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that the question has no general answer, Craig notes that Williams attaches
importance to a particular kind of case in which a functional phenomenon
actually ceases being functional “ paradoxically “ in order to perform its
function. The virtue of truthfulness is, for Williams, an example of this
general pattern. It is generally bene¬cial, in functional terms, if the dis-
tribution of reliably accurate information is widespread (and Craig™s own
work identi¬ed knowledge as a means of ¬‚agging reliability in informants)
but this signally fails to translate into a motivation for everyone to tell the
truth. So the virtue of truthfulness develops into an intrinsic value, so that

people tell the truth without referring to the general story about the general
bene¬ts of truthfulness. An account like this can neither be wholly function-
alist, ignoring the role played by the development of an intrinsic value, nor
wholly concerned with intrinsic status alone. It is characteristic of genealo-
gies of the kind that both Craig and Williams have developed that these
two aspects of a practice receive a single, distinctive style of genealogical
I have been struck, in rereading the essays commissioned for this vol-
ume, how they have without any editorial intervention naturally come to
circle around certain key themes in Williams™ late work on moral philoso-
phy. The work of the various contributors takes Williams very seriously in
a way that goes beyond ready dismissals of his alleged Humeanism, instru-
mentalism, external realism, scepticism, or “merely negative” criticisms of
the work of others. The result is to take the engagement with Williams™
work to a new level of sophistication. Only time will tell if Williams™ work
will prove to be of enduring value, particularly given the extent to which
people were impressed by his work because they were impressed by him,
not simply his obvious cleverness and quick wit but also by his underly-
ing moral seriousness and commitment to scholarship.65 The early signs,
represented by the quality of work produced by the contributors to this vol-
ume, are certainly promising. I am very grateful to them all for collectively
producing such an appropriate tribute to a remarkable philosopher.66

London, 2006


Adkins, Arthur (1960). Merit and Responsibility. A Study in Greek Values (Oxford:
Oxford University Press).
Altham, J. E. J. and Harrison, T. R. (eds.), (1995). World, Mind and Ethics: Essays on
the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
McDowell, John (2001). Mind, Value and Reality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press).

65 In what proved to be his last interview, Williams strikingly stated that, “Another person
who had one kind of in¬‚uence on me . . . was Elizabeth Anscombe. One thing that she
did, which she got from Wittgenstein, was that she impressed upon me that being clever
wasn™t enough. . . . Elizabeth conveyed a strong sense of the seriousness of the subject, and
how the subject was dif¬cult in ways that simply being clever wasn™t going to get around,”
Voorhoeve (2004), p. 82; see also Williams (1995c), p. 220, n. 1.
66 I am grateful for helpful comments on drafts of this introduction to Kathryn Brown and to
Edward Harcourt.
22 Alan Thomas

Chappell, Timothy (Spring 2006 Edition). “Bernard Williams,” in Edward N. Zalta
(ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/
Cottingham, John (1991). “The Ethics of Self-Concern,” Ethics, 101, pp. 798“817.
Craig, Edward (1990). Knowledge and the State of Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Cullity, Garrett (2005). “Williams, Bernard, 1929“2003,” Dictionary of Twentieth
Century Philosophers (London: Thoemmes Continuum).
Geuss, Raymond (2005). “Thucydides, Nietzsche and Williams,” Outside Ethics
(Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press), pp. 219“233.
Gewirth, Alan (1977). Reason and Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Jenkins, Mark (2006). Bernard Williams (Chesham: Acumen Press).
Kant, Immanuel (1784/2007a). “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan
Point of View,” in Immanuel Kant (forthcoming, 2007b).
Kant, Immanuel (forthcoming, 2007b). Anthropology, History and Education, trans.
¨ ¨
and ed. Robert B. Louden and Gunter Zoller (New York: Cambridge University
Louden, Robert B. (1992). Morality and Moral Theory: A Reappraisal and Reaf¬rmation
(New York: Oxford University Press).
Millgram, Elijah (1996). “Williams™ Argument against External Reasons,” Nous,
30/2 (June), pp. 197“220.
Moore, Adrian (1997). Points of View (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Moore, Adrian (2003). Noble in Reason, In¬nite in Faculty (London: Routledge).
Moore, Adrian (2005). “Maxims and Thick Ethical Concepts,” Proceedings and
Addresses of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association, 78/4
Nagel, Thomas (1970). The Possibility of Altruism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Snell, Bruno (1953). Die Entdeckung des Geistes (Hamburg 1948), trans. T. G.
Rosenmeyer, as The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature (New
York: Dover).
Stratton-Lake, Philip (2000). Kant, Duty and Moral Worth, (London: Routledge).
Taylor, Charles (1995). “A Most Peculiar Institution,” in Altham and Harrison,
(1995), pp. 132“155.
Thomas, Alan (2005a). “Maxims and Thick Concepts: Reply to Moore,” pre-
sented to the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association. Available at
Thomas, Alan (2005b). “Reasonable Partiality and the Agent™s Personal Point of
View,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol. 8, Nos. 1“2, April, pp. 25“43.
Thomas, Alan (2006). Value and Context: The Nature of Moral and Political Knowledge
(Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Voorhoeve, Alex (2004). “A Mistrustful Animal: An Interview with Bernard
Williams,” Harvard Review of Philosophy, Vol. XII, pp. 81“92.
Wiggins, David (2000). Needs, Values, Truth, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell).

