A reader writes:
Your defense of the history of philosophy reminded me of this essay by Bernard Williams.A difference between my view and Williams' also comes out in his phrase, "make the best sense of our lives, and so of our intellectual activities". A careful reading of his essay reveals, I believe, that Hilary Putnam is in the end correct in his charge that Williams "views physics as giving us the ultimate metaphysical truth". Williams tries to side-step this, by demurring from any affirmation of 'ultimate' truth: but change this to, simply, "views physics as giving us truth", and the charge ends up being correct.He shares your view about the narrowness of the virtues of analytic philosophy and the conception of philosophy as humanistic (i.e. “What I have to say, since it is itself a piece of philosophy, is an example of what I take philosophy to be, part of a more general attempt to make the best sense of our life, and so of our intellectual activities, in the situation in which we find ourselves.”) But this last clause, "in the situation in which we find ourselves," indicates--I think--his departure from your view about the continuity between contemporary and historical philosophers.It seems that Williams holds that who "we" are is both historically determined and susceptible, at a given time, to wider (and inclusive) or more narrow (and exclusive) scope. I take it that you're operating at a higher altitude than Williams, and so the "we" is much more historically continuous and less likely to be exclusive.Well, I'd better not go on too long here since I'm not sure I'm marking clearly enough what I think the difference between you and Williams is (perhaps only his Nietzschean perspectivalism?). I wonder what you make of Williams' defense of the study of the history of philosophy.
For Williams, philosophy does not tell us how the world is; it simply tells us 'how we make sense of the world'. It is about our grasp of and interpretation of the world, not the world itself. Thus, it ends up being a high-level sociology of thought. I don't find in Williams essay any sense that philosophy is an intellectual adventure, that it involves a commitment to truth that may lead one to 'convert' and accept something one hadn't even anticipated believing in beforehand. The attitude Williams expresses is quite unlike the attitude that was shown, say, by Russell when he took that bicycle ride and came back convinced that the Ontological Argument was sound; or by Plato, who came to think that what we ordinarily take to be reality is, rather, the least real, like shadows on the wall of a cave.
In Williams, one sees a commitment to an intellectual life that cannot give an account of itself. It is, I believe, incapable of explaining to a younger generation why anyone should take seriously what Williams, when he was a young man, was taught to take seriously. Williams I think confesses as much, when he brings in Nietzsche near the end of the essay:
I accept that analytic philosophy owes many of its successes to the principle that small and good is better than broad and bad. I accept that this involves a division of labour. I accept that you want to get on with it. I also admit something else, that it is typically senior philosophers who, like senior scientists, tend to muse in these expansive ways about the nature of their subject. As Nietzsche says in a marvellous passage about the philosopher and age:
It quite often happens that the old man is subject to the delusion of a great moral renewal and rebirth, and from this experience he passes judgments on the work and course of his life, as if he had only now become clear-sighted; and yet the inspiration behind this feeling of well-being and these confident judgements is not wisdom, but weariness.