The Shaken Realist: Bernard Williams, the War, and Philosophy as Cultural Critique

European Journal of Philosophy 31 (1):226-247 (2022)
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Bernard Williams thought that philosophy should address real human concerns felt beyond academic philosophy. But what wider concerns are addressed by Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, a book he introduces as being ‘principally about how things are in moral philosophy’? In this article, we argue that Williams responded to the concerns of his day indirectly, refraining from explicitly claiming wider cultural relevance, but hinting at it in the pair of epigraphs that opens the main text. This was Williams’s solution to what he perceived as the stylistic problem of how to pursue philosophy as cultural critique. Taking the epigraphs as interpretative keys to the wider resonances of the book, we show how they reveal Williams’s philosophical concerns – with the primacy of character over method, the obligation to follow orders, and the possibility of combining truth, truthfulness, and a meaningful life in a disillusioned world – to be recognisably rooted in the cultural concerns of post-war Britain. In the light of its epigraphs, the book emerges as the critique of a philosophical tradition’s inadequacies to the special difficulties of its cultural moment.

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Matthieu Queloz
University of Bern


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