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 ]
- Professor Sir Bernard Williams: "Arguably the greatest British philosopher of his era, he brought wit and compassion to the moral questions of society..." -- GUARDIAN/ June 2003 - Jane O'Grady
- Sir Bernard Williams, 73, Oxford Philosopher, Dies [New York Times/ June 2003 -- Christopher Lehmann-Haupt]
- Professor Sir Bernard Williams: The Telegraph (June 2003).
- Philosopher Bernard Williams Dies, Washington Post (June 2003).
- Sir Bernard Williams Renowned moral philosopher and a brilliant figure of his generation, [The Herald (Scotland), June 2003.]
- Bernard Williams (1929-2003) [Philosophy Now - June 2003 -- A.W. Moore]
- Professor Sir Bernard Williams: Philosopher who promoted the understanding of human nature over a narrow rationality in ethics [The Independent - June 2003]
- Bernard Williams, philosophe analytique humaniste britannique [Le Monde - June 2003]
British Analytical Philosophy (1966)with Alan Montefiore
Videos & Interviews
- Bernard Williams - "The Spell of Linguistic Philosophy"; Bryan Magee interviews Bernard Williams, BBC, 1977
- Bernard Williams and A.J. Ayer on Wittgenstein, Truth, and Religion 
- Bernard Williams on Descartes 
- Bernard Williams - The Human Prejudice (2002) (1 of 8) [Walter E. Edge Lecture, Princeton University]
- MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES Interview with Bernard Williams [ First published in Cogito, Volume 8, Issue 1, 1994, pp. 3-19 ]
- Seminar with Bernard Williams 25 November 1998 — Institute of Philosophy — KU Leuven
- Q & A / Bernard Williams / Carrying the torch for truth / Philosopher calculates the moral cost of rejecting the concept: Interview with Kenneth Baker, SFGate (September 2002).
- A Mistrustful Animal An Interview with Bernard Williams, December 2002. [Harvard Review 12.1: 2004]. Reprinted in Conversations on Ethics. Ed. by Alex Voorhoeve.
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
- Various reviews by Bernard Williams in London Review of Books
- Various reviews by Bernard Williams in New York Review of Books
- "Cosmic Philosopher", review of Robert Nozick's Philosophical Explanations [NYRB, February 1982]
- Auto-da-Fé, review of Richard Rorty's Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays 1972-1980) [NYRB, April 1983]
- Personal Identity, review of Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons [LRB - June 1984]
- Resisting the Avalanche, review of Judith Shklar’s Ordinary Vices [[LRB, June 1985]
- Consequences, review A Matter of Principle by Ronald Dworkin [LRB - April 1986]
- The Passion for Beyond, review of Thomas Nagel's The View from Nowhere [LRB, November 1986]
- "Getting It Right", review of Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (LRB, November 1989). PDF
- Republican and Galilean, review of Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity [NYRB, November 1990]
- Terrestrial Thoughts, Extraterrestrial Science, review of Hilary Putnam's Realism with a Human Face [LRB - October 1990]
- Do Not Disturb, review of Martha Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire [LRB, October 1994]
- "The End of Explanation", review of Thomas Nagel's The Last Word [NYRB, November 1998]
Important Reviews of Williams' Work
Utilitarianism: For and Against (with J.J.C. Smart)
- Gerald Dworkin: The Philosophical Review Vol. 84, No. 3, Jul., 1975
Problems of the Self
- John Perry, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 73, No. 13, pp. 416-428 (1976)
Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry
- Margaret Wilson, Journal of Philosophy 76 (8):431-435 (1979)
Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy:
- "Why We Can't Be Good", by Ronald de Sousa [NYT, July 1985]
