The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy. By Bernard Williams, edited by Myles Burnyeat


Pp. xxii, 393 , Princeton University Press , 2006 , $19.95.

Before his death in 2003, Bernard Williams was planning a collected volume of essays representing his decades-long engagement with the history of philosophy. The present book, edited (and with an introduction) by Miles Burnyeat fulfils that ambition. Appropriately, the figure who looms largest in these pages is Plato – Williams' great philosophical hero. It is pleasing to have many of Williams' previously published meditations on Plato's thought – including those dealing with Plato's construction of intrinsic goodness, the analogy of city and soul in the Republic, and an introduction to the Theaetetus dialogue – gathered together in one place. Mention should also be made of Williams' Plato: The Invention of Philosophy (reprinted here as chapter ten) which would serve as an excellent introduction to many aspects of Platonic thought for the non-specialist. Williams always fought a rear-guard action against the increased specialisation and atomisation of his discipline. This is clearly represented here in the staggeringly wide range of subjects and eras: reaching from the moral import of Greek tragedy, to discussions of Descartes, Hume, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. Twenty three of the twenty five chapters have been previously published elsewhere, though there are three previously unpublished pieces: the most rewarding of them a sympathetic discussion of R. G. Collingwood. Along with other posthumous volumes of Williams' work published by Princeton, this book represents an appropriate tribute to a philosopher of rare talents.