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Sir Bernard Williams, 73; Professor Revived the Field of Moral Philosophy

June 18, 2003|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Sir Bernard Williams, an educator and author who is considered one of the greatest British philosophers of his generation and credited with reviving the field of moral philosophy, has died. He was 73.

Williams died June 10 at Oxford, where he lived in All Souls College. No cause of death was given, but in 1999 Williams said he had cancer.

Keen to free philosophy from traditional restraints and reference points, Williams wrote in his 1972 book "Morality" that "whereas most moral philosophy at most times has been empty and boring ... contemporary moral philosophy has found an original way of being boring, which is by not discussing issues at all."

Williams believed philosophers should study the way moral lives are lived rather than look at people's decisions in relation to some abstract theory of right and wrong.

Among his other books were "Problems of Self" in 1973, which questions whether personal identity is possible, "Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry" in 1978 and, perhaps his best, "Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy" in 1985.

[London] Times Literary Supplement reviewer Thomas Nagel has called Williams "a provocative and stimulating writer." Bringing lofty debate down to the masses, Williams wrote and presented a philosophy series, "What Is Truth," on British television in the 1970s.

Williams had a distinguished teaching career at the University of London, the now-defunct Bedford College, and notably at Cambridge, where he was Knightsbridge professor of philosophy from 1967 to 1979 and provost of Kings College from 1979 to 1987.

Upset by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's governmental philosophy in the late 1980s, Williams left England and became a visiting professor at UC Berkeley for a few years.

Outside the realms of literature and education, Williams, who was knighted in 1999, was active on public commissions dealing with morality. Among them were the Royal Commission on Gambling and the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship, which he headed in 1977-79.

Williams wrote the film committee's highly regarded report, concluding that pornography's influence on society is not very important, and adding that "to think anything else is to get the problem of pornography out of proportion with the many other problems that face our society today."

His report concluded that pornography could be made available in a controlled way that prevented it from being forced on children or unsuspecting adults.

The Thatcher government largely ignored the recommendations.

Williams was made a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983.

Born in Westcliff, Essex, England, son of an architect and a secretary, Williams studied classics at Oxford's Balliol College, graduating with a remarkable first-class degree in which examining professors merely stand and applaud instead of questioning the student.

Williams served in the Royal Air Force, flying Spitfires in Canada.

He later became a fellow at Oxford's All Souls, but left to teach in London to aid the political career of his first wife, now Lady Shirley Williams of Crosby.

They divorced in 1974 and he married Patricia Skinner.

Survivors include his wife and three children, Rebecca, Jacob and Jonathan.

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