Bernard Williams


This web page is devoted to providing readers with information and selected commentary and links relating to Bernard Williams' thought and contributions to philosophy.

[Please note: This web site is still in the process of construction....]


'Bernard Williams brought philosophical reflection to an opulent array of subjects, with more imagination and with greater cultural and historical understanding than anyone else of his time....' - Thomas Nagel [London Review of Books, May 2006]

Sir Bernard Williams, in full Sir Bernard Arthur Owen Williams, (born Sept. 21, 1929, Westcliff, Essex, Eng.—died June 10, 2003, Rome, Italy), English philosopher, noted especially for his writings on ethics and the history of Western philosophy, both ancient and modern.

Williams was educated at Chigwell School, Essex, and Balliol College, Oxford. During the 1950s he served in the Royal Air Force (1951–53) and was a fellow of All Souls College and New College, Oxford. He was appointed Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge in 1967 and Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, in 1979. He was Monroe Deutsch Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1988 to 2003 and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford from 1990 to 1996.

In 1955 Williams married Shirley Catlin, who, as Shirley Williams, became a prominent political figure in Britain; in 1993 she was created Baroness Williams of Crosby. In 1974 the marriage was dissolved, and Williams married Patricia Skinner. Williams headed or served on a number of public commissions, notably the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship (1977–79), and was a director of the English National Opera. He was knighted in 1999.... [ Continues in Bernard Williams, by Thomas Nagel [Encyclopedia Britannica ]



Edited Books

British Analytical Philosophy (1966)

with Alan Montefiore

Utilitarianism and Beyond (1982)

with Amartya Sen

Videos & Interviews


Critical Studies & Collections

Mark P. Jenkins, Bernard Williams [Philosophy Now Series -- McGill/Queen's: 2006]


World, Mind, and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams. Edited by J.E.J. Altham & Ross Harrison. (Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Bernard Williams (Contemporary Philosophy in Focus), ed. Alan Thomas (Cambridge University Press: 2007).

-- Review of Thomas's Bernard Williams, by Catherine Wilson in NDPR in 2008.05.26

Reading Bernard Williams, ed. Daniel Callcut (Routledge: 2009).

-- Review of Callcut's Reading Bernard Williams, by Catherine Wilson in NDPR 2009.10.19

Luck, Value, and Commitment: Themes From the Ethics of Bernard Williams, eds. Ulrike Heuer & Gerald Lang (Oxford University Press: 2012).

-- Review of Luck, Value, and Commitment, by L. Nandi Theunissen in NDPR 2013.02.16

The Moral Philosophy of Bernard Williams, C.D. Herrera and A Perry, eds. (Cambridge Scholars Publishing: 2013).

Ethics Beyond the Limits: New Essays on Bernard Williams’ Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, eds. Sophie Grace Chappell & Marcel van Ackeren (Routledge: 2018)

Miscellaneous Reviews by Williams


Important Reviews of Williams' Work

Utilitarianism: For and Against (with J.J.C. Smart)

Problems of the Self

Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry

Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy:

Shame and Necessity

Making Sense of Humanity

Truth and Truthfulness

Collected Papers [Reviews of The Sense of the Past; In the Beginning Was the Deed; Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline ]

Essays and Reviews 1959-2002

Selected commentary and discussions (mostly available online)

Some of the items listed below are behind "firewalls" but they should be accessible through your library.

The small selection presented here is intended just to give the reader some further hints and suggestions about the several directions you could go in when thinking about Williams' various contributions. Suffice it to say that these suggestions are highly selective and, to some extent, arbitrary. However, each of them is an important discussion of Williams' views. The reader should also consult the various collections and anthologies cited above.

Some other relevant items...

  • Larissa MacFarquhar How To Be Good [New Yorker Magazine, August 2011] *
* Although this article is about Derek Parfit it contains interesting biographical and philosophical insights and details about Parfit's relationship with Williams. Such as: "Parfit admired Williams more than almost anyone he knew. ..." * In this interview Gardner discusses Bernard Williams and moral luck and other issues of related interest.

