Bernard Williams, In the Beginning was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument, ed. Geoffrey Hawthorn, Princeton University Press, 2005, xx +174pp.; Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, ed. A. W. Moore, Princeton University Press, 2006, xx +227pp.; The Sense of the Past, Essays in the History of Philosophy, ed. Myles Burnyeat, Princeton University Press, 2006, xxii + 392pp., On Opera, Yale University Press, 2006, xix + 149pp.


When Bernard Williams died in 2003 the loss was felt well beyond the refined world of academic philosophy. In a succession of obituaries, and at affectionate memorial events in Cambridge, Oxford, and Berkeley, distinguished contemporaries from many fields testified to the inspiration he had given them. 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. Since his death his widow, Patricia Williams, and different friends and admirers have collected and edited those of his essays that had not previously been conviently available. These four books are the brilliant result. They reveal a figure deeply immersed in the historical contingencies of human life, deeply impressed by its variations and plasticities, impatient of universal formulae for living, contemptuous of any kind of triumphalism and complacency, yet at the same time an egalitarian, a liberal, a democrat, and in important ways a believer in Enlightenment values, if not a believer in the underpinnings that some Enlightenment figures believed they could offer for those values. They also reveal just how challenging, and enjoyable, really imaginative philosophy can be.



Bernard Williams was a moral philosopher, but his work covered much more than this term usually implies. His earliest papers included a good proportion on metaphysics, while an ongoing preoccupation with scepticism and philosophical method produced work on Wittgenstein, and was crowned by a book on Descartes. A principal thesis of that book is revisited in one of the finest essays of his later years, and the one that is nearest to being a summary of his aims and methods, ‘Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline’, reprinted in the collection bearing its title. Williams defends the ability of science to put us on the road towards an “absolute” conception of the world “which is to the largest possible extent independent of the local perspectives or idiosyncrasies of inquirers”. This may sound bland enough, and such a view is probably implicitly held by most scientists. But for a long time the climate in philosophy, history and sociology of science has tended to emphasize constructivism over realism, and to celebrate the thickness of the spectacles, or paradigms, through which the scientist peers at nature. Williams by contrast commented dismissively on the “remarkable assumption that the sociology of knowledge is in a better position to deliver truths about science than science is to deliver truths about the world”. By opposing that picture Williams raised controversy, although as the essay shows he was particularly irritated by the travesty occasionally foisted on him that we could have a description of the world without deploying our own language or without employing our own concepts. This was never the idea. Rather, Williams thought that science had a title to knowledge that did not depend on the history, culture, values, or interests of those engaged in it, and in this was distinguished from other inquiries, including philosophy itself. He thought this difference showed, for instance, in the different relation science bears to its own history. The scientist can get by with a very slight knowledge of the history of discovery. But the philosopher cannot do the same, because our present ways of thinking and acting are only intelligible as historical formations. They are not the unchanging or universal products of uniform human reason facing eternal problems. The subject matter of the humanities is the nature of human life and thought, and that subject matter is necessarily only approachable by us from our own human point of view, albeit a standpoint infused with enough of the same culture, values, and interests as those of the agents whom we interpret for understanding to be possible.

The difference between science and the humanities is visible, Williams argued, in the way the history of science can be presented as a history of arguments that were actually won by one side or another. Whereas a human change, such as the displacement of the ancien régime by modernity, is not a history of arguments won, but a history in which one set of ideas has simply displaced another: the defenders of old ways are not refuted, but just die out. Science can write a “vindicatory genealogy” of its history, couched in terms of progress towards the truth. Humanity cannot do this, or rather, if it does so it will simply be by imposing the perspective of the present, adding another dismal chapter to the story of human complacency. This way of thinking, Willliams argued, changed our political relationships. Opponents, for instance in a debate about equality or liberty, should be seen not as simply wrong or mistaken, but as standing either where the future may take everyone, or perhaps forlornly on a set of values that history may be about to trample underfoot.

One of Williams’s constant themes was the tension between the historical mutability of human self-consciousness and the need for us to find ourselves in others if we are to understand them. We cannot write the history or understand the thoughts of beings wholly alien, yet we have to work in the consciousness that the agents in history were not simply displaced clones of ourselves. The difficulty is that genuine pluralism ought not to imply that understanding is impossible, yet it constantly threatens to do so. In his political essays, and his work on Wittgenstein, Williams often lets the issue revolve around who the ‘we’ are as we oscillate between an abstract, universal aspiration (Kant, or Rawls, or liberalism in its more imperialistic guises) and a more rooted, ‘communitarian’ reality (Hegel, reincarnated in our time by Charles Taylor or Alasdair Macintyre). 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. For Williams, it is sand everywhere, and sand all the way down. ‘In the Beginning Was the Deed’, again the title of a paper in the collection of the same name, is taken from one of Goethe’s sayings, and held for Williams the moral that it is only by action, not by thought, that we make ourselves beings responsive to some particular profile of reasons, or possessed of particular sources of shame and guilt, pride and desire, and therefore capable of ethics and politics at all. Williams’s human agents are not the rational, self-governing, ahistorical nuggets of freedom found in Kant, but “opaque aggregations of many actions and forces”. Yet just as one might write him down as a fellow-traveller of postmodernism and relativism, he skips free, for he was equally cautious about overemphasizing differences. When he turned to the classical world, particularly in what is probably his deepest and finest book, Shame and Necessity, it was to take issue with scholars who had magnified the difference between us and the Greeks to the point of making them incomprehensible. Williams easily rebutted such pessimism, and his Homeric agents turned out to be quite like ourselves after all, or ourselves as we might have been without so much Christianity, history, and knowledge in our baggage.




Although the historical turn came to dominate more of Williams’s later work, it is as a moral philosopher that he wrote his most influential books and essays. He was an uncompromising critic of two of the major movements that often dominate the subject: utilitarianism and Kantianism. As the doctrine that actions are to be judged solely by their consequences for human good or ill, however that may be measured, utilitarianism has always had critics, and all philosophy students are brought up to puzzle over whether it could be right to hang an innocent man if, through surprising circumstances, more good can be gained or more harm averted by doing so. Guantanamo Bay will do as a salient example. Williams transformed the standard discussion by moving the issue to the nature of motivation, the nature of agency, and the nature of the good for human beings. By analysing examples where an agent could maximize goods or minimize harms, but only at the cost of performing actions that go deeply against the grain, he argued that we cannot coherently regard ourselves simply as conduits to greater general utility. What we do is more than what we produce. An agent’s integrity is bound up with local spheres of responsibility, and it is the meaning of the actions performed inside those spheres that give us our identities. By trying to turn us into “servants of the world” utilitarianism in fact destroys the very networks of  care and responsibility that are required for life to have meaning at all. Williams’s point was not that utilitarianism necessarily gave the wrong answers in difficult cases, but the much more subtle one that it goes about getting its answers in the wrong way.

His examples and his analysis dominated all subsequent work in this area, and were largely responsible for a general awareness of the complex clusters of values that actually determine our decision-making. He was well aware that sophisticated utilitarians, such as Sidgwick and possibly even Mill, advocated various indirect forms of the doctrine. They measured the motivations in a moral consciousness by their impact on utility, but admitted that by this measure the utilitarian consciousness itself might not come out as the best. Williams thought that this complexity produced an unacceptable dislocation or fracture in the theory, or in the psychology of any agent who embodied the theory. He mocked it as what he called Government House Utilitarianism, whereby a higher part of us controls the doings of lower parts for purposes which it is important to conceal from them. 

Williams’s opposition to Kantianism in ethics was also founded on a deep mistrust of the nature of agency as it is construed by Kantians. One issue was the Kantian emphasis on acting from the sense of duty, giving rise, as Williams put it with his usual genius for the memorable phrase, to the problem of “one thought too many”. If you kiss your wife, or for that matter save her from the shipwreck, because it is your duty, then things have gone wrong: you are supposed to act spontaneously, out of affection, and if you drag duty into it you have one thought too many. The other issue he highlighted is one of what he equally felicitously called “moral luck”. Kant, he believed, had sought to put right action beyond the sphere of happenstance and contingency. According to Kant, whether you do right or wrong is entirely voluntary, totally within the control of your will. It does not matter what your natural and cultural inheritance might be, nor your emotional nature, nor your circumstances, nor the consequences that actually come about because of your action. This fantasy of pure freedom is part of what Williams called “the morality system”, a system of thinking about guilt and responsibility that still dominates many of our attitudes. Williams argues, like Hume, that motivation cannot come from reason alone, and that the motivational forces to which agents are subject are never entirely within their control.

He went on to undermine the morality system by concentrating upon the moral emotions of shame and remorse, and the many ways in which luck determines whether someone gets into situations in which those emotions are appropriate. Thus two people might behave in exactly the same careless way, and one of them may get away with it and walk away blithely enough, whereas the other, because of bad luck, meets catastrophe and remorse and shame may dog their footsteps. The morality system, Williams argued, can make no sense of this difference, since by its reckoning each equally did what was right or did what was wrong. Yet the emotional difference cannot be ignored: life would be unrecognizable without it. So the moral emotions, properly understood, suggest that human life both is, and ought to be, conducted in terms of a much more pluralistic and heterogeneous set of values, which Williams preferred to dub ‘ethics’ rather than ‘morals’. This became known as the “Gauguin problem” after the salient example that Williams gave of the painter’s rotten behaviour vindicated by unforseeable success. In the eyes of many the discussion of luck attacked the Kantian picture just as effectively and influentially as his assault had attacked utilitarianism.