- Character, Paul Seabright [LRB, September 1985]
- Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Arthur Danto [LA Times: December, 1985]
- Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, by Thomas Nagel [Journal of Philosophy - June 1986]
- Critical Notice of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, by John McDowell [Mind - July 1986]
- Who Can Tell Right from Wrong?, H.L.A. Hart [NYRB, July, 1986]
- Morality through Thick and Thin: Samuel Scheffler [The Philosophical Review - July 1987]
- Making Ends Meet, Simon Blackburn, with replies from Bernard Williams [Phil. Books, October, 1986]
Shame and Necessity
- Are we any better?: Gisela Striker [LRB, May 1993]
- Greece is the word: Gabriel Josipovici [The Independent, June 1993]
- The Greek Way: Bernard Knox [NYRB, November 1993]
- Shame and Necessity, by Richard Kraut [Ethics - 1994]
- Shame and Necessity, by Terence Irwin [Apeiron - March 1994]
- Shame and Necessity, by Nick Fisher [Classical Review - 1995]
Making Sense of Humanity
- Making sense of humanity and other philosophical papers, 1982-1993, by John Skorupski [The Philosophical Review - 1997]
Truth and Truthfulness
- To the Sunlit Uplands: Richard Rorty [LRB, October 2002]
- State of Nature: Edward Skidelsky [New Statesman, November 2002]
- Yours Sincerely, Ted Honderich [Guardian - March 2003]
- Isn't It the Truth?: Colin McGinn [NYRB, April 2003]
- Review of Truth and Truthfulness: Clancy W. Martin [NDRB, September 2003]
Collected Papers [Reviews of The Sense of the Past; In the Beginning Was the Deed; Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline ]
- The View from Here and Now: by Thomas Nagel [LRB May 2006]
- Unhappy Thoughts by Alan Ryan [TLS, April 2007]
- Review of “In the Beginning Was the Deed by Steven Ross [Essays in Philosophy: Vol. 10.2 (2009): Article 3]
- What's real in political philosophy? by Elizabeth Frazer [Contemporary Political Theory - 2010]
Essays and Reviews 1959-2002
- Essays and Reviews 1959-2002 by Bernard Williams [review] - Mary Beard [Guardian, March 2014]
- Review of Bernard Williams, Essays and Reviews 1959-2002 - Roger Scruton [The Telegraph - February 16, 2014]
- Review of Bernard Williams Essays and Reviews: 1959-2002 - Alasdair Palmer [Standpoint, March 2014]
- "Life as a Humanistic Discipline" - Paul Sagar [The Oxonian Review, March 2014]
- Bernard Williams, journalist - Walker Mimms [The New Criterion, April 2014]
- Cabinets and Kings, Joel Issac [LRB, May 2014]
- The Case Against Moralism, by Samuel Freeman [NYRB - June 2014 ]
- What Philosophers Dream Of - by Geoffrey Hawthorn. [LRB July 2015]
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.
- Christine Korsgaard, Skepticism About Practical Reason, Journal of Philosophy (1986)
- Hilary Putnam, "Bernard Williams and the Absolute Conception of the World", in Renewing Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1992).
- Martha C. Nussbaum, Tragedy and Justice: Bernard Williams remembered [Boston Review, October/November 2003]
- Three Papers on Williams' Ethics: Journal of Philosophy Vol. 100, No. 6, Jun., 2003
- T. M. Scanlon, Thickness and Theory: pp. 275-287
- Allan Gibbard, Reasons Thin and Thick: pp. 288-304
- Charles Taylor, Ethics and Ontology: pp. 305-320
- A.W. Moore, Williams on Ethics, Knowledge, and Reflection, Philosophy (2003)
- Jonathan Lear, Psychoanalysis and the Idea of a Moral Psychology: Memorial to Bernard Williams’ Philosophy, Inquiry (2004)
- John Cottingham’s Forward to the 2005 reissue of Williams' Descartes: reprinted in Manwithoutqualities
- Simon Blackburn, No Easy Answers [The New Republic, 2007]
- Miranda Fricker, The Relativism of Blame and Williams's Relativism of Distance, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 84 (2010).
