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Bernard Williams

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Video: Is social science really necessary
Duration: 00:24:03
Date: 15-06-1982
William Miller and his father, Sir Jonathan Miller
Image : William and Jonathan Miller
Date: 2018

Is Social Science Really Necessary?


At the beginning of 2021 I was invited to make a radio documentary for Radio 4 on my father, Sir Jonathan Miller. I wanted to use it as an opportunity to explore a topic he’d obsessed with since studying philosophy while he was completing his medical studies at University College in London. He was going to call it Memories Are Made Of This where he would have explored the work, entered the debates and heard the ideas people had about one of the least understood areas of science – Memory. What fascinated him were those philosophical debates about what is memory, where is it, how does it define each of us as individuals and what happens when it goes wrong? Just before he got to make his series, the one thing he feared most stole his incredible memory away - Alzheimer’s. After he died I was left in this curious state of limbo wondering what his series would have been like and who he would have spoken to. 

For me, making a programme on my father and memory was the chance to enter a world where, for all my life, I had watched from the side-lines as he effortlessly danced around the fringes and occasionally, as with Bernard Williams’ Open University series, would be invited to be part of the debate. Had Williams been alive I would undoubtably have interviewed him for my programme, but instead I met other leading philosophers and neurologists who my father admired and would have spoken to. This one-off opportunity allowed me to set foot in a world I’d longed to enter but lacked the confidence to ask my father for an intro to. 

When I was 8 years old I tested the waters by naively asking my father’s friend and neighbour, Sir AJ Ayer, what this philosophy thing was all about. In part, I was curious to understand how being a philosopher allowed him to sit alone at a desk all day and still live a life of such opulence. I also hoped it would help kick start a bigger conversation with my father where I could be seen to be interested in something he was too. The answer I got from old “Freddie” Ayer was “Well William, let me see. When a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound?” I went away feeling confused and none the wiser. It would be 50 years later that I’d finally get the answer I wanted after my brief visit into the hallowed halls of philosophy for the BBC. Now I am left wishing I’d understood its beauty so much earlier in my life. 

William Miller

External Link:
Jonathan Miller: Lost Memories (BBC Sounds) (opens in a new window)

Related videos and essays (all links open in a new window):

  • Questioning Theories: Bernard Williams in discussion with John Clarke.
    Accompanying essay by John Clarke.
  • Competing TheoriesBernard Williams in discussion with Stuart Hall.
    Accompanying essay by Sophie Watson.
  • Questioning Assumptions: Bernard Williams in discussion with Stan Cohen.
    Accompanying essay by David Scott.

Bernard Williams (page 8 of 8)