Williams thought that Kant offered an illusion or consolation of another kind: the realist or objectivist fantasy of a moral system that will trump politics, an  “argument that will stop them in their tracks when they come to take you away”.  Like some of the opponents of Socrates, Williams had a keen eye for the moment when politics takes over from moral principle. He spoke of the limits of philosophy, but the limits often seemed more like obstacles to the coherence of ethical thought itself, rather than limits to our philosophical understanding of what ethics is supposed to be. Thus, as legacies of the Enlightenment, both Kantianism and utilitarianism purport to provide a standpoint from which moral criticism can be made, to which in some sense the reasonable agent must listen or ought to listen. But this philosophical project of  finding some deep bedrock on which our own ordering of thought and conduct stands secure, struck him as essentially farcical; he gloriously summed up one example of this rationalism in ethics, Robert Nozick’s influential libertarian theory of rights, simply as “a device for switching off the monitors to earth”. Not for Williams “the tireless aim of moral philosophy to make the world safe for well-disposed people”.

However, it has proved harder to know what positive system he intended to put in  place. An agent’s “projects” or deepest attachments, or even his integrity as an agent, can evidently depend on something falling short of a common point of view with other people. It seemed as if they might issue in highly local and restricted concerns and loyalties, or in other words, a politics of identity. And then it remained unclear what resources Williams would have left for exerting pressure towards more universal or liberal values. It sounded as though he might be joining with “communitarian” opponents of the Enlightenment, allowing people their traditional prejudices and tribal partialities, but also offering them a clear conscience. But this is not the direction which he traveled: his pessimism about theory did not go along with any dewy-eyed Tolstoyan or Wittgensteinian celebration of the wisdom of the everyday. Williams may have been an egalitarian and a social democrat, but he was unsentimentally aware of the “emptiness and cruel superficiality of everyday thought”.  Communitarianism, or happy immersion in traditional folkways, was hardly likely to appeal to someone who had complacency as a principal target. In fact, much of Williams’s work is concerned exactly with the interplay between the universal and the particular, or the challenge that equality, liberty, justice, and the common point of view pose to the rooted and potentially blinkered perspectives of our everyday priorities and concerns. By refusing to countenance easy or self-deceptive solutions to this conflict, he was acknowledging its depth rather than turning his back on its importance. In his final book he talked of the “intellectual irreversibility of the Englightenment” and described any moral or political forces that might undo it as potentially catastrophic.

Philosophers travelling in roughly Williams’s direction often fall into the arms of Aristotle. 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. Aristotelians try to derive what it is to be a good human being simply from what it is to be a human being, just as once we know what a knife is, we know what a good knife is. But Williams was not likely to be seduced into equating behaving well, even in ethically minimal ways, with flourishing “by the ecological standard of the bright eye and the bushy coat”. Hearing a colleague comparing being a good action to being a good knife, Williams once drily remarked that if a knife was bad enough it stopped being a knife altogether, whereas when someone does something really bad, they still do something. It is simplistic to think that our human nature, all by itself, contains a template for living as we should, and Williams was the last person to lose sight of what he called the sinister downside to the injunction to “be a man”. He characteristically placed Aristotle in his disturbed historical situation in fourth-century BC Athens, and regarded him as a “provincial who became exceedingly impressed by a conservative view of a certain kind”.  He described the vision of each thing striving after its own perfection, or as he called it, his “pretty self-satisfied account of the virtues”, simply as “an astonishing piece of cultural wish-fulfilment”. Yet the collection The Sense of the Past contains at least four sensitive and engaged essays on Aristotle. When Williams mocked someone, it was only after a deeper engagement than most admirers manage.

Whereas some of his stress on emotion in human affairs affiliated Williams to Hume, he could never accept a Humean account of our ethics as simply an expression of our passions or attitudes, given by nature and moulded by culture. He had a strong antipathy to the whole issue of whether with ethics we are in the domain of representation of moral fact, or whether we are in the domain of attitude and prescription. He held that issue responsible for what he somewhat unfairly regarded as the arid and boring substitute for real ethics that dominated the Oxford of his upbringing. His only interest was in the practical and political expression of the issue, for instance in the reasons we may have for diminishing our bigotries or for expanding our tolerations. In many of his writings he instead explored the centrality of ‘thick concepts’ in practical reasonings. A thick concept is used when we describe someone as modest, or just, or courageous, in which there are both elements of description and elements of evaluation. Fact and value are seamlessly entangled, and this entangling gives us a way of crossing, or perhaps ignoring, the distinction between fact and value that preoccupies so much ethical theory. Williams did not, however, see this entangling as a way of evading the perspectival nature of ethical thought; we must not jump to the other extreme, and suppose that with ethical concepts we describe “what is there, anyway”, or give an absolutely true description of things such as science may aspire to deliver. The task is to reconcile the perspectival element with a satisfying account of the claim of ethics to be a subject about which knowledge is possible. In a revealing interview shortly before he died, Williams said that most of his efforts had been concentrated upon making “some sense of the ethical as opposed to throwing out the whole thing because you can’t have an idealized version of it”.

