17 March, 2014Issue 24.5Philosophy

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Life as a Humanistic Discipline

Paul Sagar

Bernard Williams
Essays and Reviews, 1959-2002
Princeton University Press, 2014
435 pages
ISBN 978-0691159850

As the blurb for this collection puts it, “Bernard Williams was one of the most important and influential 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”. This is true, but it risks misleading. These wonderful and deeply stimulating essays are not a leisurely read. On subjects as diverse as ancient moral philosophy, contemporary political theory, the work of Bertrand Russell, the proper nature of a university, the role of scepticism in philosophy, and the opera of Richard Wagner (to name but a few), the reader is expected to keep up a very brisk pace. A notoriously dense and difficult author in his academic publications, Williams demands a high level of comprehension and concentration from his lay audiences. And no bad thing, either: he shows just how much can be achieved if one is prepared to work hard.

Williams was respectful of intellectual seriousness, even in the aid of philosophies he thoroughly rejected. Derek Parfit, a philosopher who perhaps could not be more different from Williams in temperament and conclusions, receives careful and serious, if robust, consideration, as do John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Hilary Putnam. (Robert Nozick and Catharine MacKinnon receive more abrasive treatment, but on the legitimate grounds that their arguments, and the real-world implications they are likely to license, deserve it.) Yet Williams showed little mercy when it came to those who fell short of his exacting standards. A poor RAF chaplain is, in an early essay, indicted for “idiocy”. C.S. Lewis is an “intellectual porpoise” (because he shows himself briefly on the surface, but mostly hides his true form in the depths despite our knowing he is down there). Maurice Cowling receives an extended (and hilarious) lashing on the grounds that he is a self-satisfied, insular, pompous Cambridge snob of the worst sort, one whose vacuity masquerades as learning and social commentary. Some of the most acerbic lines in the collection are reserved for another, older Cambridge don, Basil Willey, of whom Williams writes:

But such a study requires a complex feat of self-denial, a willing suspension of belief, a determination not to preach. In this Willey totally fails, with the result that parts of his book read like the grotesque sermon of a school chaplain warning the senior boys against the spiritual shortcomings of purely secular writings.

Williams’s more scathing assessments will not be to everybody’s taste. But to those who suspect that the insistence that fools be suffered gladly often masks a self-serving hypocrisy and affected moral superiority, Williams’s frankness is not only funny, it is refreshing.

These essays are particularly valuable for those interested in the development of Williams’s thought. It is surprising just how early he started to think about ideas that would not make it into print until many years later. In the preface to his 1978 book, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Williams claimed that “The writing of this book has stretched over an absurdly long period, partly because it was laid aside for a number of years”. Indeed: these reviews show that in the early 1960s he was thinking in a serious way about Descartes and seventeenth-century science. In the mid 1970s, Williams was already thinking about the connections between truth and the virtues of truthfulness, a duality made central in his 2002 book, Truth and Truthfulness. In the 1980s he began to assemble the political ideas underpinning his now famous “realist” rejection of much contemporary normative political theory, most of which is collected in the posthumous volume, In the Beginning Was the Deed, published in 2005.

This is of interest to more than just followers and admirers of Williams. For what this collection offers is a window onto a mind first in development, and then in an ever more flourishing state of maturity. For one thing, the writing gets better as times goes on. But, more than that, we are able to observe how a truly first-rate mind operates, and how gradual and organic that process must be. Williams is rightly sceptical, as he makes clear in a review of Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire (1994), of the possibility that philosophy may serve as a sort of therapy of the mind; that critical argument and reflection can serve to calm one’s emotional turmoils and show one how to be happy. There is no paradox, however, in the fact that an indirect benefit of reflecting on Williams’s public philosophy may itself serve as a sort of therapy. In particular, it may teach and urge patience regarding the long span of time that is required to acquire, process, and then develop knowledge and ideas. This in turn can have a calming effect, balancing the sense of being overwhelmed by the vast amount that there is to know before one can even come close to saying something worth saying. (There is no paradox, because it’s not the arguments of Williams’s philosophy that do the work, but rather the appreciation of what serious learning and achievement look like.) Nietzsche said that a philosopher must be like a cow and ruminate: having 71 of Williams’s public essays before us, arranged chronologically and spanning over four decades, shows just how valuable chewing the cud can be.

Something that comes out very strongly here is the breadth of learning that Williams possessed. Williams read Greats (i.e. Classics) at Balliol College, Oxford, and lost neither his passion for, nor knowledge of, Classical culture and philosophy. Rejecting ‘analytic’ philosophy’s frequently blanket dismissal of ‘continental’ thinkers, Williams developed a deep and sustained interest in Nietzsche, who profoundly shaped his moral philosophy, and clearly made an attempt at Hegel, Sartre, and Heidegger early on. His interests and learning extended (amongst other things) to the Enlightenment, the history of science, practices of state secrecy, legally-orientated political theory, and classical music. Seeing the range of Williams’s knowledge is important because it casts into new light a refrain often heard about his academic philosophical writing: that it is characterised by a fundamental laziness regarding scholarship, evidenced by the fact Williams only ever cited his friends and his students.

