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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: February 2013

10 - Bernard Williams: Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy



Bernard Williams (1929–2003) was one of the greatest twentieth-century British philosophers, renowned especially for his work in moral philosophy. When Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy was published, in 1985, he had already written numerous highly influential articles in the area. He had also written a beautifully concise and widely read introduction to the subject entitled Morality: An Introduction to Ethics ([1972] 1993a), and had contributed the second half of a joint publication with J. J. C. Smart entitled Utilitarianism: For and Against (Smart & Williams 1973); Williams's contribution, “A Critique of Utilitarianism”, provided the case against. A number of significant articles followed. So did Shame and Necessity (1993b), in which he pursued a recurrent interest in ancient Greek ethical thought, and Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (2002), in which he provided a Nietzschean account of the virtues of accuracy and sincerity. An earlier publication, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (1978), although not itself a work of moral philosophy, had provided some of the basic tools that Williams subsequently used to contrast ethical thinking with thinking in other areas. But it is Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, by fairly common consent his greatest work, that serves as the locus classicus for his ideas in moral philosophy.

Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy may fairly be described as a work in “analytic” philosophy. Not that Williams himself is much concerned about that.