Williams, Pragmatism, and the Law


This paper views Bernard Williams through the lens of the pragmatist tradition. The central insight of pragmatism is that philosophy must start with human practice, in contrast to high theory or metaphysics. Williams was one of the twentieth century’s most able proponents of this insight, especially when considering the topics of ethics and the law. Williams never saw himself as a pragmatist, because he took Richard Rorty’s radical relativism to be the exemplar of the position. But I shall suggest that had Williams seen himself as a more objective pragmatist, along the lines of C. S. Peirce, C. I. Lewis, or Frank Ramsey, he might have had the resources to settle vital issues on which he wavered, issues having to do with whether there is anything objective underpinning our deliberations.

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  1. 1.

    Peirce (1931–58, p. 6.485); Peirce (1982–3, p. 253).

  2. 2.

    One can find the argument in Ramsey (1929a [1990], p. 6, b [1990], p. 161). See Misak (2020) for an exposition.

  3. 3.

    For a more complete story, see and Misak (2016) and Misak and Price (2017).

  4. 4.

    See Misak (2016) and the papers collected in Misak and Price (2017).

  5. 5.

    Wittgenstein would not call himself a pragmatist, for he was allergic to any ‘ism’ and thought that one’s philosophy should start from scratch and not link itself to predecessors.

  6. 6.

    See Misak (2020) for the archival sources and further explanation.

  7. 7.

    See Blackburn (2015, p. xv), Misak (2016), Misak and Price (2017).

  8. 8.

    I have argued that this is the case with most of the pragmatists on the subjective end of the pragmatist continuum, although it is beyond the scope of this paper. See Misak (2016).

  9. 9.

    In the 1980s, Hilary Putnam continued in that classical spirit, urging us to reconsider Dewey’s philosophy and coining the phrase ‘epistemological justification of democracy’. Inquiry, of any kind, must operate on democratic principles: it must provide opportunity and incentive to challenge accepted hypotheses, to criticize evidence and accepted norms, and to offer rival hypotheses. It must respect autonomy and reciprocity (1994, p. 172f). Democratic norms, that is, lie at the heart of inquiry and knowledge. ‘To reject democracy is to reject the idea of being experimental’ (1994, p. 64). Rorty thought that he was wrong—that there is no justification of democracy to be had.

  10. 10.

    See Murenik (1994) and Dyzenhaus (1998) for this kind of argument.

  11. 11.

    The reader may notice a similarity here with Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971). I would argue that one can find a also latent pragmatism in Rawls. See Stout (2018) and Botti (2019).

  12. 12.

    Lewis (1923), Quine (1980[1951]).

  13. 13.

    Williams (1985, pp. 67–69; 2007, p. 189), and see Queloz (2017) for an excellent discussion.


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I thank David Dyzenhaus, Matthieu Queloz, an anonymous reviewer for this journal, participants of the University of Toronto Pragmatist Workshop Group, and participants of the Bernard Williams and the Law conference at the London School of Economics, for helpful comments on earlier drafts.

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Correspondence to Cheryl Misak.

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Misak, C. Williams, Pragmatism, and the Law. Res Publica (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-020-09468-y

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  • Bernard Williams
  • Pragmatism
  • Regulative assumption
  • Human rights
  • C. S. Peirce
  • John Dewey
  • Frank Ramsey