Was Bernard Williams potentially a great philosopher?

John Searle says “Yes”. I say “Perhaps not”. Here is Searle:

Well, Bernard was a very good friend of mine… I think Bernard was as intelligent as any human being I’ve ever met. He had a kind of quickness which was stunning. Now one consequence of that is there’s a sense in which people who knew him well, or at least in my case, we always feel the published work is not up to the level of the Bernard we remember. Yes, it’s wonderful and admirable, the published work, but the particular fire and light that came from discussions with Bernard are lost on the printed page. Now whether that’s inevitable, or whether or not he had actually been more patient about sitting down and doing a hard slog necessary to write a great book, I don’t know. I know that in the last years of his life he suddenly became very productive. I think—I mean now since we’re talking about somebody I admire—that in some ways his career was a disappointment to his admirers because he never produced a work of the calibre of his highest ability. And one of the reasons for that is he had all this other stuff going on. He was always on some Royal Commission, or dining in Buckingham Palace. And this is one of the reasons I tried very hard to get him a job in Berkeley. I thought if he was in Berkeley, away from the distractions of London, he might sit down and do really great philosophy. And he did great things in Berkeley, but then he turned around and went back to Oxford, and back to his old ways.


It seems that Searle is here making a questionable assumption that one’s ability to make a great contribution to philosophy is proportional to one’s intelligence. For it is only by relying on such an assumption that he could argue that Williams’ opus is somehow disappointing, as measured by his philosophical potential as allegedly shown in his intellectual brilliance.

But although a very high intelligence certainly helps in philosophy, it is not enough for “doing really great philosophy”. There are also other factors like creativity, willingness to take a risk, go out on a limb and defend a daring or not sufficiently explored hypothesis, a skill to recognize areas where breakthroughs are possible, and finally sometimes even the sheer luck of choosing a fruitful philosophical path.

Therefore, Searle’s unfriendly claim about his “very good friend” is problematic and may be unnecessarily unkind. For it may well be that even if Williams had avoided Royal Commissions and had rarely dined at Buckingham Palace, he would still not have crafted a work comparable to Naming and Necessity or Anarchy, State and Utopia. So maybe he actually made the right decision when he famously said to himself: “Come on, Bernard, cool off with philosophy a little, and get a life!”

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