In This Article Bernard Williams

  • Introduction
  • Primary Works
  • Bibliographies, Interviews, and Encyclopedia Entries
  • Monographs and Anthologies
  • Personal Identity
  • Makropulos and “the Tedium of Immortality”
  • Relativity and Objectivity in Ethics
  • Truth and Truthfulness
  • Moral Relativism
  • Thick Concepts
  • Knowledge, Reflection, Confidence
  • Thick Concepts and Motivation
  • Internal and External Reasons
  • Against the Morality System, and Against Systematic Moral Theory
  • Consequentialism, Integrity, and Impartiality
  • “One Thought Too Many” and Moral Dilemmas
  • Moral Luck
  • History of Philosophy

Philosophy Bernard Williams
Marcel van Ackeren, Sophie-Grace Chappell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0321


For half a century, the English philosopher Bernard Williams (b. 1929–d. 2003) was a distinctive and individual voice in Anglophone philosophy. He made major original contributions to the history of philosophy, epistemology, the philosophy of personal identity, and ethics. His central concern was the tension between human significance and historical contingency. Everything we have and are is essentially conditioned by its past, and this apparently threatens the experienced meaningfulness and importance of our lives. But Williams questions the traditions of transcendence and atemporality, often Christian or Christian-inspired, that he thinks create the ethical threat in the first place. In ethics we can, he claims, find no absolute standpoint outside history to give us a founding certainty to live by, partly because there is no such standpoint, and partly because we could not live by it even if there was; Williams sees the unavailability of the transcendent standpoint in ethics not as a disadvantage to our living fully human lives, but as a precondition of it. Hence Williams’s rejection of the “absolute conception of the world” as a starting point for humane (rather than scientific) understanding, and his rejection of any fully ahistorical conception of what truth can be for us. Hence, too, his rejection of “external reasons.” Also of the whole project of moral theory, whose paradigms are the Kantian enterprise of pure reason, and the utilitarian endeavor to regiment human practical reasoning into a scientific form. Williams rejects the Kantian view that there can be moral verdicts on any action that are entirely purified of “moral luck.” He argues that utilitarianism is superficial in supposing that the proper business of moral deliberation is over as soon as we settle which action is right. Even then, questions remain about how this conclusion has been reached, and whether the causal routing of the proposed solution violates the integrity of the agent through whom it is supposed to run. Questions also remain about whether, if at all, utilitarian solutions to difficult cases can give proper recognition to the kinds of ineliminable regret that often seem appropriate. What we are left with, once we are freed from the external ideological impositions characteristic of systematic moral theory, is ourselves and our own necessities. Our deepest ethical resource is simply ourselves, and our deepest ethical question is how to become, and how to be, ourselves, in the brief time that we have to become or be anything. Hence the distinction between the ethical and morality and the morality system. Williams’s concern for the complexity of the human life led him to develop influential conceptions of personal identity, theories of ethical knowledge, and the virtue of truth. His lifelong discussion of historical contingencies of the human condition include not only substantial contributions on the methodology of doing history of philosophy, but also philosophy of history and science. The most characteristic aspect of Williams is how he related these many subfields to his core ambition, the humanistic reflection on ethics. For helpful comments and suggestions we are grateful to Adrian Moore, Julia Markovits, and Paul Hurley.

Primary Works

The primary works of Bernard Williams are extremely wide ranging, with regard to topics, philosophical disciplines, and historical periods or authors that are discussed. Given this breadth, any attempts to single out one leitmotif seem to be in vain. Nonetheless, it might be safe to say that his works essentially express a skepticism concerning reductionism and system-building in philosophy, which was rooted in the firm belief that these two tenets not only misrepresent the plurality of human life but also do damage to it. His skepticism has led to the criticism that his works are purely negative, but this did not seem to worry him, nor is it a completely fair observation or objection.

  • Williams, Bernard. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

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    Williams rejects “contemporary moral philosophy of the ‘analytical’ or ‘linguistic’ style” (p. xvii) because in his view it avoids important ethical issues. He suggests an alternative style to systematizing accounts. The first set of chapters deals with challenges, such as amoralism, subjectivism, and relativism. The second set starts by discussing the term “good,” naturalistic fallacy, and the distinction between fact and value. The books final chapters criticize different classical types of moral thinking, such as Aristotle, theological ethics, theories of universal principles, or objective notions of well-being and utilitarianism.

  • Williams, Bernard. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Harmondsworth, UK: Pelican, 1978.

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    Williams investigates Descartes and defends the idea ideal of objectivity in science of an absolute conception of reality, which he takes to be part of our contemporary thinking. His is “a rational reconstruction of Descartes’ thought, where the rationality of the construction is essentially and undisguisedly conceived in a contemporary style” (p. 10). To Williams, Descartes pursued the project of pure inquiry, which takes the search for truth to be a search for certainty and a corresponding method that is error proof, epistemically effective, and explains the correspondence between ideas and reality.

  • Williams, Bernard. Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers, 1973–1980. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139165860E-mail Citation »

    The first nine papers concern interrelated topics in moral philosophy, e.g., the inadequacies of utilitarian and Kantian moral theories. Williams attacks the concept of a moral point of view, universalizability, objectivity, and impartiality in moral thinking, by showing that we should pay more attention to individual persons, including their character, projects, experience, and emotions. There are also two papers focusing on Aristotle and Rawls, and two that are more remote from the ethical core questions.

  • Williams, Bernard. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Fontana, 1985.

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    Williams advocates “a skepticism about philosophical ethics, . . . that is more about philosophy than it is about ethics” (p. 74). The book criticizes the morality system, which narrowed and damaged ethical thinking and human life. It is obsessed with blame and obligations, which are derived from more general obligations and cannot conflict, and it presupposes impartiality and a rationality that can deduce obligations, which are then taken to be overriding. It is a conception of a pure morality and a denial of moral luck.

  • Williams, Bernard. Shame and Necessity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

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    By referring to Homer, Sophocles, and Thucydides, it is argued that modern thinking went wrong in assuming that “the universe or history or the structure of human reason … makes sense of human life” (p. 163). Despite differences from the ancients, post-Christians and post-Hegelians are “more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime” (p. 166). The Homeric concept of the self and the lack of will and duty should be welcomed. Various notions of necessity and especially shame are discussed.

  • Williams, Bernard. Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

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    Following Nietzsche, Williams wants to vindicate truthfulness as a virtue against “the deniers” (postmodernists and pragmatists like Rorty). To Williams, genealogies provide accounts that allow us make sense of what people believe and do. Williams’s fictional genealogy about the State of Nature displays reasons to value truthfulness. Accuracy and sincerity make is useful, but truthfulness is of instrumental value only if we take it to be of intrinsic value.

  • Williams, Bernard. In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument. Selected, edited, and with an introduction by Geoffrey Hawthorn. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

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    Williams did not think of political problems as a mere adjunct to ethical questions. He believed that there can be no timeless justification of political power, which he takes Kant and Rawls to aim at. Likewise, liberalism ignores that legitimation depends on historical circumstances. Williams’s historical relativism comes hand in hand with a realism that makes him object to utopian theories. To him, political projects are “essentially conditioned, not just in their background intellectual conditions but as a matter of empirical realism, by their historical circumstances.”

  • Williams, Bernard. Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline. Selected, edited, and with an introduction by A. W. Moore. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006a.

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    Williams was very much interested in the philosophy of philosophy, especially in asking what philosophy can do, how it does what it can do, and what it cannot do. Williams favored the clarity concerning statements and arguments displayed by analytical philosophy, but he was critical about its rejection of the historical perspective and the idea that philosophy is (like) a science. As a humanistic discipline, philosophy is a historic enterprise and not a scientific undertaking, and it must include some rigor in applying certain criteria to the practice of philosophy.

  • Williams, Bernard. The Sense of the Past: Essays on the History of Philosophy. Edited by Myles Burnyeat. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006b.

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    These twenty-five essays span from ancient philosophy to Wittgenstein and express Williams’s conviction that studying the history of philosophy is an essential part of philosophy. Williams distinguishes a historical approach (“history of ideas”), which is focused on the context of a historical text and aims at the question of why some theory came up, from doing “history of philosophy,” aiming at a contribution to current philosophical debates by denying transhistorical identity and making use of the “alienation effect.”

  • Williams, Bernard, and J. J. C. Smart. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

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    The volume reprints Smart’s defense of act-utiliatarianism (1961), and then Williams takes this account to be inconsistent. His main objection, however, is the integrity objection, which asks “what would be involved in living these ideas” (p. 78). The principle of maximization of happiness reduces persons to “a channel between the input of everybody’s projects . . . and an output of optimific decision” and, second, “alienate him in a real sense from . . . the sources of his actions in his own convictions” (pp. 116–117), including his feelings.

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