Professor Sir Bernard Williams

Philosopher who promoted the understanding of human nature over a narrow rationality in ethics
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Bernard Arthur Owen Williams, philosopher: born Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex 21 September 1929; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1951-54, 1997-2003; Fellow, New College, Oxford 1954-59; Lecturer in Philosophy, University College London 1959-64; Professor of Philosophy, Bedford College, London 1964-67; Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge University 1967-79; Fellow, King's College, Cambridge 1967-79, 1988-2003, Provost 1969-87; FBA 1971; Chairman, Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship 1977-79; Chairman, Fitzwilliam Museum Syndicate 1984-87; Monroe Deutsch Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley 1988-2003; White's Professor of Moral Philosophy, Oxford University 1990-96; Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford 1990-96; Kt 1999; married 1955 Shirley Catlin (created 1993 Baroness Williams of Crosby; one daughter; marriage dissolved 1974), 1974 Patricia Skinner (two sons); died Rome 10 June 2003.
Bernard Arthur Owen Williams, philosopher: born Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex 21 September 1929; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1951-54, 1997-2003; Fellow, New College, Oxford 1954-59; Lecturer in Philosophy, University College London 1959-64; Professor of Philosophy, Bedford College, London 1964-67; Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge University 1967-79; Fellow, King's College, Cambridge 1967-79, 1988-2003, Provost 1969-87; FBA 1971; Chairman, Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship 1977-79; Chairman, Fitzwilliam Museum Syndicate 1984-87; Monroe Deutsch Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley 1988-2003; White's Professor of Moral Philosophy, Oxford University 1990-96; Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford 1990-96; Kt 1999; married 1955 Shirley Catlin (created 1993 Baroness Williams of Crosby; one daughter; marriage dissolved 1974), 1974 Patricia Skinner (two sons); died Rome 10 June 2003.

The philosopher Bernard Williams died in a Rome hospital at the end of what was a brief family holiday in Italy. He was 73. The immediate cause of death was a heart attack, but it concluded a long and often painful struggle with cancer of the spine, diagnosed some four years earlier.

The astonishing youthfulness of body and spirit which Williams maintained into his late sixties sometimes made it difficult for his friends to think of him as a sick man. Throughout his illness his intellectual powers remained undimmed, and he drew on them to complete the book upon which he was already engaged when he fell ill, and which appeared under the title Truth and Truthfulness in September 2002. If visitors were surprised by his high spirits, which deserted him only in his very worst moments, the truth is that he had no other way to live.

Williams was the son of a civil servant, and was born and brought up in Essex. He was educated at Chigwell School, where he received what must have been an excellent grounding both in classical languages and in the sciences, and this he carried with him to Balliol College, Oxford, to which he was admitted in 1946. At a period when Oxford and Cambridge regularly turned out into the world students impeccably trained either in history and the Classics or in mathematics and the sciences, Williams to a remarkable degree defied such specialisation.

In one respect he remained within an earlier mould. Of many an accomplished philosopher, particularly of an Oxford formation, it has been claimed that, had things turned out only a little differently, he would have been a first-rate classical scholar. In Williams's case, no such turn of fate was necessary. When the great classical scholar Eduard Fraenkel foretold for him a brilliant future as a philologist and an exegete of the ancient texts, Williams was already too involved in philosophy to take the implicit advice. However when in 1993 the Sather Lectures, which Williams had delivered in the University of California, were published under the title Shame and Necessity, the world of ancient scholarship agreed that, without heeding Fraenkel's advice, Williams had fulfilled the prophecy.

As an undergraduate at Balliol, in a college and in a year when the "young men", as they were traditionally referred to, were no slouches, Williams gained a legendary reputation. He could, it was said, write anyone's essay on any topic, he could concoct the best arguments and the best objections to these arguments, and anticipate and forestall what any of the college tutors might find to say. Years later someone reflecting on that time said, "Bernard was the cleverest undergraduate who had ever been to Oxford, and still is." Williams certainly retained the mercurial mind and the dazzling wit, but his career as a philosopher is seriously misunderstood by anyone who does not take the trouble, as Williams realised he had to, to shield his eyes against the glare. He migrated from precocity.

After reading Classical Mods and Greats, Williams obtained a Prize Fellowship at All Souls, and then did his National Service in the Royal Air Force in the course of which he spent a year in Canada training as a fighter pilot. He found the experience exhilarating, and anyone who drove with him in a car in the next 10 or 15 years had the opportunity to share in the thrill. It took Williams a surprisingly long time to learn that, whereas to drive fast depends on oneself, to drive safely is a co-operative activity. Years later, when I lent him a car and he "totalled" it at the traffic lights, he thought it convincing to say that it was 95 per cent his fault.