Williams, Bernard (1981a). “Internal and External Reasons,” Moral Luck,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 101“113.
Williams, Bernard (1981b). “Wittgenstein and Idealism,” Moral Luck, (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 144“163.
Williams, Bernard (1981c). “Philosophy,” in Moses Finley (ed.), The Legacy of Greece:
A New Appraisal (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 202“255.
Williams, Bernard (1985). Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana).
Williams, Bernard (1986). “Reply to Blackburn,” Philosophical Books, 27/4 (October,
1986), 203“208.
Williams, Bernard (1990). “The Need to Be Sceptical,” The Times Literary Supple-
ment (February 16“22), 163“164.
Williams, Bernard (1995a). “How Free Does the Will Need to Be?,” Making Sense
of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 3“21.
Williams, Bernard (1995b). “Nietzsche™s Minimalist Moral Psychology,” Making
Sense of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 65“76.
Williams, Bernard (1995c). “Replies,” in Altham and Harrison (1995), pp. 185“224.
Williams, Bernard (2006a). “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline,” in A. W.
Moore (ed.), Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Uni-
versity Press), pp. 180“199.
Williams, Bernard (2006b). “What Might Philosophy Become?,” in A. W. Moore
(ed.), Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press), pp. 200“213.
Williams, Michael (1991). Unnatural Doubts: Epistemological Realism and the Basis of
Scepticism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers).
1 Realism and the Absolute Conception


It is often said that Bernard Williams opposes ethical realism. And so he
does.1 But what does this mean? The term “realism” has a notorious and
bewildering variety of uses. What does Williams oppose? The ¬rst and
most basic thing that needs to be emphasized is that what he opposes is just
what its name implies: realism about ethics. This highlights something that is
becoming increasingly standard in philosophical uses of the term “realism,”
namely, its relativization to a subject matter. Granted such relativization,
a realist about history may or may not be a realist about mathematics, say.
Indeed, we shall see in due course that Williams™ opposition to realism
about ethics is to be understood precisely in contrast with his acceptance
of realism about science.
But here already there is a complication. For the term “realism” is also
sometimes used without relativization. We sometimes hear it said of a given
philosopher that he or she is a realist tout court. More to the point, we
sometimes hear it said of Williams. Moreover, I think this is an appropriate
thing to say of him, properly understood. I also think it is an appropriate
point of leverage in the attempt to understand his position.
Williams™ realism “ tout court “ receives famous and memorable expres-
sion in his book on Descartes, where he writes, “Knowledge is of what is
there anyway.”2 This is his summary way of putting what he describes in
the previous sentence as “a very basic thought,” namely
that if knowledge is what it claims to be, then it is knowledge of a reality
which exists independently of that knowledge, and indeed (except in the
special case where the reality known happens itself to be some psychological
item) independently of any thought or experience.3

1 For an early indication of this opposition, see Williams (1973). For later dissatisfaction with
the early way of putting it, see Williams (1996), p. 19.
2 Williams (1978), p. 64, his emphasis.
3 Ibid.

