20.402 Bernard Williams via Simon Blackburn's "No easy answers"

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 19 Jan 2007 07:18:36 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 402.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 19 Jan 2007 07:11:18 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: Bernard Williams via Simon Blackburn's "No easy answers"

In The New Republic Online, 22 January 2007, Simon Blackburn reviews
the philosophical life and works of Bernard Williams, who died in
2003. Blackburn's title refers to the puzzle that Williams 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". The article is a review of four books, the result of
devoted editing by his wife and some friends. These books, Blackburn writes,

>reveal a thinker 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--and 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 how enjoyable, really imaginative philosophy
>can be.

The particular ways in which Williams exhibited these virtues in his
philosophy I will leave to another time, or better, to someone able
to discuss them intelligently. But I make an exception. In the essay
that gives its title to the collection edited by his wife, Philosophy
as a Humanistic Discipline, Williams

>defends the ability of science to put us on the road toward an
>"absolute" conception of the world "which is to the largest possible
>extent independent of the local perspectives or idiosyncrasies of

Williams opposes the fashionable account that celebrates, as
Blackburn says, "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.'"
But as with any thinker worth celebrating, he bucked the placement of
his questioning in a fixed position or stance -- in this case, as the
opposite view that we can have "a description of the world without
deploying our own language or employing or own concepts". If, as he
argued, science has a title to knowledge that does not depend "on the
history, culture, values, or interests of those engaged in it" -- the
great moral argument that, if I am not mistaken, begins with Galileo
-- then the humanities, including philosophy, are, Blackburn says,

>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.

Why all this here? Because, as I keep saying (I hope not tiresomely,
thickly, annoyingly), because of our critical, self-conscious use of
computers, we're in the midst of this difference between the sciences
and the humanities -- being *of* the humanities but able to have
truck with the sciences in a new and exciting way. Or, perhaps, in an
old and exciting way. So Williams is someone we have to pay attention
to -- alas too late to participate face-to-face.

And this brings me to the disproportionate reason for rattling on
about Blackburn's review of Williams' posthumous books.
Disproportionate because I don't know how to say adequately what I
want to notice here: the reminder, badly needed and punctuated by
Williams' death, of why we have our institutions of higher education
in the first place. Can we say that despite all the unspeakable but
tirelessly speaking nonsense we're engulfed in, that we actually can
justify the lot? Being forever Molly Bloom, I say YES.



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Fri Jan 19 2007 - 02:37:11 EST

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.2.0 : Fri Jan 19 2007 - 02:37:19 EST