Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Williams and truthful imagination

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Teaching preparation and the increasingly urgent need to find a job now that I’m nearing the end of my PhD have been sucking up a lot of my time lately, but I’m determined to keep this reading project going nevertheless. Today, I’ve been reading Bernard William’s essay ‘Contemporary Philosophy: A Second Look’ from the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy. I’ve promised myself the treat (I need to get out more) of reading his essay ‘Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline’, but only when I’ve completed some more of my scheduled readings, so this is my substitute.

In his essay, Williams attacks the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy *, claiming that these labels are misleading, not least because contemporary western philosophy is not divided up by geographical areas.

When philosophers in the continental tradition speak of their research to me, I tend to find myself rapidly becoming lost and confused. Often, it sounds like they are engaging more in prose and language play, and grasping at some ephemeral feeling of profundity, rather than getting on with the serious business of uncovering truth or making things clearer. Sometimes I’m left wondering whether there’s some elaborate joke being played – wondering if continental philosophy is like a complex philosophical game of Mornington Crescent. If you spend a lot of time with students of analytic philosophy you will almost certainly hear more than occasional contemptuous remark being made about continental philosophy (I’ve made one or two of them myself to be honest). And if you look on the Web you’ll discover sites like these: and (read the blurb at the bottom of that page), and essays like Martha Nussbaum’s stinging attack on Judith Butler: William’s short discussion is a reminder to be wary of being overly dismissive. His message is that analytic philosophers should concentrate on what’s good about their tradition – such as ‘unfanatical truthfulness’ – but also draw more upon the imagination. Sober truthfulness is less powerful than truthfulness that sparks the imagination.

Williams goes on, in the proceeding section, to address questions of meta-ethics, such as whether we can make objective moral statements. He follows this up with a discussion on ethical theory – that is the practice of placing a moral outlook into some kind of theoretical structure – and he briefly discusses the familiar basic types of theories: consequentialist, virtue based, and deontological/rights based. Williams finishes with a section connecting morality, analytical philosophy, and politics together. There’s a short discussion of liberal contractualism (that is grounding political authority and obligations in some form of imagined contract) and some of its criticisms of it. This is the point where philosophy starts to have bite for me – it’s why I do it. The questions about facts and values are enormously interesting and profound, but it’s how we move from the meta-ethical questions to fitting them into a political theory that really fires me up, so I really enjoyed reading this bit.

As I come to the end of William’s essay I find myself reflecting on just how much he’s managed to convey in so few pages. Reading work of such clarity and expressive power is a joy that leaves one humbled and more than a little jealous. I’m also left thinking about imagination – a faculty that I’ve believed for some time is absolutely central to moral action. Maybe I’ll forgo some academic reading until I’ve read a good novel – some Coatzee perhaps.

*Yes, before you start jumping up and down in outrage, I know that’s a Wikipedia link. I confess that I quite like Wikipedia and I happen to admit that I think it’s a perfectly good place to get a broad overview of a topic, and a starting point for inquiry, so long as you’re a reasonably informed and discerning reader.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

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