Review of Bernard Williams, Essays and Reviews 1959-2002

Williams's style of relentless interrogation, which permits neither vagueness nor evasion, invariably deepens the reader's understanding not only of the question at issue but also of the intellectual networks in which it is embedded. Despite his busy life as professor in prestigious universities on both sides of the Atlantic, Provost of King's College Cambridge, and vociferous member of the old Labour establishment, and despite his own immensely important contribution to the subject in books that are on the shelves of all professional philosophers, Williams found time to study and review the works of his contemporaries, leaving all of them, it seems to me, with serious criticisms to answer, and at least one of them (Richard Rorty) with no hope of doing so.
Reading these essays was a wonderful intellectual journey, back across the years of my own intellectual formation, revisiting the philosophical monuments of our time in the company of their acutest critic. Many of the significant post-war figures are called into the witness box: Austin, Ayer, Rawls, Nozick, Nagel, Rorty, Chomsky, Parfit, Skinner, and many more, there to be cross-examined with consummate skill. Williams's aim is not to score points, but to discover what these people are saying, why they are saying it and whether we should be saying it too. For readers without a philosophical training some of the essays will be uphill work. But they are never more difficult than the subject requires, and are written with a lightness of touch and a lack of solemnity that are a joy in themselves.
Williams's great and in my view unmatched talent as a philosopher was to perceive and expose the hidden assumptions in every argument he came across, while understanding the goal that the argument is seeking to achieve. He brilliantly unsettles Thomas Nagel's attempt to find a perspective beyond the reach of relativistic ways of thinking; he elegantly confronts Hilary Putnam with the possibility that his defence of 'internal realism' is the defence of nothing in particular, or everything in general, depending how you look at it; he neatly ties Derek Parfit in a contradiction between his sceptical idea of personal identity and his thoughts about 'a life worth living'. In these and a hundred other ways, he touches the monuments of analytical philosophy and they spring to life with shocked expressions that suggest that, after all, they may not be immortal.
But where did he stand himself? What exactly was Williams's position on the philosophical issues of the day? It is possible to think, though this would not be fair, that Williams was too clever to have a position, since he was able, as no other thinker was able, to see through every position on offer. I tend rather to the view that Williams, like Hume, was a minimalist. He saw the impossibility of the systems and the grand narratives, and yet at the same time wanted to uphold our ordinary ways of thinking. He shared the trust in scientific advance and liberal morality that had shaped the post-war consensus. And he remained committed to the egalitarian agenda of the old Labour Party – a commitment that infected all his discussions of political philosophy, several of which appear in this book.
I like to think that it is not only because I am a conservative that I find Williams's treatment of political philosophy unconvincing. In his discussions of Rawls, whose books on justice and political liberalism have done so much to establish the agenda of the subject, Williams is uncharacteristically reticent. He assumes with Rawls that the question of justice is a question of how the goods available in society are to be distributed, and – like Rawls – never asks the question 'by whom?' Like so many socialists he assumes that goods come into the world unencumbered by any claims of ownership. He is hastily dismissive of Nozick's attempt to remind us that, in our ordinary dealings with each other, justice is not about patterns of distribution but about who has honoured his agreements and who has cheated whom.
This intellectual favouritism goes with a tendency to sneer at 'the other side'. The word 'conservative' appears in Williams's essays as a term of abuse, and is always connected – sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly – with the worst tendencies of capitalist exploitation. And he never misses a chance (as in his review of Paul Johnson's Intellectuals) to give vent to his underlying belief that conservatives just don't get it. Like John Stuart Mill, Williams deeply believed that, when it comes to politics, the conservatives are 'the stupider party'. He was, perhaps, the last fully self-confident representative of a very English class of intellectual snob, whose principal concern (in the eyes of its critics) was to destroy the social and intellectual privileges that it had enjoyed before the next generation of upstarts could get hold of them. As one of those upstarts I was bound to feel somewhat peeved.
The imaginative power of Williams's mind was wonderfully revealed in his late work, Shame and Necessity, in which he brought moral philosophy and Greek literature into relation with each other, and cast the kind of light on both that Nietzsche had cast in The Birth of Tragedy. Those who think that analytical philosophers are all logic-chopping philistines should take a look at that book or, failing that, they should immerse themselves in the penultimate essay in this collection, on 'Wagner and the Transcendence of Politics', which conveys Williams's deep awareness of what matters in music, and how. In these reviews and essays Williams achieves something that philosophy always promises but seldom delivers: a view from the perspective of reason, on a cultural landscape where reason is only one of the landmarks.

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