The accusation is usually meant as one of sloppiness, of Williams’s unwillingness to supplement his dazzling intellect with the hard work of scholarly endeavour, trusting that he could evade the academic literature by simply being quicker than his peers. Perhaps this is true, but these essays suggest a better line of explanation. We can now see that Williams was not lazy: he spent an immense amount of time reading and thinking, and knew much beyond his own academic arguments. What he chose to do was spend time thinking about things that most interested him, rather than engaging in the Sisyphean task of attempting to stay up to date with the vast and ever-expanding sea of contemporary scholarship, which tirelessly throws out publication after publication in every conceivable niche of enquiry. It is undeniable that the vast majority of present scholarly output in philosophy and attendant disciplines is of a poor standard: it is either unoriginal, original at the expense of being preposterous and tiresomely pointless or trivial, or else diligent and robust but utterly devoid of interest to anybody other than those academics who have made a career out of grinding out points and counterpoints within debates that only exist because of the very professionalization of intellectual pursuits of which their activity is a function. Williams chose to bypass all of this and get on with being original and interesting. It is not at all clear that he was making a mistake.

The present government’s Kafkaesque “Research Excellence Framework” demands that academics churn out publications, regardless of whether they have anything to say. More generally, there has been a pronounced cultural shift in professionalized academia away from teaching and towards measurable ‘outputs’, encouraging academics to translate whatever modest or untenable ideas they have into high ‘impact’ publications. Academia is in danger of ending up moribund via a prolonged case of morbid obesity. Williams’s advice was the exact opposite of all of this: disciplines like philosophy should not encourage, or give incentives for, publishing, unless what one writes is likely to be very good indeed; likely to be both genuinely interesting and original. This was not (as it is often mistakenly taken to be) a matter of snobbery on Williams’s behalf. It was a function of a well thought-out view regarding what philosophy is, one that comes out strongly in the later essays collected in Essays and Reviews. In essence, for Williams, philosophy is not like science. In science, the big breakthroughs come from brilliant thinkers, but the rest of the time everybody else can usefully get on with collecting data and increasing the sum of human knowledge. Philosophy is not like that: in philosophy, you are not only not adding data if you are making bad, or unoriginal, or stupid, or pointlessly banal and repetitive arguments, you are getting in the way of those who are trying to make sense of our world, and who might be able to make more sense of it than those who have tried before. If this is elitism, it is justified by the seriousness with which Williams wanted to make more sense of our world than has hitherto been managed; the brute truth is that most practitioners of contemporary academic philosophy just do not help in that task. (There is a separate question as to whether one needs to be a highly talented and original thinker in order to teach at a university. That in turn raises questions about what the role, purpose, and corresponding organizational structure of the modern university should be—questions to which it does not seem that anybody at present has particularly good answers, least of all the present government.)

Williams’s view that philosophy is not like science goes much deeper than what I have just sketched (which is really more a consequence of his view than the view itself). In particular, Williams insisted that, whereas scientists try—however imperfectly, and under whatever necessary limitations—to describe and understand a world that would be there even if we were not, the majority of philosophy is different. By the very fact that we are in our world, much of what philosophy aspires to understand and explain—our belief in the existence of other minds, the existence of time, moral and aesthetic value, politics—requires intimate reference to us and what we can do and think in the process of trying to explain and understand. But because we are deeply embedded creatures—embedded not just in psychologies that have evolved to perceive and process in certain ways, but in cultures and polities that have taught us to value and appraise not just actions, but modes of life and character and purpose—we cannot hope to gain adequate philosophical self-understanding without an appreciation of history. Of where our ideas come from, of what makes them ours, of why some ideas are no longer an option for us. Of why some philosophical tropes are not worth spending time on, because if we look closely we will see that what appears to be new only appears this way because we are ignorant of what is already in the dustbin of history.

In short, Williams urged that philosophy must be a humanistic discipline. Many analytic philosophers proceed as though the sheer force of their cleverness can scythe through deep problems of human living and understanding, unaided and unencumbered by further learning and knowledge. This attitude frequently goes along with a willful philistinism: a celebration of one’s ignorance beyond one’s academic niche, within which one prowls to do battle with the more or less clever as they dare come forth. Williams’s work stands as an indictment of this way of going about philosophy. He shows that it is most certainly an intellectual mistake. But it is also an ethical one, insofar as we rightfully find ignorance repellant and its celebration a vice. The richness and value of human experience must extend beyond being merely clever, if our lives are to have that dimension of meaning which philosophy, of all disciplines, should surely put first and foremost (the clue, after all, is in the name). For anybody wishing to undertake philosophy as a humanistic discipline, this collection of essays is an excellent place to start. But it will take many years to get up to speed, and the task will never be finished. Not for the first time, I am left wishing that Williams, who died in 2003, could have had another decade to show what a lifetime of learning can achieve.

Paul Sagar is reading for a PhD in History at King’s College, Cambridge.