The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy

The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy

The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy

The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy

Excerpt

These twenty-five essays by Bernard Williams span a period of forty-one years and range from the sixth century BC to the twentieth AD. Together with his book Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (1978) and his wonderful booklet Plato: The Invention of Philosophy (1998 and reprinted below, chap. 10), they show a depth of commitment to the history of philosophy seldom to be found nowadays in a thinker so prominent on the contemporary philosophical scene. Bernard is a rare example of something that once, before philosophy fell apart into specialisms, was fairly common: a philosopher first and foremost, busy developing new thoughts on modern themes, who yet from time to time writes on a topic in the history of philosophy.

In his abiding commitment to the history of philosophy, Bernard remained true to the Oxford “Greats” tradition in which he was formed. He came up to Oxford in 1947, well before philosophy split into specialisms. His main philosophy tutor at Balliol College (with whom he sparred from the beginning) was R. M. Hare, who, besides his wellknown books on moral philosophy, also wrote on Plato. In the “Greats” course of those days Plato and Aristotle were still as compulsory as logic, so it is not surprising that Oxford had long nurtured a tradition of combining independent philosophical thought with historical scholarship. Cook-Wilson, Joachim, Joseph, Mure, Prichard, and Ross had all contributed both to philosophy and to the study of the history of philosophy, with a particular focus on Plato and Aristotle. In scholarly circles several of these names are still influential, even if among philosophers it is only Ross's work in deontological ethics that now has any currency.

But practising the history of philosophy as well as philosophy is not the same as practising the history of philosophy philosophically. One can set out to elucidate the thought of an earlier philosopher without oneself engaging with the issues which that philosopher was interested in. For the most part, up until the Second World War Oxford kept its history of philosophy apart from its philosophy. When Ross, for example, in chapter 7 of his still indispensable book Aristotle (1923), gives an account of Aristotle's highly non-deontological ethics, his own very different views inevitably show through (at times, quite assertively), but he does not set up an explicit debate with Aristotle. Contrast Bernard's discussion of Aristotle in “Justice as a Virtue” (chap. 13 below). There is plenty of . . .

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