Philosophy's Purpose

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Philosophy's Purpose


"Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline" by Bernard Williams, in The Threepenny Review (Spring 2001), P.O. Box 9131, Berkeley, Calif. 94709.

Philosophy has become so recondite and airless an occupation these days that the very title of Williams's essay may seem a reproach. Williams, who teaches philosophy at Oxford University and the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of Shame and Necessity (1993), among many other books, regrets that students too often end up believing that philosophy is "a self-contained technical subject." He believes that philosophy should rather 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." If it is to do that, philosophy needs to rid itself of what Williams calls "scientistic illusions." It should not by to behave like a branch of the natural sciences, except in those cases where that is precisely what it is--"work in the philosophy of quantum mechanics, for instance, or in the more technical aspects of logic." Philosophy must certainly take an interest in the sciences, but without being assimilat ed "to the aims, or at least the manners, of the sciences."

Philosophy, for Williams, belongs to an expansive humanistic enterprise. If philosophy is to contribute successfully to that process of understanding ourselves and our activities, it must attend to all the other parts of the enterprise, especially history: "If we believe that philosophy might play an important part in making people think about what they are doing, then philosophy should acknowledge its connections with other ways of understanding ourselves, and if it insists on not doing so, it may seem to the student in every sense quite peculiar.

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