Reminding liberals of a good life

The Cambridge Companion to Mill

June 4, 1999

If there is a revival of interest in John Stuart Mill, it comes in part from a growing dissatisfaction with recent liberal thought. The once-dominant school of John Rawls aimed to detach political philosophy from the rest of philosophy and liberalism from any comprehensive ideal of the good life. The aim was a strictly political liberalism that did not depend on any particular ideal of the good or position in the theory of knowledge. That goal of moral and epistemological neutrality is now widely seen to have impoverished political philosophy.

The attempt to develop a strictly political liberalism has produced a narrow legalism whose distance from political practice is striking. At the same time, detaching political philosophy from controversy in ethics and epistemology has gone with an exaggerated reliance on moral intuition. The result has been a species of liberal theory that passes over most of the challenges that liberal societies presently confront.

Part of the continuing appeal of Millian liberalism comes from its engagement with political practice and with debate in the rest of philosophy. Mill's extraordinary scope is exemplified in this indispensable guide, edited and introduced by John Skorupski. Pretty well every aspect of Mill's work is covered in the 14 essays in this admirable volume. Geoffrey Scarre gives a thorough account of Mill's views on induction and scientific method. Andy Hamilton assesses his attempt to develop a plausible phenomenalist account of the unity of the self. Alan Millar surveys Mill's eminently Victorian reflections on morality and supernatural hopes. T. H. Irwin examines Mill's debts to classical Greek philosophy, Jonathan Riley analyses liberal utilitarian and Ricardian elements in Mill's political economy. C. L. Ten gives a thorough exposition of Mill's view on democracy, socialism and the working class. Mary Lyndon Shanley celebrates his pioneering contribution to liberal feminism. There are also valuable papers by Philip Kitcher, Fred Wilson, Wendy Donner, John Robson, Peter Nicholson and Alan Ryan.

It is in Skorupski's introduction that the continuing centrality and relevance of Mill's thought is most forcefully defended. Skorupski sees Mill as part of a tradition of naturalism in philosophy, extending from the Scottish exponent of "common sense'', Thomas Reid, to the contemporary American pragmatist, W. V. Quine. He contrasts this naturalistic tradition with a more sceptical modernism in philosophy that he sees extending from Hume to Nietzsche. Skorupski represents Mill's project as that of grounding the moral and political ideals of European liberal humanism firmly in a naturalistic philosophical framework.

Among many points of interest in Skorupski's fascinating introductory essay, his argument that Millian liberalism embodies a Romantic-Hellenic ideal that is at odds with the ideals of neutrality and democracy expressed in Rawlsian liberalism is especially noteworthy. For Skorupski is explicit that Mill's liberalism is a comprehensive ethical ideal, not a supposedly neutral political doctrine, and he is sharply critical of the view that ideals of the good life are to be removed from political debates. This is an important point, since it shows that the lately dominant school of liberal philosophy is not a natural continuation of earlier liberal thinking but instead discontinuous with it in centrally important respects. It is probably only their ignorance of the history of political thought that explains how Rawlsian liberals can imagine that a commitment to democracy or to moral neutrality is constitutively liberal. Skorupski's treatment of these issues is exemplary, since it combines two virtues that are not often seen together in moral or political philosophy - analytical rigour and a sense of the longer history of the subject.

At the same time, Skorupski is clear that Mill's attempt to refound liberal humanism in a broadly naturalistic philosophy cannot be properly evaluated without assessing the specific positions in the theory of knowledge and the philosophy of mind that it comprehends. For Skorupski, as for Mill, there can be no question of hiving off political philosophy from these central areas of philosophical inquiry. The result of this strategy has been a reversion to intuitionism, in which the prejudices of recent Anglo-American liberalism have become normative presuppositions of the subject. Perhaps it is this intuitionist turn that accounts for much of the barrenness of recent work in political philosophy.

Mill's naturalism may not in the end withstand Humean and Nietzschean criticism. But it is worth buying this invaluable book just to read Skorupski's luminous discussion of the central issues that Mill's thought continues to engage.

John Gray is professor of European thought, London School of Economics.

The Cambridge Companion to Mill

Editor - John Skorupski
ISBN - 0 521 41987 5 and 42211 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £13.95
Pages - 591

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs