Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 20 November 2019

Williams, Sir Bernard Arthur Owenfree

  • A. W. Moore

Sir Bernard Arthur Owen Williams (1929–2003)

by Geoff Howard, 1978

© Geoff Howard / National Portrait Gallery, London

Williams, Sir Bernard Arthur Owen (1929–2003), philosopher, was born on 21 September 1929 at 19 Valkyrie Road, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, the only child of Owen Pasley Denny Williams (1901–1975), architect and chief maintenance surveyor for the Ministry of Works, and his wife, Hilda Amy, née Day (1897–1991), a personal assistant. At the time of his birth his parents lived at Chequers, Elmsleigh Drive, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.

Early life

Williams was educated at Chigwell School, a minor public school in Essex, and entered Balliol College, Oxford, in 1947 to read literae humaniores (classics and philosophy). He graduated four years later with a congratulatory first. It was obvious from the very beginning of his time in Oxford that he was an outstanding intellect: he soon had a glowing reputation, not only among his tutors but also among his peers, whom he regularly helped with their work by conducting impromptu seminars. The two tutors he admired most, the distinguished classical scholars Eduard Fraenkel and Eric Dodds, both encouraged him to become a classical scholar himself, and he later paid a touching tribute to their influence on his work in the preface to his book Shame and Necessity (1993). But by the time he graduated it was the philosophical component of his course that had become his passion. Indeed he later recounted that when he was preparing for his final examinations he neglected the Roman history component to such an extent that he needed part of the time for that particular examination to learn more and arrived twenty-nine minutes late, the latest he could arrive without being deemed to have withdrawn from the examination altogether. His precociousness was subsequently something of an encumbrance. It was often said of him in his later career that he had been the cleverest undergraduate in Oxford and still was. In other respects, of course, his early brilliance was a boon. Immediately after graduating he was elected to a highly prestigious prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford.

Williams spent the first two years of his All Souls fellowship, from 1951 to 1953, in the RAF, after his call-up to national service. During this time he devised various reaction tests for pilots. For a year he also flew Spitfires in Canada. He thoroughly enjoyed the experience. He especially valued the salutary and (for him) unusual experience of wanting to do something well and finding that there were other people who were able to do it far better. The friendship and respect of these people mattered a great deal to him. He claimed much later that this had been the happiest year of his life.

When he returned to All Souls Williams's early reputation remained undiminished. He attracted the admiration of many major figures in Oxford philosophy, including Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire (both of whom became lifelong friends), A. J. Ayer, and Gilbert Ryle. Ryle was one of the first people to comment, as many others had occasion to, that Williams understood better what you were going to say than you understood it yourself, seeing all the possible objections and counter-objections before you had finished saying it.

In many ways these were exciting but daunting times for philosophers in Oxford. Ayer's iconoclastic attack on metaphysics in the 1930s, the new linguistic philosophy of Ryle and J. L. Austin, and the revolutionary work that Ludwig Wittgenstein had recently been producing in Cambridge, of which reports and circulated copies had already reached Oxford, all contributed to the prevailing view that, through the careful analysis of language, not only could most of the great answers to the great questions of philosophy be discounted, but so too could the very legitimacy of the questions. Philosophy appeared to be coming to an end, an end brought about by philosophy itself. For a while, at least until his own counter-revolution, Williams found this heady and liberating; and he never surrendered the mistrust of philosophical system-building that it instilled in him.

Early teaching career, first marriage, and London life

Williams obtained his first teaching post in 1954, as a fellow of New College, Oxford. Shortly afterwards, on 2 July 1955, at the Roman Catholic church of St James, Spanish Place, London, he married Shirley Vivien Teresa Brittain Catlin, (b. 1930), daughter of Sir George Edward Gordon Catlin, political scientist, and his wife, the writer Vera Brittain. They had first met as undergraduates, and had met again during his time in the RAF, when he had been on leave in New York and she had been studying at Columbia University. When they became engaged she was a journalist, but later (as Shirley Williams) she went into politics and became a Labour cabinet minister. Williams shared her political interests and enthusiastically supported her in her early political career. He continued to devote time to the service of politics after the break-up of their marriage. Like her, he was originally a member of the Labour Party and later defected to the Social Democratic Party (which she helped to establish). Unlike her—as Baroness Williams of Crosby she went on to become the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords—he eventually rejoined the Labour Party, which had by then become a very different animal.

