Bernard Williams’ Descartes and others on Williams

There was a minor philosopher in the 19th century who was described as the janitor of the Hegelian system, and there are many today who similarly become janitors of their own systems.

There’s a lot of bad philosophy that’s hastily done, but there’s always been. No doubt the bad sort now will take on the special temper of the time, TV-dinner profundity. One of the worst is what I call “commencement address philosophy,” which is a sort of call to the youth of the nation. This has existed at least as long as the United States has. But I think that the need for reflection is always powerful. — both quotes from Q & A with BW.

You are quite right in saying that my philosophy isn’t full of positions and theses. But there’s more unity to it than just in its areas of concern. I think that there’s a certain continuing element of style or approach which might be called ‘scepticism without reductionism’. I tend to be very suspicious of high-flown metaphysical answers to philosophical questions, while on the other hand rejecting scientistic reductionism. — Cogito

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. — Colin McGinn in the NYRB

All spoke of his terrifying brilliance, his dazzling speed of mind and extraordinary range of understanding, his zest and his glittering wit. Some touched on a puzzle that he left, for he displayed a paradoxical combination of exhilaration and pessimism, of complete facility in the academic exercises of philosophy juxtaposed with an almost tragic sense of the resistance that the human clay offers to theory and analysis, let alone to recipes and panaceas. This complexity made him a unique, and uniquely admired, figure in his generation . . . But Williams’s profound sense of the varieties of human existence prevented him from subscribing to any complacent view of a single human nature and a single proper expression of it . . . Williams cheerfully admitted that in this debate “my contribution as been to some extent that of making myself a nuisance to all parties”. He constantly voiced mistrust of the universal aspirations of liberalism, standing as they often do on the illusion of a bedrock in human reason and knowledge, while other moral and political ideologies are supposedly founded on sand. — Simon Blackburn

Williams’s style of relentless interrogation, which permits neither vagueness nor evasion, invariably deepens the reader’s understanding not only of the question at issue but also of the intellectual networks in which it is embedded. — Roger Scruton in The Telegraph.

The search for a method of resolving ethical problems is, Williams argues, distinctly inferior to an ethical concern with character, a now unfashionable concept in which what is valuable in the personality is seen as consisting chiefly in habits or dispositions, some of which we know as virtues or vices. — Paul Seabright in the LRB.

As many visitors to this site will know I have a special admiration for Bernard Williams. It was his lucidity, humour,  insightfulness and compelling personality that first brought to my attention the notion of something called professional philosophy. I first saw him on I think BBC Open University programmes, one dealing with (surprise, surprise utilitarianism) late at night after the regular broadcast schedule had finished or in the early mornings before the regular tripe went on air. Later he was the star guest on Bryan Magee’s superb series The Great Philosophers. While the guests were all serious scholars and not wanna-be public intellectuals as is the case these days, the greatest “performer” was Williams. You can see just how well he and Magee are in tune and the delight they both get from their chat both on Descartes and linguistic philosophy. Whatever else their philosophical commitments might be both are intellectually honest, are attractive company, men of the world and don’t have their heads up their own arses. What is charming (at least to me) is the “Essex boy” enunciation poking through the Oxbridge gloss from time to time — aside from his exceptionally razor-sharp intellect, the always modest BW is really a plain old geezer. While there are of course certain ideas that need to be covered in these programmes, there is genuine spontaneity and not merely a ritualized exchange. I’ve recently been viewing these chats again for all the aforementioned reasons but also because it’s time to again tackle Williams’ Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Thirty years ago I found the book heavy going — a function of the book being in the works for some 15 years but also because of my philosophical inexperience. And though I’m not a Cartesian I have always taken the view that “there is no methodological profit whatsoever to throwing out the Cartesian baby along with the bath water”. And though both Oakeshott and Hayek lay the blame for constructive rationalism at Descartes’ doorstep they do NOT impugn Descartes himself. This I think is very revealing because they knew that Descartes was tapping into a style of thinking that really is part and parcel of human inquiry. What one gets from Williams is the masterful finesse of offsetting the prevailing Cartesian caricatures and showing just how profound Descartes was and what lay behind the “project of pure inquiry” — i.e. context.

Who else could with such ease and aplomb chat to Ayer as an equal (and sometimes even show him up). A world away from the bluster, sanctimonious, pompous and monomaniacal table-thumping of those philosophers (and other academics) who hold court in this day and age, many of whom are just bullies or ideological vulgarians.