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A mistrustful animal: Bernard Williams interviewed

Bernard Arthur Owen Williams (1929-2003) was a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and taught at Cambridge University, University College London and the University of California, Berkeley. In Williams’s view, philosophy starts from “the realization that we don’t fully understand our activities and thoughts; its task is to suggest and open up ways in which we might better understand them.” Especially in the case of ethics, with which most of his work is concerned, he is skeptical of the idea that philosophers can do this through advancing theories, rather than seeing philosophical theories as barriers to increased self-understanding. He famously responded to his onetime tutor Richard Hare’s question: “You pull everything down, but what do you put in its place?” with “Well, in that place, I don’t put anything. That isn’t a place anything should be.”

He is the author of Truth and Truthfulness, Shame and Necessity, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, and Morality. His influential critical discussion of utilitarianism appeared in Utilitarianism: For and Against (with J.J.C. Smart) and Utilitarianism and Beyond (edited with Amartya Sen). Many of his essays have been collected in Making Sense of Humanity, Moral Luck, and Problems of the Self. This interview was conducted at Oxford in December 2002 by Alex Voorhoeve of University College London. Alex Voorhoeve’s work was supported by the Analysis Trust Studentship 2003-2004. Unfortunately, Bernard Williams did not have the opportunity to correct the transcript of the interview.

HRP: How did you come to be interested in philosophy?
Williams: It was the old story of getting interested in the subject before I knew that there was such a subject. When I was at school, some friends and I started talking about a set of issues which I would now call ‘philosophical’. Some of these issues were political. At that time, we were at war and allied with the Soviet Union, so discussions about communism occupied us. I was also already much occupied by questions having to do with art and morality and the autonomy of the artist. As it happened, my headmaster, who was a fervent Oxford man, sent me in for a scholarship in Classics at Oxford. It was only after I got there that I discovered that the course I had enrolled in, the so-called “Greats Course”, included philosophy. That was rather nice, since it meant that I was going to be studying the kind of things that already interested me. However, it wasn’t that I just wanted to do philosophy and just did some Classics along the way; I was always very interested in Classics. This shows in my philosophical work, on which Classical thought has had an important influence.

HRP: Which of your teachers and contemporaries most influenced you?
Williams: Though I did not agree with his views, I admired many of Gilbert Ryle’s attitudes toward philosophy. 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. In general, I thought that Ryle was an extremely sensible, open-minded, and fair-minded teacher. I was also very impressed and influenced by my friend David Pears. In the fifties, when I was a young don, David and I gave classes together, and I very much admired his methods. Another person who had one kind of influence on me–though I’m glad to say I think she didn’t influence me in other ways!–was Elisabeth Anscombe. One thing that she did, which she got from Wittgenstein, was that she impressed upon one that being clever wasn’t enough. Oxford philosophy, and this is still true to a certain extent, had a great tendency to be clever. It was very eristic: there was a lot of competitive dialectical exchange, and showing that other people were wrong. I was quite good at all that. But Elisabeth conveyed a strong sense of the seriousness of the subject, and how the subject was difficult in ways that simply being clever wasn’t going to get round.

HRP: What is required in addition to being clever?
Williams: A good appreciation of what is not there in the argument or on the page, and also some imagination. 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. There is a tendency to forget the main issue, which is what the distinction that was made was supposed to be doing in the first place. An obvious example is that people used to go on about what the difference is between a moral and a non-moral ‘this-that-and-the-other’. “What is a moral consideration as opposed to a non-moral consideration? What is a moral judgement as opposed to a non-moral judgement?” They belabored these questions without ever asking why the distinction was supposed to be so important in the first place.

