15 June, 2006Issue 5.2Philosophy

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Scouring the Intellectual Himalaya

Chris Nathan

Bernard Williams
In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Thought
ed. Geoffrey Hawthorn
Princeton University Press, 2006
296 pages
ISBN 0691124302

A charming old lady once asked me what sort of politics I study. Was I interested in Britain, or Europe, or America, or perhaps somewhere else? I said that while the actual state of the world was of course relevant to me, my studies focused on the theory of politics—political philosophy. She didn’t like this. ‘Surely there must some particular place you look at. You can’t study politics nowhere.’ I replied that the point is to investigate ideas themselves, rather than any individual events. Then I added (quite flippantly), if the object of my study has a location, it’s outer space. This made her thoughtful for moment. She suggested, slightly patronisingly but with a touch of sympathy, ‘Yes, perhaps they’ll need politics in outer space one day.’

In the Beginning Was the Deed is a collection of essays about political philosophy, but its author wouldn’t have been very amenable to the idea of politics in outer space. Bernard Williams is frequently described as the greatest British philosopher of his era. He won a prize fellowship at All Souls College at the age of twenty-two, and went on to hold a string of distinguished posts. He served as Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge from 1967, then and as Provost of King’s College, Cambridge from 1979 until 1987. He was White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford in the 1990s, and Fellow of All Souls College at the time of his death in 2003. He was also a public intellectual. He served on several Royal Commissions (under Labour governments), and chaired the well-known and much discussed 1977-79 Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship.

In the Beginning is the first of three collections of Williams’ writings to be published by Princeton University Press. The second (Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline), on the status of philosophy, is out now, and the third (The Sense of the Past), on the history of ideas, is due to be released shortly. Williams didn’t publish a book-length work on political philosophy during his lifetime, but he left behind papers, essays and lectures on the subject. A selection of them is presented in this book, some previously published, others unpublished. Despite coming together in this fashion, the book is coherently organised, under the careful editorship of Geoffrey Hawthorn.

Williams has a curious status in the world of moral philosophy, both at the centre and the periphery of the ‘analytic’ mainstream. He has made arguments and initiated whole discussions that are routinely cited. He displays the analytic approach’s customary distaste for certain writers, such as Heidegger, and his critique of utilitarianism is standard first-term undergraduate fare.

He takes views, however, that are at odds with the all items on offer to those undergraduates. At one point in In the Beginning, Williams wonders whether he had used his time wisely over the years in writing about ethics, since such work ‘consisted largely in reminding moral philosophers of truths about human life which are very well known to virtually all adult human beings except moral philosophers,’ and this is a bit like ‘a flying mission to a small group isolated from humanity in the intellectual Himalaya.’

One of the things moral and political philosophers miss is a sense of history, of realism. The connection to history is what gives this collection of essays its title (a favorite quotation of Wittgenstein’s from Goethe’s Faust). It reminds us that we did not start out with some ideas and build a culture; we began with ‘the deed’ and went from there. How does this connection work?

For Williams, a state’s being legitimate involves it being able to provide a justification to each of its members on their own terms. So long as the justification is not accepted by a person just because he or she is yielding to power, it is acceptable. Importantly, a state is legitimate or illegitimate for realist political reasons, not moral reasons. Legitimacy expressly isn’t understood against some fully worked up theory of justice that begins from the universal imperative that, say, people develop themselves, or are given certain rights.

There is thus, for Williams, a sense in which legitimacy is relative to an era or a culture. Modernity is characterised by an interest in and relatively good grasp of truth. We do not easily accept hierarchical myths:

under the conditions of modernity, whatever else may be worse, we at any rate have a better grasp on the…truths that destroy those fantasies that once provided the fabric of pre-modern legitimation stories.

In these times, therefore, the demand for legitimacy has a tendency to lead to liberalism. Williams’ realist sense of legitimacy is partly a matter of which questions are asked, and modern people ask a lot of questions. His slogan is ‘Legitimacy + Modernity = Liberalism.’ Things were not always modern, and so the demand for legitimacy in another time could lead to a different politics. Hence the element of relativism in Williams’s thought. It does not aid understanding to judge past societies by their liberalness. Legitimate politics will always be linked to the particular stage of history and the specific understandings and attitudes of a people.

Williams is keen to argue that the demand for legitimacy itself is realist, not moralist. It is not a prior moral requirement; rather, it ‘is a claim that is inherent in there being such a thing as politics: in particular, it is inherent in there being a first political question.’ That first political question is how security is assured, and fear avoided. The thought is that the basic units of politics are the weak and the powerful, and it should not be forgotten how easily the powerful can abuse their positions.

There is a problem for Williams’s argument here. The prevention of a descent into a Hobbesian state of war is necessarycondition for legitimacy, but if that is all a state has to do, what is the impetus for something so indulgent as a cradle-to-grave welfare state or universal human rights? Williams rightly says that security is not sufficient for legitimacy—legitimacy is a matter of what people actually agree to. But now, if answering the ‘first question’ is only a necessary but not sufficient condition of legitimacy, it becomes obscure how this quite specific idea of legitimacy is ‘inherent in’ the ‘first question,’ without any appeal to grander and more controversial moral concepts.

Furthermore, if the requirement for legitimacy itself can appeal to pre-political moral concepts, why shouldn’t legitimation stories do so themselves? Once there are some normative concepts guiding us, there seems little reason to prevent others from creeping in.

The second way theory is tied to history begins, once more, with the ‘first question.’ If politics is in the first instance a matter of avoiding disaster, political philosophers cannot assume away conflict. They should remember that their readers are for the most part unempowered. The audience most definitely is not outer space as a whole—some idealised magistrate, a bit like God, who has the means to implement just any utopian scheme. ‘[N]o actual audience, no audience in the world, is in that situation, not even the Supreme Court.’

Add to this Williams’s anti-universalism, which takes a cue from the work of the later Wittgenstein. It is not possible to take a sidelong glance at the entirety of one’s concepts all at once. Thus ‘the particular arguments that carry forward liberal policies in particular situations must be not just practically but conceptually a matter of those circumstances.’ There is of necessity pragmatism in politics. Efforts to give a general theory are unhelpful or meaningless.

It isn’t clear how the anti-theory strand of Williams’ thought can, despite his protestations, avoid a deep and unattractive sort of conservatism. For better or worse, there is something compelling in arguing about what the principles are behind morals. Something negative occurs when a debate is killed off by the assertion that none of us is in any sort of position to change anything. We are drawn (even as secularists) to thinking God is our witness. An emphasis on our limitations and the historical causes of our convictions and concepts threatens to deny us these things. We could follow Williams in believing legitimacy is a question of what people actually accept, but the lingering question is what we should accept. If the answer relies upon features of the historical position we are in (say, the interest in truth, or the ‘historical self-consciousness,’ of the modern world), then it traps us in the particular point in time we happen to occupy.

This collection of essays is well-written, challenging and highly enjoyable. It has the searching, inquisitive and witty style typical of its author, with scores of ideas and insights briefly alluded to without further development, making for engaging reading. But to shun prior moral claims to such an extent makes it quite unlikely that the ensuing state will be a moral one. And an emphasis on our own rootedness in a historical position makes progress a problematic notion. There are advantages to tying one’s politics to history, but I doubt that we can really get all we want down here.

Chris Nathan is an MPhil student in Political Theory at Keble College, Oxford.