The Sense of the Past

The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy

Bernard Williams
Edited and with an introduction by Myles Burnyeat
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: STU - Student edition
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    The Sense of the Past
    Book Description:

    Before his death in 2003, Bernard Williams planned to publish a collection of historical essays, focusing primarily on the ancient world. This posthumous volume brings together a much wider selection, written over some forty years. His legacy lives on in this masterful work, the first collection ever published of Williams's essays on the history of philosophy. The subjects range from the sixth century B.C. to the twentieth A.D., from Homer to Wittgenstein by way of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Sidgwick, Collingwood, and Nietzsche. Often one would be hard put to say which part is history, which philosophy. Both are involved throughout, because this is the history of philosophy written philosophically. Historical exposition goes hand in hand with philosophical scrutiny. Insights into the past counteract blind acceptance of present assumptions.

    In his touching and illuminating introduction, Myles Burnyeat writes of these essays: "They show a depth of commitment to the history of philosophy seldom to be found nowadays in a thinker so prominent on the contemporary philosophical scene."

    The result celebrates the interest and importance to philosophy today of its near and distant past.

    The Sense of the Pastis one of three collections of essays by Bernard Williams published by Princeton University Press since his death.In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument, selected, edited, and with an introduction by Geoffrey Hawthorn, andPhilosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, selected, edited, and with an introduction by A. W. Moore, make up the trio.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2710-7
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Patricia Williams
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xxii)
    Myles Burnyeat

    These twenty-five essays by Bernard Williams span a period of forty-one years and range from the sixth century bc to the twentieth ad. Together with his bookDescartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry(1978) and his wonderful bookletPlato: The Invention of Philosophy(1998 and reprinted below, chap. 10), they show a depth of commitment to the history of philosophy seldom to be found nowadays in a thinker so prominent on the contemporary philosophical scene. Bernard is a rare example of something that once, before philosophy fell apart into specialisms, was fairly common: a philosopher first and foremost, busy developing...

  5. Greek:: General
    • ONE The Legacy of Greek Philosophy
      (pp. 3-48)

      The legacy of Greece to Western philosophy is Western philosophy. Here it is not merely a matter, as in science, of the Greeks having set out on certain paths in which modern developments have left their achievements far behind. Nor is it just a matter, as in the arts, of the Greeks having produced certain forms, and certain works in those forms, which succeeding times would—some more, some very much less—look back to as paradigms of achievement. In philosophy, the Greeks initiated almost all its major fields—metaphysics, logic, the philosophy of language, the theory of knowledge; ethics,...

    • TWO The Women of Trachis: Fictions, Pessimism, Ethics
      (pp. 49-59)

      Philosophy, and in particular moral philosophy, is still deeply attached to giving good news. It is no longer attached (and in the case of Anglo-American philosophy, rarely ever was) to telling redemptive world-historical stories, and its good news no longer takes the forms familiar from such stories. It is not a matter of Leibniz’s cosmic cost-benefit analysis, for instance, under which the balance of good over bad is optimal, and—roughly—nothing could have been locally improved without making the whole total worse. Leibniz’s story, nevertheless, is worth a moment’s attention, before we come back to things that we now...

    • THREE Understanding Homer: Literature, History and Ideal Anthropology
      (pp. 60-68)

      I should like to start with some assumptions about anthropology, which I shall state dogmatically and most of which I should like to think are banal. In the peculiar case of homo sapiens, ethological accounts of the species inevitably lead into cultural descriptions of various social groups; this is a version of the old truth that it is the nature of human beings to live under convention (cf. Williams 1995).*Cultures, moreover, display a high degree of secondary elaboration, and while it is true—indeed, blindingly obvious—that significant ranges of human behaviour are to be explained in terms of...

  6. Socrates and Plato
    • FOUR Pagan Justice and Christian Love
      (pp. 71-82)

      In his article ‘Socrates’ Contribution to the Greek Sense of Justice’,¹ Gregory Vlastos claimed that in classical Greek thought and practice the norms of justice were ‘discriminately applied’ to two classes of people: one’s enemies and one’s social inferiors—in particular, among the latter, slaves. He argued that Socrates, while he had nothing to say about the second of these restrictions, took an important step forward with respect to the first, and originated the idea that one’s treatment of other people should be guided not by the matter of their being friends or enemies, but by moral considerations. Socrates accepted...

