Bernard Williams and liberalism

Posted in Uncategorized by rumblegumption on February 3, 2012

One question that cropped up at various points in the discussion of Chapter 1 of Bernard Williams’s Truth and Truthfulness at Balliol yesterday was that of Williams’s ambiguous relationship with liberalism. Some rough, mostly clarifying, thoughts on the subject follow.

AH thought the chapter was naturally read as proposing the outline of a defence of liberalism against its theoretical rivals (e.g. the Marxists of the Frankfurt School): that liberalism, perhaps uniquely, attaches an importance to truth that makes it an ally (or ‘associate’) of the Enlightenment spirit of social critique. This, AH said, relied in part on a caricature of the Frankfurt School: they, and other Marxists, were never unequivocally hostile either to the Enlightenment (‘The book’s called The Dialectic of Enlightenment; the clue’s in the title Bernard!’) or to truth. Further, part of Marx’s own claim about 19th-century liberalism was that it was liberalism that stood in an equivocal relationship to truthfulness. In particular, the history of liberalism was rife with attempts to occlude truths about itself, e.g. the kinds of alienation and exploitation it engendered, and which its (untruthful) rhetoric helped to legitimate.

I myself don’t see this strong claim being made for liberalism, not in this chapter at least. But it shouldn’t be denied – as a biographical fact – that Williams was a liberal, and was never wary of identifying himself as such (and not for want of other possible labels that the tenor of his writings entitled him to – conservative, or paradoxically, radical). There’s a throwaway line in a footnote to his reply to his critics in the volume World, Mind and Ethics (Harrison and Altham (eds.)) where he distinguishes his position from that of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor in the following way: ‘If Taylor and MacIntyre will forgive my putting them into a mere cartoon sketch, one set of relations between our positions might perhaps be put like this: Taylor and MacIntyre are Catholic, and I am not; Taylor and I are liberals, and MacIntyre is not; MacIntyre and I are pessimists, and Taylor is not (not really).’ [Emphasis added]

He was, in general, more willing to avow the appellation when in debate with figures on (the loosely conceived) non-liberal right. For example, here’s his (often entertaining) review from 1981 of Maurice Cowling’s Religion and Public Doctrine in England where he outlines a conceivable liberal position that is rid of certain of the putative delusions of which it stands accused by its critics on the right and left (emphases added):

Cowling seems to have the odd belief that … only he and … various reactionaries … have noticed that much liberalism is optimistic and high-minded claptrap which carries its own intolerances, that survival needs irony, that values conflict, that most things in the world are determined by force and fraud, that political moralism is often self-indulgent, that progressivist utilitarianism is a barren creed. He should be better-informed: these things have got out, and many have noticed them. There are, however, two differences at least between others who have noticed these things, and Cowling. One difference is that some others regard these facts as part of the present historically-given problems of political thought and action, and in trying nevertheless to think and act, exercise that irony which Cowling so much commends – with the aim, for instance, of defending the conceptions of truth and objectivity which he himself both needs and despises. Cowling indeed admits that modernity has, in effect, to be accepted. It is merely superficial of him to suppose that those who equally ‘accept’ modernity, but instead of sitting in colleges writing clotted and ill-natured books, seek to shape its requirements in slightly better rather than worse directions, are necessarily victims of its more flatulent ideologies, or any less command the ‘toughness, subtlety and illusionlessness’ which he claims to use merely in living out the modern world.

Again, here’s him on Alasdair MacIntyre:

MacIntyre’s central criticism of the Enlightenment, and of its legacy to liberalism, is that it set out to free political and social consciousness from any allegiance to tradition, and from any overarching conception of human good … Other people have said this, and they may be right. But MacIntyre is peculiar in thinking that this is just about all that needs to be said about liberalism. What this line of criticism shows is that liberalism has failed to understand itself

And again:

… on MacIntyre’s own account of a tradition, there may be more intellectual hope than he allows for the liberals, or at least for those (and there are some) who have noticed that it is no longer 1789 or 1913. They recognise that the self-description of liberalism that it inherited from the Enlightenment was basically flawed, but hope to find a sounder understanding of it, which may help to preserve the more humane institutions of the modern world.

The point of these passages is to dissociate liberalism from its smugger incarnations, to suggest that there are ways of being an honest, realistic, non-deluded, truthful liberal. I think Williams would allow that, at least in principle, applying his own canons of truthfulness to liberalism might make one something other than a liberal. For the moment, however, liberalism remains an honourable, if tarnished, position.

