Bernard Williams was one of the most important philosophers of the past fifty years, but he was also a distinguished critic and essayist with an elegant style and a rare ability to communicate complex ideas to a wide public. This is the first collection of Williams’s popular essays and reviews. Williams writes about a broad range of subjects, from philosophy to science, the humanities, economics, feminism, and pornography.

Included are reviews of major books such as John Rawls’s...

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Essays and Reviews: 1959-2002

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Bernard Williams was one of the most important philosophers of the past fifty years, but he was also a distinguished critic and essayist with an elegant style and a rare ability to communicate complex ideas to a wide public. This is the first collection of Williams’s popular essays and reviews. Williams writes about a broad range of subjects, from philosophy to science, the humanities, economics, feminism, and pornography.

Included are reviews of major books such as John Rawls’s Theory of Justice, Richard Rorty’s Consequences of Pragmatism, and Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire. But many of these essays extend beyond philosophy, providing an intellectual tour through the past half century, from C. S. Lewis to Noam Chomsky. No matter the subject, readers see a first-class mind grappling with landmark books in “real time,” before critical consensus had formed and ossified.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
From an early essay disdaining “obscure metaphysical writing” in favor of “more pragmatic and literal-minded… thinkers” to a late selection announcing that philosophy “wants to make things clear,” this career-spanning collection by Williams (1929–2003), author of Truth and Truthfulness, exhibits and demands discipline of mind, precision of thought, clarity of language, and practicability of concept. The selections weave through evolutionary biology, theology, linguistic theory, medical ethics, and social science toward Williams’s favored ground, political and moral philosophy, in search of principles by which we “might lead a worthwhile life.” Williams’s reviews evaluate his targets on argumentative method and “intellectual structure,” praising clarity and excoriating sophistry, faulty logic, untested assumptions, imprecise language, and “speculative history and creaky scholarship” with gentle irony or caustic glee. Emblematic of his own criteria of inquiry with exactitude, exuding intelligence and humanity, this collection, with a foreword by Michael Wood, is free of ideology, prejudice, and cant, and is imbued with an almost wistful hope that, from an ever-deepening cultural morass, philosophy might yet discover “plain truth,” helping its subjects understand “something of how we came to be where we are.” Beyond satisfying Williams’s fans, the volume argues eloquently for the necessity of philosophical reflection and examination. (Feb.)
From the Publisher

One of Flavorwire's 10 Best Books by Academic Publishers in 2014

"[A]ffords a different, and especially advantageous, perspective from which to consider the animating ideas of Williams's humanism."--Joel Isaac, Times Literary Supplement

"[A] stimulating read for anyone who cares about the condition of the world. With characteristic clarity, insight, and humor, the author tackles a wide range of topics as diverse as philosophy, religion, science, the humanities, and pornography."--Wan Lixin, Shanghai Daily

"This rigorous collection of essays and reviews reveals the brilliant and critical mind of Bernard Williams. . . . In these reviews and essays Williams achieves something that philosophy always promises but seldom delivers: a view from the perspective of reason, on a cultural landscape where reason is only one of the landmarks."--Roger Scruton, Telegraph

"Illuminating and instructive essays and reviews. This is a book which should inspire readers to go and read--or perhaps reread--Williams's other works . . ."--Alasdair Palmer, Standpoint

"The titles that Williams reviewed read from a who's who of late 20th century philosophy. His reviews of Rawls' Theory of Justice and Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia are relevant today, thirty years after they were written. . . . Reading short reviews of these classic philosophical volumes in such a clear, accessible tone is a great pleasure, and the editors of this volume should be congratulated for making them available in this format."--Robert Robinson, San Francisco Book Review

"[E]xtremely welcome collection . . . all of which show his punchy, interogative genius in full swing. . . . [B]rilliant essays . . ."--Seamus Perry, Literary Review

"[A]n excellent new collection. . . . The essays can be savored piecemeal but are more powerful in number. To flip through them is to flip through the past forty years of our intellectual history by way of its seminal texts."--Walker Mimms, New Criterion

"The work of forty-three busy years, the essays in this volume attest to both what analytic philosophy has to gain from the humanities, and what the humanities have to gain from philosophy. Entirely free of kitsch or easy comfort, they leave us with the cumulative impression of a lifetime of truthfulness prosecuted with wit, subtlety, and stylishness."--Nakul Krishna, Cambridge Humanities Review