    • FIVE Introduction to Plato’s Theaetetus
      (pp. 83-96)

      Like all of Plato’s dialogues, theTheaetetuspresents a conversation that did not actually take place. The dialogue form is not meant to give an historical record; it is a style of writing that enables Plato to explore philosophical questions in ways more vivid and more intellectually flexible than are available to a treatise. Above all, the dialogue form enables Plato not to speak in his own person. The leading figure in the dialogues, except for some of the last that he wrote, is Plato’s teacher Socrates. The ideas which Socrates expresses in the dialogues, or helps to construct in...

    • SIX Plato against the Immoralist
      (pp. 97-107)

      Plato continually confronted ethical sceptics of various kinds; in their most radical form they may perhaps be called, if rather anachronistically, “immoralists”. Such characters typically offer a theoretical position in favour of thinking that self-interested and exploitative strategies are rational and that an attachment to ethical values such as justice is not, except perhaps for some instrumental or second-best reason.

      In Athens at the end of the 5th century BC, in the time of Plato’s youth, there was a current of thought to the effect that the values of the older generation had not been transmitted to its children, who...

    • SEVEN The Analogy of City and Soul in Plato’s Republic
      (pp. 108-117)

      In making the first construction of the city, there is an assumption that it should be able to tell us something about δικαιοσύνη*in the individual: we look to the larger inscription to help us read the smaller one, 368D. But, as Plato indeed implies, the larger inscription will help with the smaller only if they present the same message. What is Plato’s reason for expecting the same message? Basically, it is that δίκαιος applies to both cities and men, and that it signifies one characteristic: “So the just man will not differ at all from the just city, so...

    • EIGHT Plato’s Construction of Intrinsic Goodness
      (pp. 118-137)

      Thrasymachus says in Book I of theRepublicthat justice is ‘the advantage of the stronger’ (338C). This is not offered as a λóγoς or definition of justice: if it were, it would lead to the conclusion that since the stronger certainly pursues his own advantage, he must pursue justice, which Thrasymachus of course denies. Closer to what he principally wants to say is his later statement (343C) that justice is an ἀλλότριον ἀγαθόν, something that always does somebody else some good. Thrasymachus’ own account operates at the very primitive level of dividing agents (whether they be individual people or...

    • NINE Cratylus’ Theory of Names and Its Refutation
      (pp. 138-147)

      At the very beginning of Plato’sCratylusHermogenes explains Cratylus’ view by saying that it supposes there to be a certain natural correctness (orthotēs) of names; that this correctness is the same for all linguistic groups; and (very strongly) that it has nothing to do with what name anyone actually applies to anything—so that, he is quoted as saying to Hermogenes, ‘your name would not be Hermogenes, even if everyone called you that’ 383b). This last point implies something which explicitly emerges later, that, for Cratylus, the question whether some word ‘N’ is thecorrectname of a given...

    • TEN Plato: The Invention of Philosophy
      (pp. 148-186)

      Plato invented the subject of philosophy as we know it. He lived from 427 to 347 bc,¹ and he is the first philosopher whose works have come down to us complete. He is also the first to have written on the full range of philosophical questions: knowledge, perception, politics, ethics, art; language and its relations to the world; death, immortality and the nature of the mind; necessity, change and the underlying order of things. A. N. Whitehead said that the European philosophical tradition consisted of ‘a series of footnotes to Plato’², and his remark makes a point. Of course, the...

  7. Aristotle
    • ELEVEN Acting as the Virtuous Person Acts
      (pp. 189-197)

      This paper is not mainly directed to questions about moral realism in Aristotle, but it does end with a suggestion about that subject. It starts from a question that Aristotle raises about virtuous action, and gives what I think should have been Aristotle’s answer to it, an answer which I think was also, broadly speaking, Aristotle’s own answer. At the end I ask where (if anywhere) this leaves questions of moral realism in relation to such a theory.

      InNicomachean EthicsII.4 Aristotle raises the question of how it can be true, as he claims it to be, that someone...

