Being clever isn't enough

Bernard Williams gave his last interview at Oxford in December 2002, not long before he died. The interview was published in The Harvard Review of Philosophy (Volume XII, Spring 2004), and the editor noted that Williams "did not have the opportunity to correct the transcript of the interview". In any case, it is, though short, a fascinating interview. Anyone who admires Williams would enjoy reading it; anyone who is not familiar with Williams's work but wants to know why he is so admired would too.

I was particularly intrigued by Williams's remarks on being clever and doing philosophy. Williams himself is an exceptionally clever philosopher, but he says:

Another person who had one kind of influence on me --- though I'm glad to say I think she didn't influence me in other ways! --- was Elizabeth Anscombe. One thing that she did, which she got from Wittgenstein, was that she impressed upon one that being clever wasn't enough. Oxford philosophy, and this is still true to a certain extent, had a great tendency to be clever. It was very eristic: there was a lot of competitive dialectical exchange and showing that other people were wrong. I was quite good at all that. But Elizabeth conveyed a strong sense of the seriousness of the subject, and how the subject was difficult in ways that simply being clever wasn't going to get around.

"I was quite good at all that" --- there was presumably a time when he was not aware that being clever wasn't enough, and it took a philosopher he did not otherwise admire to make him see that.

Williams's response to the interviewer's follow-up question "What is required in addition to being clever?" is also edifying:

A good appreciation of what is not there in the argument or on the page, and also some imagination. Many philosophers pursue a line of argument in a very linear fashion, in which one proof caps another proof, or a refutation refutes some other supposed proof, instead of thinking laterally about what it all might mean. There is a tendency to forget the main issue, which is what the distinction that was made was supposed to be doing in the first place. An obvious example is that people used to go on about what the difference is between a moral and a non-moral 'this-that-and-the-other'. What is a moral consideration as opposed to a non-moral consideration? What is a moral judgment as opposed to a non-moral judgment? They belabored these questions without ever asking why the distinction was supposed to be so important in the first place.

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