"For anybody wishing to undertake philosophy as a humanistic discipline, this collection of essays is an excellent place to start. But it will take many years to get up to speed, and the task will never be finished. Not for the first time, I am left wishing that Williams, who died in 2003, could have had another decade to show what a lifetime of learning can achieve."--Paul Sagar, Oxonian Review

"Posthumously published essays and reviews often feel like stale leftovers, but Bernard Williams was such a good philosopher and writer that his remain fresh and delicious. This collection gives not only a marvelous record of intellectual milestones across 43 years, but also a sense of immediacy."--Jane O'Grady, Times Higher Education

"I cannot recommend this volume highly enough to anyone interested in what the humanities have to offer."--Constantine Sandis, Times Higher Education

"[A] showcase of the philosopher's distinctive acumen and wit."--Adam Ferner, Philosophers' Magazine

"Williams's literary and philosophical skills are well on display."--John Schwenkler, Commonweal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400848393
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 1/19/2014
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: Course Book
  • Pages: 456
  • Sales rank: 880,597
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Bernard Williams held Chairs of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge, Berkeley, and Oxford. He died in 2003.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Michael Wood xi
1 Plato Today, by R.H.S. Crossman, Spectator (1959) 3
2 English Philosophy since 1900, by G. J. Warnock, Philosophy (1959) 5
3 Thought and Action, by Stuart Hampshire, Encounter (1960) 8
4 The Theological Appearance of the Church of England: An External View, Prism (1960) 17
5 The Four Loves, by C. S. Lewis, Spectator (1960) 24
6 Discourse on Method, by René Descartes, translated by Arthur Wollaston, Spectator (1960) 26
7 The Individual Reason: L'esprit laïc, BBC Radio 3 talk, Listener (1961) 28
8 What Is Existentialism? BBC World Service talk broadcast in Vietnamese (1962) 35
9 Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, by Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Philip Mairet, Spectator (1962) 38
10 Sense and Sensibilia, by J. L. Austin, reconstructed by G. J. Warnock; Philosophical Papers, edited by J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock, Oxford Magazine (1962) 40
11 The Concept of a Person, by A. J. Ayer, New Statesman (1963) 45
12 Two Faces of Science, BBC Radio 3 talk in the series Personal View, Listener (1963) 48
13 The English Moralists, by Basil Willey, New York Review of Books (1965) 52
14 Universities: Protest, Reform and Revolution, Lecture in celebration of the foundation of Birkbeck College (1968) 55
15 Has 'God' a Meaning? Question (1968) 70
16 Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage, by A. J. Ayer (1971) 75
17 Immanuel Kant, by Lucien Goldmann, Cambridge Review (1972) 77
18 A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls, Spectator (1972) 82
19 Beyond Freedom and Dignity, by B. F. Skinner, Observer (1972) 87
20 What Computers Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason, by Hubert L. Dreyfus, New York Review of Books (1973) 90
21 Wisdom: Twelve Essays, edited by Renford Bambrough, Times Literary Supplement (1974) 101
22 The Socialist Idea, edited by Stuart Hampshire and L. Kolakowski, Observer (1975) 104
23 Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by Robert Nozick, Political Philosophy (1975) 107
24 The Ethics of Fetal Research, by Paul Ramsey, Times LiterarySupplement (1975) 115
25 The Moral View of Politics, BBC Radio 3 talk in the series Current Trends in Philosophy, Listener (1976) 119
26 The Life of Bertrand Russell, by Ronald W. Clark; The Tamarisk Tree: My Quest for Liberty and Love, by Dora Russell; My Father Bertrand Russell, by Katharine Tait; Bertrand Russell, by A. J. Ayer, New York Review of Books (1976) 125
27 Reflections on Language, by Noam Chomsky; On Noam Chomsky: Critical Essays, edited by Gilbert Harman, New York Review of Books (1976) 133
28 The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, New Scientist (1976) 140
29 The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, by Iris Murdoch, New Statesman (1977) 142
30 The Logic of Abortion, BBC Radio 3 talk, Listener (1977) 146
31 On Thinking, by Gilbert Ryle, edited by Konstantin Kolenda, London Review of Books (1979) 152
32 Rubbish Theory, by Michael Thompson, London Review of Books (1980) 157
