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?

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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One can believe in moral progress without accusing past ages of wickedness or stupidity (though there is plenty of both in all ages). Perhaps progress can occur only through a series of historical stages,...

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‘Spinozist’ used to be what ‘Postmodernist’ is now, the worst thing one intellectual could call another. For reasons explained in Jonathan Israel’s fascinating The...

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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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