Contingency, Confidence, and Liberalism in the Political Thought of Bernard Williams

SOCIAL THEORY AND PRACTICE 40.4 (2014): 545-569

Abstract: This paper offers a systematic examination of the political thought of Bernard Williams by explaining the relation between his political realism and critical assessment of modern moral philosophy and discussing how his work illuminates the debates about the nature and purpose of political theory. I argue that Williams’s realism is best read as an attempt to make ethical sense of politics, and as an attempt to explain how we can continue to affirm a kind of liberalism, without recourse to the moralized presuppositions that he insists we must jettison. I begin by outlining Williams’s claims about the limits of philosophy and his conception of confidence. I then address his understanding of the relationship between historical and philosophical inquiry and his contention that historical understanding can foster a kind of confidence in some of our contemporary commitments. I conclude by showing how this leads Williams to articulate a defense of liberalism that is compatible with his skepticism about modern moral philosophy and his ancillary critique of political moralism. In this sense, Williams’s work has important implications for political theory and the study of politics more generally because it enables us to articulate a defense of liberalism that has marked advantages over the “high liberalism” that most contemporary liberal political philosophers defend and shows how we might develop a political theory that does not begin by asserting universal moral foundations but which, despite this, avoids reverting to a crude postmodern antifoundationalism.