Tuesday, September 20, 2011


(A snippet from some further reflections...am I being fair enough to Williams? Update: Read the next post above.)

Conviction and reflection might seem to be awkward partners, their relationship constantly strained. Although Socrates claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living, Bernard Williams suggested that “reflection can destroy knowledge” by undermining the foundations upon which one’s convictions stand. I have always thought that Williams must be wrong—or at least that he only wins the point by abusing language. Reflection can undermine convictions, for it can uncover bad reasoning, hidden motives, ignorance, and blind spots in one’s sensibility. If that is what reflection destroys, then I would not say that it destroys knowledge but rather the semblance of knowledge.

If reflection destroys a conviction, then it was either a bad conviction or a bad act of reflection. Where reflection destroys a bad conviction there is no loss in its destruction. On the other hand, if one were to destroy a worthy conviction because one had engaged in poor reasoning and reflection, then a real loss has occurred. Perhaps for this reason those who were never taught how to reflect—how to navigate the maze of philosophical questioning without losing their patience or their way—are better off not reflecting. But equally, perhaps those who are better off not reflecting are also better off not having any convictions.

Even better: perhaps one who is inclined toward some conviction should learn how to reflect, so that she can better know what it is she has, and neither destroy what is truly precious nor become accustomed to living with fool’s gold. And the first thing one should learn is that true reflection does not destroy knowledge, but rather unsettles comfortable and merely convenient illusions.


  1. I don't know whether you're being fair enough to Williams (because I'm not familiar enough with what Williams says). One way to help ensure that you are, though, would be to take into account A. W. Moore's defense of Williams in the last ten pages or so of this paper: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~shug0255/pdf_files/williams-on-ethics-knowledge-and-reflection.pdf Perhaps you know it already, but the examples of reflection destroying practical knowledge that Moore begins with seem interesting to me.

  2. Thanks. (I did not know of this paper. And it looks like there's another earlier paper by Moore on the topic, too. I think he's quite good.) Obviously, I'm being a little polemical in the paragraphs above. I'll have to think about how, as it were, losing a concept (and I should read Diamond's paper, too, perhaps; I don't think I've ever read "Losing Your Concepts"), relates to all of this. I also need to think about what I want to say about the relationship between knowledge and conviction.

  3. No, I don't think you're being fair to Williams.

    In the chapter of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy that is the original context of the much-quoted remark, Williams makes it very clear that an important part of what he's most concerned to attack is precisely the identification of conviction with knowledge. He speaks of "the error of thinking that what conviction in ethical life has to be is knowledge, that it must be a mode of certainty"; in his view, "ethical conviction is not to be identified with knowledge or certainty" (p. 169). He then goes to some lengths to defend this view. You may well want to disagree with this defence - many have disagreed - but if it's Williams you're disagreeing with, then it is this that you're going to disagree with.

    On the other hand, Williams would probably have disagreed with your seeming use of "knowledge" as a kind of honorific term ("true reflection does not destroy knowledge, but rather unsettles comfortable and merely convenient illusions"). One of the other things he says in the same chapter (p. 168) - and one of the other things that are almost never quoted along with the famous remark on reflection - is that "ethical knowledge, though there is such a thing, is not necessarily the best ethical state". (Google shows only 6 hits for this, compared to 313 hits for "reflection can destroy knowledge".)

    Williams says that we can gain understanding in the process of losing knowledge, and that the difference between understanding in his sense and knowledge in his sense is first and foremost a difference in their relation to conviction (pp. 168-169). I'm sure you'd have something interesting to say on this, in spite of your misreading (or misremembering?) of Williams's text.

    I too would have recommended the Moore paper. It's the best defence of Williams on reflection that I know, and precisely because it's not a fawning one.

