Public Reason: Vol. 9, No. 1-2, 2017
Challenging Political Theory: Pluralism and Method in the Work of Bernard Williams
Clayton Chin

This article focuses on the recent surge of reflection within political theory on methodological issues and the emergence of new approaches in that discipline. Situating itself in a discussion of New Realism and its critiques of/divergences from the ideal approach of “high liberalism”, it engages the dominant reading and use of the work of Bernard Williams in that literature. Illustrating how the framework of political realism in this reading is plagued by a narrowing of the political and exclusive focus on stability, it turns to a series of resources within Williams’s larger thought in order to draw out an alternative reading of his model of political theory. Focusing on his methodological reflections on naturalism and historicism, it illustrates a conception of political thought as a form of situated socio-political criticism which stands in stark contrast to the “conceptual analysis of the political” that he overtly offers and has been the central object of focus within recent discussions. Arguing that the former avoids the pitfalls the latter encounters, this article illustrates how Williams’s naturalistic and historicist conception of political thought is more thoroughly pluralistic, both methodologically and politically. Finally, it illustrates how this reading brings him much closer to another position within the current surge of methodological reflection within political theory that takes him away from new realism. Turning to James Tully’s “public philosophy” reveals a similar emphasis on the democratic and pluralistic conditions of political thinking.

Key words: Bernard Williams, realism, naturalism, historicism, criticism, James Tully.


Chin, Clayton. 2017. Challenging Political Theory: Pluralism and Method in the Work of Bernard Williams.Public Reason 9 (1-2): 9-28.