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Jon Elster’s Brisk Meditations

Bernard Williams, 1 May 1980

Logic and Society 
by Jon Elster.
Wiley, 244 pp., £12.65, March 1978, 0 471 99549 5
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Ulysses and the Sirens 
by Jon Elster.
Cambridge/Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 240 pp., £9.75, May 1979, 0 521 22388 1
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... There are some pieces of logical or theoretical jargon which are marks of ideological allegiance – intellectual windsocks to display which way the wind is blowing the author. While linguistic philosophers, at least of the older sort, ‘analyse’ some intellectual object, structuralists and their neighbours ‘deconstruct’ it. For Marxists, a set of interrelated problems is usually ‘problematic’; and what gives rise to their problematic, is involved in it, and needs to be overcome, is, standardly, ‘a contradiction’, where that is not something in their or someone else’s discourse, but an objective state of the world ...

Pornography and Feminism

Bernard Williams, 17 March 1983

... John Sutherland has produced ‘a calendar following a series of events (mostly trials) from 1960 to the present day’, which deals briefly and brightly with obscenity cases from Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill to The Romans in Britain.* The aim is to investigate changes in public attitudes to ‘offensive literature’. It is a lively survey, but is not the useful history of that process which might be written ...

Letting it get out

Bernard Williams, 18 October 1984

Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation 
by Sissela Bok.
Oxford, 332 pp., £12.95, March 1984, 0 19 217733 8
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TheSecrets File: The Case for Freedom of Information in Britain Today 
edited by Des Wilson, foreword by David Steel.
Heinemann, 166 pp., £4.95, September 1984, 9780435839390
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... It is often said that the British are obsessively interested in secrecy. It is less often said how deep and peculiar this obsession is, and how much more there is to it than the well-known fact that British authorities are exceptionally secretive. Our interest is in secrecy as much as in secrets: it is the process, the practices and irregularities of keeping and revealing secrets, that concerns us ...

Knocking Through

Bernard Williams, 6 March 1980

Rubbish Theory 
by Michael Thompson.
Oxford, 229 pp., £7.50, July 1979, 0 19 217658 7
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... The author of this book was once a builder, working particularly for the ‘knockers through’, as he calls them, who turn two rooms into one in terrace houses and make other well-known changes to convert a collapsing slum into a thing of pride and a joy for ever. Thompson’s sharp descriptions of these operations, and of the contrasts between the attitudes of those who own these gentrified residences and their working-class neighbours, who regard few of their possessions as things of pride or joy, and certainly not for ever, offer some of the few enjoyable passages in the book ...

Modern Discontent

Bernard Williams, 17 July 1980

The Culture of Narcissism 
by Christopher Lasch.
Norton, 288 pp., £6.95, February 1980, 0 393 01177 1
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Nihilism and Culture 
by Johan Goudsblom.
Blackwell, 213 pp., £15, May 1980, 9780631195702
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... All around him in American society Lasch sees intellectual and moral feebleness, cultural decay, despair and inner rage. There is no personal love, only a snatching at gratification, or domestic skirmishes in the war of all against all. There is no politics, only manipulation; no radical protest, only street theatre; no education, only organised illiteracy ...

Consequences

Bernard Williams, 17 April 1986

A Matter of Principle 
by Ronald Dworkin.
Harvard, 425 pp., £19.95, May 1985, 0 674 55460 4
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... The criticism is very detailed, but it has a central target, which Dworkin calls the ‘Williams strategy’ – that of considering primarily whether laws directed against pornography are likely to curb any harm which it is the business of the law to curb. Against this strategy, which thinks in terms of consequences, Dworkin urges an argument in ...

How shall we sing the Lord’s song?

Bernard Williams, 2 April 1981

Religion and Public Doctrine in England 
by Maurice Cowling.
Cambridge, 475 pp., £20, December 1980, 0 521 23289 9
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... This peculiar book belongs to a series called ‘Cambridge Studies in the History and Theory of Polities’, but one should not be misled by the name either of the series or of the book: there is very little about the history of politics and nothing about its theory, and not much direct light is thrown on the subject of the title. Cambridge, however, it very much is ...