When he returned to Oxford from National Service, Williams took up the position of Fellow and College Tutor in Philosophy at New College. His years at New College earned him a reputation as a teacher of great brilliance, but the protean nature of his own mind colluded with the "mainstream" preoccupations of Oxford philosophy not to make Oxford the best place for him if he was to develop his own gifts and insights. Certainly his move in 1959 to the philosophy department at University College London, which came about through chance, provided him with a freer intellectual environment, which in turn led to a release of his natural energies. In 1964 he moved from University College to become Professor at Bedford College, still within London University. It is arguable that no institutional setting ever suited him so well.

In 1967 Williams left London University for Cambridge, where he was, first, Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy, and then, from 1979, Provost of King's College. At Cambridge he formed a few very close friendships, he enjoyed great domestic happiness, and he started to write books, which up till then had eluded him. Descartes, commissioned in the late 1950s, did not appear until 1978. But both academic positions that he held brought with them tasks that he found irksome. Despite - or was it because of? - his high spirits, Williams could fall prey to irritation, and this was in turn something he could not readily tolerate in himself.

In 1988, for a variety of reasons, amongst which the Thatcherite attack on the universities and on independent intellectual endeavour counted for much, Williams decided to leave England for the United States. Wooed by the most famous East Coast universities, which were unwise enough to offer him an environment that he would find indistinguishable from Oxford or Cambridge, he settled for the University of California, Berkeley, where he had recently spent an idyllic year as a visitor.

If Williams was to settle in the US, it was an inspired choice, but slowly he began to experience the tug of England, and in 1990 he accepted the White's Chair of Moral Philosophy at Oxford. To some of his friends, and to himself for some of the time, the decision was not fully comprehensible. Domestic considerations came into it, and Williams certainly felt that political involvement, or what he used to call "the life of practical reason", by which he meant giving advice, having his opinion on social issues solicited, sitting on commissions, had been closed to him. He once put the matter by saying that in the US he would always be a political outsider in that there would never be an American statesman about whom he would know something comparable in detail to the fact that Ken Livingstone kept newts.

Williams's tenure of the White's Chair lasted six years. All the while he retained his connection with Berkeley, and, upon his retirement, he undertook to return regularly. It was within the first week of his third visit that he learnt that he was gravely ill.

With hindsight Williams's philosophy, which seemed at the time, or as it unfolded, to consist in so many brilliantly improvised solutions to questions that had assailed him in reading the works of others, or in commenting on an undergraduate essay, or in returning to the Greeks, or in trying to get down the heady brew of Nietzsche, can be seen to have a powerful and instructive unity. This unity is not always apparent because Williams, who, in criticising others, preferred to stick to the bare bones of their views, could never, in the presentation of his own views, resist elaboration, qualification, extemporisation. This was because he thought that the real task of criticism was to locate the error in error, but, when it came to replacing erroneous views with views that could survive criticism, every attempt to produce greater enlightenment or to enlarge the scope of the imagination was surely worth it.

Put in a single word, the theme of Williams's philosophy is naturalism. But, since that word is now used in as many different ways as there are different philosophers who think of themselves as naturalists, what was the kind of naturalism that Williams espoused?

For him philosophy goes wrong when it urges upon us a criterion of rationality, a norm for right action, a project of enquiry, that has been arrived at without due consideration for the complexities and frailties of human nature. This insensitivity to how we actually are can take two forms. It can attribute to human nature some unreal power that human nature does not, perhaps could not, possess, alternatively it can pass over, or fail to give proper weight to, something that is integral to us as we are. Philosophy can attribute to human nature some unnaturally abstract faculty that it chooses to call "reason", or "the good will", or it can devalue the place of desire in our lives or it can make light of the intensity of human emotion.

Some of the untoward recommendations that philosophy can make are, according to Williams, inappropriate in all circumstances. So, for instance, it is always wrong to think that some consideration can act as a reason for us even though it does not engage with the set of desires that we have: in Williams's terminology, the only reasons that we can have for doing something are internal reasons, and external reasons, which do not appeal to anything in our psychology, have no claims upon our attention.

By contrast, the project of enquiry that Williams, in his book on Descartes, called the "project of pure enquiry", and which aims at an "absolute conception" of the world, freed from our own perspectives on to it, may legitimately set the agenda for physics or the natural sciences, but it has no place in our attempt to get an ethical understanding of the world.

