chapter  7
D’OÙ VENONS-NOUS … QUE SOMMES NOUS … OÙ ALLONS-NOUS?
ByELIJAH MILLGRAM
Pages 25

In retrospect, Bernard Williams was, during the second half of the twentieth century, perhaps our most refined philosopher of common sense. He spent his life exploring a handful of ideas current either among philosophers or the general public, and typically both. The one that will anchor our discussion is that there is a deep difference between matters of fact and evaluations or decisions. A closely related thought, which we will also take up, is that there is an important distinction between science, which is fully objective, and ethics, which is only subjective. A further and connected idea, which will serve as our entry point into the discussion, is that your reasons for action bottom out in whatever it is you happen to care about. The theses on which Williams concentrated his intellect count, if any-

thing does, as the collective default view about their respective topics, but they have also proved surprisingly hard to formulate satisfactorily. Thus although they have been much criticized over the course of their run of popularity, it has been hard to tell whether the criticism sticks to the ideas themselves, or rather to the clumsy ways they were put. But Williams returned to them repeatedly, carefully recasting those thoughts, and the reasons for them, in ever more nuanced, ever more stripped down form.2

With a good philosopher’s concern for the consistency of his intellectual commitments, he worked insistently at tracing the connections between them, and both negotiating and sharpening the tensions among them. Philosophy of the analytic variety is evidently at a turning point. If we are

to determine where it is to go next, we must first take stock of where we are, and for such stocktaking, we cannot do better than to turn to Williams. His views are the most intelligent and articulate expression of what someone who is reasonably mainstream and reasonably hardheaded can be presumed to think. So we may be fairly sure that when larger criticisms stick to Williams’ mature view, they are registering real objections to

ideas that philosophers and the public tend to take for granted, rather than superficial difficulties with inept renderings of them. I am going to recapitulate the evolution of Williams’ understanding of a

few of these ideas, and sketch a constellation into which his mature thought assembled them. The path through the material will be just a bit complicated: because much of our interest is in the distinctions Williams worked to articulate, we will be shuttling back and forth between the subject areas on the contrasting sides of one or another such distinction. For expository purposes, I will organize the first part of the presentation around his criticism of what he called the “morality system,” but bear in mind throughout that my interest is not in the relatively familiar arguments against morality: they are sketched merely to display some of the intellectual machinery at work in them. These arguments have generated a large literature which I will not engage here, and where there are differences of opinion between myself and other readers of Williams as to how the arguments are supposed to run, I will not now take up the controversy. Once the pieces have been put on the table, I will turn to assessment and

diagnosis. Those pieces amount, I will suggest, to a rendering of what it is to be a human being, and what sort of world it is that humans are suited to inhabit. I will ask what presuppositions would have to be in place for the creatures Williams has implicitly described to make sense as a design decision. And I will conclude that the unintended lesson of Williams’ work is that we have made an astonishing mistake about who we are. The philosophical common sense of the past half-century has been suitable for impossibly simple-minded creatures, creatures competent to live only in impossibly simple environments. Consequently, the descriptive metaphysics and ethics that have been spun out of it are useless to us.