Bernard Williams (1929 – 2003)

“He understands what you’re going to say better than you understand it yourself, and sees all the possible objections to it, and all the possible answers to all the possible objections, before you’ve got to the end of your own sentence.”

~ Gilbert Ryle

Time for the next in my zodiacal series of Philosophers, and we now come to Virgo, for which I have chosen Bernard Williams, who was a leading British intellectual in the late 20th century.  His specialism was Ethics, and he was not so much an innovator as an interpreter, critic and analyst – very much a Virgoan way of operating.  Whenever we (hubby and I) were stuck in our early philosophical studies, a You Tube video of Bernard Williams helped enormously to clarify what we were grappling with.

Birth Chart

Bernard’s Sun in Virgo was square to Saturn, emphasizing the disciplined characteristics of that sign.  We do not have a birth time for Williams, so the precise position of his Moon is not known, but there is a trine between his Moon and Venus, indicating a good relationship with females: this is borne out in the evidence that he was a strong feminist and supporter of the females in his life.  Mercury sextile Venus contributed to the Writer Archetype in his make up.  One of the most emphatic complex of aspects in his chart was the conjunction of Mercury and Mars (The Critic Archetype) squaring his natal Pluto.  This combination meant that he could be brutal in his assessments.  Mercury trine Jupiter, contributed a wide-ranging Philosopher’s mind and curiosity.  Mercury closely sextile Saturn reinforced the analytical traits of his Sun sign Virgo.  Mars trine Jupiter gave him energy harmoniously allied with enthusiasm, which contributed to his passion for the truth.  The North Node was exactly conjunct Chiron in  Taurus, meaning his karmic mission was as a problem-solver – many Philosophers were born under Taurus.  Ted Honderich points out his “freshness in tackling problems”.

Life and Career

Bernard Williams was born in Westcliff-on-Sea, and went to school at Chigwell.  Reading on the subject of D.H. Lawrence (also Virgo) while there drew him to the subjects of ethics, and the problems of the self.  He was particularly taken with D.H. Lawrence’s advice to “find your deepest impulse, and follow that.”  He was awarded a scholarship to Oxford and read Classics, Ancient History and Philosophy at Balliol College.  The Philosopher Gilbert Ryle was one of his mentors there.  He originally met his future wife, the politician Shirley Williams (daughter of  the novelist Vera Brittain) while at Oxford, but they became close when they both spent time in New York: he was on national service, and she was studying economics at Columbia University.  The two of them returned to England;  he took up various academic fellowships, and she entered the worlds of journalism and politics.  They married in 1955, and he supported her political ambitions.


Bernard Williams became lecturer in Philosophy at University College London in 1959, and the pair had a daughter Rebecca in 1961, after Shirley had suffered four miscarriages.  Within his marriage and career he supported feminism – Philosopher Martha Nussbaum pronounced him “as close to being a feminist as a powerful man of his generation could be” (his Moon trine Venus).

In 1967 Bernard became the Knightsbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of King’s College.  While there he was instrumental in the decision by King’s to admit women, a pioneering act.  Shirley, meanwhile, pursued her political career.

Shirley wrote of their relationship:

“… [T]here was something of a strain that comes from two things. One is that we were both too caught up in what we were respectively doing — we didn’t spend all that much time together; the other, to be completely honest, is that I’m fairly unjudgemental and I found Bernard’s capacity for pretty sharp putting-down of people he thought were stupid unacceptable. Patricia has been cleverer than me in that respect. She just rides it. He can be very painful sometimes. He can eviscerate somebody. Those who are left behind are, as it were, dead personalities. Judge not that ye be not judged. I was influenced by Christian thinking, and he would say “That’s frightfully pompous and it’s not really the point.” So we had a certain jarring over that and over Catholicism.”

The marriage ended in 1974, and they both went on to remarry. He married Patricia Law Skinner, an Editor at Cambridge University Press, and they went on to have two sons.  Shirley Williams married a political scientist, Richard Neustadt.

You can read more about Shirley Williams in my astro-obituary of April 2021.


In the field of Ethics, Bernard Williams was notable for his ability to create thought experiments.  He was especially interested in the metaphysics of mind, and tackled the issue of personal identity.

He wrote works elucidating the philosophy of the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, stating that there was an “absolute conception of reality” inherent in Descartes’ philosophical project.

Within moral philosophy, he argued against certain approaches, notably those of Kant, and Utilitarianism.  He argued  that the “honourable instincts of Kantianism to defend the individuality of individuals against the agglomerative indifference of Utilitarianism…may not be effective against the Kantian abstract character of persons as moral agents.”  Instead, acting according to personal identity, accuracy, sincerity and authenticity was key to living.

He created the phrase “moral luck”, observing how luck pervades ethical life, citing as an example the painter Paul Gauguin’s decision to move to Tahiti, in pursuit of becoming a great painter but in that act, abandoning his wife and children.

On the issue of G.E. Moore’s Naturalistic Fallacy, not a prominent philosophical dilemma, Bernard Williams was critical.  I only mention it here because (curiously) it has found its way into both Volumes I and II of my trilogy of novels (“The Quiet Office”).  The Naturalistic Fallacy derives from the work of G.E Moore, specifically his “Principia Ethica” written in 1903.  It is a criticism or loophole that he spotted in the work deriving back to at least the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill, with the latter especially held to account over the “mistake”.  Bernard Williams’ view is that the naturalistic fallacy is a misnomer, as well as being a problem for naturalists.  He claims that Moore failed to see the distinction between naturalism and reductionism (a method whereby a number of things are reduced and explained in smaller units).

So I have personal reasons for selecting Bernard Williams as my Virgo Philosopher of choice, over say the more prominent John Locke.  When we were floundering in our studies, his expositions saved us!

“An analytical philosopher with the soul of a general humanist.”

~ Colin McGinn

“Being in Williams’s presence is at times painful because of that intensity of aliveness, which challenges the friend to something or other, and yet it was, and is, not terribly clear to what. To authenticity, I now think: to being and expressing oneself more courageously and clearly than one had done heretofore.”

~ Martha Nussbaum, 2015


Bernard Williams. Descartes, The Project of Pure Enquiry. 2nd ed. Routledge; 2005

Bernard Williams  Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, New York 1985

Ed Ted Honderich.  The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.  Oxford University Press 1995


Mercury goes Retrograde tomorrow, Monday 1st April, which is no April Fool’s joke for some.  Depending on how you are normally affected, be clear in your communications for the next three weeks, in order to avoid misunderstandings and loopholes.  Although technology can go awry, it can be a good period to upgrade such devices.  You may have developed your own strategies, according to past experiences.

Wednesday (3rd) brings a conjunction between Venus and Neptune at 28 degrees Pisces.  This could be a serene, highly spiritual and artistically inspired conjunction, full of unconditional love.  This conjunction can express the best of the divine feminine.

Another conjunction occurs on Thursday (4th), that of the Sun with the North Node, at 15 degrees Aries, which gives a karmic flavour to the day.  This could bring a show of power by someone in your circle.  However, this show of power is firmly subject to the laws of karma, and if you have faith in the justice of that you’re O.K. (aren’t you?)  It could also heighten creativity if you are unattached to the power play of others.  Listen to the subtle instructions of the Universe…

I came across the words of Nassim Haramein on Facebook this week, which are relevant to this conjunction:

“There is a concept that a person can create their your own reality. This concept is only partially correct because it is generally discussed in a one-way manner i.e., a person sending a message to the field with a request/intention/prayer desiring an outcome. This is only ½ of the loop. The wave you’re sending is the feed-forward part of the loop. You need to realize that the wave coming back is the feed-back which is the rest of the universe creating its reality and responding to you.”

An ingress occurs on Friday (5th), with Venus entering Aries.  Venus waves goodbye to Pisces and enters Aries in the early hours.  Though Venus was sympathetic in Pisces, there is a warmer and more demonstrative feel while she is in Aries.  On the flip side, she is out of her comfort zone in the warrior sign, so there may be some uncomfortable wrestling with issues around whether to express true feelings or stay away from possible conflict.  Venus has a short stay in Aries, lasting until 29th April.

Last but definitely not least, Venus sextiles Pluto on Saturday (6th), an aspect which encourages soul-searching and arriving at deeper concepts and perceptions.  You can add extra artistry and harmony to your current projects.  You can also experience profound connections between people, and it’s a good time for evaluating what people mean to you. You may experience a volcanic eruption of creativity!  A good day for philosophical and psychological enquiries.

The week in bullet points:

  • Tomorrow – communication issues
  • Wednesday – spiritual art and music
  • Thursday – ethical and all-embracing creating of reality
  • Friday – demonstrative affection
  • Saturday – deep psychological interaction