Lamentation for an odyssey of ideas

In the Beginning Was the Deed - The Sense of the Past - Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline
June 2, 2006

John Dunn lauds both the imaginative range and the awesome autonomy of an outstanding modern philosopher

When he was fully concentrating, the late Bernard Williams had a greater force of thought, deployed over a wider horizon, than anyone else I have ever listened to. It made him an exhilarating and wonderfully instructive intellectual critic. It also made him, on occasion, pretty alarming. He forged his reputation in philosophy first at Oxford University as a dazzling Greats pupil, and it was to Oxford in the end that he returned, first as professor of moral philosophy and finally, once again, as a fellow of All Souls. In the lengthy interim he dazzled pupils, colleagues and rivals in several continents. He had a great gift for life and a very wide circle of admiring and devoted friends, many of them among the leading intellectual figures of their generations.

When Williams was young very great things were expected of him; and for much of his glittering career opinion was sharply divided over how far these expectations had been met. Even his bitterest critics conceded his astonishing gift for philosophy; but they tended to purse their lips over the use that he made of his talents. It was not always easy to distinguish envy from disapproval in their responses. But behind these there was something more important and more elusive: the question of what he was attempting to do. Because the talent was so effortless, he never needed to try to be impressive, never needed even to impress himself. But for him, the most insistent question was always one that fused the idiosyncrasy of the subject with the riddle of his own life: just what should a philosopher in the end attempt to achieve?

Most philosophers of some force develop a confident view of how to answer that question, at least in their own case. Williams, while not readily surpassed in confidence, felt the question acutely throughout his long and extraordinarily intellectually active life, and may in the end be seen to have devoted much of it (the part consecrated to philosophy) principally to the attempt to answer it to the very best of his ability.

The three volumes of essays now posthumously published set out his answer more synoptically and perhaps less guardedly than any of his previous books. None of the three was written as a book in its own right, as his Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (1978), Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), Shame and Necessity (1993) and Truth and Truthfulness (2002) unmistakably were.

In the Beginning Was the Deed is devoted principally to politics. The Sense of the Past , the longest of the three and the most impressive read on its own, addresses the special relation between philosophy and its own history.

The third, Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline , comes closest to answering the question to which Williams devoted his life, above all in its title essay, but does so in a cloistered and hermetic mode. Even this volume contains essays - "Tolerating the intolerable", "Subjectivism and toleration" and "Political philosophy and the analytic tradition" - that might equally have appeared in the politics volume.

Until the final decade and a half of his life, Williams was best known for three main contributions: a series of extremely subtle essays in philosophical psychology centred on agency and personal identity ( Aspects of the Self , 1973); the striking emphasis in Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry on the philosophical force and interest of the idea of an absolute conception of reality (one in no way relativised to the distinctive properties of human beings), which has moved steadily further out of fashion since the book's publication; and a formidably sceptical interrogation of the standing of a range of secular ethical theories that, by contrast, have tended to become more assured and more widely imitated over the same time span. Of the three, the last was the most intransigent and the hardest for fellow philosophers to ignore.

His last two major works, Truth and Truthfulness and his masterpiece Shame and Necessity , spoke in some measure past philosophers to a much wider audience, dispersed across the social sciences and humanities, but reaching well beyond the academy to the residues of a public intellectual culture in Europe and North America. Both texts focused on a historical theme with enigmatic current significance and explored it through a relatively rich range of historical materials. Each showed by example how Williams believed that philosophy and history could mesh perfectly and show together what neither could ever hope to show separately. Both texts strengthened and deepened the central thrust of his writings on ethics over the previous two decades. They also made it easier to grasp what these were really saying, and to isolate the characteristic and disconcerting ethical charge they carried: the Nietzschean insistence, in a phrase several times cited by Williams, on "plain bitter ugly foul unchristian immoral truth".

What Williams stressed, at times with increasing bluntness as the years began to run out, was the degree to which polite ethical thought in the societies of the West today rests on or involves self-deception or more active deceit. It depends on the private pretence, public affirmation, or purposeful suggestion of what is for those concerned knowably false.