But truthfulness in this respect needs to be distinguished (and at some level dissociated from) two things: ‘hyperconsciousness’, and pessimism. A quick quotation on hyperconsciousness, which came up in discussion yesterday. The crude thought is that lying and deception are incompatible with the spirit of truthfulness that Williams thinks (imperfectly) animates, and has the potential to redeem, liberalism. But it does not follow that the only defensible liberalism is one that is completely explicit about every aspect of itself. He puts the point succinctly in an interview from 1998:

 Now, I’m very against lies. I admit that’s a first-order value of mine of the Nietzschean kind, and I have to admit to being fairly shameless about that, but that seems to me to be a value which certainly philosophers are very ill-advised to give up. They[‘d] better try and tell the truth, on the whole. I mean truthfulness seems to me to be part of the profession, if it’s worth doing, but I’m not so keen on hyperconsciousness and that seems to me consistent. There’s an old slogan in English: Ask no questions and you get told no lies. It may be that some questions you had better not ask because the answers to them are going to be lies. Now, Nietzsche actually thought that hyperconsciousness in itself was part of decadence because he thought that if you didn’t have the form of confidence we were discussing earlier, then you were in a state in which you couldn’t do anything, where the thing imploded really into the hyperaesthetic and all those things he calls decadence.

The second distinction: truthfulness is not the same as, and need not imply, pessimism. Whether it does have this implication depends on what the world is actually like, and this is a matter of interpretation and discovery. Equally, at the risk of stating a banality, it might be a matter of temperament. Martha Nussbaum’s obituary for Williams develops this latter suggestion (emphases added):

When Bernard denigrated the aspirations of philosophical reason in human affairs and harped so insistently on the importance of irrational passion, what might have been in danger of playing the master? I believe that much of his interest in Nietzschean pessimism and irrationalism was in the service of warding off a powerful depression, even perhaps despair. Over the years I began to notice that he was never angry … Contempt, world-weariness, cynicism, even an irritability linked to the world-weariness, but never just anger, the sense that wrong has been done and that one had better go out and right it. I think his non-angry attitude to tragedy was of a piece with his critique of the Enlightenment: doing good for a bad world did not energize him, because his attitude to the world was at some deep level without hope. The world was a mess, and there was no saving or even improving it. It was childish, naïve, to suggest that improvement was possible. (His liberal politics were difficult to reconcile with this view, and this perhaps explains his increasing withdrawal from politics and even political thinking in later life.) Nietzsche called this attitude amor fati and connected this embracing of necessity with a kind of cheerfulness, the cheerfulness that comes when we abandon the hope of real change. Similarly, what energized Bernard, cheered him up, was a kind of elegant assertion of the hopelessness of things against the good-newsers, a contemptuous yet brilliant scoffing. …

One basis for rejecting this attitude would be the view that pessimism is not merely a defect of character, but a moral vice. (As Nussbaum puts it, ‘Is despair possibly a sin…?’) Another would be to make a distinction along the lines suggested by Gramsci/Rolland: a pessimism of the intellect, an optimism of the will. (Williams would no doubt ask if such a disposition could be ‘stable’; I suspect his answer might invoke the extent to which both of the attitudes that constituted this Janus-faced disposition were truthful.)

But certainly, Williams’s corpus isn’t short of a cautious (because truthful?) hope (≠optimism). Two quotations before I sign off:

The resources of most modern moral philosophy are not well adjusted to the modern world. I have tried to show that this is partly because it is too much and too unknowingly caught up in it, unreflectively appealing to administrative ideas of rationality. … Some … who have reached this kind of conclusion … have taken it to be destructive of the values of the Enlightenment; or if not, have interpreted those values in a conservative way … I do not think we are forced to join them. A respect for freedom and social justice and a critique of oppressive and deceitful institutions may be no easier to achieve than they have been in the past, and may well be harder, but we need not suppose that we have no ideas to give them a basis. We should not concede to abstract ethical theory its claim to provide the only intellectual surroundings for such ideas. (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Postscript, 1985: 197–8)

The real difference in these respects between modern liberal ideas and the outlook of most Greeks lies … in this, that liberalism demands – more realistically speaking, it hopes – that those concepts, necessity and luck, should not take the place of considerations of justice. … Even if we cannot, and perhaps should not, cancel all effects of mere necessity and luck, at least we hope that they can be placed within a framework that raises the question of justice … Modern liberalism already stands at some distance from the ancient world … in setting this problem. … It is a distinctively modern achievement to have set the problem. However, we shall not know how great our distance really is from the ancient world until we are in a position to claim, not merely that there is this task, but that we have some hope of carrying it out. (Shame and Necessity, 1993: 128–129)