In 1959, after a year's visiting lectureship at the new University College of Ghana, Williams obtained a lectureship at University College, London. He was strongly encouraged to move there by Ayer, who had been professor there for some while. London life was busy and stimulating for the Williamses, whose daughter Rebecca was born in 1961. London was also, by now, a more congenial intellectual environment for Williams. The Oxford philosophy that had initially attracted him so much had begun to pall in his eyes. Its emphasis on linguistic analysis now seemed to him not liberating but constraining, and what he had once found adroit in it he now found shallow. By deliberately separating itself off from the sciences, including the social sciences, and in particular history, it also seemed to him to lose touch with the real human concerns that animate philosophical enquiry in the first place. Williams was keen to re-establish contact with these concerns. His first articles, written around this time, were on traditional philosophical issues such as the nature of the self, as well as on matters of political concern such as democracy and equality.

After a visiting professorship at Princeton University in 1963, and after Shirley's election as Labour MP for Hitchin in 1964, Williams obtained his first professorship, in 1964, at Bedford College, London. He was still only thirty-four. Three years later, still remarkably young, he moved to the Knightbridge professorship of philosophy at Cambridge University, and to a fellowship at King's College, Cambridge.

Early Cambridge life and second marriage

Williams's tenure of the Knightbridge professorship presented him with various new opportunities to pursue academic ideals that were dear to him. He played a significant role in the decision of King's to be among the first all-male colleges in Cambridge to admit women in the early 1970s, for example. But his major concern during this period was the philosophy faculty: how it should be run, who should be appointed to it, and what should be on the syllabus. He devoted a good deal of time and energy to all of these—and indeed to lecturing, tutoring, and taking part in philosophical discussions. He enjoyed this enormously, as did those who benefited.

This was an active period for Williams in all sorts of other ways. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1971, and he held visiting positions at universities in Australia and America. From 1968 to 1986 he served as an energetic member of the board of Sadler's Wells Opera (renamed English National Opera in 1974), and for a period he was chairman of the opera committee. Music in general and opera in particular were lifelong passions for him. He published many essays on opera in programme notes, handbooks, and the national press. He was also a familiar voice on the radio during the intervals of opera performances. The long interview he gave in 1999 for Michael Berkeley in the series Private Passions on BBC Radio 3 provided a striking example of his ability to communicate his love and knowledge of music.

In 1974 Williams's marriage to Shirley was dissolved. Their lives had for a long time been following separate paths. Williams had also fallen in love with Patricia Law Skinner (b. 1942), then married to the Cambridge historian Quentin Skinner. She was the daughter of Frederick Charles Dwyer, orthopaedic surgeon. They met when Williams became a syndic of Cambridge University Press, where she was the senior commissioning editor in history and the social sciences. She later became the European editor for Harvard University Press and the publisher for the National Gallery in London. They lived together in Cambridge from 1971 and married on 16 August 1974. The following year saw the birth of their first son, Jacob. The marriage was a very happy one.

First major publications

When Williams was appointed to the Knightbridge professorship, he had written relatively little. He had no books to his name (save for British Analytical Philosophy, 1966, which he co-edited with Alan Montefiore). But he had already established himself as a brilliant and promising young philosopher, and it was while he was Knightbridge professor that his promise was first substantially realized. During this period his first four major publications appeared, in fairly quick succession. The first of these, published in 1972, was Morality. This was a beautifully concise introduction to moral philosophy, containing what could be seen in retrospect as a compendium, albeit a very broad-brush one, of all of Williams's main ideas in this area. It showed his growing impatience with the Oxford-inspired submersion in second-order linguistic debates about such issues as whether telling someone 'It was reprehensible of you to do that' involved making a genuine assertion. 'Most moral philosophy at most times has been … boring', Williams wrote in his preface, but 'contemporary moral philosophy has found an original way of being boring, which is by not discussing moral issues at all' (p. 9). Towards the end of the book he turned his attention to the idea of authentic self-expression, quoting a phrase from D. H. Lawrence: 'Find your deepest impulse, and follow that' (p. 93). This became a guiding concern of his entire philosophical career.