HRP: What are your aims and motives in doing philosophy?
Williams: 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. Now, I’m not into salvation. I suppose my interest in philosophy is primarily a curiosity that stems from puzzlement. It is the old philosophical motive of simply not seeing how various ideas which are supposed to be central to human life or human activities hang together. The notion of the self, obviously, the notion of moral and aesthetic value, and what place is taken by certain kinds of valuation, for example in works of art, in relation to life as a whole. Yes; some of it is in that sense just puzzlement. But I suppose there are two other emphases in my work. First, granted my temperament, my curiosity was always aligned with suspiciousness. What Ricoeur has called the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, which was so characteristic in the 19th and 20th centuries in Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, came rather naturally to me, with the result that the pretensions of certain kinds of value always aroused my suspicion. The other development which has been more gradual in my work is that as a matter of fact, if you are puzzled by any idea that matters in human affairs, like politics or ethics, it is almost certain that you won’t actually resolve your puzzlement just by philosophical analysis. You almost certainly need to know the history of the term you are dealing with. This historicist turn has become more prominent in my work in the last 10 or 15 years.

HRP: Can you say more about your view of the role of historical understanding in ethics and political philosophy?
Williams: History, which I take in a broad sense, is important in various ways. First, it may present us with a problem about our views. When we ask why we came to use some concepts rather than others that were prevalent at an earlier time, we typically come to see that this history is not vindicatory. That is, we might like to see our ideas, like liberal ideas of equality and equal rights, as having won an argument against earlier conceptions, like those of the ancien régime. History, however, shows that though these ideas ‘won’, they didn’t win an argument–for the standards or aims of the argument practiced by the proponents of liberal ideas were not shared by the defenders of the ancien régime. This brings home to us the historical contingency of our ideas and outlook. Now, this contingency need not be a problem for us, in the sense that it might not undermine our confidence in our outlook. For the idea that a vindicatory history [one that showed that our ideas were better by standards that could have been accepted by their historical opponents] is what is required looks like the idea that we should search for a system of ethical and political ideas which is best from a point of view that is as free as possible from contingent historical perspective. And I believe it is an illusion to think that is our task. But though it may not lead us to reject our outlook, the fact that there is no vindicatory history of it does matter, for example, in our attitude towards the outlooks of others. Second, history can help us understand particular ways in which our ideas seem incoherent to us. For instance, I believe liberalism has problems with ideas of autonomy which can be traced to Enlightenment conceptions of the individual that do not make sense to us. Third, the content of ethical and political ideas that are useful for us will be determined in part by an understanding of the necessities of our way of life. The question “what is possible for us now?” is, I believe, really a relevant consideration in political and moral philosophy. This question demands empirical social understanding and insight. I would claim that you are not going to get such insight except by historical methods. That is, I don’t believe that there is, for instance, a substantive enough, or interesting enough, sociology which could tell you what is possible for us.

HRP: Can you give an example of these ways in which history is important for a political concept?
Williams: Take liberty. I think that, like other political concepts, what we need is to construct a concept of liberty that is historically self-conscious and suitable for a modern society. I distinguish between “primitive freedom” –being unobstructed in doing what you want by some form of humanly imposed coercion– and liberty. Since liberty is a political value, to determine which losses of primitive freedom can count as a loss of liberty, and especially when considering what counts as “humanly imposed coercion”, we have to consider what someone could reasonably resent as a loss. Here the question of the form of society that is possible for us becomes relevant. From this perspective, a practice is not a limitation of liberty if it is necessary for there to be any state at all. But it is also not a loss of liberty if it is necessary for the functioning of society as we can reasonably imagine it working and still being ‘our’ society. Thus, while some force and threats of force, and some institutional structures which impose disadvantage on people will count as limiting people’s liberty, being prevented from getting what I want through economic competition will not, except in exceptional cases. That is because competition is central to modern, commercial society’s functioning. Understanding our historical condition also helps us understand the value that liberty has for us. The concept of modernity I have in mind here is the sense in which the concept of modernity is roughly the foundation of modern social science. It is really, roughly, Weber’s concept of modernity, and related notions. That involves the disenchantment of the world and the retreat from believing that the order of how people should treat one another is somehow inscribed either in them or in the universal realm. It also involves an associated tendency to hold up various traditional sources of authority to question; it is a notable feature of modernity that we do not believe the traditional legitimation stories of hierarchy and inequality. Now, the link between modernity and the value of liberty is as follows. It is because we start with less in telling our own legitimation stories than other outlooks that liberty is more important to us. Because of our doubts about authority, we allow each citizen a strong presumption in favor of carrying out his or her own desires. This admittedly very rough account of liberty also illustrates how a historical explanation of the value a concept has for us need not undermine it. For we can regard our current mistrust of the legitimation stories of the past as a good thing, because it is a consequence of the fact that under the conditions of modernity we have a better grasp on the truth.