Indeed, for Williams, it was supremely in the attempt to bring order into our moral lives, specifically through the introduction of theory, that the pretensions of philosophy and its defiance of human nature are at their most florid. That being so, the desire to confront philosophical presumptuousness in its lair turned Williams, at least in the eyes of the outside world, though he never took such a restrictive view of his life's work, into a moral philosopher.

It was in a comparatively early work, in a small book ominously entitled Morality, which appeared in 1972, that Williams found what were widely thought to be the two great rival moral theories, Utilitarianism and Kantianism, guilty of the same fundamental errors.

In the first place, both theories (though Kantianism more egregiously) held that, of the various uses of the term "ought", there was one, the moral "ought", that was basic. It was basic in that, once the question "What morally ought I to do?" is answered, that answer trumps all other considerations about the conduct of life. Secondly, we are told that, in trying to arrive at such an answer, we should ignore all but a few considerations.

According to Utilitarianism, we should consider only the consequences of our actions and the pleasure that they bring about. According to Kantianism, we should consider only that principle of action which can be universally willed. Either way round, our own passions, our own sensibilities, our own life projects are to be cast to the winds. The upshot of these first two errors Williams put by saying that a narrow, rigid conception of morality was carved out of what had in earlier ages been recognised as the larger, untidy field of ethics.

Finally, both Utilitarianism and Kantianism insisted that, once we had found the right answer to the question "What morally ought I to do?", no residual interest attached to the other courses of action: there is absolutely nothing to regret in not having done that which we rightly decided we ought not to do. To Williams this in effect eliminated the tragic element of life. Once Agamemnon had decided that it was right to sacrifice Iphigenia to raise the winds so that the fleet could sail to Troy, that, though it turned him into the murderer of his daughter, should have been the end of the matter. To regret was to fuss.

In the penultimate chapter of what was arguably his most radical work, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, which appeared in 1985, Williams attacked head-on what he now called "Morality, the Peculiar Institution", and he tried to make clear "why we would be better off without it". What is constitutive of this institution is the supreme importance it attaches to law-like obligations, its rejection of any other consideration that might lead an agent to feel that there was something that he must do, and its insistence that, when an obligation is acted upon, the agent must not have had things made easier for him by any natural advantage he possessed, whether of personality, or intelligence, or charm, or sensibility. Morality is tailor-made so as not to benefit from what Williams called "moral luck".

What, readers of Williams might ask, was to take the place of this strange construct? Part of the answer is, of course, nothing. No such institution is needed. Nevertheless it might be argued that some model for our ethical thinking is required. Some have emphasised Williams's debt to Aristotle despite his insistence that one was unlikely to learn much about life from a man who was such an evident bore.

More to the point, Williams claimed that any ethic that puts happiness to the fore has no way of understanding Romantic ethics, which is something that we moderns cannot simply discard. In Shame and Necessity, Williams reassesses the relevance to our lives of the considerations by which the great heroes of Homer and of Athenian tragedy lived theirs. In his brilliant discussion of shame, and of the partitioning of the soul on which it depends, Williams showed just how far an adequate account of ethics must take us into the labyrinth of the human mind.

Williams has been accused of moral scepticism, moral subjectivism, moral relativism. Some of these charges he rightly does not recognise, but one highly important point that he stressed is that sometimes different ethical systems can be incommensurate. He explains why: the different systems employ different "thick" concepts. A thick concept attributes one or more properties to an individual, but, in doing so, it takes it for granted that the possession of these properties will be seen in a certain light.

Take chastity (not, I believe, an example of Williams's). When an older age called a woman chaste, it stated that her hymen was unbroken. But it would have put the matter like this only if it also believed that this was something important for her, and for others who took an interest in her, in that she regarded her unbroken hymen as a singularly precious gift that it was up to her to bestow upon the man of her choice, or, in exceptional circumstances, to render symbolically to God. When this happens, the transaction will, of necessity, be in some measure a present, in some measure a sacrifice. And for those who think like this, and are thus able to use the term "chaste" and mean it, it might seem repugnant, but it will not be incomprehensible, that, so naturally associated is the surrender of virginity with anxiety, that a man might prefer another to take the hymen that he has been offered. In societies that do not envisage a woman's private parts in this way, the concept of chastity can be made sense of, but from the outside, and it cannot be meaningfully employed. Incommensurability divides the values of such societies.

