Shame and Necessity

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					University of California, Los Angeles
      Philosophy Department

       Independent Study 199
     Professor Calvin Normore

        Shame and Necessity
         Bernard Williams

             Paper Four

          Keith S. Payson
            Fall Quarter
        December 14, 2004
       “Shame can understand guilt, but guilt cannot understand itself,” (93). This observation

exemplifies a fundamental point about Bernard Williams’ perception of shame, necessity and

autonomy. It is of notable importance to distinguish the operational relationship between the two

emotions of shame and guilt in order to help explain the precise manner through which they

betray and define autonomy. Williams, like Murphy, provides an analysis of shame and its

relation to guilt. However, he also illuminates the essential differences between natural emotions

and the social construction of legal concepts; the genesis of rules as a rational protocol for

controlling behavior, which lead directly to concepts of liability, responsibility, blame, guilt,

justice, punishment and forgiveness. Each of these notions, however, will not be thoroughly

understood without first comprehending the structure of autonomy as it is shaped by experiences

of shame.

       What better context in which to juxtapose and ultimately expose such human attributes

and emotions as guilt and shame than via a comparison of heroic and tragic characters. William’s

references both mythological Greek and Shakespearean literary figures, through which he

intimates the definition of autonomy as the awareness of ones own limitations, the reflective

perception of ones-self, illuminated by the feelings of shame such awareness inwardly provides.

He quotes Gabriele Taylor as saying, “shame is the emotion of self-protection, in the experience

of shame, ones whole being seems diminished or lessened,” (89). This is apparently similar to

the assessment gap of self-perception discussed by Velleman and also indirectly alluded to by


       In quoting Calderón, William’s captures the essence of the perception, “Soy que soy…I

am what I am,” (101). As if to imply that the cognitive acknowledgment of one’s own lacking is

something that the hero must recognize, indicating that no typical or normal issue of choice

exists for the heroic person. So the difference between the hero and the coward or the tragic

figure of the reluctant hero, is the inability of the latter to proximately perceive the absence of his

own character attributes. He does not have the necessary insight to know him-self and therefore

cannot empower or otherwise move himself forward. The problem then is not in the flaws he

possesses, but rather the absence of awareness of those flaws, disallowing him the ability to

perceive himself accurately, thus precluding him from attempting, let alone achieving his goal.

       What does this imply with regard to the function, or for that matter, the existence of

destiny? What then of free will? Is it the case that the regular guy, the reluctant hero, only

becomes heroic when personally choosing to bring his life into focus, enabling himself to see

precisely what must be done? Does he thereby gain a feeling of empowerment through a new-

found sense of himself?” Or would it be more accurate to say that the true hero has always

possessed an ability to know himself and therefore has always been empowered, yet only

reluctantly attains the clarity of mind to perceive his circumstances accurately, thus minimizing

his ability to react successfully? Does such a reluctant hero remain unable to bring his life into

focus, having no sense of what must be done? Is he, in a sense, terminally impotent with regard

to his heroic potential? In either case, it would seem he has much cause for shame. But what is

the operative relationship of that shame to autonomy? To whom does he compare himself when

determining himself diminished or less than? Does he compare himself to anything or anyone at

all? Or is the sense of shame operating without the need for external comparison?

       This leads us back to the original insight that, shame understands guilt, but guilt cannot

understand itself. And more importantly to the critical state of mind experienced as autonomy.

        Does the quintessential hero naturally know his shame and is he therefore capable,

through this intimate self-knowledge, able to understand his guilt? By contrast, is the reluctant

hero, the fractured and diffused personae, merely feeling his guilt yet thoroughly lacking the

perspective to truly know its significance….leaving any sense of his shame completely

incomprehensible? Finally, what qualifies as autonomy? It appears that Williams believes the

autonomous person to be one who is most completely self-aware, the best able to understand

himself through himself. The one who abides by the ancient wisdom expressed by the statement,

“know thyself.”


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Description: The question of shame as necessity is explored