HRP: I’d like to turn to your view of what modernity, and the reflective consciousness it implies, means for our view of ethics. One part of the ethical you focus on is the virtues. I want to focus on the case of someone who doesn’t possess these virtues, and who is thinking about acquiring them. As you discuss in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Aristotle had an answer for such a person–even though the person might not be able to appreciate the answer or find it attractive from the perspective of his current plans and desires. He believed that each kind of thing had an ideal form of functioning. This ideal form of functioning for human beings consisted of a state of happiness or, as you prefer to call it, well-being– a state which required the possession of the virtues. But we no longer believe Aristotle’s assumptions about the natural striving of each kind of thing towards its perfection. So do we have an answer for this person?
Williams: Yes, good. I think this is like a lot of features of modernity. There is an increase in insight, in knowledge, in irony, and a decrease in all-round satisfaction about the world all fitting together. Actually I believe, although I don’t think I’ve made this as clear as I could have in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, that Aristotle’s own account, which from the Nichomachean Ethics emerges as a pretty satisfied account of the virtues, is an astonishing piece of cultural wish-fulfillment. Because that absolutely cannot have been what Athens in the 4th century BC was all about. If you consider the Athens of which Plato gave a far more honest and realistic, though also jaundiced, picture, and you consider that it was on its way after all to the collapse of democracy, then the idea that all these people were swimming around in this state of huge self-satisfaction and in harmony with the universe and the polity and their own desires is completely ridiculous. Aristotle was a provincial who became exceedingly impressed by a conservative view of a certain kind.

HRP: But in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, you present our disbelief of Aristotle’s assumptions as undermining our ethical confidence. If they could scarcely be believed at the time the ancient views of the virtues were developed, then how important could this justification have been for the confidence with which the view was held? If acquiring the virtues is, as Aristotle thought, a matter of being brought up in a certain way, and not a matter of a conscious undertaking, and if we accept that these virtues are going to be attractive to us when we have some of the dispositions that they require, then what does the falling away of the external justification for them do to our view of the value of the virtues?
Williams: I think these are extremely good questions. I think you have to take what I was saying there in the context of a certain assumption which I had already identified which that discussion falls under. Rather early in the book, in the second chapter, I do question an issue, an assumption, which some moral philosophers make, which is that it is going to make a whole lot of difference what the answer to the question about external justification is going to be. I do say that it seems rather odd that it should be so, for I ask “What is the professor’s argument to do when they come to take him away?” But going with the assumption that the philosophical justification of the ethical is going to make some difference, this is the place at which it is going to make some difference. Now, in Aristotle’s case, I don’t think he delivers on his promise to show how they all hang together in an attractive package. But since I don’t believe that the question about the philosophical justification of the objectivity of ethics has quite the foundational or all-changing role which that assumes, you are quite right in saying that this external perspective doesn’t seem to make quite so much difference. But I do think that there is a point to be made, as so often in moral philosophy, which consists of turning the same point round, in a way, 180 degrees. The trouble is that if you get a story which presents an idealized account of the ethical in the virtue repertoire by stressing the unity of the virtues and their unity with happiness and all that, what this encourages, or can encourage, is its dialectical opposite. When the news gets out that for the vast majority of human beings the virtues don’t necessarily go together, that some of them are a great disadvantage –and actually this is not great news; that the virtues can do you some harm was extremely well-known to Socrates, for instance– there is a strong tendency to say, “The whole of the ethical is bogus.” The business of defending some of the ethical becomes much harder. So we come to a point where most of my efforts have been concentrated: to make some sense of the ethical as opposed to throwing out the whole thing because you can’t have the idealized version of it.
HRP: Throughout the book there is a theme that self-consciousness, intellectual criticism, and knowledge destroy both Greek and Enlightenment ideals. Still, the Greek way of thinking about morality seems to emerge less damaged than modern ways of thinking…
Williams: You are right that up to a point there are quite a few Greek ideas that are more robust, that have more material to give us, than more recent ideas. Though that’s true, it is only true with heavy qualifications. The reason is that they are less dependent on certain optimistic practices, they are less indebted to ideas of free will of an overambitious kind. I think that the more exposed parts of modern ideas, that are in worse shape, are the bits that have to do with Christianity. The one exception is Hume, but Hume is very consciously operating in a pagan perspective. The weakness of Greek thought course is, as I say in Shame and Necessity, that a set of ideas that arose from a totally different period, over 2000 years ago, will be totally out of place in the modern world. There are some conceptions, particularly of rights, which have emerged, which we simply can’t do without. The idea that we could would be ridiculous. Once we realize this, we must try to get these ideas which we can’t do without into a shape where they need less metaphysical fuel than they do in the form given to them by Kant.

