On the Differences between Philosophers

You probably all know this one already, but it bears repetition:

According to Bernard Williams:

“[Charles] Taylor and [Alasdair] MacIntyre are Catholic, and I am not; Taylor and I are liberals, and MacIntyre is not; MacIntyre and I are pessimists, and Taylor is not (not really)”

[World, Mind and Ethics, Altham & Harrson eds., p.222n19].

11 thoughts on “On the Differences between Philosophers”

  1. Compare:

    “All three of us [sc MacIntyre, Taylor and Williams], I could say, accept the significant role of Christianity in understanding modern moral consciousness, and adopt respectively the three possible views about how to move in relation to that: backward in it, forward in it, and out of it.” (Williams, ‘The Liberalism of Fear’, in In the Beginning was the Deed, 54)

    Clever, but perhaps he was too addicted to neat formulations.

  2. Sorry; I meant stylistically neat or cleverly put; a lot of the formulations seem right or plausible.

    I guess I’m complaining that he wrote too well.

  3. Nah, I was agreeing. Williams was too addicted to the neat formulation. A lot of the time, if you couldn’t put it pithily, he didn’t bother saying it, which meant that he got some things wrong and didn’t always fully explain what he meant when he seemed to be getting things right.

  4. Rob: Right. There’s a line somewhere in Ethics & the Limits (I don’t have it to hand) where he says something about how ethical principles (I think) should “hang together, like conspirators,” and I was torn between admiration and a thought along the lines of “you just couldn’t resist it, could you?” It’s a bit like Kingsley Amis’s complaint about his son’s writing, that he could never just finish a chapter with “They finished their drinks and left.”

    I had thought you were standing up for his opposition to the ‘neat formulations’ (in another sense) of Kantianism, utilitarianism, materialism etc; this I acknowledge.

  5. Who was it said being too clever by half is perhaps the ultimate English put-down?

    One reason Bernard Williams is not just another boring logic-chopper, surely, is his style.

  6. I remember reading somewhere (I think it was a profile of Williams in The Guardian when Truth and Truthfulness had just come out) that Iris Murdoch once suggested Williams write a play. It is tempting to go with the suggestion that his stylish emphasis on the particular had a great deal to do with his opposition to neat theories in moral philosophy. I agree with you, then, that this thought comes in somewhere, but I also think one should resist the notion that a refusal to be boring somehow equals a lack of philosophical commitment.

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