33 Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, by Sissela Bok, Political Quarterly (1980) 161
34 Logic and Society and Ulysses and the Sirens, by Jon Elster, London Review of Books (1980) 165
35 The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch; Nihilism and Culture, by Johan Goudsblom, London Review of Books (1980) 169
36 Religion and Public Doctrine in England, by Maurice Cowling, London Review of Books (1981) 173
37 Nietzsche on Tragedy, by M. S. Silk and J. P. Stern; Nietzsche: A Critical Life, by Ronald Hayman; Nietzsche, vol. 1, The Will to Power as Art, by Martin Heidegger, translated by David Farrell Krell, London Review of Books (1981) 179
38 After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, by Alasdair MacIntyre, Sunday Times (1981) 184
39 Philosophical Explanations, by Robert Nozick, New York Review of Books (1982) 187
40 The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God, by J. L. Mackie, Times Literary Supplement (1983) 197
41 Offensive Literature: Decensorship in Britain, 1960–1982, by John Sutherland, London Review of Books (1983) 200
42 Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays 1972-1980), by Richard Rorty, New York Review of Books (1983) 204
43 The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, vol. I, Cambridge Essays 1888-99, edited by Kenneth Blackwell and others, Observer (1984) 216
44 Reasons and Persons, by Derek Parfit, London Review of Books (1984) 218
45 Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay, by Mary Midgley, Observer (1984) 224
46 Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, by Sissela Bok; The Secrets File: The Case for Freedom of Information in Britain Today, edited by Des Wilson, foreword by David Steel, London Review of Books (1984) 226
47 Choice and Consequence, by Thomas C. Schelling, Economics and Philosophy (1985) 231
48 Privacy: Studies in Social and Cultural History, by Barrington Moore, Jr., New York Review of Books (1985) 236
49 Ordinary Vices, by Judith Shklar; Immorality, by Ronald Milo, London Review of Books (1985) 241
50 The Right to Know: The Inside Story of the Belgrano Affair, by Clive Ponting; The Price of Freedom, by Judith Cook, Times Literary Supplement (1985) 246
51 Taking Sides: The Education of a Militant Mind, by Michael Harrington, New York Times Book Review (1986) 252
52 A Matter of Principle, by Ronald Dworkin (1986) 256
53 The View from Nowhere, by Thomas Nagel, London Review of Books (1986) 261
54 What Hope for the Humanities? Times Educational Supplement (1987) (edited version of the Raymond Priestley Lecture [1986]) 267
55 The Society of Mind, by Marvin Minsky, New York Review of Books (1987) 274
56 Whose Justice? Which Rationality? by Alasdair MacIntyre, London Review of Books (1989) 283
57 Intellectuals, by Paul Johnson, New York Review of Books (1989) 288
58 Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, by Richard Rorty, London Review of Books (1989) 295
59 Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, by Charles Taylor, New York Review of Books (1990) 301
60 The Need to Be Sceptical, Times Literary Supplement (1990) 311
61 The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, by Kenneth J. Gergen, New York Times Book Review (1991) 318
62 Realism with a Human Face, by Hilary Putnam, London Review of Books (1991) 320
63 Political Liberalism, by John Rawls, London Review of Books (1993) 326
64 Inequality Reexamined, by Amartya Sen, London Review of Books (1993) 332
65 The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, by Martha Nussbaum, London Review of Books (1994) 339
66 Only Words, by Catharine MacKinnon, London Review of Books (1994) 345
67 The Limits of Interpretation, by Umberto Eco; Interpretation and Overinterpretation, by Umberto Eco, with Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler, and Christine Brooke-Rose, edited by Stefan Collini; Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, by Umberto Eco; Apocalypse Postponed, by Umberto Eco, translated and edited by Robert Lumley; Misreadings, by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver; How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver, New York Review of Books (1995) 352
68 On Hating and Despising Philosophy, London Review of Books (1996) 363
69 The Last Word, by Thomas Nagel, New York Review of Books (1998) 371
70 Wagner and the Transcendence of Politics, New York Review of Books (2000) 388
71 Why Philosophy Needs History, London Review of Books (2002) 405
Acknowledgments 413
Acknowledgments to Copyright Holders 414
Index 415
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