In 1973 Williams brought out his first collection of essays, Problems of the Self. This included his seminal essays on personal identity, in which he attacked traditional conceptions of the ‘soul’. That same year he published Utilitarianism: For and Against, with J. J. C. Smart. In the first part of this book Smart defended utilitarianism; in the second part Williams attacked it. This was part of a lifelong crusade to overturn what he saw as a deeply pernicious influence in modern moral thought. With great sensitivity and force, he exposed utilitarianism's failure not only to acknowledge values other than happiness but to make sense of happiness itself.

Descartes, on the great seventeenth-century philosopher and scientist René Descartes, was published in 1978. This book demonstrated Williams's deep respect for science, which he argued was capable of achieving what he called an 'absolute conception of reality'. But it also gave early hints of his equally deep hostility to scientism, the application of scientific method in philosophy itself.

Role in public life and provostship of King's

Williams played a significant role in public life, spanning thirty-five years and including service on several commissions. All of these commissions involved the critical and complex balance between, on the one hand, liberal ideals of equality, fairness, freedom, and toleration and, on the other hand, the various legal, political, and economic realities of public policy making. It was in 1965, during his time in London, that Williams had been appointed to his first public commission, the public schools commission, on which he served until 1970. Two more commissions followed in the 1970s: from 1976 to 1978 he was a member of the royal commission on gambling, and from 1977 to 1979 he chaired the committee on obscenity and film censorship, set up by Harold Wilson's government. The latter reported in 1979, and Williams wrote most of the report himself—having first succeeded in reconciling the views of the twelve very disparate members of the committee, in light of the evidence and opinions of many different pressure groups and individuals. The committee took as its guiding principle that no conduct should be prohibited unless it could be shown to cause harm, though restrictions could be imposed on conduct which might cause offence to reasonable people. It notably rejected as misconceived the 'public good defence' under the Obscene Publications Act, whereby a work can be acquitted if it has serious merit of, say, an aesthetic or scientific kind; and it unanimously concluded that there were no grounds for suppressing pornography beyond the protection of children. The report did not endear Williams to Margaret Thatcher, whose government effectively shelved it. But many of its specific recommendations were welcomed and implemented by the police, lawyers, and local authorities in Britain, as well as being discussed by politicians and arts organizations elsewhere.

In 1979 Williams was elected provost of King's College, Cambridge. The college flourished under him. It retained its progressive reputation, admitting many more undergraduates from the state sector than was the norm among Cambridge colleges. In 1983 it took the lead among colleges in abolishing entrance awards which, because they rewarded achievement rather than potential, deterred applications from less successful schools. The college also retained its reputation for academic distinction. It had an unusually large number of research fellowships. This was at a time when the government gave little sign of valuing research, but Williams was determined that the college should keep the torch burning. He engaged the fellowship as a whole in choosing the subjects for these research fellowships, and he was himself very active in making appointments to them.

This was another happy and fulfilling period for Williams and his family. He and Patricia brought style, culture, and a real love of scholarship to King's, and 1980 saw the birth of their second son, Jonathan. During this period Williams also received a number of distinctions: honorary doctorates from Dublin and Aberdeen universities in 1981 and 1987 respectively; foreign honorary membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983; and honorary fellowships of Balliol College, Oxford, and Bedford College, London, in 1984 and 1987 respectively. From 1984 to 1987 he was first a syndic and later the chairman of the Fitzwilliam Museum, another outlet for his great interest in the arts. From 1985 to 1986 he made a number of short academic visits to various places in Latin America, and in 1986 he was visiting professor at the University of California in Berkeley. In 1988 he wrote and presented the television series What is Truth? on Channel 4.

Further major publications

When Williams became provost he resigned his professorship. Combining research with his new administrative role, rather than with the teaching that he had been doing for so long, proved conducive to his own writing; in particular it enabled him to write somewhat more freely. He renewed his interest in the classics, deepened his appreciation of philosophers on whom he had hitherto spent little time—especially Nietzsche—and expanded the historical and literary range of his work. During his time as provost, as well as co-editing Utilitarianism and Beyond with the economist Amartya Sen in 1982, he had two more major publications.

