(A little more friendly to Williams this time, and a little bit of a tease at the end...I'm in the midst of the continuation right now...more to come...)
Conviction and reflection might seem to be awkward partners, their relationship constantly strained. Although Socrates claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living, we might suspect that because reflection tends to undermine our sense of certainty in our own beliefs—since in reflecting we question and critique those very beliefs—that reflection also tends to undermine conviction. This might seem to be especially true of moral beliefs, since a little exposure to the diversity of moral opinion and practice throughout the world may lead us to reflect upon the extent to which our own beliefs are influenced by our own particular upbringing and cultural and historical situation. Bernard Williams has suggested in such cases that “reflection can destroy knowledge,” which is to say that reflection can deprive us of confidence in our own ways of living and valuing, and thereby our convictions. At least, reflection might destroy our certainty that our way living and valuing is the right way.
Destruction is not, it should be kept in mind, always a bad thing. We want to destroy our illusions and false opinions, the biases that prevent us from recognizing truth. However, one might think that if knowledge is good and reflection can destroy it, then something has gone wrong in those cases when reflection does destroy knowledge. But how could reflection ever do such a thing? Shouldn’t what we call knowledge be more durable than that? A short—and somewhat unhelpful—answer is that it depends on what exactly we are willing to count as knowledge.
What is potentially unsettling about Williams’ point does not turn so much on how we choose to use the term knowledge but rather on the fact that reflection—as well as exposure to other ways of living and valuing—can undermine our confidence in our own moral beliefs. We can be led to question whether the certainty we have about our own convictions is justifiable when we consider that others have felt just as certain about the rectitude of various other systems and practices. What is equally unsettling is that simply refusing to reflect on such matters will seem dishonest (or dogmatic or lazy): if we refuse to reflect, then we may well fall (or have fallen) for just about anything. Unless we are foolish or arrogant enough to believe that we have already got everything right, then we will see that we cannot make any progress in our own moral or intellectual life without reflection.
The danger of reflection is not that it unsettles us; sometimes we need to be roused from cheap comfort. Rather, the danger is that reflection can lead to a cramped kind of skepticism that induces paralysis or despair. We can lose our grip and not know how to go on. In having lost our certainty, we may be led to the thought that we have lost everything—that without certainty, we cannot (or should not) allow ourselves to have convictions.
But this is a strange position.