  4. Thanks, Tommi. (Saying the wrong thing is apparently a good way to learn...)

    I'm happy not equating conviction and certainty (I say as much in my essay "Moral Conviction"), and as I said above in response to DR (and this had started to dawn on me even as I posted this snippet), I'm still thinking about what I want to say about the relation between knowledge and (moral) conviction. But I guess if I agree (which I may, in some ways) with Williams that we needn't construe conviction as a form of knowledge, then all the bluster about whether reflection destroys knowledge above is basically a red herring.

    At the same time, I understand (though I would do well to review it) the particular way in which Williams wants to use the term knowledge here, and perhaps here we are just going to have to disagree about how to use the term. The important point is, of course, that reflection can destroy something that had previously seemed to us true and indispensable. So maybe I should say at the end of this snippet--instead of the business about "comfortable and merely convenient illusions"--that what reflection does--which does seem to be destructive--is uproot us from our way of life. That is, reflection can alienate us from it. Sometimes this is good, and perhaps sometimes bad. But I agree that we can gain understanding even as we lose, as it were, our innocence.

    Maybe it would be better to say something like: reflection can destroy certainty, but for the reasons you allude to, that is not necessarily the destruction of conviction. (Rather, it opens the way for conviction that is at the same time capable of reasonable tolerance and humility, for example.)

  5. Well - if not exactly a Williamsian thing to say, that sounds at least more like a Williamsian than an anti-Williamsian thing to say. I look forward to your further engagement with Williams. I have just recently got into him myself after a long hiatus. He's just about the most uneven philosophical writer I've ever read. When he's good, he's tremendously good, but when he's not he's just painfully awful. And whenever I come across one of the latter bits in his writing it tends to put me off from reading him for quite a long time - until I see someone quote one of the good bits and am again drawn back to him. I think the "reflection can destroy knowledge" business is one of the places where he is good.

    It occurred to me that maybe the word "knowledge" and its role in English-speaking philosophy is a bit unfortunate for the purpose of discussions like this. The original usage of "knowledge" in Anglo-Saxon seems to have been as little more than an alternative spelling of "acknowledgement": it covered things like recognition (of the authority of a king or whatnot) or confession (including religious confession). Knowledge comprised all the things one couldn't help but ac-knowledge. (The "e"-less American spelling "acknowledgment" tends to hide the conceptual connection from view.) Conversely, the use of "knowledge" to translate concepts such as the Greek episteme or the Latin scientia is a relative newcomer, and the result of a particular contingent historical process.

    What "knowledge" originally named was thus an act, the act of acknowledgement. "Conviction", on the other hand, was from the very start the name of a mental state or condition; in the sense in which "knowledge" originated as a kind of noun form of the verb "acknowledge", "conviction" originated as a noun form of the verb "to be convinced of". (And its use in the moral or ethical sense seems to be very young, dating from the late seventeenth century.)

    So Williams's use of "knowledge" in his idiosyncratic sense has a healthy historical pedigree, but by now this has just become very obscure - perhaps irrevocably - due to the main sense the word has assumed as a philosophical concept.

  6. Thanks, Tommi. Your comments about the meaning of "knowledge" are quite useful. And maybe it's not fair for me to say that Williams is "abusing" language; he's *using* the term in a particular way, and if we use the term in some other way, then what he says about reflection will seem quite counterintuitive.

    I know that Williams sets this discussion up in reference to the use of thick concepts, and the problem arises when reflection seems to undermine the normative significance of those thick concepts. In that case, I might "know" that someone is failing to be chaste, but I no longer "know" that that's a bad thing because my confidence in an ethical system which takes chastity to be a virtue has been undermined.

    So, it might be better in the snippet above just to quote Williams, and then drop the talk of knowledge--to avoid problems of ambiguity and equivocation--and to focus specifically on the fact that reflection can undermine our feelings of certainty or confidence in our beliefs.

    Then I can be, as it were, pragmatic about whether the confidence or certainty that has been lost means that knowledge has been destroyed or whether reflection has only destroyed presumed knowledge.

    I will reconsider and rewrite, and then test my results (as it were) here in a day or two. Thanks again for your thoughts and feedback.