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about a society of “hypertraditionalists.” We could simply ¬x ideas by stipulating that
a hypertraditional society is a society, such that this thought is unavailable. That would
make the thought experiment, to borrow the very useful formulation of Williams, (1981),
a description of an alternative “for us,” not “to us.” We cannot be hypertraditionalists,
but we can imagine ourselves in a position very similar to theirs, but one that does permit
that re¬‚ection could emerge in our position in a way that destabilizes some of our ethical
practices. I am grateful to Adrian Moore for pressing me to clarify this point.
The Nonobjectivist Critique of Moral Knowledge

more sophisticated than their predecessors. Expressivists or projectivists
in recent meta-ethics such as Allan Gibbard and Simon Blackburn have
developed ingenious analyses of the underlying structure that they believe
underpins the super¬cially assertoric form of ethical utterances.17 They do
so in order to continue to develop the argument that ethical judgments are,
in their primary dimension of assessment, noncognitive. But what room in
dialectical space is there to deny this view, as Williams and the secondary
property realists do, and then go on to deny the truth of secondary property
realism, as Williams does and Wiggins and McDowell do not? However that
question is to be answered, it is clearly both posed and answered at a level
of sophistication beyond that of contrasting the “subjectivity” of the ethical
with the “objectivity” of the scienti¬c. However, Williams™ internal realist
critics, such as Jane Heal, McDowell, Hilary Putnam, and Warren Quinn
believe that they can trace the vestigial in¬‚uence of this crude dichotomy
within Williams™ overall strategy.18
This group of critics, mostly representative in different ways of a con-
trasting “internally realist” approach to the problem of whether any area of
our thought and language can be construed as objective, viewed Williams
as a stereotypical example of an “external realist.” Brie¬‚y, an internal realist
thinks that our aspiration objectively to represent the world is signi¬cantly
limited by our contingent and ¬nite powers and any objectivity to which
humans can aspire can go no further than our currently accepted theories
of what there is. She also represents external realism as mistakenly aspiring
to something more: a conception of the world that directly imprints itself
on us, shaping our concepts and judgments and furthermore requiring an
algorithmic view of scienti¬c rationality, in which we can see the develop-
ment of modern science as powered by the discovery of a set of rational
methods that approach, ideally, the status of a mechanical, algorithmic pro-
cess. Williams has commented on how unfair he took this stereotypical
representation of his view to be and de¬‚ecting this line of criticism goes
beyond the scope of the present discussion.19 I mention it in order to intro-
duce Moore™s suspicion, well expressed in his contribution to this volume,
that this misunderstanding is a serious obstacle to understanding the way
in which Williams conceives of ethical objectivity in particular.

17 Blackburn (1984) and Blackburn (1993) express similar positions, but Blackburn (1999)
offers a strikingly different strategy as discussed in Thomas (2006), ch. 5. See also Gibbard
18 For representative discussions, see McDowell (1986); Heal (1989); Putnam (1992); Quinn
19 Williams, (1991), (1995b). I discuss the issue at length in Thomas (2006), ch. six.
52 Alan Thomas


The essential piece of stage-setting for understanding Williams™ nonobjec-
tivist view of the ethical is Moore™s argument that Williams™ internal realist
critics have his position precisely back to front.20 Williams does not ¬t the
stereotype of an external realist who, in the light of a scientistic prejudice
in favour of scienti¬c objectivity, proceeds to downgrade the credentials of
moral knowledge. It is, rather, that given Williams™ understanding of the
point of scienti¬c enquiry, which is to develop representations of the world
maximally independent of our perspective and its peculiarities, science has
a different aim from that of ethical enquiry that must be concerned with
the local and the peculiar and mention some of those capacities distinctive
of our human point of view.21 However, in explaining what an absolute
conception of the world amounts to, Williams™ basic argument assigns an
important role to absolute representations being representations of a uni-
tary reality. However, social science is a part of science too, and its aim is
to explain the plurality within unity that must inevitably emerge when we
accept that the point of ethical thinking is such that it will inevitably use
perspectival representations. Its proprietary concepts will typically receive
a scienti¬c explanation in the form of a social scienti¬c explanation.22 A
social scienti¬c perspective on the ethical itself seems to bring in a different
notion of unity from that applicable to, for example, physics. A social scien-
ti¬c understanding of the ethical views it primarily as a functional means of
structuring a given social world and such unity as there is in ethical thinking
would be a derived, not basic, means of understanding this function.
In summary, Moore contrasts in his contribution to this volume direct
and indirect vindications of representations.23 Ideally, a scienti¬c explanation
of the world uses representations that are capable of indirect vindication
by their integration into a unitary and substantial conception of the world.
However, in the case of social scienti¬c explanations the representations
involved re¬‚ect the distinctive interests and concerns represented by their
being representations from a particular point of view. The point of view
concerned is the idea of an individuable social world. Moore interprets
Williams™ position in the light of these assumptions: Williams™ cognitivism
is certainly correct as there can be responsibly deployed judgments using

20 Moore, this volume, developing further some of the arguments of Moore (1997).
21 Most clearly explained in Williams (1991).
22 Williams™ discussion of the “ethnographic stance” in Williams (1986) brought this point
out very clearly.
23 Developing the arguments of Williams (1985), pp. 167“173.
The Nonobjectivist Critique of Moral Knowledge

thick ethical concepts that are indeed knowledge. However, there is an
inherent limitation of these claims to a presupposed set of such concepts,
which are in turn used in some social worlds as opposed to others. In the
case of scienti¬c representations of the world, this presupposed element can
always be discounted as the representations are all absolute. But in ethics
our situation is different:
A good re¬‚ective explanation for someone™s having a given item of ethical
knowledge must therefore include an explanation for their inhabiting a
social world that allows them to have it. . . . But it cannot itself make use
of any of the thick ethical concepts exercised in the knowledge, because it
must be from a vantage-point of re¬‚ection outside their social world. This
means that it cannot directly vindicate the knowledge. This contrasts with
the case of scienti¬c knowledge.24

Given that there are, and have been throughout history, a plurality of sets of
social worlds in any reasonable sense in which social scienti¬c explanation
would ¬nd a use for that explanatory concept, then direct vindication forms
no appropriate ideal for ethical representations. Such a directly vindicatory
explanation would reuse the very concepts deployed in the original judg-
ment, but a social scienti¬c explanation is going to have to stand at one
remove from the concepts that it explains as the question automatically
arises as to why the explanandum involves those concepts as opposed to others.
I think this focus on explanation and its relation to different ideals of
objectivity helps to answer the question of why Williams took himself to
be in a position to deny the truth of expressivism by appealing to thick
ethical concepts, while not being in his terms an “objectivist.” He succinctly
explained why in the following passage, using the term “centralism” to
refer to the idea that very thin ethical concepts such as right and good are
explanatorily prior to thick concepts (whereas “non-centralism,” the view
of Wiggins and McDowell, asserts the opposite):
Centralism is a doctrine about language or linguistic practice, and there is
no reason at all to think that people could substitute for a linguistic prac-
tice the terms in which that practice was psychologically or sociologically

Williams™ position allows that an interpreter of a group using a diver-
gent set of thick ethical concepts could, to use Moore™s helpful phrase,

24 Moore, this volume.
25 Williams (1995a), p. 187. The terminology of “centralism” versus “noncentralism” is that
of Hurley (1992).
54 Alan Thomas

“carve out a chunk of the same logical space” as the group interpreted,
which, as Moore notes, is not the same as “carving out the same chunk of
logical space.”26 Thus a social scienti¬c explanation of the use of highly
perspectival concepts is possible, where such concepts are interpreted both
as classifying and as giving rise to defeasible reasons for action. (In the
latter case, to explain the interpreted group™s defeasible reasons is not to
endorse them from the interpreter™s perspective.) That which Williams did
not envisage is the simple conjunction of these two sets of results into a
projectivist “analysis” of a thick ethical concept in any meaningful sense of
“analysis.” This would be, putatively, an analysis of the original grasp of the
concept on the part of the thick concept user. Projectivism would not, in
Williams™ view, be redeemed by two independent facts: First, that from a
social scienti¬c perspective such concept use has an explanation and that the
user of a thick concept can be construed as classifying from the same broad
range of classi¬cations as the interpreter (even if not using exactly the same
classi¬cations). Second, that the concept users can be interpreted as hav-
ing certain defeasible reasons arising from such a classi¬cation. These two
facts could not be conjoined in a plausible explanation of what it was for the
interpreted group to grasp the original concept, such that the explanation
was one that concept users themselves could grasp. Hence Williams™ verdict:
neither projectivism nor expressivism meet their own demanding standards
for a satisfactory analysis. In that sense, the argument from thick concepts
continues to have a point, in spite of the failure of objectivism to defend its
ambitious way of modeling social practices that use such concepts. There
thus emerges a distinctive way, a nonobjectivist way, of resisting the views
of both the projectivist/expressivist and the secondary property realist.


