Making Way For Making Sense

In a review of Bernard Williams’s Essays and Reviews, 1959-2002, Paul Sagar unpacks why the thinker drew a sharp distinction between philosophy and science:

In science, the big breakthroughs come from brilliant thinkers, but the rest of the time everybody else can usefully get on with collecting data and increasing the sum of human knowledge. Philosophy is not like that: in philosophy, you are not only not adding data if you are making bad, or unoriginal, or stupid, or pointlessly banal and repetitive arguments, you are getting in the way of those who are trying to make sense of our world, and who might be able to make more sense of it than those who have tried before. …

In short, Williams urged that philosophy must be a humanistic discipline. Many analytic philosophers proceed as though the sheer force of their cleverness can scythe through deep problems of human living and understanding, unaided and unencumbered by further learning and knowledge. This attitude frequently goes along with a willful philistinism:

a celebration of one’s ignorance beyond one’s academic niche, within which one prowls to do battle with the more or less clever as they dare come forth. Williams’s work stands as an indictment of this way of going about philosophy. He shows that it is most certainly an intellectual mistake. But it is also an ethical one, insofar as we rightfully find ignorance repellant and its celebration a vice. The richness and value of human experience must extend beyond being merely clever, if our lives are to have that dimension of meaning which philosophy, of all disciplines, should surely put first and foremost (the clue, after all, is in the name). For anybody wishing to undertake philosophy as a humanistic discipline, this collection of essays is an excellent place to start. But it will take many years to get up to speed, and the task will never be finished. Not for the first time, I am left wishing that Williams, who died in 2003, could have had another decade to show what a lifetime of learning can achieve.