Isn’t It the Truth?

Bernard Williams
Bernard Williams; drawing by David Levine


Bernard Williams has been a distinctive presence on the intellectual scene for more than three decades. He might be described as an analytical philosopher with the soul of a general humanist. Notably sharp-minded and dialectically skilled, he is also impressively learned in history, classical scholarship, literature, politics, and music. He opposes the widespread contemporary desire to model philosophy on science, preferring to locate philosophy within its historical and cultural context; there are other ways to be intellectually serious than by aping the physicists. His interests have focused on ethics, in which he has contested the rationalist and universalist claims of both Kantianism and utilitarianism—though he has also written a first-rate book on Descartes and pioneered in the discussion of personal identity. He possesses a mind that is both flexible and muscular: open and imaginative on the one hand, rigorous and no-nonsense (and occasionally stinging) on the other. No one else can lance an opponent with a comparable twinkle in his eye. The phrase “withering wit” is unavoidable when witnessing Williams in action.

And yet no theory bears his name, nor has he made any notable technical contribution to the subject. In contrast to his late contemporary R.M. Hare, whose name will forever be associated with “prescriptivism” in ethics—the idea that moral utterances do not describe states of affairs but prescribe courses of action—Williams has not produced anything deserving to be called an ethical theory. Indeed, he has consistently mocked such theories. He gives the impression of having seen through all that—that he is simply far too intelligent and sophisticated to do anything as naive and crude as propose an analysis of moral discourse.

His influence lies more in the style with which he has discussed moral issues: his insistence on not losing sight of actual moral life, his sensitivity to moral subtleties, his Nietzschean disdain for high-minded moral posturing. His writings do not offer the dubious exhilaration of grand philosophical theory, in which messy reality is tamed and caged, but the thrill of seeing pretension punctured by a kind of high-voltage common sense (backed up by impressive erudition). Williams is a principled anti-moralist, a brilliant anti-theorist, an original blend of logic and humanism, an insider’s outsider. There is no one in philosophy quite like him.

Williams’s new book, the defiantly titled Truth and Truthfulness, bears all the marks of its author. The argument is heavily armored, both in its range of reference and in the structure of its sentences, which almost always coil around some anticipated objection and skewer it; Williams is always one step ahead of his reader. Every sentence seems constructed in such a way as never to need withdrawing; it is fully shielded, immune from refutation. Williams is so well protected that it is sometimes hard to make out the shape of his position. The sentences seldom descend to elegance, and lucidity seems less highly prized than impregnability,…

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