    • TWELVE Aristotle on the Good: A Formal Sketch
      (pp. 198-206)

      This paper attempts a simple formal treatment of Aristotle’s discussion of the good inNicomachean EthicsI 1–7 (1094 a 1–1098 a 20). Its aim is to distinguish some of the leading concepts used by Aristotle, and to examine some of the logical relations between them; with the particular purpose of establishing what premisses, granted the formal apparatus, are sufficient or necessary for some of the main conclusions supposedly established by Aristotle in this passage.

      We shall use first-order predicate calculus with identity and with the modal operator “N” = “it is necessary that”. Variables “x”, “y”, etc.,...

    • THIRTEEN Justice as a Virtue
      (pp. 207-217)

      I shall consider some points in Aristotle’s treatment of justice in Book 5 of theNicomachean Ethics, in order to raise certain questions about justice as a virtue of character. I am concerned with what Aristotle calls “particular” justice, that is to say, with justice considered as one virtue of character among others. This disposition is said to have two basic fields of application, the distributive and the rectificatory; this distinction will not concern us, and almost all the discussion can be referred to the first of this pair. Particular justice and injustice are concerned with a certain class of...

    • FOURTEEN Hylomorphism
      (pp. 218-228)

      I take hylomorphism to be the view that the relation of soul to body bears some illuminating resemblance to the relation of form to matter: whereformis a semi-technical expression, its sense illustrated by the example ofshape, but going beyond that example. I take it that such a view is advanced by Aristotle. I shall not get involved in any very detailed questions about the exegesis of Aristotle’s writings about this subject. While I shall discuss one or two specific features of Aristotle’s outlook, my aim is rather to consider some general features of such a view.


  8. Descartes
    • FIFTEEN Descartes’ Use of Scepticism
      (pp. 231-245)

      Descartes was not a sceptic. One has to take a distant and inaccurate view of his writings to suppose that he was. One of his principal complaints against Bourdin, who produced theSeventh Objections, was that Bourdin seemed only to have studied the passages of theMeditationsin which Descartes raised the doubt, and not those in which he answered or dispelled it; as he complained in his letter to Father Dinet (VII, 574), “Who has ever been so bold and shameless in calumny, that he blamed Hippocrates or Galen for having set out the causes from which illnesses arise,...

    • SIXTEEN Introductory Essay on Descartes’ Meditations
      (pp. 246-256)

      ‘I would not urge anyone to read this book except those who are able and willing to meditate seriously with me’, Descartes says to his readers in the Preface, and he makes it clear that he means theMeditationsnot to be a treatise, a mere exposition of philosophical reasons and conclusions, but rather an exercise in thinking, presented as an encouragement and a guide to readers who will think philosophically themselves. Its thoughts, correspondingly, are presented as they might be conducted by its author—or rather, as though they were being conducted at the very moment at which you...

    • SEVENTEEN Descartes and the Historiography of Philosophy
      (pp. 257-264)

      Discussing, some years ago, different ways of approaching the thought of Descartes, I made a broad distinction between two activities that I labelled ‘the history of ideas’ and ‘the history of philosophy’.¹ The two are distinguished in the first place by their product. The history of ideas yields something that is history before it is philosophy, while with the history of philosophy it is the other way round. In particular, the product of the history of philosophy, being in the first place philosophy, admits more systematic regimentation of the thought under discussion. The two activities can be distinguished also by...

  9. Hume
    • EIGHTEEN Hume on Religion
      (pp. 267-274)

      Hume died on 25 August 1776, and his burial took place four days later. In the words of his biographer, E. C. Mossner: ‘A large crowd had gathered in St. David Street to watch the coffin being carried out. One of the crowd was overheard to remark, “Ah, he was an Atheist.” To which a companion returned: “No matter, he was anhonestman.” ’

      Both statements, with the slightest of qualifications, seem to have been true. The qualification is to the first statement; if ‘atheist’, is taken to imply, as it often is today, ‘dogmatic atheist’, one who is...

  10. Sidgwick
    • NINETEEN The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and the Ambitions of Ethics
      (pp. 277-296)

      Sidgwick’s bookThe Methods of Ethicswas first published in 1874, and he took it, with substantial alterations, through five editions, and partly through a sixth. It has been recently described as ‘a systematic treatise on moral philosophy, examining in detail a far wider range of topics than any previous book on the subject, and setting new standards of precision in wording, clarity in exposition, and care in argument’.¹ It is not merely an historical monument. After a period of fairly resolute neglect, it is now beginning once again to be admired and, it may even be, to some extent...

  11. Nietzsche
    • TWENTY Nietzsche’s Minimalist Moral Psychology
      (pp. 299-310)

      Nietzsche is not a source of philosophical theories. At some level the point is obvious, but it may be less obvious how deep it goes. In this respect, there is a contrast with Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein said repeatedly, and not only in his later work, that he was not to be read as offering philosophical theory, because there could be no such thing as philosophical theory. But his work was less well prepared than Nietzsche’s was to sustain that position posthumously. There is more than one reason for this.¹ Wittgenstein thought that his work demanded not only the end of philosophical...

    • TWENTY-ONE Introduction to The Gay Science
      (pp. 311-324)

      The Gay Scienceis a remarkable book, both in itself and as offering a way into some of Nietzsche’s most important ideas. The history of its publication is rather complex, and it throws some light on the development of his thought and of his methods as a writer. He published the first edition of it in 1882. In that version, it consisted of only four books, and had no Preface, though it did have the ‘Prelude in Rhymes’. A second edition appeared in 1887, which added a fifth book, the Preface, and an Appendix of further poems. This is the...

    • TWENTY-TWO “There are many kinds of eyes”
      (pp. 325-330)

      “There are many kinds of eyes”, he says in theNachlass[WP (The Will to Power)540](1885); “Even the sphinx has eyes—and consequently there are many kinds of ‘truths’, and consequently there is no truth.” Here “there is no truth” can mean that there is no one truth, and that is one thing that he means. But in another, and significant, remark from theNachlass[WP 616](1885/6), the same phrase reappears in the company of what seems to be an uneasy suggestion that there both is and is not something that is being falsified by all these views of it:...

    • TWENTY-THREE Unbearable Suffering
      (pp. 331-338)

      Nietzsche wrote:

      Was eigentlich gegen das Leiden empört, ist nicht das Leiden an sich, sondern das Sinnlose des Leidens. [What actually arouses indignation over suffering is not the suffering itself, but the senselessness of suffering.]

      And again:

      [Der Mensch]littam Probleme seines Sinns. Er litt auch sonst, er war in der Hauptsache einkrankhaftesTier: abernichtdas Leiden selbst war sein Problem, sondern dass die Antwort fehlte für den Schrei der Frage “wozuleiden?” Der Mensch, das tapferste und leidgewohnteste Tier, verneint an sichnichtdas Leiden: erwilles, er sucht es selbst auf, vorausgesetzt, dass man...

  12. R. G. Collingwood
    • TWENTY-FOUR An Essay on Collingwood
      (pp. 341-358)

      My first reason for discussing R. G. Collingwood is to right, in a small way, a genuine injustice, and a disservice to the history of Oxford philosophy, which consists in the virtual obliteration of him from the collective local consciousness. In a book which appeared in 1958 entitledEnglish Philosophy since1900,¹ there is no reference to Collingwood at all.

      Second, he differed in his whole approach to philosophy from his contemporaries: the pupils of Cook Wilson (as he was himself) and others, whom Collingwood called “the realists”, such as Prichard, Joseph, and, in Cambridge, Moore. He represented himself in...

  13. Wittgenstein
    • TWENTY-FIVE Wittgenstein and Idealism
      (pp. 361-380)

      Tractatus5.62 famously says: ‘what the solipsistmeansis quite correct; only it cannot besaidbut makes itself manifest. The world ismyworld: this is manifest in the fact that the limits oflanguage(of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.’ The later part of this repeats what was said in summary at 5.6: ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. And the key to the problem ‘how much truth there is in solipsism’ has been provided by the reflections of 5.61:

      Logic pervades the world; the limits...

  14. Bernard Williams: Complete Philosophical Publications
    (pp. 381-393)