Realism and the Absolute Conception

This is a basic realism which is not itself tied to any particular subject
Grafted on to this unquali¬ed realism is the distinction that most con-
cerns Williams, a distinction between different ways of explaining how we
come by the knowledge we have. It is this that underlies the contrast he
wants to draw between science and ethics. The idea is not that we do not
have ethical knowledge.5 Nor is the idea that the ethical knowledge we do
have is not “what it claims to be” and so lies outside the ambit of his unqual-
i¬ed realism.6 The idea is rather that the best re¬‚ective explanation of our
having the ethical knowledge we have, unlike the best re¬‚ective explanation
of our having the scienti¬c knowledge we have, cannot directly vindicate
that knowledge: it cannot directly reveal us as having got anything right.7
The position that motivates this idea is roughly as follows. We (human
beings) not only inhabit a reality that is there anyway. We also inhabit dif-
ferent social worlds that we have created for ourselves. Part of what it is
to inhabit a particular social world is to operate with a particular set of
what Williams calls “thick” ethical concepts. By a “thick” ethical concept
Williams means a concept whose applicability is both “action-guiding” and
“world-guided.” Examples are the concepts of in¬delity, blasphemy, and
racism. To apply a thick ethical concept in a given situation, for example to
accuse someone of in¬delity, is, in part, to evaluate the situation, which char-
acteristically means providing reasons for doing certain things; but it is also
to make a judgment that is subject to correction if the situation turns out not
to be a certain way, for example, if it turns out that the person who has been

4 Of course, it immediately suggests at least one thing that could reasonably be meant by
realism about any given subject matter, namely, the view that that subject matter admits of
knowledge. But in itself, Williams™ realism is neutral with respect to any such view. This may
make it seem rather anodyne. However, it is by no means so anodyne that no philosopher
has seen ¬t to reject it. Many notable philosophers have marshalled many notable arguments
against any such realism, in some cases with a view simply to denying it, in other cases with
a view, more radically, to repudiating the very concepts in whose terms it is couched. I shall
present an example of the latter in §4. (For further examples, and for further discussion, see
Moore [1997a], ch. 5, §8 and ch. 6.) For my own part, I think Williams™ realism is no more
than the intuitive deliverance of re¬‚ective common sense. I shall have more to say about
this too.
5 See n. 4: the denial that we have ethical knowledge is certainly one thing that could be
intended by the rejection of ethical realism, particularly when it takes the form of a denial
that talk of ethical knowledge so much as makes sense. But that is not what Williams intends.
6 Or at least “ as I have tried to argue in Moore (2003), pp. 347“348 “ the idea had better not
be that. That had better not be part of what he is getting at in his repeated insistence that
˜ethical thought has no chance of being everything it seems™ (e.g. Williams [1985], pp. 135
and 199). If that were part of what he is getting at, then other doctrines of his, including
doctrines that we shall be examining later, would be severely compromised.
7 See esp. Williams (1985), ch. 8. See also Williams (1995a), and Williams (1995b), pp. 205“
26 A. W. Moore

accused of in¬delity did not in fact go back on any relevant agreement. In
favourable circumstances, a judgment involving a thick ethical concept can
be immune to any such correction and can count as an item of ethical knowl-
edge.8 Now the social worlds that we inhabit admit of incompatible rivals
in which quite different thick ethical concepts are exercised. Although we
need to inhabit some social world, there is no one social world that we need
to inhabit. A good re¬‚ective explanation for someone™s having a given item
of ethical knowledge must therefore include an account of their inhabiting
a social world that allows them to have it. This explanation may draw ele-
ments from history, psychology, and/or anthropology. 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. A good re¬‚ective explana-
tion for someone™s having a given item of scienti¬c knowledge can make
use of the very concepts exercised in the knowledge, and so can straightfor-
wardly and directly vindicate the knowledge, by revealing that the person
has come by the knowledge as a result of being suitably sensitive to how
things are. Thus Williams™ realism about science, but not about ethics.
Here is another way to characterize the position. Inhabiting a social
world means having a certain point of view. Ethical knowledge is knowledge
from such a point of view. What prevents a good re¬‚ective explanation of
someone™s having such knowledge from directly vindicating it is the fact
that the explanation must include an account of how they have the relevant
point of view (where this does not itself consist in their knowing anything).
By contrast, there can be scienti¬c knowledge that is not from any point
of view. A good re¬‚ective explanation of someone™s having such scienti¬c
knowledge need not involve the same kind of indirection.
This position invites countless questions, of course. For instance, what
are the criteria for a “good” re¬‚ective explanation? Or for a “direct” vindi-
cation of an item of knowledge? But one question that has troubled critics as
much as any concerns the science side of Williams™ ethics/science contrast.
What reason is there for thinking that there can be scienti¬c knowledge
that is not from any point of view?
Williams™ own reason for thinking this, familiarly, is grounded in the
unquali¬ed realism that forms the basis of his position.9 Taking that realism
as a premise, he argues for the possibility of what he calls “the absolute

8 Williams (1985), pp. 140“148.
9 We shall see later (§3) that “basis” is a somewhat inappropriate metaphor here. For now, we
can let it pass.
Realism and the Absolute Conception


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