Introductory summary by Ted Honderich of Bernard Williams’s Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture
PHILOSOPHY AS A HUMANIST DISCIPLINE
Mainstream philosophy, as you have heard before now, can be taken to be a greater concentration than science's on the logic of ordinary intelligence: (i) clarity and in particular analysis, (ii) consistency and validity, (iii) completeness, and (iv) generality or summation -- usually with respect to large subjects, of which the largest are sometimes labelled reality, knowledge, and value. This philosophy, maybe you can also say, is thinking about facts as against science's getting of facts. But should this philosophy approximate more to science? If so, does it immediately become what falls under a pejorative term, scientism, an excessive or exclusive deference to science and its method?
The philosophical life of Sir Bernard Williams, which might have been still more fulfilled by being longer, began with Greats in Oxford, the undergraduate degree that begins with Homer and the ancient history of the Greeks and now may end with Williams among others. It was a brilliant start in life. Then followed thinking and teaching at All Souls College, University College London, Bedford College London, Cambridge where he was provost of King's College, the University of California at Berkeley, and Oxford again. This was also a life much of which was at least in touch, by way of his marriage, with a political class of conscience.
As a Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecturer, he finds in and advocates more in mainstream philosophy than you have heard. He allows necessarily that there is some philosophical work that is what he calls an extension of science, no doubt including not only the philosophy of science but also, say, kinds of philosophy of mind and language. But it is his principal line of thought that mainstream philosophy has been and must continue to be, or to be more of, a humanistic discipline. Its being humanistic is defined or spoken of as its being the attempt to make the best sense of our life, including our thinking. Its being a discipline is, as you have heard above in my other explicit words, its expressing things clearly and offering arguments, or, as he says, getting things right.
This philosophy does not and must not embrace scientism. It must not try to assimilate philosophy to the aims or the manners of the sciences -- the aim of philosophy but not science is indeed to make the best sense of our life. This first proposition is to be understood and defended, perhaps mainly, in terms of a second one, that science aspires to an absolute, objective or universal view of all that it concerns itself with. But -- a third proposition -- it is a mistake to think that an absolute conception of the world, in so far as that is possible, is all that matters, the only worthwhile endeavour. An absolute conception is not intrinsically superior to a conception from what is called a perspective, some point of view, a kind of locality.
As a result, a fourth and the main proposition of the lecture is that philosophy and more than philosophy must attend to history and to its own history. We cannot separate ourselves off from our history and the history of philosophy. That we must attend to our past is a necessity, at least in large part, because historiography is also a part of making sense of our existence. That we must attend to the history of philosophy is in good part the fact that without doing so we cannot in our progress understand the fullness of what we may be denying. We do not understand what we believe except by understanding what it is that we are disbelieving.
These main reflections of the lecture, together with instructive reprises and elaborations, one about what is called the vindicatory, another about what is unhintergehbar, basic in the sense of being beyond justification, come together with still other lines of reflection with which Williams was more engaged in his life, reflections on morality and moral philosophy. Although he does not himself attend to the matter in his lecture, there is at least a consonancy between his conception of philosophy as humanistic, his passionate recommendation with respect to it, and his conception of morality and of moral philosophy. For him it cannot be that morality is a matter of theories, of generalizations, of principles or a principle of what is right. It is instead is a matter of such considerations as personal integrity.
Look back over the lectures in this book. Can the conception of philosophy or maybe best philosophy as necessarily in a way historical be made consistent with the worth of these lectures? Is it true and enlightening that the difference of philosophy from science is that philosophy cannot aspire to objectivity? Can it be safe to eschew a general rule of what is right? Does it show misunderstanding to ask, if integrity is being true to oneself, having principles, being whole and undivided, whether Hitler could have had integrity?
Certainly neither Bernard, as I remember from his teaching of me, nor I, would hurry you into deferential agreement with any of that or with his lecture. You can look further into the questions by way of the wide range of his lovely books, reasonable in their confidence. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics; Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy; Moral Luck; Problems of the Self; Truth and Truthfulness. The present lecture is also reprinted in a posthumous collection of connected and supporting writings, also under the title Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline.