Essays and Reviews 1959-2002, by Bernard Williams

Jane O’Grady savours a collection of writings by a distinguished essayist that are still relevant today

May 22, 2014

Posthumously published essays and reviews often feel like stale leftovers, but Bernard Williams was such a good philosopher and writer that his remain fresh and delicious. This collection gives not only a marvellous record of intellectual milestones across 43 years, but also a sense of immediacy. After all, given Williams’ tough, shrewd analysis and philosophical provenance, his initial reviews helped to establish the milestones and perhaps (to judge by his reviews of two books each by John Rawls, Alasdair MacIntyre and Thomas Nagel) led to a remoulding of the original theory.

Williams’ assessments of then-current issues – the dangers of science (1963), censorship (1983 and 1994) and the future of the humanities (1987) – have proved prescient and are still pertinent. Student power, he said in 1968, was neither just nor real if it prevented lecturers from reciprocally criticising students. He demonstrated the perverse ambiguities and consequences of making university courses “relevant” and warned that abandoning intellectual rigour for “more expressive and unstructured enterprises” would produce victims, not beneficiaries, of any future society.

He was probably considered reactionary in saying so, and his impatience with silly, sloppy thinking, his incisive irony and world-weary pessimism, are indeed what right-wing thinkers, like Peterhouse historian Maurice Cowling, aspire to, and what qualify Williams as his debunker in his review of Cowling’s Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. Cowling, says Williams, parades “heroic truthfulness” as if he alone discerns optimism, humbug and flatulence in much liberal thought. “He should be better-informed: these things have got out.” Besides, Cowling’s scorn for academic objectivity amounts to “a poorly defined relativism” and therefore he should logically salute the liberalism he loathes because it has won. Instead, “the ruthless critic of complacency slump[s] onto the dusty hassocks of an older Anglicanism” about which he is “evasive”, insincere and unilluminating. If Cowling’s contradictions are owed to “the irony Cowling so much commends”, that could be better employed defending “the conceptions of truth and objectivity he himself both needs and despises”.

He deploys reductio ad absurdum to deft, hilarious effect, as when reviewing behaviourist B. F. Skinner. “Skinner’s opinion seems to be that since it was a mistake to treat things as persons, it must be an equal mistake to treat persons as persons, and the sooner we stop the better.” Skinner’s “dauntingly stupid” book will doubtless encourage the idea that human values and scientific understanding are necessarily opposed, “but in fact scientific understanding is no more present in this book than any other kind”.

Williams praises postmodernist Umberto Eco and pragmatist Richard Rorty for posing and probing the crucial questions of modernity, but ruthlessly exposes their sophistries. Eco is cited as dismissing the modus ponens (if p, then q; but p: therefore q) as a mere product of Western rationalism. “How far east do you have to go for that to stop being valid?” Williams asks. Rorty claims there is no world “out there” for science to discover and describe, nor any truth independent of language. What then, muses Williams, makes some descriptions of this constructed reality “work out” and not others? Ultimately, Rorty’s theories are shown to be either platitudinous or inadvertently attempting to “reoccupy the transcendental standpoint, outside human speech and activity, that is precisely what he wants us to renounce”.

Williams urged Cowling to exercise his irony in defending truth. He himself did just that – savagely, wittily and movingly.

Essays and Reviews: 1959-2002

By Bernard Williams
Princeton University Press, 456pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691159850
Published 5 February 2014

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