HRP: One current set of ideas that self-consciously is less dependent on metaphysics is contractualism, as expounded by Scanlon for example. This doesn’t seem to be susceptible to the same criticisms you level at other Enlightenment ideas. Scanlon even jokingly characterized his account of morality as offering “Kant on the cheap”.
Williams: (laughs.) I think he’s selling himself short!

HRP: … Scanlon has an interesting idea about characterizing moral motivation as originating in the desire to be able to justify ourselves to others. As he puts it, the reason to act morally is the reason we have to not place ourselves in a position of revealed or concealed antagonism to others. What struck me is when you discuss the virtue of Sincerity in Truth and Truthfulness, you place a lot of emphasis on the kinds of relationships with others this virtue makes possible. You give an example of an old woman to whom we lie for her own benefit, and you say that though much of what Kant says about lying is mistaken, what is right about the Kantian account is that it focuses on how our relationship to her changes when we lie to her. As you write: “It is a violation of trust. I lead the hearer to rely on what I say, when she has good reason to do so, and in abusing this I abuse the relationship which is based on it. Even if it is for good reasons of concern for her, I do not give her a chance, in this particular respect, to form her own reactions to the facts….Replacing the world in its impact on her by [a picture of it which is the product of] my will, I put her, to that extent, in my power and so take away or limit her freedom.” And that human beings have reasons for developing and maintaining relationships of trust forms part of the solution to your question where the intrinsic (as opposed to instrumental) value of this disposition lies.
Williams: It is, as they say, no accident, comrade, that in Truth and Truthfulness I write in the chapter about lying, that I am very much in agreement with, and indebted to, Scanlon’s book. I also think that Scanlon’s book has been misunderstood, and unfairly treated. You will remember the criterion, which is about rules which others can’t reasonably reject. It has been complained that there is no criterion for what they can’t reasonably reject. But of course I take it that the point is just that that is the question we should be asking, and what goes into ‘reasonable rejection’ is just what we should be thinking about. So I am quite sympathetic to this formulation. Certainly, it both doesn’t require all the metaphysical baggage, that’s true, and it also has the right shape to be a formula for a moral consideration, since equality of some kind is a core moral idea. It has to be understood that we have to understand the precondition of the Kingdom of Ends, that is, the set of persons whose conditions are regulated by the contractual test, on the basis of equality. Because you see, if you collectively think of the other outlooks as being the outlooks of the ancien régime, or indeed of the Greeks, then the idea that the core of morality has to do with what anybody could not reasonably reject is simply a non-starter. The fact that our acts and institutions could reasonably be rejected by some classes of persons is either not an issue or entirely foreseeable. No doubt the lower order wouldn’t want to accept some principles by which the higher orders live, but from the perspective of the higher orders, that’s of no consequence: they are lower, and so don’t count as much. Of course the trouble then is how far that notion of equality, which is itself a moral notion, is constitutive, or as it were, ‘factual’, and how far is it an aspiration that is itself expressed by this way of treating people.

