replies", in Altham, J.E.J & Harrison, Ross (eds.), World, Mind and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams. Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 185–224.
- And Williams, Bernard. "Postscript: Some Further Notes on Internal and External Reasons", in Millgram E. (ed.) Varieties of Practical Reasoning. MIT Press, 2001, pp. 91–97.
- ^ Thomas, Alan. "Williams, Bernard" in Audi, Robert. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- ^ Lear, Jonathan. Psychoanalysis and the Idea of a Moral Psychology, Inquiry 47: 515–522.
- ^ Williams, Bernard. "Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame", 1989, reprinted in Making Sense of Humanity, and other philosophical papers. Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 42.
- Baker, Kenneth. Bernard Williams: Carrying the torch for truth An interview with Bernard Williams, San Francisco Chronicle, 22 September 2002.
- Chappell, Timothy. Bernard Williams, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, February 1, 2006.
- Fodor Jerry. Life in tune, The Times Literary Supplement, January 17, 2007.
- Jeffries, Stuart). The Quest for Truth The Guardian, 30 November 2002.
- Lear, Jonathan. Psychoanalysis and the Idea of a Moral Psychology, Inquiry 47, 2002, pp. 515–522.
- McGinn, Colin. Isn't It the Truth? The New York Review of Books, 10 April 2003.
- Nussbaum, Martha. Tragedy and Justice Boston Review, October/November 2003.
- O'Grady, Jane. Professor Sir Bernard Williams The Guardian, 13 June 2003.
- Pearson, Richard. Philosopher Bernard Williams Dies: Weighed Questions of Moral Identify The Washington Post, 18 June 2003.
- Smart, J.J.C. and Williams, Bernard. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge University Press, 1973.
- Thomas, Alan. "Williams, Bernard" in Audi, Robert. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- Williams, Bernard. Moral Luck. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
- Williams, Bernard.Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Harvard University Press, 1985.
- Williams, Bernard. "Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame", 1989, reprinted in Making Sense of Humanity, and other philosophical papers. Cambridge University Press, 1995: 35–45.
- Williams, Bernard. "Replies", in Altham, J.E.J & Harrison, Ross (eds.), World, Mind and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
- Williams, Bernard. "Postscript: Some Further Notes on Internal and External Reasons", in Millgram E. (ed.) Varieties of Practical Reasoning. MIT Press, 2001.
- Professor Sir Bernard Williams The Daily Telegraph, 14 June 2003.
- Professor Sir Bernard Williams The Times, 14 June 2003.
- Bernard Williams The Economist, 26 June 2003.
- "A live chat with Bernard Williams", GuardianUnlimited, November 2002.
- Foot, Philippa. "Reasons for Action and Desires", in Raz, Joseph (ed). Practical Reasoning, Oxford University Press, 1978.
- McGinn, Colin. Isn't it the truth? New York Review of Books, 10 April 2003.
- Sen, Amartya. Ethics and Economics, Blackwell, 1989.
- Sen, Amartya; Williams, Bernard; and Ratoff Robinson, William (eds.). Utilitarianism and Beyond, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
- Thomas, Alan (ed.). Bernard Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Williams, Bernard. "Why Philosophy Needs History", London Review of Books, 17 October 2002.
- Williams, Bernard and Alex Voorhoeve. "A Mistrustful Animal: A Conversation with Bernard Williams" in Conversations on Ethics. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Academic offices Preceded by
Provost of King's College, Cambridge
Plato · Aristotle · Confucius · Mencius · Mozi · Augustine of Hippo · Thomas Aquinas · Baruch Spinoza · David Hume · Immanuel Kant · Georg W. F. Hegel · Arthur Schopenhauer · Jeremy Bentham · John Stuart Mill · Søren Kierkegaard · Henry Sidgwick · Friedrich Nietzsche · G. E. Moore · Karl Barth · Paul Tillich · Philippa Foot · John Rawls · Bernard Williams · J. L. Mackie · Alasdair MacIntyre · Peter Singer · Derek Parfit · Thomas Nagel · more...
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