Bernard Williams

I’ve just had the occasion to read a posthumously published paper by Bernard Williams. One is reminded what a top-notch mind he was, steering a balance between the worst excesses of analytical philosophy’s logicism and continental obscurity, yet with devastating and readable arguments. (OK, I concede that the one exception is his incredibly dense but still rewarding Descartes: The Project Of Pure Enquiry). I recall being transfixed by his Open University talks long before I realized that there was such a thing as professional philosophy. I met him very briefly just before he died at the launch of his Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy at the Royal Society. He was clearly not the chap I grown accustomed to seeing on the box. Here is his SEP entry and his obit from the Economist and one by Nussbaum in The Boston Review

Here is John Cottingham’s Forward to the 2005 reissue of Descartes:

The reissue of Bernard Williams’s fascinating study of Descartes, over a quarter of a century after its first publication, is a tribute to the still vividly fresh thinking of one of Britain’s foremost philosophers, whose death in 2003 was such a grievous loss to the subject. Although it deals with one of the major canonical figures in the history of philosophy, the book is not primarily a historical work: it is intended (as the author indicates in his own preface) to be philosophy before it is history. This is not to say that Williams shared the dismissive attitude which some of his colleagues felt towards historical and contextual approaches to the great philosophers; readers of the book will find, for example, a wealth of detailed reference to the actual Cartesian texts, and to how Descartes shaped his ideas in response to contemporary critics. But Williams believed that in the sort of history of philosophy that was fundamentally worth doing, there had to be, as he put it, ‘a cutoff point, where authenticity is replaced as the objective by the aim of articulating philosophical ideas’ (p. xiv). Beyond dispute one of the most articulate and insightful philosophers of our time, Williams was pre-eminently equipped not just to expound the structure of the Cartesian system with great elegance and panache, but also to interpret, re-interpret and develop the central ideas in ways that would resonate powerfully with our present day philosophical concerns. An obituary of Bernard Williams in Le Monde observed that his book on Descartes ‘fut à l’origine du renouveau des études cartésiennes dans les pays de langue anglaise.’ Certainly, along with Anthony Kenny’s Descartes (which appeared some years earlier), it had a strongly invigorating effect on anglophone Cartesian scholarship, the welcome effects of which continue to be apparent. But what it also did (and still does) is to put into sharp focus the predicament in which our own contemporary philosophical culture finds itself: do we have to give up the grand traditional aspirations of philosophy to arrive at authentic knowledge of the nature of reality? Descartes is often said to have inaugurated the modern philosophical age by making the question ‘What do I know?’ the starting point of philosophical inquiry. There is some truth in this, and Williams’s study does devote careful and illuminating attention to the standard steps in the Cartesian search for knowledge: the application of methodical doubt, the Cogito (‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’), and the arguments for God’s existence that are supposed to allow the meditator to broaden his certainty, beyond the initial awareness of himself as a ‘thinking thing’, to encompass systematic mathematical knowledge (and hence the principles of physics) and our relationship to the material world. But Descartes’s ‘knowledge question’ broadly construed, as Williams himself is inclined to construe it, reaches well beyond the narrow confines of the specialised academic discipline we have come to know as ‘epistemology’. The more profound theme that is skilfully unravelled during the course of Williams’s account is the idea that Descartes’s ultimate quest is for an ‘absolute conception’ of reality. This characteristically fertile notion receives various formulations in the book, of which the most vivid is the following:

One might say that what God has given us, according to Descartes, is an insight into the nature of the world as it seems to God, and the world as it seems to God must be the world as it really is. God is thus, on the Cartesian construction, deeply involved in our having . . . an ‘absolute conception’ of reality – a conception of reality as it is independently of our thought, and to which all representations of reality can be related (p. 196).

This central idea is linked with the interpretation of Descartes that is signalled in the book’s subtitle: Descartes’s project of ‘pure inquiry’ is supposed to give us the kind of knowledge that is free from the relativity arising from the preconceptions of the local cultural context in which we operate, and even free from the particular perspective of our human standpoint (for example our human modes of sensory awareness). Whether such an absolutist aspiration is a coherent goal has, since the book’s publication, become an increasingly urgent question, with the rise of postmodernism, and its stress on the multiplicity of human discourses, coupled with its insistent critique of the idea of a single ‘grand narrative’ that could describe things ‘as they really are’. But Williams was far too subtle and resolute a thinker to be satisfied with the glib capitulations of the relativists, and in the course of his argument it becomes clear that he believes that abandoning the very idea of the absolute conception would be far from cost-free. In Descartes, the conception is inextricably linked with an appeal to God – something Williams could not accept. But towards the end of the book he poses the disturbing question of whether we can easily give up the idea of an absolute conception of reality if there is to be any knowledge at all – and having answered this in the negative, points the way to how it might be salvaged, albeit at the same time discarding the link with considerations of certainty that was so important to Descartes himself (cf. p. 197). Despite the fact that Descartes was regarded for much of the second half of the twentieth century as an egregious source of philosophical error, the fertility of his ideas, for those who are prepared to look at what he actually wrote rather than at the caricatures of the critics, remains immense and in many respects undiminished. Williams’s book brings out that fertility with spectacular success – certainly not in a reverential way, for he never abandons his sharp critical eye for any weaknesses in argument, but in a way that takes in the full range of Descartes’s thinking (the foundations of knowledge, the role of God, material substance, the structure of science, and the mind and its place in nature). Any attempt at what he called ‘featherbedding’ was anathema to Williams: he would not countenance any glossing over of the necessary complexities and subtleties of thought we find in any truly interesting philosopher; so in that sense the book is not meant to appeal to those looking for potted summaries or easy solutions. But, for all that, it is an engaging and accessible book, likely to capture the intellectual curiosity and imagination of anyone who is prepared to wrestle ‘once in a lifetime’, as Descartes put it, with those fundamental metaphysical questions about the nature of the self and its awareness of reality that are, in the end, inseparable from philosophical inquiry itself.

Reading, August 2004.

Here is the BW I remembered and so admired.