Nietzsche’s Centaur

Bernard Williams, 4 June 1981

Nietzsche on Tragedy 
by M.S. Silk and J.P. Stern.
Cambridge, 441 pp., £27.50, March 1981, 0 521 23262 7
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Nietzsche: A Critical Life 
by Ronald Hayman.
Weidenfeld, 424 pp., £18.50, March 1980, 0 297 77636 3
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Nietzsche. Vol. 1: The Will to Power as Art 
by Martin Heidegger, translated by David Farrell Krell.
Routledge, 263 pp., £11.50, March 1981, 0 7100 0744 2
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... Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was published in 1872, when he was 27, and while he was a Professor of Classics at Basel. It had the unusual effect, for him, of attracting some attention at the time of its appearance: after that, Nietzsche’s writings virtually ceased to be noticed until the 1890s, by which time he was, for the last 11 years of his life, insane, virtually without speech, and out of touch with the world ...

Ryle Remembered

Bernard Williams, 22 November 1979

On Thinking 
by Gilbert Ryle, edited by Konstantin Kolenda.
Blackwell, 160 pp., £7.95
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... Gilbert Ryle, who died in 1976, was for many years a professor of philosophy in Oxford. He was a man of genially military appearance, with a knobbly, cubic head; rather soldierly in speech and manner, he punctuated his sentences with an abrupt half-cough, highly characteristic of him and much imitated. He was an exceptionally nice man, friendly, generous, uncondescending, unpretentious, and, for a well-known professional philosopher, startlingly free from vanity ...

Resisting the avalanche

Bernard Williams, 6 June 1985

Ordinary Vices 
by Judith Shklar.
Harvard, 168 pp., £14.95, October 1984, 0 674 64175 2
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Immorality 
by Ronald Milo.
Princeton, 273 pp., £24.70, September 1984, 0 691 06614 0
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... Judith Shklar’s Ordinary Vices is a wise, clever, thoughtful book about the danger and the value of various personal vices – cruelty, hypocrisy, snobbery and others. Professor Shklar asks how important they are; which are worse than others; what they can positively do for society, and how their meanings differ from one society to another. She uses a wide range of writers, but her book gives far more than a well-written set of reflections on what has been thought about these bad characteristics ...

Getting it right

Bernard Williams, 23 November 1989

Contingency, Irony and Solidarity 
by Richard Rorty.
Cambridge, 201 pp., £25, May 1989, 0 521 35381 5
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... An energetic thinker with some original ideas may understandably rebel against the oppressive demand to get it right, especially when the demand comes, as it often does, from cautious and conventional colleagues. In responsible subjects such as the natural sciences, such people rebel against the demand only at their peril – or rather, their ideas will succeed only if the demand is, in the end, obeyed, and the colleagues turn out merely to have been too cautious ...

Modernity

Bernard Williams, 5 January 1989

Whose justice? Which rationality? 
by Alasdair MacIntyre.
Duckworth, 410 pp., £35, March 1988, 9780715621981
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... In a previous book, After Justice, which came out in 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre claimed that the ideas of justice available in the modern world are like a pile of ruins, historical fragments that can make no coherent sense. Politicians, reformers, administrators, appeal in a haphazard way to items in this deposit. Philosophers and social theorists toil away trying to make sense of it, but they cannot possibly succeed ...

A Passion for the Beyond

Bernard Williams, 7 August 1986

The View from Nowhere 
by Thomas Nagel.
Oxford, 244 pp., £17.50, April 1986, 0 19 503668 9
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... It seems to me that nothing approaching the truth has yet been said on this subject,’ Thomas Nagel says in the middle of this complex, wide-ranging and very interesting book; and he says it at the end of a chapter (on the freedom of the will) not, as some other philosophers might, at the beginning. The book argues in a determined way about the largest philosophical questions: the nature of reality, the possibility of knowledge, freedom, morality, the meaning of life ...

A Fair State

Bernard Williams, 13 May 1993

Political Liberalism 
by John Rawls.
Columbia, 416 pp., £19.95, June 1993, 0 231 05248 0
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... It is over twenty years since John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was published. It was recognised at once as an immensely significant contribution to modern political philosophy, and its reputation has only grown since. There are many questions, about social justice, toleration and the stability of a modern state, that can scarcely be discussed unless one starts from ideas that have been shaped by Rawls ...

Terrestrial Thoughts, Extraterrestrial Science

Bernard Williams, 7 February 1991

Realism with a Human Face 
by Hilary Putnam.
Harvard, 347 pp., £23.95, October 1990, 0 674 74950 2
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... There is a wonderful passage in Nietzsche’s Daybreak, about the ageing philosopher. ‘Subject to the illusion of a great moral renewal and rebirth, he passes judgment on the work and course of his life, as though it were only now that he had been endowed with clear sight.’ He ‘considers himself permitted to take things easier and to promulgate decrees rather than demonstrate’; and the inspiration of ‘ this feeling of well-being anti these confident judgments is not wisdom but weariness ...

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