Bernard Williams

Bernard Williams

Mark P. Jenkins
Series: Philosophy Now
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Bernard Williams
    Book Description:

    From his earliest work - on personal identity - to his last - on the value of truthfulness - Bernard Williams' ideas and arguments have been sometimes controversial, often influential, and always worth studying. Mark Jenkins provides a comprehensive account of Williams' many significant contributions to contemporary philosophy and his relation to the work of other philosophers, including prominent forerunners such as Hume and Nietzsche and contemporary thinkers such as, Nagel, McDowell, MacIntyre, and Taylor. Topics considered include personal identity, various critiques of moral theory, practical reasoning and moral motivation, truth and objectivity, and the relevance of ancient Greece to modern life. While Williams' work is fragmentary and resistant to familiar labels, Jenkins reveals the recurring themes and connections within his writings, and the philosophical underpinnings to his work.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8558-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Chapter 1 Introduction: “Against the shortsighted”
    (pp. 1-8)

    According to his long-time friend and fellow philosopher Thomas Nagel, “Bernard Williams once posed the awkward question, What is the point of doing philosophy if you’re not extraordinarily good at it?” (Nagel 1995a: 10). The idea seems to be that whereas the brilliant thinkers of, say, chemistry and physics require thought-corroborating minions, philosophy’s brightest lights require few, if any, to reflect their glory: underlabourers need not apply. Nagel continues: “If you’re not extraordinary, what you do in philosophy will be either unoriginal (and therefore unnecessary) or inadequately supported (and therefore useless). More likely, it will be both unoriginal and wrong”...

  5. Chapter 2 Personal identity
    (pp. 9-26)

    Personal identity as a modern philosophical problem concerns attempts to specify necessary and sufficient conditions for re-identifying persons over time; that is, it involves specifying the conditions under which a person at timet+ 1 may be said to be the same person as at some earlier timet.Standard histories of philosophy trace the modern formulation and initial solution of this problem to Locke’s ideas regarding the connected nature of consciousness, a connectedness cashed out in terms of memory. What makes a person now the same person as at some earlier time is current consciousness of, the ability...

  6. Chapter 3 Critique of utilitarianism
    (pp. 27-52)

    The very last line of “A Critique of Utilitarianism”, Williams’s frequently reprinted companion piece to J. J. C. Smart’s “An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics”, prophesies of utilitarianism: “The day cannot be too far off in which we hear no more of it” (Williams 1973a: 150). Ironically, however, the significant impact of this essay’s attack ensured that we would, in the ensuing decades, hear much more of it. And attack seems not too strong a word, as Williams pursues the “breaking point of utilitarian thought”(ibid.:114). Furthermore, while it is true that Williams comes to regret “an...

  7. Chapter 4 Critique of the morality system
    (pp. 53-86)

    Turning from Williams’s multi-front assault on utilitarianism, this chapter considers a similarly variegated attack on a perhaps less familiar, but no less formidable, target, the “morality system”. This latter confrontation takes place on contested conceptual territory, occupied, at least in part, by two ungainly contrasts and a dense legacy. The contrasts are between theory and anti-theory, and between morality and ethics. The legacy is Kant’s. Just how this pair of distinctions and this legacy interact is a complex matter. It could be argued, for example, that, for Williams, only one distinction truly exists, in as much as either his scepticism...

  8. Chapter 5 Practical reason
    (pp. 87-120)

    It seems hard to believe that Williams’s “Internal and External Reasons” was ever “insufficiently discussed” (McDowell 1995: 68). Indeed, this “agenda-setting” paper, as Elijah Millgram (1996: 197) rightly calls it, lays fair claim to having elicited more responses, by more distinguished philosophers, than any other article or book by Williams in his long and illustrious publishing career. Why this should be so is the subject of this chapter.

    “Internal and External Reasons” presents Williams’s account of practical reasoning, or, more specifically, his account of reasons for action, or, more specifically still, his account of statements about reasons for action. As...

  9. Chapter 6 Truth, objectivity and knowledge
    (pp. 121-148)

    Philosophers, no less than others, take comfort in familiar labels. To discover that someone is a physicalist or a compatibilist or a Platonist is to be instantly situated philosophically with regard to that person, and, while such familiarity may well breed contempt, it also orients and, in orienting, comforts. Williams, however, in this as in so many ways, provides little comfort; that is, his views either resist being labelled entirely, or invite only radically attenuated application, particularly in the realm of ethical philosophy. Not surprisingly, Williams’s ethical scepticism and anti-theoretical tendencies militate against ascribing to him obvious first-order or normative...

  10. Chapter 7 The ancient world
    (pp. 149-182)

    Like Nietzsche a century before, whose persistent influence on Williams may be as difficult to describe as it is to dismiss, and about which this chapter will have more to say, Williams began his university training as a classicist, evidence of which can be found in the mastery of ancient Greek poets, dramatists, historians and, of course, philosophers that pervades his work from beginning to end. For Williams, the ideas of the ancient world fill a reservoir from which moderns and postmoderns may slake their philosophical thirst; not just in the sense that ancient thought holds inherent intellectual interest, which...

  11. Chapter 8 Conclusion: "a pessimism of strength?"
    (pp. 183-190)

    Although certainly his contributions to metaphysics, epistemology and the history of philosophy continue to repay close attention, speaking now of, say, papers on personal identity or the book on Descartes, Williams’s reputation rightly remains most closely tied to ethics, specifically his critique(s) of moral theory and his work in moral psychology. Such contributions, however, and no one seems more sensitive to this than Williams himself, may strike some readers as fragmentary, decentralized, ad hoc. The foregoing chapters have tried to combat this impression, assuming it even merits combating, in two ways. The first is by pointing up certain themes or,...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 191-198)
  13. Index
    (pp. 199-203)