Bernard Arthur Owen Williams

(1929—2003) philosopher

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English philosopher. Born in Essex, Williams was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and held Fellowships at All Souls and New College. He was professor of philosophy at Cambridge from 1967 to 1979 and Provost of King's College, Cambridge from 1979 to 1987, when he accepted a chair at Berkeley, returning to the chair of moral philosophy at Oxford in 1990. Williams was known for a subtle relativistic position in moral philosophy that rejected both Aristotelian and Kantian promises that virtue arises from the exercise of rational propensities in the mind. He also rejected expressive and projective theories, arguing instead that ethics cannot be what it seems to be, if it is based purely on contingent sentiments and passions. He argued influentially that Kantian ethics, and utilitarianism, impose an unnatural emphasis on purely impersonal concerns, ignoring the personal projects that necessarily occupy the foreground of people's practical lives (see also agent-centred morality, integrity, Stoicism, universalizability). Williams's principal books include Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (1978), Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), Shame and Necessity (1993) and Truth and Truthfulness (2002). Collections of papers include Problems of the Self (1973) and Moral Luck (1981).

Subjects: Philosophy.