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Bernard Williams (1929 – 2003) was a  British moral philosopher of personal identity. Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit.

Sir Bernard Williams, British moral philosopher of personal identity

Sir Bernard Williams

Quotations from Bernard Williams

Theory typically uses the assumption that we probably have too many ethical ideas, some of which may well turn out to be mere prejudices. Our major problem now is actually that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can.

There cannot be any very interesting, tidy or self-contained theory of what morality is… nor… can there be an ethical theory, in the sense of a philosophical structure which, together with some degree of empirical fact, will yield a decision procedure for moral reasoning

If the passion for truthfulness is merely controlled and stilled without being satisfied, it will kill the activities it is supposed to support. This may be one of the reasons why, at the present time, the study of the humanities runs a risk of sliding from professional seriousness, through professionalization, to a finally disenchanted careerism.

Discussions of objectivity come into moral philosophy from a different starting point, from an interest in comparing ethical beliefs with knowledge and claims to truth of other kinds, for instance with scientific beliefs. Here a rather different conception of objectivity is involved. It is naturally associated with such questions as what can make ethical beliefs true, and whether there is any ethical knowledge. It is in this field of comparisons that various distinctions between fact and value are located.

Most moral philosophy at most times has been empty and boring, and the number of great books in the subject… can be literally counted on the fingers of one hand.

What will the professor’s justification do, when they break down the door, smash his spectacles, take him away?

Deniers do not get their views just from simple mistakes about language and truth. Rather, they believe that there is something to worry about in important areas of our thought and in traditional interpretations of those areas; they sense that it has something to do with truth; and (no doubt driven by the familiar desire to say something at once hugely general, deeply important, and reassuringly simple) they extend their worry to the notion of truth itself.

There continue to be complex debates about what Nietzscheunderstood truth to be. Quite certainly, he did not think, in pragmatist spirit, that beliefs are true if they serve our interests or welfare: we have just seen some of his repeated denials of this idea. The more recently fashionable view is that he was the first of the deniers, thinking that there is no such thing as truth, or that truth is what anyone thinks it is, or that it is a boring category that we can do without. This is also wrong, and more deeply so. Nietzsche did not think that the ideal of truthfulness went into retirement when its metaphysical origins were discovered, and he did not suppose, either, that truthfulness could be detached from a concern for the truth. Truthfulness as an ideal retains its power, and so far from his seeing truth as dispensable or malleable, his main question is how it can be made bearable.

People who say, ‘Let the chips fall where they may,’ usually figure they will not be hit by a chip.

Positivism … implies the double falsehood that no interpretation is needed, and that it is not needed because the story which the positivist writer tells, such as it is, is obvious. The story he or she tells is usually a bad one, and its being obvious only means that it is familiar.

That an action would be cowardly is not often found by an agent to be a consideration in its favor, but it could be, and in a counterethical way, ministering to a masochism of shame.

The only thing that can trump an obligation is another obligation.

I am under an obligation not to waste time in doing things that I am under no obligation to do.

…the temptation is to find a way to apply philosophy to immediate and practical problems and to do so by arguing about those problems in a legalistic way. You are tempted to make your moral philosophy course into a quasi-legal course…

Utilitarians are often immensely conscientious people, who work for humanity and give up meat for the sake of the animals. They think this is what they morally ought to do and feel guilty if they do not live up to their own standard. They do not, and perhaps could not, ask: How useful is it that I think and feel like this?

Without criticizing any particular thinkers or publicists, a problem with “applied ethics” is that some people have a bit of ready-made philosophical theory, and they whiz in, a bit like hospital auxiliary personnel who aren’t actually doctors. That kind of applied philosophy isn’t even half-interesting…

6th thesis – Considerations that cannot take the form of obligations cannot really be important after all.

Morality makes people think that, without its very special obligation, there is only inclination; without its utter voluntariness, there is only force; without its ultimately pure justice, there is no justice.

As Roland Barthes said, those who do not re-read condemn themselves to reading the same story everywhere: “they recognize what they already think and know.”

If there’s one theme in all my work it’s about authenticity and self-expression… It’s the idea that some things are in some real sense really you, or express what you and others aren’t…. The whole thing has been about spelling out the notion of inner necessity.


Sources for Bernard Williams quotes; WikiQuote, GoodReadsStanford edu,


COMMENTS on Bernard Williams

If there’s one theme in all my work it’s about authenticity and self-expression…about spelling out the notion of inner necessity. The question immediately arises, what is that inner necessity that the self needs; and must it be self-generated as the Existentialists would claim, or can it come to a person from God, or his self-proclaimed prophets, or from modern society’s materialist consumption promoters? Each of those makes its unique claim to helping the individual self find satisfaction, but doesn’t it always devolve to the moment in time where the person’s consciousness is presently located, and that makes the decision as to what one’s inner necessity functionally is at that moment?

Utilitarians are often immensely conscientious people, who work for humanity …  how useful is it that I think and feel like this? Some of the Utilitarians operate on the principle of maximizing humanity’s self-actualization, rather then their own, but Williams chooses to limit his criticism to the individual’s self-actualization, and that would come down to generalized greed and personal accumulation. Personally, it would appear that I am one of those overly conscientious people, because I have been exploring the idea of how to help the Universe to maximize its potential, because it is the whole of the Universe that is the maximum physical identity we can consider to be our self.

The more recently fashionable view is that Nietzsche was the first of the deniers, thinking that there is no such thing as truth, or that truth is what anyone thinks it is, or that it is a boring category that we can do without. This is also wrong. … considerations that cannot take the form of obligations cannot really be important after all.Condensing a lifetime of thought of a great philosopher into a short quote can not possibly do them justice, but it can give an idea of how they approach a problem, and it can give an inkling of their conclusions of how they would cope with the problem.

Truthfulness as an ideal retains its power, and so far from his seeing truth as dispensable or malleable, Nietzsche’s main question is how it can be made bearable. The claim that truth hurts, and hurts out to our limit to bear it, and beyond may be true sometimes, but overlaying what is truth with a projected fantasy that hides the truth doesn’t protect us from those truths that will give us pain. It is a path of less pain to see the truth clearly, with its painful aspects made perfectly comprehensible, so we can choose a path that will minimize our pains and let us pursue our pleasures with a minimum of pain.

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