Bernard Williams was one of the most important philosophers of the past fifty years, but he was also a distinguished critic and essayist with an elegant style and a rare ability to communicate complex ideas to a wide public.
I first encountered the work of the English philosopher Bernard Williams in an early undergraduate course on ethics.
The essay was one of Williams’s classics—“A Critique of Utilitarianism.” When I think back on the course, this little piece of criticism is, often before the giants that overshadowed it, among the first to come to mind, for a number of reasons.
He treats works of philosophy not just as analyses of ideas, but as books—to be read, understood, and by human beings.
He accuses Basil Willey of injecting his own staleness into a summary of Locke, who “is a confused thinker, indeed, but not boringly so, because his confusions are those of a highly intelligent and honest man trying to stand upright on intellectual ground that is shifting under his feet.” And he writes of a somewhat scattered assemblage of lectures by Charles Taylor that “the air of informality and disorder has some rewards—even its own authority.
As a stiffly presented treatise, the book would have had not merely less appeal, but less force.” Williams is at his wittiest here, too.
He uses his first sentence on Kenneth Gergen’s , to him a particularly muddled piece of postmodern confusion, as a warning: “This is not a book about alcoholism.”The essays can be savored piecemeal but are more powerful in number.Williams writes about a broad range of subjects, from philosophy to science, th Bernard Williams was one of the most important philosophers of the past fifty years, but he was also a distinguished critic and essayist with an elegant style and a rare ability to communicate complex ideas to a wide public.Included are reviews of major books such as John Rawls's Theory of Justice, Richard Rorty's Consequences of Pragmatism, and Martha Nussbaum's Therapy of Desire. No matter the subject, readers see a first-class mind grappling with landmark books in "real time," before critical consensus had formed and ossified.Williams’s essays enter the death rattle of this approach , he detects the author’s own waning adherence to it. And by the seventies, we see positivism recede into the past, notable for its large ripples of influence—on a 1974 book of John Wisdom essays, for example—but no longer a vigorous part of the conversation.It was not that the positivists’ conundrum had been solved. What Williams salutes in his reviews is not the attempt to solve the conundrum but, instead, the circumvention of it.The historical journeys afforded by this new collection are themselves an answer to this.Like Locke, we are always standing on shifting intellectual ground.Williams takes the capsule format of the Sunday-morning periodical as a challenge, and the result is a distinctly human approach to the books that were assigned him.Williams’s sensitivity as a reader is one of the greatest assets of these reviews.To flip through them is to flip through the past forty years of our intellectual history by way of its seminal texts.The pieces touch on all branches of philosophy, but one of the most instructive threads to follow has to do with Williams’s specialty: the way we look at questions of morality.