HRP: What would it be for it to be “factual”?
Williams: Well, I think that does have a bite. For I think that when you get people to reflect on the bases of discrimination, you then do get into the area of the factual. One way of putting it is this. In the past, people have discriminated against other people, not treated them equally in a Scanlonian or Kantian sense, because they were people of color or because they were women. Yet, it is not that “because she is a woman” or “because he is black” was really much of a reason. Roughly, it wasn’t articulated in this way at all, it was just an inherent practice. When someone raises the question why they are so discriminated against, they have to start with a different kind of justification, such as “blacks are stupid”, or “women don’t have the requisite skills and character for certain jobs.” But these were just rationalizations, false consciousness really, to support the institutions in question. Now, it is very important that these claims are false and known, in a sense, to be false. Take the case of the slave-owners who drafted the Bill of Rights. There was a great deal of false consciousness there, since when these slave owners took advantage of their women slaves, they didn’t actually think they were engaged in bestiality. They were well aware that they were fucking a human being!

HRP: I would have expected you to be more critical of contractualism…
Williams: Well, I think that it does raise a whole class of problems about one’s relations to other people. Though it is probably not a criticism to raise these problems, since they are probably problems anyway. Contractualism is likely to give rise to what I call the ‘one thought too many problem’. Because no doubt one could make it a rule that other people could not reasonably reject that people should save their own spouses from the wreck, but it is not that thought that, one would hope, motivates the person who saves his spouse from the wreck. So there is always the question about the relationship between moral considerations and considerations of a non-reflective, or non-morally mediated, kind. But then I think you could say that that problem exists anyway.

HRP: But you could say something more in this situation. There are two different questions here. The first is ‘how are people acting in such a situation, what’s going through their heads’, and the second there is the reflective question about our habits of acting. The reflective question seems to me to be perfectly sensible, since we can’t always follow the demands of friendship or love, and we need some perspective from which we evaluate how far it is morally permissible to act from these motives.
Williams: Well, up to a point. What you say is perfectly sensible, but if you go too far in that direction you get into the false disjunction between justification and motivation which Sidgwick and other, higher-order utilitarians make an enormous amount of, namely that so-and-so is the justification of acting in a certain way doesn’t mean that it should enter into the motivations of the people who are so acting. I think that leads to an absurd alienation problem. I mean, up to a point there is a possibility there, but in the end one needs a unity between the language and thought of action and the language and thought of reflection.

HRP: In Moral Luck you remark that an idea of ethical consistency that demanded that an action being morally justified implies that no one can justifiably complain from the moral point of view is too strong, and you give the example of political cases, where one can be justified in an action that comes at a moral cost of harming others.
Williams: In the political case, I indeed think you cannot say of the people who have to bear the burden of the decision that they have no justified complaint, that they haven’t been wronged since they should take the perspective of the raison d’état.

