Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Quaint Local Obsession

Bernard Williams, writing in a time and place outside of, yet surprisingly close to, our present discontents:

It is simply a fact that many European liberals... find it a quaint local obsession of Americans that they insist on defending on principle the right to offer any form of odious racist insult or provocation so long as by some argument it can be represented as a form of speech. I should have thought that these were matters of political judgement, above all in telling the difference between the point at which the enemies of liberalism have been given only enough rope to hang themselves, and the point at which they have enough rope to hang someone else.

Williams then goes on to attribute this obsession to "a culturally injected overdose of the First Amendment". I suppose approval of this might count as mindless anti-Americanism. Yet there are at least two serious points in the quote, that there might be something odd about the idea that there is some desperately important principle at stake when defending the freedom to utter the verbal equivalent of a sharp blow to the kidneys, and that to see politics as anything other than conflictual, and hence about winning, if winning under some set of rules, could be equally strange.

I linked last Friday to Tom Nagel's LRB review of the three recently published posthumous collections of Williams' essays, articles and lectures. I did so because Williams is perhaps the most significant of my quaint local obsessions: in my view probably the most distinguished British philosopher of his generation, a prose stylist of no little merit, and always careful to ensure that, even if difficult, he was never esoteric or obscurantist, always stressing the importance of 'here and right now', a location whose population included more than just academic philosophers. Further, I have finally got round to starting to read one of those three collections, In The Beginning Was The Deed. I therefore have a proposal, one that will hopefully be reacted to with more vigour than my last one, to offer, over the next week or so, some critical thoughts on Williams' historical and pragmatic political liberalism, hopefully on a daily basis. Watch this space.

Update:

The First Question

The Worm Ouroboros

A Matter Of Life And Death

Keeping It Real

Kant At The Court Of King Arthur

2 comments:

Ben said...

I probably could have got a review copy of In the Beginning... from PSR. Kinda wish I had now, but then it takes time and there's always the nagging feeling one should devote more of that to the thesis.

Rob Jubb said...

Despite being relatively critical of Williams in what I've posted so far, what I've read of it is good. Wrong but good.