# Bernard Williams

Philosophy contributes to the project of making sense of being human, and that is not […] best served by abstracting from the local perspectives or idiosyncrasies of human beings. A.W. Moore on Bernard Williams

What are we doing when we do philosophy? How should this self-understanding inform our practice of philosophy, and what should we hope to gain from it?

Bernard Williams, like Nietzsche, took these questions seriously. I hope to revisit and write on his Ethics & The Limits of Philosophy sometime soon. For now I’ll just quote heavily from his lecture “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline”.

Williams wants to sharpen the distinction between science and philosophy. On his conception, science aims to give us “a representation of [the world] which is to the largest possible extent independent of the local perspectives or idiosyncrasies of enquirers”. Philosophy, by contrast, is concerned with the broader and more fundamental task of making sense of the situation in which we find ourselves, and deciding what to do about it.

Williams wants to push back against a “scientistic” trend in philosophy, and against philosophers who exhibit “a Platonic contempt for the the human and the contingent in the face of the universal”[2]. Such philosophers believe that:

if there were an absolute conception of the world, a representation of it which was maximally independent of perspective, that would be better than more perspectival or locally conditioned representations of the world.

And, relatedly:

that offering an absolute conception is the real thing, what really matters in the direction of intellectual authority

If we think of philosophy as about “making sense of being human”, it becomes clear why the scientific focus on representing “the world as it is anyway”, abstracted from any human perspective, may be helpful, but insufficient.

Thinking of philosophy as a search for timeless truths may be attractive inasmuch as it seems to anchor our efforts, and permit us to tell a story of improvement rather than, simply, change.

As Williams puts it, a “vindicatory” explanation of change is such that:

the later theory, or (more generally) outlook, makes sense of itself, and of the earlier outlook, and of the transition from the earlier to the later, in such terms that both parties (the holders of the earlier outlook, and the holders of the later) have reason to recognize the transition as an improvement.

The history of science typically involves such vindicatory changes, which are stimulated by crises of explanation that are recognised by all parties. But this is not true for all forms of intellectual change:

In the case of scientific change, it may occur through there being a crisis. If there is a crisis, it is agreed by all parties to be a crisis of explanation, and while they may indeed disagree over what will count as an explanation, to a considerable extent there has come to be agreement, at least within the limits of science since the eighteenth century, and this makes an important contribution to the history being vindicatory. But in the geographically extended and long-lasting and various processes by which the old political and ethical order has changed into modernity, while it was propelled by many crises, they were not in the first instance crises of explanation. They were crises of confidence or of legitimacy, and the story of how one conception rather than another came to provide the basis of a new legitimacy is not on the face of it vindicatory.

On liberalism:

If we consider how [liberal] forms of argument came to prevail, we can indeed see them as having won, but not necessarily as having won an argument. For liberal ideas to have won an argument, the representatives of the ancien régime would have had to have shared with the nascent liberals a conception of something that the argument was about, and not just in the obvious sense that it was about the way to live or the way to order society. They would have had to agree that there was some aim, of reason or freedom or whatever, which liberal ideas served better or of which they were a better expression, and there is not much reason, with a change as radical as this, to think that they did agree about this, at least until late in the process. The relevant ideas of freedom, reason, and so on were themselves involved in the change.

With this in mind, we can speculate that the sense that a historical perspective threatens the validity of our ideals…

...comes from the idea that a vindicatory history of our outlook is what we would really like to have, and the discovery that liberalism, in particular (but the same is true of any outlook), has the kind of contingent history that it does have is a disappointment, which leaves us with at best a second best. But, once again, why should we think that? Precisely because we are not unencumbered intelligences selecting in principle among all possible outlooks, we can accept that this outlook is ours just because of the history that has made it ours; or, more precisely, has both made us, and made the outlook as something that is ours. We are no less contingently formed than the outlook is, and the formation is significantly the same. We and our outlook are not simply in the same place at the same time. If we really understand this, deeply understand it, we can be free of what is indeed another scientistic illusion, that it is our job as rational agents to search for, or at least move as best we can towards, a system of political and ethical ideas which would be the best from an absolute point of view, a point of view that was free of contingent historical perspective. If we can get rid of that illusion, we shall see that there is no inherent conflict among three activities: first, the first-order activity of acting and arguing within the framework of our ideas; second, the philosophical activity of reflecting on those ideas at a more general level and trying to make better sense of them; and third, the historical activity of understanding where they came from. The activities are in various ways continuous with one another. This helps to define both intelligence in political action (because of the connection of the first with the second and the third), and also realism in political philosophy (because of the connection of the second with the first and the third). If there is a difficulty in combining the third of these activities with the first two, it is the difficulty of thinking about two things at once, not a problem in consistently taking both of them seriously.

At a certain point, the chain of justification ends in an affirmation of our identity—contingent, ephemeral, and possibly otherwise, but worth affirming all the same. We are who and what we are; justification is not required. Elsewhere, Williams quotes Stirner:

The tiger who attacks me is in the right, and so am I when I strike him down. I defend against him not my right, but myself. Max Stirner

On Williams’ picture, justification only makes sense within a context of similarity, of common ground, where we can appeal to shared values, sensibilities, ways of thinking, and so on.

Wittgenstein influentially and correctly insisted that there was an end to justifications, that at various points we run into the fact that ‘this is the way we go on’. But, if I may say again something that I have said rather often before, it makes a great difference who ‘we’ are supposed to be, and it may mean different groups in different philosophical connections. It may mean maximally, as I mentioned earlier, any creature that you and I could conceive of understanding. Or it may mean any human beings, and here universal conditions of human life, including very general psychological capacities, may be relevant. Or it may mean just those with whom you and I share much more, such as outlooks typical of modernity.

The mistake of the ahistorical liberals is that:

they go on […] as though liberalism were timeless. It is not a reproach to these liberals that they cannot see beyond the outer limits of what they find acceptable: no-one can do that. But it is more of a reproach that they are not interested enough in why this is so, in why their most basic convictions should seem to be, as I put it, simply there.

To me, these passages bring out why attempts to do philosophy without historical context—for example, without reference to evolutionary psychology—often seem naive and superficial. And why we should resist the idea that anything less than a timeless truth is not worth philosophical attention. And why we should be careful about excessive acquiescence to the demand for justification: at a certain point, we must just say: “we are like this and not like that and there is no justification necessary.”

In short: Nietzsche had a point.

[1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rx9w

[2] https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v08/n14/bernard-williams/a-passion-for-the-beyond

Last updated: April 2021