HRP: What about the individual case, where someone might do what is morally right, but still wrong someone in the process? Do you think this conflicts with Scanlon’s contractualism, which doesn’t seem to allow for such conflicts?
Williams: I was sort of glancing at that when I made the earlier point. The difficulty is the usual level of description problem. Nobody could reasonably reject, in the Scanlonian sense, there being such an institution as promising. And moreover, they can’t reasonably reject the idea that there are certain kinds of circumstances in which it is justified to break those promises. Now, there will then be a set of issues about how far down you would go with principles that you apply the question to. For instance, if I have broken a promise, does that mean I should recompense or apologize to the parties I have disadvantaged? Well if so, if there is an ‘ought’ there, as there seems to be, then that seems to imply that nobody could reasonably reject a rule that requires that I give compensation, or an apology, et cetera. But I must say that I think we are clearer there that recompense is appropriate than about the fact that it is a principle that no one could reasonably reject that one should offer recompense in such situations. We are reading back from the intuition into the formula. Now, does it mean that the recipient of the apology ought to accept it? That is very unclear. Or does it mean that the recipient of the apology either ought to accept it or ought to disagree that the principle on which I was acting was not reasonably rejectable by him?

HRP: I think it does have this implication.
Williams: Well, it looks to me that when you get too far down here, you get the idea that everybody’s responses would be harmonized in a way that would suit the Kingdom of Ends (which would be better named the Republic of Ends, if you ask me!). So we come to the usual problem with contractualism, that it requires too much harmonization of people’s moral sentiments. We all know of situations in which people would, perfectly intelligibly, refuse to play this game of giving reasons for and against general principles.

HRP: I’d like to turn to your work on truth and modern culture. Nietzsche wrote that “man is a venerating animal, but also a mistrustful one; and that the world is not worth what we thought is about the most certain thing our mistrust has finally gotten hold of.” He also wrote: “The more mistrust, the more philosophy.” Do you think mistrust (rather than veneration) is characteristic of modern society–and does it make for “more philosophy”?
Williams: Yes. But there is a heavy qualification coming. 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. If expressed, I don’t think people would really believe in them, but they have no option but to go along with them. I think that if one means effective criticism and self-searching, there is a very big question-mark over it. Of course a lot of what one has in mind when one thinks about social critics, I mean conservative social critics on the one hand and defenders of liberalism on the other, is a very intense and serious form of criticism which was the product of modernity, when the thinker was still protected by the institutions of an earlier time. Now these institutions themselves have devolved into one gigantic market, it is very unclear whether anyone will have thoughts of this highly directed kind at all. So the idea of a space in which philosophy and related kinds of critical and questioning activity can go on may itself be under threat.

HRP: In Truth and Truthfulness, you also suggest that our culture of suspicion threatens to undermine our faith in truth. You begin with Nietzsche’s discussion of the ideal of truthfulness. Nietzsche comes to the conclusion that truthfulness is the last metaphysical concept, and that the investigation that is driven by truthfulness ends up undermining itself.
Williams: In The Gay Science and The Genealogy of Morality, when Nietzsche says that this fire that burns in our inquiries is that self-same fire that burns in Plato, it is designed to upset the liberals who have been very happily nodding along with him while he is being rude to the church. He wants to upset them. He certainly wanted, I think, an account of the value of truthfulness which would be adequately naturalized. I hope the book to some extent offers that by constructing a genealogy of truth. A genealogy is a narrative that tries to explain an outlook or value by describing how it came about, or could have come about, or could be imagined to come about. An interesting question one can ask of such genealogies is whether they are vindicatory, that is, whether the genealogical account of a value, when it is understood, strengthens or weakens one’s confidence in that value. A vindicatory genealogy makes sense of a particular value, although it doesn’t quite make sense of it in the elevated terms in which others have described it. The basis then doesn’t have to be metaphysical. The further question is of course whether our commitment to truthfulness leads to tragedy or to everybody being happier. Nietzsche was occupied with this question, and in my view rightly so. My book is optimistic about the possibility of naturalizing truthfulness, but I leave you to judge the last pages to find out whether I am optimistic or pessimistic. Several people have said they can’t make out whether the end of my book is optimistic or pessimistic, and I think that is right.

HRP: I thought your book ended with a pious hope about truth and truthfulness…
Williams: It certainly isn’t a pious hope! The last writer I quote is Conrad in Heart of Darkness. As they say in New York: “think about it.”


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  1. 2013年6月1日06:54 | #1

    Truly educational….looking ahead to coming back.

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