Truth and Truthfulness is, and must in part have been conceived of as, Williams's swan-song. It is an infinitely subtle, self-consciously eclectic, work, shifting levels with great deftness. It combines the analytical method, as acquired in Oxford, and the genealogical method as Nietzsche and Foucault practised it. As against the "deniers", the post- modernist celebrators of carnival in philosophy, Williams asserts the inextricability of the very idea of assertion from the notion and norm of truth, and he then looks to genealogy to show how the various complex virtues connected with truth arose within Western culture, and have been passed on to us.

Public service was a need for Williams, and the cause of socialism stirred him, but neither was for him an independent source of happiness. He displayed considerable courage in coming out against the Vietnam War at a fairly early point, which allied him with elements of the Labour movement that he found less than sympathetic, and against which he was too thin-skinned to defend himself with ease. Once at a large anti-war meeting in Central Hall, where he defended a moderate position on civil disobedience, someone, who surely knew better, rose up and said, "Who paid you to say that?" His face went ashen grey. I never saw him so silent.

For a brief period he left the Labour Party, and joined the SDP. When he returned to England, he rejoined the Labour Party, but it was no longer a party with which he had much in common. He was knighted in 1999 for services to philosophy.

The two great unadulterated pleasures of Williams's life were music and friendship.

Music was as significant to him as breathing, and in middle age he felt it necessary to learn to play the piano: he retained a Socratic assessment of the grasp of skill. What engaged him most deeply about music was the way in which it seamlessly combined structures of a highly abstract nature and the flow of pure, or at any rate intense, feeling. Never far away from this enjoyment was the sense of narrative, either as this held the music together from the outside, as in opera, which he loved with a deep passion, or as this emerged from within, in the unfolding of a motif. One of the few disagreements that he had with his close friend Isaiah Berlin was that Berlin appeared to think that it was no obstacle to the understanding of an opera that one did not follow the plot.

With the passage of the years, Williams ceased to feel that it was the sun-drenched south that had the monopoly of culture, musical culture included. Increasingly he came to experience the depth and spirituality of what was northern. Wagner spoke to him with great immediacy, both through the music and through the arch-consuming myths of honour, heartache, cunning, and betrayal.

It is often said of someone, particularly in an obituary, that he was the "loyallest of friends". Williams was an incomparable friend, but he was not, and would not have wanted to be, a loyal friend if this means, as it appears to, someone who is a friend out of loyalty. Williams was a friend out of friendship. What attached him to his friends was that he found in them a particular twist, a peculiar quirk, of human nature. What Kant and Bentham left out of their moral philosophies, thereby incurring the charge of philosophical inadequacy, is just that which, when reinserted into life, makes the whole thing worthwhile.

To Williams too it could seem unfair that this thing, however we think of it, should be unfairly distributed, and in his younger days he might have been willing to reject something that could not be made available to all. But gradually he came to accept it as part and parcel of "moral luck". It made something of a pessimist of him, but he never ceased to believe that the amelioration of economic circumstances and the struggle for social justice had much to offer an inherently unfair world.

Williams was married twice, the first time to the future politician Shirley Catlin, and both marriages brought him fulfilment, though naturally differing in kind. His years of marriage to Patricia Skinner helped to liberate him from an internal austerity, which threatened him severely as a young man.

Richard Wollheim

* Richard Wollheim rightly concentrated on Bernard Williams's catholic sense of philosophy and equal gift for friendship, writes Nicolas Barker. But his subtlety of mind was far-ranging.

His RAF service involved devising reaction tests for pilots, vital at a time when aircraft speeds were rapidly increasing. In one, the pilot sat facing a screen on which was projected a film showing a series of planes approaching rapidly from different angles. In his hands was a joystick controlling a cross-in-circle which he had to fix on each oncoming plane. At the bottom of the screen a small red light came on from time to time; when it did, the pilot pressed a pedal that turned it off. The test was simple: success or failure with the joystick was ignored; only the time that elapsed between the light coming on and the pedal
extinguishing it was measured.

His sense of humour was as far-ranging and unexpected. The American philosopher W.V. Quine published a book with the rather odd title From a Logical Point of View (1953). A bit pompous, I ventured. Not a bit, said Williams, it was the first part of a trilogy. The other two volumes would deal with ethics and aesthetics, and the title of the whole was the first line of a then well-known calypso, "From a logical point of view / always marry a woman / uglier than you".

Quick as he was in mind and speech, he never talked, still less looked, down on those less clever than he was. He had so many ways of entertaining and encouraging other people; his face was made for laughter, and his gaiety inextinguishable.