Academe’s specialization has left John Stuart Mill out in the cold
Contemporary academic philosophy is riven by a great divide: Either you adhere to a Continental perspective identified with Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger that addresses big speculative subjects like the Essence of Being, or you identify with the British and American analytic school that puts a priority on rigorous logic, language, and meaning. What, then, are we to make of John Stuart Mill, who belongs to neither?
John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand (Atlantic Books, 2007), a biography by Richard Reeves — not the American of the same name who has written biographies of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, but a British social and political commentator — helps us answer the question. The book was published in Britain late last year, and I’ve just gotten my hands on it. Mill is worth revisiting because his life and his thought shed light on the way we produce and circulate ideas in the United States — and, for that matter, in Britain as well.
Mill, as eminent a Victorian as one can find, foreshadows almost none of the analytical approaches that would dominate his country’s philosophy a century after his death in 1873. True, he did write A System of Logic (1843), which addressed questions of reasoning and causality, but Mill was not interested in logic for logic’s sake; his purpose was to demolish the so-called intuitionist school, whose views on human nature he found too conservative. (The intuitionists believed that truths about the world were not discoverable by causal laws but, as Reeves puts it, “had been preinserted by God, and were known to be true because their falsehood was simply inconceivable.”)
Unlike those in academe (and not just in philosophy) who tend to specialize in one area, Mill wrote on a wide variety of subjects, including botany and poetry and the rights of women. As he recounted in his Autobiography (1861), he was rigorously educated by his father, the Scottish philosopher James Mill, and learned Greek at three; history, literature, languages, mathematics, and political economy by adolescence — and suffered a nervous breakdown at 20. He never attended a university, let alone taught in one, and developed many of his theories during his long relationship, then marriage, with Harriet Taylor.
He was both a journalist and (for one short term) a member of Parliament, neither of which activities would have counted for tenure. His career path was not one many in 20th-century analytic philosophy, nearly all of whom assumed university positions, would take. (Bertrand Russell, who was Mill’s godson and engaged in public causes, is remembered these days more for his political activism and hyperactive sex life than for the three volumes he wrote with Alfred North Whitehead, Principia Mathematica.)
At the same time, Mill’s work has little in common with the Continental tradition. Nietzsche called him a “flathead.” Jeremy Bentham, a good friend of Mill’s father and the major influence on Mill’s early writings, was the philosopher Michel Foucault loved to hate. Jacques Derrida, had he paid more attention to Mill’s writings than he did, would have found Mill’s conviction that we ought to be the authors of our own lives facile, given that we are not even the authors of our own words. Mill had little taste for metaphysical abstraction; “as soon as he saw capital letters,” writes Reeves, referring to such notions as The True or The Absolute, “he saw red.” Another Victorian, himself deeply contemptuous of Mill, would have a far greater influence on contemporary Continental philosophy than the author of On Liberty (1859). His name was Karl Marx.
I am no philosopher, so perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking that Mill has gotten a raw deal from those who are. For a book I have just completed on what we can learn from the tradition of liberal political philosophy, I read a good deal of Mill and came to value him, not only for his seductive writing but also for the relevance of his ideas to such contemporary issues as free speech, women’s suffrage, and the role that religion should play in a democracy. It therefore bothers me that Mill is not taken as seriously as he should be, either in philosophy or in my own discipline of political science.
Reeves calls Mill “unquestionably the greatest public intellectual in the history of Britain — and perhaps even the world.” Such praise is too excessive, even for me. But I share Reeves’s argument that, as well known as Mill may be, he nonetheless deserves a rediscovery.
On Liberty, which Reeves calls “the New Testament of liberalism,” is among the most teachable of texts I have ever used in the classroom. Should we be free to do pretty much anything we want so long as it does not harm others? If the answer is yes, does drinking oneself to death harm others? Does prostitution? Does polygamy? (Mill anticipates the debates about Mormonism still being stoked by recent events like law enforcement’s seizure of children in a polygamous compound in Texas. But he answers — wrongly, I believe — that polygamy does not cause harm.) Mill was no democrat; On Liberty is filled with disdain for the public and praise for romantic heroes who defy convention and conformity. But nor is Mill a libertarian as we understand that term today; the purpose of liberty is not to give us what we want but to help us grow so that we can best understand our wants.
Any book that inspires college sophomores is likely to be dismissed by professional philosophers as, well, sophomoric. But shouldn’t we judge a work of political philosophy by how long it continues to inspire debate? By that standard, On Liberty is a classic.
So is The Subjection of Women (1869). Besides teachability, works of political philosophy can be evaluated by their ability to anticipate an idea that will become acceptable to future generations, no matter how shocking it may be to one’s contemporaries. British women finally obtained the suffrage in 1928, long after Mill died, making all the more remarkable his ability to understand the inevitability of what we now take for granted. But Mill also focused on issues that remained after women could vote, including combatting economic discrimination and the brutality of marital rape. (Marriage, he wrote, could amount to little more than slavery.) Such views were so controversial that one of his critics, James Fitzjames Stephen, wrote an entire book, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873), attacking them. Stephen’s niece, Virginia Woolf, would find herself far closer to Mill’s point of view than to that of her uncle. A year after British women won the right to vote, she gave the lecture that would become A Room of One’s Own (1930).
Mill was not always the most consistent of thinkers. Principles of Political Economy (1848), especially as the author revised it over the years, can be read either as looking back to classical economists like David Ricardo and his arguments on behalf of laissez-faire or looking forward to John Maynard Keynes and his defense of active government. In some of his writings, Mill defends utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number), while in others he criticizes it. The historian Gertrude Himmelfarb faults Mill for arguing for individual freedom while praising writers like Auguste Comte, who worshiped authority.
Mill combined his belief in women’s suffrage with worries about broadening the suffrage to the working class. Unlike most reformers, he was against the secret ballot. He was not religious but defended religion for the moral functions it performed. Just as he falls between the cracks of today’s academic approaches to philosophy, he does not easily fit into today’s ideological categories of left and right.
Yet once again, Mill’s inconsistencies are reasons to appreciate his writings. Liberalism today possesses agreed-upon principles that can be applied to contemporary issues like economic justice or racial equality. Mill, by contrast, wrote at a time when liberalism was not yet formed, and it fell upon him to do much of the forming. We therefore see in him an intelligent mind struggling to make sense of the emergence of a new world in the process of being created. If he could be too cranky toward the masses or insufficiently critical of British imperialism — Mill’s day job was to help govern India — he saw progress and liked what he saw. The complacency regarding the status quo for which Victorianism is known just did not rub off on him.
As different as they may be from each other, neither the analytic nor the Continental traditions in philosophy set much store by biography. Even if analytic philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein and A.J. Ayer led unconventional lives, we are supposed to remember them for their thoughts, not their actions. And since so much of Continental philosophy is devoted to dismissing the importance of human agency, the actual human agent writing the philosophy is of little interest — perhaps a convenient position for a tradition that includes among its leading figures all too many who flirted with fascism. In contrast to both Continental and analytic philosophy, give me John Stuart Mill any day, and give me a biography as fascinating to read as the one written by Richard Reeves.
Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and a professor of political science at Boston College.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 54, Issue 31, Page B6