A Reader's Guide ... a few suggestions

Bernard Williams' philosophy is, in several respects, more difficult to approach and grasp than the work of some other leading figures in the area of ethics. One reason for this is that there is no single work of his that serves as an obvious point of entry to his thought or that can be read as a stand-alone statement of his core views (e.g. in contrast with Rawls and his Theory of Justice). Another difficulty is that Williams' early contributions, prior to the publication of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), are largely critical or negative in character (where various aspects of "the morality system" are his primary target) and, read in isolation, there is no obvious relation or connection among them, which may give readers the false impression that his thought is fragmented and disjointed. Williams' later writings, after Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, are similarly diverse and multifaceted. In many ways this is to be expected, since Williams' self-consciously rejected any effort to advance a "theory" in ethics (or politics) and was averse to efforts to straight-jacket the subject into formulas or programs of any kind. At the same time, it would be a mistake to think that there is no structure or direction to his thought or that it did not develop and evolve in an intelligible and coherent manner. In fact, the opposite is true. As noted above, Williams' various early contributions are sharply focused on features of "the morality system" that he found especially problematic and unhelpful. Similarly, his later contributions are deeply rooted in his effort to advance and articulate a credible account of what ethical life could be like after "morality" - and what sort of problems and possibilities it must deal with.

In introducing students and other new readers to Williams' contribution to ethics it is important to identify the basic structure and evolution of his thought. Although there is some debate about which of his various books might be judged his "best" - and I am not convinced that this is an especially interesting debate - there can be no doubt that his most ambitious and comprehensive work is Ethics and the Limits and Philosophy. It should be treated as the pivotal work for understanding Williams' fundamental concerns. Ethics and the Limits and Philosophy is not, however, a good place to enter his philosophy. The right place to enter is with a core set of essential contributions that articulate and structure the basic elements of his criticism of "the morality system". The reader or student is then in a suitably informed position to approach and study Ethics and the Limits and Philosophy. When this is done, the full significance of his two later books, Shame and Necessity (1993) and Truth and Truthfulness (2002), can themselves be better appreciated and understood. As with his contributions prior to Ethics and the Limits and Philosophy, there is also a core set of his later papers that his readers should be familiar with.

In making the suggestions that follow I do not intend to suggest either that there is some one way of reading or understanding Williams' thought or contributions, much less that his other contributions are not of importance or interest. What I would say, however, is that there is a core set of his contributions that is essential to understanding how his work all "hangs together" [to use Williams' own expression]. These works, moreover, need to be read and studied in an order that is sensitive to his own intellectual development - as is consistent with Williams' own genealogical sensitivities and methodological preferences.

I have indicated with an asterisk (*) and set in bold what I take to be a handful of his most essential contributions.

Essential readings from the Early Writings (prior to Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy):

  • * Ethical Consistency (1965) - in Problems of the Self (1973)
  • Morality and the Emotions (1965) - in Problems of the Self (1973)
  • Egoism and Altruism (1973) - in Problems of the Self (1973)
  • * The Critique of Utilitarianism (Selections) - in Utiltitarianism: For and Against (1973)

[selections from this work can be found in a variety of anthologies devoted to ethics and introductory philosophy]

[see also Moral luck: a postscript (1993 ) - in Making Sense of Humanity (1995)]

  • * Internal and External Reasons (1980) - in Moral Luck (1981)
  • * Truth in Relativism (1975) - in Moral Luck (1981)
  • The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick (1982) - in Making Sense of Humanity (1995); and in The Sense of the Past (2006)
  • Evolution, Ethics and the Representation Problem (1983) - in Making Sense of Humanity (1995)
  • The Scientific and the Ethical (1984) - in Objectivity and Cultural Divergence, Ed. by S.C. Brown (Cambridge: 1984)
  • * How Free Does the Will Need to Be? (1985) - in Making Sense of Humanity (1995)

[ ... Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985) ... ]

Essential readings from the Later Writings (after Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy):

  • Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame (1989) - in Making Sense of Humanity (1995)
  • * Making Sense of Humanity (1987) - in Making Sense of Humanity (1995)
  • * Nietzsche’s Minimalist Moral Psychology (1993) - in The Sense of the Past (2006)
  • * The Women of Trachis (1996) - in The Sense of the Past (2006)
  • Values, Reasons and the Theory of Persuasion (1996) - in Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (2006)
  • Moral Responsibility and Political Freedom (1997) - in Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (2006)
  • Tolerating the Intolerable (1999) - in Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (2006)
  • Unbearable Suffering (2004) - in The Sense of the Past (2006)
  • * Realism and Moralism in Political Theory (2005) - in In the Beginning Was the Deed (2005)
  • Modernity and Ethical Life (2005*) in In the Beginning Was the Deed (2005)
  • Human Rights and Relativism (2005*) - in In the Beginning Was the Deed (2005)
  • * The Human Prejudice (2006*) - in Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (2006)

Papers on Ethics and The Nature of Philosophy

Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? [1897–1898] Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Opera & Music

Reports & Political Contributions

Major Conferences on Williams

Bernard Williams
by David Levine NYRB

This site is maintained by Paul Russell.