- Susan Wolf, “One Thought Too Many” (2012).
- Adrian Moore, Interviewed about Bernard Williams [Philosophy Bites, November 2013]
- John Campbell, Bernard Williams - The Self & the Future (Part 1) [UC Berkeley lectures 2011; 2013]
- Raymond Geuss, "Did Williams Do Ethics?" In A World Without Why. (Princeton University Press, 2014)
- Nakul Krishna, Add Your Own Egg [The Point]
- Richard Moran, Williams, History, and ‘the Impurity of Philosophy’ [Mark Sacks Lecture, European Journal of Philosophy, 2015]
- Sophie Grace Chappell & Nicholas Smyth, Bernard Williams [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006/rev. 2018]
- Kate Manne, On Williams' "Moral Luck", March 28, 2016 [Cornell University]
- Maudemarie Clark, "On the Rejection of Morality, Bernard Williams’s Debt to Nietzsche", chapter from Nietzsche on Ethics and Politics (Oxford University Press, 2015) [see Brian Leiter 2019, below]
- Daniel Callcut, What are we? [AEON] On Paul Gauguin , authenticity and the midlife crisis: how the philosopher Bernard Williams dramatised moral luck.
- James Griffin, BERNARD WILLIAMS’S REJECTION OF MORALITY,
- Sarah Broadie: Looking at Aristotle Through Lenses from Bernard Williams, Royal Institute of Philosophy, London Lecture Series (14/11/2014)
- Paul Russell, "Bernard Williams: Ethics from a Human Point of View" [TLS "Footnotes to Plato": December 18, 2018]
- Brian Leiter, Bernard Williams's Debt to Nietzsche: Real or Illusory? [Draft: July 22, 2019] (see Maudemarie Clark 2015, above)
Some other relevant items...
- Larissa MacFarquhar How To Be Good [New Yorker Magazine, August 2011] *
- John Gardner, Moral Philosophy and Private Law 
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]
- * Persons, Character and Morality (1976) - in Moral Luck (1981)
- * Moral Luck (1976) - in Moral Luck (1981)
[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
- On Hating and Despising Philosophy (1996) - in Essays and Reviews 1959-2002 (2014)
- * Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (2000) - in Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (2006)
- * Why Philosophy Needs History (2002) - in Essays and Reviews 1959-2002 (2014)
- What Philosophy Might Become (2006*) - in Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (2006)
Opera & Music
- Bernard Williams, On Opera (Yale University Press: 2006)
- Bernard Williams, Wagner & Politics [NYRB, November 2000]
- Moral (and Musical) Hazard by Martha C. Nussbaum, Review of ON OPERA and ESSAYS AND REVIEWS 1959-2002, by Bernard Williams
- Life in Tune, by Jerry Fodor [TLS - January 2007]
- Singing and Silence, review of On Opera by Patrick O'Connor [Literary Review ]
- Opera and the Limits of Philosophy: on Bernard Williams’s Music Criticism: Guy Dammann [British Journal of Aesthetics, 50.4 (2010): 469-479]
Reports & Political Contributions
- Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship - Wikipedia article
- Obscenity and Film Censorship: An Abridgement of the Williams Report, edited by Bernard Williams. (Cambridge University Press, 1979).
Major Conferences on Williams
- Themes from the Ethics of Bernard Williams, 30th June - 2nd July 2009; Leeds University.
- Ethics and the Place of Philosophy: The Legacy of Bernard Williams’s Critique, October 2011: University of Chicago
- The Moral and Political Legacy of Bernard Williams, Oxford University, April 21st-22nd, 2014.
- 30 Years of Bernard Williams’ Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Oxford University 3rd-5th July, 2015.
- Conference on Bernard Williams and the Ancients, -- Newnham College, Cambridge, 19th-20th September, 2016
- "Agency, Fate and Luck: Themes from Bernard Williams"; Lund University, Sweden. June 13-15th, 2019.
by David Levine NYRB