Heard as an accusation, this could scarcely be agreeable, especially for those who prided themselves on their ethical sensitivity and integrity, and the steadiness and clarity with which they understood the values that these disclosed. Even as a philosophical disagreement it could readily discomfit; and it must at times have distressed even close friends who had devoted their own lives to cultivating and clarifying these intuitions. What no one who knew him could readily doubt was that in these contentions Williams was in deadly earnest.

Each of these three volumes, with their contrasting, if partially overlapping, subject matters, presses as a whole one main line of inquiry.

Each reprints, or prints for the first time, pieces from across Williams's philosophical lifetime. Individual chapters vary in style and level of formality. But read in the sequence of their composition, they give each volume a definite momentum, in two of the three cases one that clearly accelerates with the passing of the decades.

The Sense of the Past is the largest and most immediately inviting, not least because it contains two very substantial items, neither of which was initially addressed to philosophers at all. One, "The legacy of Greek philosophy", was written for Moses Finley's The Legacy of Ancient Greece: A Reappraisal (1981) and must still be the most arresting introduction to what happened to and through philosophy in Greece. The second, "Plato: the invention of philosophy", first published separately as a small book in 1998, is, if anything, even better, as scintillating an entree to Plato as a philosopher and all that has followed from him as anyone can ever have penned. In each, the grace, athleticism and precision still take the breath away.

The remaining 23 chapters stretch from Homer to Wittgenstein and contain many gems. Some of the most striking are once again on Plato: a powerful "Introduction to the Theaetetus", the provenance of which is described intriguingly and with great generosity by Myles Burnyeat in his introduction to the volume, and a searching interrogation of one of the key and most exposed arguments of the Republic . Others predictably treat Descartes (notably "Descartes and the historiography of philosophy"), Henry Sidgwick (funny, fair, but pretty merciless) and Nietzsche. The most unexpected, hitherto unpublished, is a very sharp and sympathetic assessment of R. G. Collingwood that brings out a remarkable degree of commonality in their views and greatly clarifies the respects in which Williams saw Wittgenstein, the most potent philosophical presence of his own youth, as suffering from the latter's relative closure to both history and politics.

During his final few years, Williams spent much time planning a book about politics that would convey clearly its large and irreducible role in shaping human existence and the imperative to acknowledge accurately what that role really is, both in defining the context of our ethical lives and in securing or imperilling the framework within which we have the chance to live them. He had always been keenly interested in politics as a practical activity, had lived for a time quite close to it and had more respect than most contemporary philosophers for its difficulties, requirements and potential achievements. He believed strongly in the importance of seeing it realistically, not treating it as a projective field for personal emotion and fantasy, and he doubted that much of the most influential political philosophy of the past three decades (which he took very seriously) began to meet that standard.

In the Beginning Was the Deed shows these convictions at work in many powerful pieces and demonstrates the close connection between his well-elaborated recognition that the truth about human values is inherently impermeable to systematisation and his enduring respect for the practical primacy of politics in defining the space of human possibilities. It is not the book he meant to write, but it is nevertheless compelling and suggestive of the brutal loss of the work we shall never now have. That would have been a book that showed all of us how to recognise the medium in which we do and must live, but would have left his professional colleagues to draw the moral for their own reflections.

Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline perforce addresses itself principally to those colleagues. It does so on behalf of what Williams had come to understand so fully and with all the resources on which he incomparably drew, but which the academic division of labour and the broader dynamics of an ever-deepening capitalist culture together ensure that fewer and fewer of these colleagues will come to understand. The result is distressingly evident. What it is trying to tell them and what they will be equipped to recognise are moving relentlessly further apart. From outside the profession you can hear it as a threnody for a richer, saner vision of one of the greatest human intellectual adventures. Those inside the profession must (and no doubt will) pronounce on its verdict for themselves.

Whenever a human voice finally falls silent, it leaves behind it the poignancy of all it can never say. With a philosopher of the intellectual depth and energy, the imaginative range and the awesome autonomy of Bernard Williams, that loss goes very far beyond the personal.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, Cambridge University.

In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument

Author - Bernard Williams
Editor - Geoffrey Hawthorn
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 174
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 691 12430 2

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