The Dennes Room

Philosophy 290-3

Fall 2015

Number Title Instructor Days/time Room
290-3 Graduate Seminar: Themes from the Political Philosophy of Bernard Williams Munoz-Dardé W 2-4 234 Moses

What should the philosophical study of the political be about? For some, the investigation of politics and political values is predominantly a matter of ‘logical analysis’. But could one really gain a proper insight into ethical ideals or political imperatives without a good sense of the historical and social settings in which they arise and continue to be expressed? If the realm of the political is defined by the common practical necessities which we all share, then a proper appreciation of our political values should also involve some historical explanation of how those necessities arise. But if so, how exactly are we to understand the relation between our political concepts (seemingly open to abstract reflection and analysis) and the historical contexts in which those concepts are embedded and out of which they arise? What role might ‘genealogy’ play in a philosophical method enriched by such historical sensitivity? Finally, once we have got used to seeking explanations in terms of our contingent histories, what room is left for offering what we can see as genuine justifications of values or policies? These are some of the questions thrown up by Bernard Williams’s ethical and political philosophy. These concerns begin to surface in his earliest writings about political ideals, in papers on equality, freedom and toleration. But the methodological framework is given explicit formulation only much later in some of his works on both the nature of philosophy and politics. At the same time this perspective is put to work in his most practical and situated intellectual work: his reports on government committees devoted to issues ranging from education to pornography. And anyway, the reflections on the political are set in proper context only through consideration of his broader concerns with ethics and moral philosophy, particularly his critique of utilitarianism. So the aim of this seminar is work through Williams’s puzzling away at these questions: at different points of his intellectual career; in works of concrete practical issues and the most abstract methodological reflections; in works explicitly concerned with the political, and debates about the foundations and nature of ethics.