4. Williams’s Left Wittgensteinianism
In: Making Sense of the Past: Bernard Williams and the History of Philosophy. Edited by Marcel van Ackeren and Matthieu Queloz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
What is Bernard Williams’s debt to Ludwig Wittgenstein? Williams’s well-known 1970s work on Wittgenstein and idealism primarily took the form of a critical engagement with Wittgensteinian ideas, and otherwise, Wittgenstein seemed largely absent from Williams’s work. But in the 1990s, Williams became more open about his debt to Wittgenstein: in a new introduction to Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy written for the French edition of the book in 1990, he highlighted the Wittgensteinian thread running through his magnum opus; and in an essay published in 1992, he calls for a ‘Left Wittgensteinianism’. In this chapter, I reconstruct Williams’s Left Wittgensteinianism, and argue that it is Williams’s most explicit elaboration of a broader, and broadly Wittgensteinian form of pragmatism that can be seen to inform a great deal of his work over the years, including already his first book, Morality. Recognizing this allows us to see that Williams’s Left Wittgensteinianism forms a unifying theme and an interpretative key to his work across several subdisciplines of philosophy, including the history of philosophy.
In: Historiography and the Formation of Philosophical Canons. Edited by Sandra Lapointe and Erich Reck. London: Routledge, forthcoming.
Pragmatic genealogies seek to explain ideas by regarding them, primarily, not as answers to philosophical questions, but as practical solutions to practical problems. Here I argue that pragmatic genealogies can inform the formation of philosophical canons. But the rationale for resorting to genealogy in this connection is not the familiar one that genealogy renders the concepts of the present intelligible by relating them to the concerns of the past—the claim is rather the reverse one, that genealogy renders the concepts of the past intelligible by relating them to the concerns of the present: past thinkers can be made to speak to us by revealing how their ideas tie in with our concerns, in the sense of helping us to remedy practical problems we still face in some form.
In: Morality and Agency: Themes from Bernard Williams. Edited by András Szigeti and Matthew Talbert, 182–209. New York: Oxford University Press. 2022.
Far from being indiscriminately critical of the ideas he associated with the morality system, Bernard Williams offered vindicatory explanations of its crucial building blocks, such as the moral/non-moral distinction, the idea of obligation, the voluntary/involuntary distinction, and the practice of blame. The rationale for these concessive moves, I argue, is that understanding what these ideas do for us when they are not in the service of the system is just as important to leading us out of the system as the critique of that system. I then show how regarding the aspiration to shelter life from luck as the system’s organizing ambition explains why the system elaborates and combines these building blocks in the way it does. Finally, I argue that the ultimate problem with the resulting construction is its frictionless purity. It robs valuable concepts of their grip on the world we live in, and, by insisting on purity from contingency, threatens to issue in nihilism about value and scepticism about agency.
In: Social Functions in Philosophy: Metaphysical, Normative, and Methodological Perspectives. Edited by Rebekka Hufendiek, Daniel James and Raphael van Riel, 200–218. London: Routledge, 2020.
There is an under-appreciated tradition of genealogical explanation that is centrally concerned with social functions. I shall refer to it as the tradition of pragmatic genealogy. It runs from David Hume and the early Friedrich Nietzsche through E. J. Craig to Bernard Williams and Miranda Fricker. These pragmatic genealogists start out with a description of an avowedly fictional “state of nature” and end up ascribing social functions to particular building blocks of our practices – such as the fact that we use a certain concept, or live by a certain virtue – which we did not necessarily expect to have such a function at all. That the seemingly archaic device of a fictional state-of-nature story should be a helpful way to get at the functions of our actual practices must seem a mystifying proposal, however; I shall therefore endeavor to demystify it in what follows. My aim in this chapter is twofold. First, by delineating the framework of pragmatic genealogy and contrasting it with superficially similar methods, I argue that pragmatic genealogies are best interpreted as dynamic models whose point is to reveal the function – and non-coincidentally often the social function – of certain practices. Second, by buttressing this framework with something it notably lacks, namely an account of the type of functionality it operates with, I argue that both the type of functional commitment and the depth of factual obligation incurred by a pragmatic genealogy depend on what we use the method for: the dynamic models of pragmatic genealogy can be used merely as heuristic devices helping us spot functional patterns, or more ambitiously as arguments grounding our ascriptions of functionality to actual practices, or even more ambitiously as bases for functional explanations of the resilience or the persistence of practices. By bringing these distinctions into view, we gain the ability to distinguish strengths and weaknesses of the method’s application from strengths and weaknesses of the method itself.