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Influential Figures in My Life: John Stuart Mill

April 1, 2013

John Stuart Mill Portrait John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher in the 1800s. Educated and trained from a young age by his father James Mill in all manner of studies. His grasp of subjects came easy and he wrote many influential works. Famous for his work on Liberty and Utilitarianism. He also foresaw some dangers and benefits to Socialism. Began the case for political equality of women; wrote a treatise on economics and a treatise covering wide areas of philosophy called a system of logic. He was not always the most creative of thinkers. And he has often been misunderstood and misrepresented. But one thing he always brought to his work, was a well thought through understanding, that got to the heart of the matter, and didn’t waste time on intellectual quarrels about political allegiances and “isms”.

I have come across John Stuart Mill within a few different areas of interest to me. My first acquaintance was with his Utilitarian Philosophy, where he distinguished kinds of pleasure. Arguing it was better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. His arguments here I never found to be the most convincing, and I always preferred the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham in his Principles of Morals and Legislation. For he followed it through more logically and consistently.

It was at this point though, that I became acquainted with some of his other writings, on liberty and on the subjection of women. This was where my interest in Liberalism began. The idea of liberty fascinated me for a long time. It seemed clearly the best way to allow people freedom in society. I read Hayek, Constitution of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin on Liberty and John Gray more recently. I have eventually come to see that at times things are more complicated than this approach suggests. And that there are other concerns appropriate to freedom beyond merely giving people liberty in their own lives. For this liberty can become a means of exploiting people in itself. For example, it is well and good to say a person has liberty to choose his employment. In theory this seems true, but in practice, people are often constrained and eventually coerced into action by circumstances to do a job in terrible working conditions that no one would freely choose. Liberalism blinds us to this side of things at times. Still, I maintain an interest in this approach to this day. I just temper it now with a more considered understanding of what it really means to have freedom. And oftentimes I found it does not coincide with having personal liberty.

This identification of two distinct things: the provision of political liberty and of moral freedom is where liberalism often falls down. Later on I came to read up on the political economy of John Stuart Mill and his work in the philosophy of science in his System of Logic. In both these areas he has been badly misrepresented by figures who attacked his ideas. Karl Marx, in relation to his political economy. Where it was Marx’s issue with the liberalism of Mill that made him unable to see many well presented truths in his political economy. In relation to his philosophy of science. Another Karl, Karl Popper, dismissed the views of Mill as all due to a psychologist error, as did Edmund Husserl. Once again, by focusing and getting caught up on the “isms”, psychologism, liberalism. They skipped over and made no attempt to appreciate the honest attempt made by Mill to understand philosophy of science accurately and rigorously.

So Mill’s ideas have influenced me a lot. Partly through making me aware of how many thinkers use dubious means to discredit their predecessors. But mainly by his honest approach to the subjects he considered. This honesty and unwillingness to take sides in the battles of “isms”, often made him a target of others. And has meant that much of his work has become heavily misunderstood and lost amongst noisy secondary interpretations of it. But, for me it was like a revelation. Finding someone with all these insights whom history has chosen to forget. I really do wish at times Britain would take more pride in its liberal heritage and try to maintain it. Because gradually over the decades its voice has been lost. I think this is a great shame. So much now we are rediscovering, going over the same ground again and again. If only we would acknowledge these predecessors more we could move on the debate to something new and more developed.

The liberal era had its downfalls, it had its weaknesses. But there is a great intellectual heritage for us there to draw upon. And British people would do well to look into it a bit more, rather than going along with the critics of it and dismissing it from secondary sources before even having a chance to appreciate it first hand.

One Comment
  1. Excellent post!

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