The Silent Brilliance of Bernard Williams

To the thunder of applause the musicians take their positions. The applause trails off into silence as anticipation begins to build. There is art in this. One must hesitate long enough to build excitement and not so long to lose it, to allow anticipation to bubble over into boredom and restlessness.

An old wooden door loudly creaks and excitement breaks, sending sparks into the sky. Once again thunder roars. Musicians stand. There is life here despite the formalism of the stage. There is excitement and tension. The thunder trails off once again as people in the audience anxiously flip through their brochures and latecomers panic to find their seats.

This period, a period of great anticipation, a period of wonder and expectation, this is the best period of a concert. You never know quite how the experience will go—everything is all so contingent, all so risky. And yet you know nevertheless that your experience will be worthy of this grand temple to the wonders of artistic skill and explosions of creative brilliance.

The conductor bows and turns to face his orchestra. He raises his arms drawing the tension along with him. He pauses. He holds his position. Tension builds. And with a flick of his wrist, his arms drop.

Silence.

There is silence.

Someone coughs. Another rustles her brochure. A child asks his mother when the music will begin. The sound of his small voice resonates off the stone walls of the hall. Another cough. Someone sniffles. More rustling, more tension, more restlessness. This is music.

Four minutes and thirty-three seconds later the conductor lifts his arms. The musicians bow. The applause breaks the silence. You see, there is art in silence. There are lessons there and wisdom. Writing is like this. Philosophy is like this. Quite often the most brilliant thing that can be said is nothing. It is to allow the reader to fill the void, to populate the silence with their own life-sounds, with their own wills and interests and activities, in short with nature. Very often this is when philosophy speaks the loudest. And this—this quiescent deference to the lives of his readers—this is what makes Bernard Williams so powerful, so complete, so compelling as a writer and philosopher.

Williams stands against the predominant pretension of philosophers that they can redesign nature more effectively, more efficiently, better. And in doing so they create great and magnificent gardens in which to live. But if Williams shows us anything, it is that these Victorian gardens are diseased and pathological, that their beauty hides an ugly truth which harms those unlucky enough to have roots in their soil. Williams has come to smash the garden gnomes of philosophical ethics and their paving stones and fences. The result may be an eyesore to the “cultured”—so be it. Let our communities be ugly and healthy before beautiful and diseased.

Williams threatens theory. This is his main target. And not just any theory: his target is theory as theory. For theory attempts to rewrite nature, to upend it and improve upon it, which Williams takes to be a mistaken enterprise. His approach to this is deconstructive. He examines these heavily circumscribed theories and teases out tensions within them between their foundational assumptions and the worldview that they otherwise recommend—for as Williams reminds us, ethical theory is too an ethical activity. And this all means that Williams’s approach is foundationally anti-foundationalist. He rejects basic principles. He rejects the kind of philosophy which builds so high that it must dig downward. And this rejection is his own animating principle, which permeates and activates his own work.

There is great value in this. Williams reasserts the primacy of ethical life, of activity before the account. There is no mystery where the ethical agent fits in his philosophy; our own reflective capacities are placed front and centre flanked by the real, embodied demands of our own ethical environment. This is no garden. This is no vast expanse of agricultural cropland. This is nature. Williams sees no surplus in our ecosystem—and indeed who exists to pick the fruits and reap our souls? No: ethical lives exist for ethical lives, all together. All value is recycled within it, animating the whole. This is not typically the concern of ethical theory, which actively seeks to upset our natural embeddedness.

There is no greater picture for ethical philosophy: Williams stands guard as a park ranger, eliminating threats to the pristine condition of our ethical environment. He does not seek to order our ethical lives. He seeks only to preserve them. To this end, he gives no positive ethical recommendation. He does not destroy theory only to rebuild it. He speaks only to silence the chatter and noise of ethical theory.

But this is not to say that he locks his reader in a silent Cage. He provides harsh but quiet melodies to inspire and provoke. Williams too lives in the ethical environment. He too engages in ethical reflection. He is merely careful in what kind of reflection he promotes. For as he says, there are many sorts of reflection, some which foster flourishing and some which destroy the health of an ecosystem. Reflection which leads to theory is this sort. This kind of reflection concerns much more than individual and collective interest, value, self-conception and the like. “It is,” he says, “a different kind of critical reflection that leads to ethical theory, one that seeks justificatory reasons. ‘There cannot any one moral rule propos’d, whereof Man may not justly demand a Reason,’ Locke said, and this maxim, understood in a certain way, naturally leads to theory.” (ELP, 112) If we can avoid this, if only we can silence these foundational questions, he thinks, we can promote and preserve the kinds of ethical ecosystems we would be proud to call home.

This method I think is the only one which respects those ethical communities which are not irreparably broken, which have undergone many iterations of productive dialogue to settle on a stable whole. And there was a time when we could think that these communities existed, that our ethical ecosystems were not plagued by invasive species and climactic revolution. But we live in the 21st century. We have lived through centuries of colonialism and imperialism; we have lived through decades of globalism and technological revolution. Our ethical lives are entirely conditioned by the consequences of these tragedies. The lives we lead are bound to the values of those who could not even conceive of our world. Our ethical ecosystems are deeply and profoundly corrupted—and uprooting ethical theory will never solve these problems.

When my life is crumbling down around me, when my family is drowning in debt, when my brother is murdered by a drone pilot ten thousand kilometres away, when my farmland has dried up from drought, when my mother has been beaten and raped, when my sister is denied appropriate medical care, when my father is denied employment for the colour of his skin, should I climb the mountain to visit the silent sage? What can he possibly tell me?

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