The first was Moral Luck, Williams's second collection of essays, which also came out in 1982. The title essay in particular showed that his opposition to utilitarianism was matched by an opposition to its apparent polar opposite, Kantianism, according to which doing one's duty counts for more than being happy. Both utilitarianism and Kantianism presuppose a way of thinking about ethics whereby ethics is ultimately concerned with what is purely voluntary and ‘moral luck’ is an oxymoron. Williams challenged this way of thinking.

In 1985 Williams published Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. This was probably his greatest work and certainly the locus classicus for his ideas in moral philosophy. In this book he dubbed the way of thinking presupposed by both utilitarianism and Kantianism (as indeed by many other dominant ‘isms’ in moral philosophy) 'morality, the peculiar institution', and continued his attack on it. He also rejected its principal classical rival, Aristotelianism, arguing that an Aristotelian ethic of well-being rested on a teleology that could no longer be taken seriously. Furthermore, he rejected the possibility of any other theoretical foundations for ethics. One complaint sometimes levelled against Williams's work was that it was negative. Certain critics saw this book as vindication for that complaint. Williams was unbowed. He simply refused to allow philosophical system-building to eclipse the subtlety and variety of human ethical experience.

Emigration to America and return to Britain

In 1988 Williams resigned as provost of King's and took up the post of Monroe Deutsch professor of philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley. His departure to the United States was widely perceived as a significant part of Britain's 1980s ‘brain drain’. Certainly he used it as an opportunity to express disenchantment with what he saw as the philistine contempt of the Thatcher government for British universities, though he later came to regret that he had left so publicly—not least because of how soon, for entirely independent personal reasons, he returned. Several east coast American universities had wooed him, but Williams chose Berkeley because his recent visit there had been so idyllic and it offered him more of a change from the world of Oxbridge.

Life in Berkeley was enjoyable and challenging, both intellectually and socially. But, although he loved America and had always felt at home there, Williams found the realities of emigration, at a comparatively late stage in both his and his family's life, more complicated than he expected. In particular he missed the instinctive understanding of the nuances and details of politics which he could take for granted in Britain. He once expressed this by saying that he would never know anything about any American politician to compare with his knowledge that Ken Livingstone, Labour MP and later mayor of London, had once kept newts. So it was that in 1990 he returned to Britain, under great pressure from Oxford University to take up the White's professorship of moral philosophy there. He simultaneously became a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Nevertheless he maintained his connections with the United States, and more particularly with Berkeley, where he retained his professorship until the end of his life, and where he continued to spend part of each year until illness prevented him. In the early to mid-1990s he also had visiting positions at several other American universities. Later he made several short academic visits to Europe. Honours continued to flow: in 1993 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts; and in 1995 he received an honorary doctorate from Keele University. From 1993 to 1994 he was a member of the Commission on Social Justice.

In 1989, while at Berkeley, Williams had given the Sather classical lectures, having been invited several years earlier to do so and having thereby achieved one of the greatest distinctions in classical studies—an honour which made him, as a philosopher, particularly proud. These lectures were published in 1993 as Shame and Necessity. Williams used them to explore various currents in ancient Greek thought, finding compelling alternatives there to much of what he deplored in modern thought. In 1995 he brought out his third collection of essays, Making Sense of Humanity, and contributed a series of replies to the essays in a Festschrift for him edited by J. E. J. Altham and Ross Harrison entitled World, Mind, and Ethics.


After his retirement from the White's professorship in 1997, Williams was re-elected a fellow of All Souls College, bringing his academic appointments full circle. There were further honours: honorary doctorates from the universities of Chicago, Yale, Cambridge, and Harvard; and, in 1999, a knighthood. In the late 1990s he had further visiting positions in Europe, and from 1997 to 2000 he was a member of the independent inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (which, given that he had already served on commissions on public schools, gambling, and pornography, famously prompted him to quip, 'I did all the major vices').