Moore has certainly afforded us a sympathetic reconstruction of the overall
strategy of Williams™ nonobjectivist position. In this section I will put a
little more detail into the picture of precisely why Williams rejected sec-
ondary property realism, or “objectivism.” Given his sympathy in his later
work towards minimalism about truth, the focus of the dispute between
Williams and objectivism is not whether or not ethical judgments can be
true; given his concession that perspectival concepts can ¬gure in knowl-
edge claims the issue is not whether or not there can be moral knowledge.27

26 Moore, this volume.
27 Williams (1985), p. 139.
The Nonobjectivist Critique of Moral Knowledge

The issue for Williams is that the secondary property realists™ position is, in
a precise sense, super¬cial.28 In terms of presentation, the primary argument
against objectivism in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy contrasts two ways
of explaining knowledge: objectivism is convicted of believing that ethical
knowledge is anchored, at the re¬‚ective level, by considerations that stabi-
lize the knowledge involved in just the same way that scienti¬c truth anchors
belief. It is this claim of strict parity that Williams believes is false. (How-
ever, I believe that Moore has helpfully shown how this argument about
explanation can be motivated at a more fundamental level by consideration
of that which absolute and nonabsolute representations aim to achieve.)
In the background to the arguments of Ethics and the Limits of Philoso-
phy is Williams™ long-standing suspicion of some of the claims in the later
Wittgenstein on which Wiggins and McDowell based their arguments. In
particular, as I have noted, Williams always believed that thick ethical con-
cepts placed special demands on social explanation and that is because of
a crucial ambiguity in how one understands the idea of grasping a concept
from “the inside” so that one comes to “share” it with its users.
The argument from thick concepts is that any attempt to grasp the
extension of an evaluative concept independently of grasp of its evaluative
point fails. Put so baldly, this does seem like an argument that applies to
all concepts in a way that raises no special issue in the case of ethical con-
cepts. However, I do think to understand both the argument and Williams™
concern about it, the focus needs to fall on what it is, in the case of an eval-
uative concept, for a person explaining the judgment using the concept and
the practices in which both are embedded to “share” its evaluative interest.
This account presupposes two perspectives: that of the original users of the
concept and that of a person giving an explanation, presumably a social sci-
enti¬c explanation, of that concept and its place in a network of judgments
and practices. Williams believes that, just as in other cases in Wittgenstein™s
later work, there is a systematic ambiguity in this idea of sharing a concept.
To share a concept can either involve total identi¬cation with its users or it
can mean taking up a stance toward use of the concept that is “sympathetic
but nonidenti¬ed.” (Williams called the latter the “ethnographic stance.”)29
It is the stance typical of a social scientist explaining the use of an evaluative
concept from within a social world with which the social scientist is sympa-
thetic, to allow her to “pick up” the point of the concept within a practice,
but with which she is not totally identi¬ed “ it is not her concept and not

28 Williams (1985), pp. 146“148.
29 Williams (1986).
56 Alan Thomas

her practice, not, at least, in her role as a social scientist. Furthermore, use
of the concepts in judgments gives rise to defeasible reasons, and the social
scientist may certainly refuse to draw the relevant practical consequences
from an understanding of local practices using a thick ethical concept.
Williams agrees with the secondary property realist, then, that there
is something special about evaluative concepts and the interests under-
pinning them; without sympathetic identi¬cation with the concept users
one lacks insight into the two dimensions of supplying world guided judg-
ments and defeasible reasons for action in a single judgment. Without such
insight, however, the aims of a social explanation of a practice in which
those concepts were used in judgments would be frustrated. (I take it this
explains the distinctive feature of evaluative concepts. It is not true that those
sympathetic to Wittgenstein have to see him as recommending a form of
operationalism about all concepts, such that their use would always supply
defeasible practical reasons, a claim extended even to theoretical concepts
far removed from the periphery of experience.)30 However, sympathetic
identi¬cation with an ethical practice is not total identi¬cation: in order to
explain a group of concept users the social scientist does not have to become
an “inside member” of the group that would, once again, frustrate the aims
of social scienti¬c explanation. An “in-group” explanation of the practice is
not an explanation in the relevant sense.
In the case of some Wittgensteinian re¬‚ections on our conceptual prac-
tices Williams is happy to resolve the oscillation he identi¬ed between
what one might call an “empirical” and a “transcendental” reading of such
re¬‚ections in favour of the latter.31 As he points out, if Wittgenstein is right
there is no contrast between internal and external realism as there is no
“inside.” To use a formulation from his early paper “Wittgenstein and Ide-
alism,” some of Wittgenstein™s thought experiments about strange groups
with equally strange conceptual practices have to be viewed not as alterna-
tives “to us,” alternative spaces within the empirical world, but alternatives
“for us.”32 They point out the limits of intelligibility by enacting failures
of sense as one approaches a limit that can only be mapped from here.

30 Moore (2005), explains as follows: “Practical reasoning, on this reconstruction, includes
a pure element: keeping faith with concepts. Theoretical reasoning also includes keeping
faith with concepts. What makes it possible for keeping faith with concepts to have a
practical dimension as well as its more familiar theoretical dimension is, ultimately, the fact


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