Harold Wilson's Philosopher of Porn Is Our Greatest Thinker on Ethics, Offering a Vision of Truth as Triumphing over All. (Profile)

By Grayling, A. C. | New Statesman (1996), September 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

Harold Wilson's Philosopher of Porn Is Our Greatest Thinker on Ethics, Offering a Vision of Truth as Triumphing over All. (Profile)


Grayling, A. C., New Statesman (1996)


British philosophy since the beginning of the 20th century has been a strange affair, at least to lay eyes. Abstruse, remote and technical, it has appeared to distance itself from the practical affairs of the world, reprising the era of the medieval schoolmen by losing itself in dense fogs of jargon devised to capture the last possible refinement of distinction-drawing and abstraction.

Success as a philosopher, in this professionalised version of the enterprise, has required not just high intelligence and rigorous academic training, but a special cast of intellect, consisting in power, style, finesse, subtlety and depth. The four outstanding figures in British academic philosophy during the past half-century -- Michael Dummett, P F Strawson, David Wiggins, Bernard Williams -- have been exemplars of these characteristics.

With the exception of Strawson, these doyens show that contemporary philosophers are not so remote from ordinary concerns after all. Wiggins once campaigned on transport in the south-east. Dummett gave many years to the struggle against racism. Williams advised Harold Wilson's Labour government on education, chaired the national committee on obscenity and film censorship, and has kept faith with his centre-left commitments.

True, these public engagements do not seem to flow directly from these thinkers' technical work -- except in the case of Williams. Nor have they been easy and regular voices in the public media -- except in the case of Williams. Nor have these thinkers strayed far from Oxford -- except in the case of Williams, who has taught in Australia and Ghana and held distinguished professorships at Cambridge, Berkeley and London, as well as being a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford.

Williams, in short, has been more expansive than his fellow Parnassians in geographical and public respects, which is why he is more salient in the national consciousness -- his departure for Berkeley in 1988 was a much-publicised addition to the "brain drain". An Essex boy (he went to Chigwell School before moving on to Balliol College, Oxford), Williams met Shirley Catlin in New York in 1955. She was a Labour activist (she had served as the first woman chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club) and had won a year's fellowship to Columbia University, after working in factories and as a waitress. It is difficult to speculate, given the couple's reticence on the subject (the marriage was dissolved in 1974), just how much Shirley's politics influenced her husband. He stood by her as she made her ascent through posts at the ministries of health, labour, education and the Home Office - ending up as Paymaster General, before her defection to found the Social Democratic Party. To this day, Williams has never qu estioned being labelled as "centre-left", though he has refrained from any political engagements since his work for Wilson.

Now aged 72, retired and not in the best of health, he has published another book, whose title, Truth and Truthfulness, captures themes that have always been central to his philosophical work. Most of that work has been about ethics. It has not exclusively been so; he wrote a brilliant study of Descartes, and contributed greatly to the debate about personal identity which has exercised philosophers since John Locke. But although discussion of neither of these subjects is complete without reference to Williams, his contributions to ethics are his best work.

Two messages ring out from it. One is that moral values are a function of circumstances. There are no independent, objective values as there are independent, objective scientific facts. Instead, what we should care about, and how we should live, depends on how we feel and what we seek in the social and historical situation we find ourselves in. Values are a function of emotions and desires, and luck has a large part to play in shaping both by setting the parameters within which they fluctuate. …

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