A Mistrustful Animal: An Interview with Bernard Williams


I particularly learned from his criticism of dividing philosophy into what he called ‘isms’ and schools of philosophy. He believed there were many philosophical questions and ways of arguing about them, but that attaching labels like ‘physicalism’ or ‘idealism’ to any particular way of answering philosophical questions was extremely mechanical and also misleading.

Many philosophers pursue a line of argument in a very linear fashion, in which one proof caps another proof, or a refutation refutes some other supposed proof, instead of thinking laterally about what it all might mean.

Stuart Hampshire used to say that historically, there have been two aims or motives for philosophy. One was curiosity and the other was salvation (laughs). Plato, as he managed to combine almost every thing else, combined the two (laughs again). I think that Wittgenstein was very much on the side of salvation. So was Kierkegaard, though he was so clever that curiosity was always catching him out.

That is that the effect of modern entertainment, modern communication, modern saturation with “information”, may make effective criticism, or effective reflection impossible. Just as the tabloid newspapers get obsessed with the day’s scandal, and the internet becomes dominated by the same kind of “news”, it is possible that this so-called self-searching and questioning becomes just another superficial phenomenon, and that there are simply a lot of unquestioned assumptions about how life is being led that are really quite unsatisfactory.