Two more books were published before Williams died, and four collections of essays shortly after his death. Plato came out in 1998: this was a clear, lively introduction to Platonic thought and, at less than fifty pages, a tour de force. Truth and Truthfulness came out in 2002 and constituted an ambitious Nietzschean study of the virtues of accuracy and sincerity, combined with an attack on 'the deniers'—thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty who denied the very possibility of truth, at least as traditionally conceived. Nietzsche had long been a significant influence on Williams, but it was in this book that the influence was most explicit. His friend Michael Tanner recalled how Williams had reproached him in the 1960s for studying Nietzsche and thereby 'wasting time over rubbish that Joad could have refuted'. Williams was evidently capable of changing his mind. Truth and Truthfulness was written in the midst of Williams's final illness. He had been diagnosed as having cancer in 1999, and the treatment itself had had drastic effects. He was nevertheless determined to finish his book. Not only did he do so, albeit more hurriedly than he would have wished, but he lived long enough to enjoy its enthusiastic reception.

The four posthumous collections, prepared by others, included three more collections of philosophical essays and a collection of his essays on opera. In the Beginning Was the Deed, published in 2005, consisted of material on political thought which was mostly previously unpublished and which he had been intending to weave together into a book. The Sense of the Past, published in 2006 (a collection on which he himself had done preparatory work), consisted of all his essays in the history of philosophy. Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, likewise published in 2006, served to complete the philosophical set. On Opera was published later the same year.

Williams died on 10 June 2003 during a brief holiday in Rome. The immediate cause of death was heart failure. He was cremated in Rome some time later. He was survived by his wife Patricia and his three children.


Williams was a charismatic figure. He was renowned for his wit, erudition, brilliance, and devastating speed in discussion. These, together with his great zest and gaiety, made him a commanding presence in any social gathering. He loved an audience. Yet he was also in many ways a private man, devoted to his family and passionate about his work. He delighted in the variety of human experience. This in turn accounts for one of the most dominant strains in his work: his total impatience with all attempts, particularly the attempts of moral philosophers, to simplify life's complexity.

Williams's work lies within the ‘analytical’ tradition of philosophy, whose fundamental aim is clarity of understanding and whose fundamental methodological tool is conceptual analysis. Although he was never a vigorous apologist for this tradition, he always maintained the standards of clarity and rigour which it prizes. Perhaps his greatest philosophical legacy was to show how it is possible to write sensitively about matters of importance, without sacrificing those standards yet without doing violence to the complexity of the matters either.

Williams described himself as a pessimist. He thought that the truth was ultimately unconsoling; and he thought that one of the greatest tasks confronting all of us, not just philosophers, was to find ways of making sense of things which would enable us to face the truth without being broken by it. The titles of two of his anthologies capture well the contribution which he hoped and believed philosophy could make to this. Philosophy, for Williams, was a fundamentally humanistic discipline: it could help us to make sense of things by helping us to make sense, in particular, of humanity. Williams not only showed by example how it could do this; he argued persistently, passionately, and persuasively that it could do no more and should do no less.


  • Daily Telegraph (14 June 2003)
  • The Economist (28 June 2003)
  • WW (2003)
  • I. Fenlon, P. Jones, and others, Bernard Williams (1929–2003) (2005)
  • personal knowledge (2007)
  • private information (2007) [Lady Williams, widow]
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.



  • BFINA, current affairs footage
  • BFINA, documentary footage


  • BL NSA, current affairs recordings
  • BL NSA, documentary recordings


  • G. Howard, bromide fibre print, 1978, NPG [see illus.]
  • G. Howard, photographs, 1978, Camera Press, London
  • J. Bown, photograph, pubd 1987, priv. coll.
  • S. Pyke, photograph, 1991, Getty Images, London
  • E. McCabe, photographs, 2002, Camera Press, London
  • J. Bown, photographs, Camera Press, London
  • obituary photographs
  • photograph, repro. in B. Williams, In the beginning was the deed (2005), jacket

Wealth at Death

£78,055: probate, 6 Jan 2004, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

British Library, National Sound Archive
British Film Institute, London, National Archive
private collection
National Portrait Gallery, London