Friday, April 19, 2013

Prose close reading: Bernard Williams


By the time he died in 2003, the work of the philosopher Bernard Williams had secured his reputation as not only one of the most agile thinkers of the post-WWII era, but also as one of its most graceful writers. Anglo-American philosophical writing in the wake of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein often aspired to technical precision rather than eloquence. It is easy to forget that until the First World War, philosophy was considered an arm of "letters" at large (along with history, poetry, and criticism), and its practitioners were noted not just for the quality of their thought, but for their literary merits. Some writers who would have been recognized as philosophers of the 19th century are now read more as literary figures—Emerson and Kierkegaard, for example. Why not read some of the most gifted philosophical writers among the "modern greats"—say, Isaiah Berlin or Bernard Williams, among others—as prose stylists?
... there are two sides to action, that of deliberation and that of result, and there is a necessary gap between them. Regret must be governed, in good part, by results that go beyond intention. Sometimes regret can focus simply on the outside circumstances that made the action go wrong, and the thought is: I acted and deliberated as well as I could, and it is sad that it turned out that way. But regret cannot always be held at that distance, and then it moves back to the moments of deliberation and action, and you regret acting as you did. This still need not imply that you deliberated carelessly; you may have deliberated as well as you could, but you still deeply regret that that was how the deliberation went, and that this was what you did. This is not just a regret about what happened, such as a spectator might have. It is an agent's regret, and it is in the nature of action that such regrets cannot be eliminated, that one's life could not be partitioned into some things that one does intentionally and other things that merely happen to one.
—Bernard Williams, "Recognising Responsibility" in Shame and Necessity (69-70) 
It is one of the unwritten constitutional principles of prose writing after Flaubert that repetition ought to be avoided. The precision demanded by philosophical discourse cannot allow this. Certain key terms must be defined and adhered to, without deviation. We can easily pick them out here: act/action/agent, deliberate/deliberation, regret, intend/intention. It is interesting that all these words have both noun and verb forms. There is also a small set of normally inconspicuous verbs that do a lot of philosophical heavy lifting: is, must, can, need, imply.

The manipulation of person in this passage is skillful. Without straining, Williams moves deftly between all three persons—first, second, third—and also third-impersonal ("one's life could not be partitioned," etc.). The brief instance of the first person ("I acted and deliberated as well as I could") occurs within a moment of "direct speech." Williams then pivots immediately into the second person, as if addressing the hypothetical speaker of that thought—who also happens to be the reader. He then generalizes that in steps: first, by "a regret... such as a spectator might have"; then, "an agent's regret"; and finally, the conclusions of the "I" and "you" are universalized into conclusions about "one." If we view this paragraph dramatically, it involves the creation of a hypothetical character who keeps getting recast from successively more distant perspectives.

Williams's syntax here is highly paratactic. It would be easy to "chop up" the paragraph into much shorter sentences:
Sometimes regret can focus simply on the outside circumstances that made the action go wrong. The thought is, "I acted and deliberated as well as I could. It is sad that it turned out that way." But regret cannot always be held at that distance. It moves back to the moments of deliberation and action. You then regret acting as you did. This still need not imply that you deliberated carelessly. You may have deliberated as well as you could. But you still deeply regret that that was how the deliberation went. And you further regret that this was what you did. 
Is this any clearer, simpler, or more intelligible? It seems to me that it is less so, in every regard. This gives lie to the notion that simpler syntax is always better: that short sentences are more comprehensible than long ones, that understanding is facilitated by minimizing the space between periods. Sometimes longer units—and, I think, longer rhythms—improve the sense of words by clarifying the connections between ideas, or joining them into logical pieces. Sequence, contradiction, correlation: these are all important tasks for agile philosophical prose. Still, parataxis seems best-suited to this kind of work—far more so than complex nesting of subordinate clauses.

Williams is very fond of antithesis, almost to a fault; if you were going to parody his prose, this would be the first feature on which you'd fixate:

  • Sometimes regret can focus simply on the outside circumstances... But regret cannot always be held at that distance. 
  • This still need not imply that you deliberated carelessly; you may have deliberated as well as you could[.] 
  • This is not just a regret about what happened, such as a spectator might have. It is an agent's regret... 
  • ... it is in the nature of action that such regrets cannot be eliminated, that one's life could not be partitioned into some things that one does intentionally and other things that merely happen to one.

But the antitheses are not tedious; indeed, they have the very point of thwarting tedium. They build suspense; they clarify a concept by defining its negative, like the movement between raw film and developed image. Antithesis is where Williams—and, I think, other philosophical writers (Derrida, of all people, is similarly enamored of the device)—is at his most playful and creative, and where his literary skill stands out most clearly: it is helpful and artful without being at all necessary in the strict sense.

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