Saturday, January 30, 2010

How much was J S Mill's view of progress influenced by personal experience?

In my last post I suggested that while J S Mill assisted in the triumph of the idea of progress, he was concerned that public opinion was becoming more powerful without becoming much more wise. One of the remedies he suggested in the article ‘Civilisation’, published when he was about 30 years of age (1836) was for universities to become dedicated to inspiring an intense love of truth.

The mental crisis that Mill suffered when 20 years old seems to have played an important role in the subsequent development of his views, including his views about progress. Mill recounts in his autobiography that the crisis involved, among other things, the sudden realization that he would not feel happy if all the ‘changes in institutions and opinions’ that he had been looking forward to were to be effected instantly.

The explanations that have been put forward for this crisis include depression and boredom. I think Richard Reeves is probably on the right track, however, in suggesting that Mill ‘suddenly saw the hollowness of the philosophical religion to which he had subscribed’ (‘John Stuart Mill, Victorian Firebrand: 63). This philosophical religion was Benthamite utilitarianism. It seems likely that Mill would not have been filled with joy about the prospect of instantaneous implementation of the reforms he had been advocating because he perceived that they would have done little to improve ‘national character’. In his essay, ‘Bentham’ (1838) Mill argued that Bentham did not qualify as a ‘true teacher of social arrangements’ because he was unable to point out how ‘national character’ ... ‘can be improved, and how it has been made what it is’. Mill suggested that Bentham’s philosophy ‘can teach the means of regulating the merely business part of the social arrangements’, but Bentham ‘committed the mistake of supposing that the business part of human affairs was the whole of them’.

Elijah Millgram has drawn attention to another aspect of Mill’s mental crisis that seems to have influenced the subsequent development of his views (here). Mill ascribed his recovery to, among other things, thinking his way through what we now call the problem of determinism. Millgram makes a strong case that Mill was suffering from a sense of moral unfreedom.

In ‘A System of Logic’ (1843) Mill wrote: ‘Now, a necessitarian, believing that our actions follow from our characters, and that our characters follow from our organization, our education, and our circumstances, is apt to be, with more or less of consciousness on his part, a fatalist as to his own actions, and to believe that his nature is such, or that his education and circumstances have so moulded his character, that nothing can now prevent him from feeling and acting in a particular way, or at least that no effort of his own can hinder it. ... But this is a grand error. He has, to a certain extent, a power to alter his character. ... His character is formed by his circumstances (including among these his particular organization); but his own desire to mould it in a particular way, is one of those circumstances, and by no means one of the least influential. We cannot, indeed, directly will to be different from what we are. But neither did those who are supposed to have formed our characters, directly will that we should be what we are. Their will had no direct power except over their own actions. If they could place us under the influence of certain circumstances, we, in like manner, can place ourselves under the influence of other circumstances. We are exactly as capable of making our own character, if we will, as others are of making it for us’ (Book VI, Ch. II).

Mill’s recovery may have been helped by realization that his upbringing had not condemned him to be an apostle of Benthamite utilitarianism, irrespective of whether or not that was what he wanted to be.

In my last post I note that Mill castigated the English universities for acting as though the object of education was to inculcate the teacher’s own opinions in order to produce disciples rather than thinkers or inquirers. I wonder whether thoughts about his father’s inculcation of Benthamite utilitarianism in Mill’s own education would have passed through his mind when he wrote that.

One way or another Mill managed to form a strong view about the purpose of education. This passage from ‘Civilization’ is worth quoting more than once: ‘The very corner-stone of an education intended to form great minds, must be the recognition of the principle, that the object is to call forth the greatest possible quantity of intellectual power, and to inspire the intensest love of truth: and this without a particle of regard to the results to which the exercise of that power may lead, even though it should conduct the pupil to opinions diametrically opposite to those of his teachers’.


CrisisMaven said...

Just put you on my link list. By the way: I have just added a Reference List to my economics blog with economic data series, history, bibliographies etc. for students & researchers.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Chris. Your reference list will be useful. I have added it to the sites I visit.

Winton Bates said...

Sorry, CrisisMaven. I hope you don't mind being called Chris!