                  A similar perspectival and pluralistic attitude informed Williams’s discussion of yet another topic that he made his own, that of the nature of tragedy and tragic dilemmas, as when Agamemnon must either betray his army or sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Williams again gave a central place to notions like remorse and shame. But he also suggested that these examples set a limit to the goal of consistency in ethics. Whereas consistency is the first virtue of theory that purports to describe how things stand, in response to tragic dilemmas the inconsistency of thinking both that you must do something and that you cannot do it, seems far from being a vice. Indeed, it seems to be a virtue, since not to think both things would seem to be crass and insensitive. Here too we have a contrast between an ethical response to the world and a description of its fabric.  When we face two contradictory descriptions of  “what is there, anyway”, we resolve the problem by settling for one, and the other disappears without trace. But in a tragic dilemma, even if we decide we must pursue one course of action, the other does not disappear, and typically a vivid sense remains that we have failed in the obligation that we did not meet.



Anyone with an acute sensitivity to the actual contours of human emotion and action must be drawn to their treatment in drama, literature, and music. It is appropriate that Williams’s favourite art form combined all three. He could write marvelously about opera, and the book of his short writings, often on Verdi, Mozart, Puccini and above all Wagner, is a mine of insight. Consider this, on the final sextet, signaling some kind of return to normal life, at the end of Don Giovanni:


That end, however, and still more the essential closing bars of the opera that follow it, both affirm that there is no actual human life that could be lived as unconditionally as his. Those who survive Giovanni—not only the other characters, but, on each occasion that we have seen the opera, ourselves—are both more and less than he is: more, since the conditions on humanity, which we accept, are also the conditions of humanity; and less, since one thing vitality needs is to sustain the dream of being as free from conditions as he is.


 I suspect that he envied the artist because, unlike the philosopher, he need not torment himself with the question of what his activity amounted to, or what would count as succeeding in it. One of his favourite composers was Verdi, and he agreed with Isiah Berlin about the “naivete” of Verdi: his unselfconscious immersion in the unfolding drama and music, which is at the same time a sign of Verdi’s endless vitality. And the result of acquaintance with opera, even tragic opera, is life-enhancing, renewing, rejuvenating, whereas the result of immersion in philosophy is too often impatience and melancholy.

The question Williams finally broached in his last actual book, Truth and Truthfulness, was the Nietzschean one of whether our commitment to truthfulness leads to tragedy, or whether it is possible for history to be both truthful and hopeful. Williams does not close the question, but his sympathy lay with the view he represented as also that of Nietzsche, that “there are very compelling true accounts of the world that could lead anyone to despair who did not hate humanity”.  Significantly, the book ended with the passage from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which the narrator admits that Kurtz was a remarkable man, and describes his despairing last words (“The horror! The horror!) as the appalling face of a glimpsed truth.

There was undeniably a deep pessimism at the heart of much of  Williams’s writing, a possible nihilism that also lurked underneath some of his very funny but frequently destructive remarks about almost everybody else (of a showy colleague: “If you look carefully under the artificial tinsel, you will get a glimpse of the real tinsel”). But he never came across as bitter, perhaps because he was always too clear-sighted to have had large-scale hopes whose betrayal by time would engender that vice. Nevertheless, his outlook was closer to that of his favourite Greek tragedians or to the stark historian Thucydides than to anything more reconciled to the world . For him, as for Sophocles or Conrad, the order of what we call reason is a fragile and perishable veneer, barely covering for a time the kaleidoscope of divergent lights and darknesses, triumphs and horrors that is the human condition.

Williams offered no handbook for living and no consolation, but he was also far from resigned. His reaction, like that of Verdi, was to seize life, horrors and all, with an energy that was the opposite of fatalism. We may live under the great indifferent thoughtlessness of the gods, but then the right response is to live.  This energy, constantly expressed in his intense intellectual curiosity, goes some way to resolving the paradox that in spite of the tragic sense of life, he was the most exhilarating of writers and companions. It is good that even those who could not enjoy his scintillating company, can now savour these demonstrations of his extraordinary abilities.


Simon Blackburn