Philosophy as It Is
Study for an opera character, Augusto Bompiani, 1873
From The New Rambler:
Williams had a famously adversarial relationship toward some leading philosophical movements of the modern era, particularly Utilitarianism and Kantianism. In Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, though focusing on those two targets, he doubts more generally the value of systematic abstract philosophical theorizing in ethics. One might then expect this volume to contain yet more debunking of the pretensions of philosophy to improve our lives. What a fascinating, and to me welcome, surprise to discover here (in essays produced very late in his life, in the era of Truth and Truthfulness) the same large and charitable view that is revealed, as well, in many of his reviews. Charity comes with a stiff price: for philosophy, he makes plain, is a worthwhile endeavor only if it accepts some tough challenges, which are usually not faced. Nonetheless, worthwhile it can be.
In a meditative piece revealingly called “On Hating and Despising Philosophy” (1996, number 68 in the volume), Williams says that philosophers have typically been motivated by two things: curiosity, and the desire to be helpful. He unhesitatingly gives priority to the former motive, saying that “the road to something helpful is not only hard, but unpredictable, and the motives that keep people moving down it don’t necessarily have to do with the desire to help. They include that other motive of philosophy, curiosity. In fact, the two motives cannot really be taken apart; the philosophy that is concerned to be helpful cannot be separated from philosophy that aims to help us understand.”
Above all, philosophy offers reflective analysis of our concepts, and, through these and a study of their history, insight into who “we” are. If philosophy is to contribute anything distinctive, however, all this must be carried out with clarity and rigor, and the aim of “getting it right” must “be in place.” (Here he offers a devastating critique of Richard Rorty’s model of philosophy as a “conversation.”) But he then cautions that there is more than one way of embodying clarity and precision: philosophy must not be fooled into supposing that the only form in which these virtues can be delivered is that of natural science. In natural science, it may well be that style is merely decorative. (He tells here of a pseudo-scientific analytic philosopher who said to his co-author, “’Let’s get it right first and you can put the style in afterwards.’”) In good philosophy, by contrast, the imaginative and expressive elements are not just trimming. A moral philosopher, in particular, owes people a picture of life, and society, and the individual, and this picture must be “integrated with what he or she cares about. If a philosophical writer…does not even face the problem of how to express those concerns adequately, he or she will have failed to carry reflection far enough.” Imagination and expressive power are thus important philosophical virtues. (A related essay, reviewing Paul Berman’s book Intellectuals, develops this point further, arguing that the authority of intellectuals in society, insofar as they have any, derives from the ability of some people to connect the ideas involved in politics to other ideas, and to “bring those ideas imaginatively into the thoughts of those who are going to live under that politics.”)
While insisting on imagination and expression, Williams repudiates a certain sort of philosophical melodrama that links philosophy in an immediate way to the Holocaust or other big events of recent times. A style that is truthful about human beings will probably not be melodramatic in this way, he urges, since melodrama makes connections that are too obvious, and too little work is being done at a deeper level. Melodramatic philosophers have probably made the fatal error of putting helpfulness first, and getting it right second. On account of that fatal error, “nothing…will be helpful or enlightening.” He concludes with a sentence that should give pause to Wiliams’s more facile admirers, who, inspired, perhaps, by his more Nietzschean moments, see him as a devastating critic of analytic philosophy:
If there could be what serious philosophers dream of, a philosophy at once thoroughly truthful and honestly helpful, It would still be hard, unaccommodating and unobvious. For those reasons, it would doubtless be disliked by those who dislike philosophy as it is.
In a companion piece entitled, “Why Philosophy Needs History” (2002, number 71 in the volume), he fleshes out this picture of a truly helpful philosophy. Philosophy begins from the fact that we do not understand ourselves well enough. Its methods involve reflecting on our concepts, and in doing that we must begin from where we are. But then we must also ask who “we” are, and what aspects of our concepts are shaped by a specific cultural history.