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J.S. Mill: Philosophy in an Hour

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      J.S. Mill: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of J.S. Mill in just one hour.John Stuart Mill is remembered today as the leading exponent of Utilitarianism, arguing that our aim in life must be the attainment of pleasure and the minimizing of pain for the majority of people. The principle that lies at the heart of Utilitarianism is ‘the greatest benefit of the greatest number’ – an idea that perhaps seems self-evident today but one that was seen as radical within Mill’s own time. This central idea has become the unspoken founding principle of our modern way of life in the free Western democracies.Here is a concise, expert account of J.S. Mill’s life and philosophical ideas – entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from J.S. Mill’s work, suggested further reading, and chronologies that place J.S. Mill in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.

J.S. Mill

PHILOSOPHY IN AN HOUR

Paul Strathern

Contents

Cover (#uff6c8d71-caae-5ee3-b5ad-504484d26239)

Title Page (#ue9c761d8-b3b4-51e7-8dbc-6993a563204b)

Introduction

Mill’s Life and Works

Afterword

Further Information

From Mill’s Writings

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates

Chronology of Mill’s Life and Times

Recommended Reading

About the Author

Copyright

About the Publisher

Introduction (#u61948eae-e986-5ed4-ba7b-64528c410a6c)

‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.’

– The ‘Sacred Truth’ of Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill is best remembered today as the leading exponent of Utilitarianism, but he did not invent this philosophy or even initiate its wide ranging influence. This was the work of the remarkable Jeremy Bentham.

In his later years John Stuart Mill wrote a perceptive portrait of Bentham: ‘He had neither internal experience, nor external. He never knew prosperity and adversity, passion nor satiety; he never had even the experience which sickness gives; he lived from childhood to the age of eighty-five in boyish health. He knew no dejection, no heaviness of heart. He never felt life a sore and weary burthen. He was a boy to the last.’

Bentham’s family bequeathed him sufficient cash to live on for the rest of his life without working. He put this stroke of fortune to exceptional use. He devoted his entire life to thought. Yet not all this thinking involved philosophy and theoretical matters. The progressive Utilitarian ideal that he founded permeated all his thinking. Bentham sought progress in all fields, from politics to prisons, from philosophy to frozen peas. His most celebrated practical scheme was the Panopticon, a revolutionary new design for a prison. This was laid out like a wheel, with the cells lining the outer rim and the warder’s tower at the axle. This panoptic (all seeing) tower enabled the warden to look into all the cells without going on patrol. Yet the architecture of this efficient prison was not the only novel feature. Bentham proposed that his prison should be run as a profit-making business. In this way it could be self-supporting, and the hard work involved for the prisoners would ‘grind the rogues honest’. But this process would also prove humane – for the governor would feed the prisoners well and keep them in good health, so that they could work harder and earn more money. Bentham became so enamoured of this scheme, and ran up such debts while attempting to persuade the government to adopt it, that he almost ended up in jail himself – as a bankrupt. His acquaintance with the bankruptcy laws (which could still inflict forty-eight hours pillory in the stocks and the cutting off of ears) proved a sobering shock.

Bentham’s other practical schemes ranged from an early form of telephone (involving a network of speaking tubes) to a project for digging a canal across the Panama isthmus to the Pacific, as well as his celebrated scheme for the freezing of vegetables so that peas could be served for Christmas dinner. Other projects included law reform, emancipation of the colonies, the drawing up of a British constitution, the establishment of London University, and, last but not least, a wholescale and radical overhaul of the bankruptcy laws.

Bentham spent much of his life badgering the authorities. But not in person. He was a shy man who preferred to live a secluded life devoted to his schemes and ideas, attended only by his loyal friends and disciples. Among these was James Mill, John Stuart Mill’s father. This group, known as the ‘philosophical radicals’, promoted Bentham’s work in public. Their advocacy of his ideas had widespread effect, especially in Parliament, where Bentham’s allies included David Ricardo, the great classical economist of his day. Even Bentham’s constant stream of pestering letters to the authorities would (sometimes inadvertently) bring about major reforms. In the course of his correspondence with the governor of the Bank of England about an unforgeable banknote that he had recently dreamed up, Bentham happened to inquire precisely how many banknotes were in circulation. The governor realised that he had no idea. Nor did anyone else in the Bank. If it was to persist in any plausible claim to be in control of the currency, the Bank realised that it had better start by finding out how much of this unknown entity there was. In this way Jeremy Bentham can claim responsibility for the introduction of the numbering on English banknotes – as well as the first monetary policy that actually had some idea of what it was talking about.

Yet Bentham was far from merely a brilliant crackpot. All his multifarious schemes and projects were guided by a central principle – his Utilitarian idea. This was built upon the following idea: ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is in them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as what we shall do’. Such an enlightened and humane idea was regarded as radical at the time. The fact that it now appears obvious to us is largely the result of Bentham, James Mill, and his son John Stuart Mill, as well as their Utilitarian colleagues. What we tend to accept as self-evident was far from being so in most societies throughout history and remains so in more than a few today. The implications of Bentham’s Utilitarian ideal would lead directly to the belief in democratic liberalism that permeates free Western society.

Bentham’s Utilitarianism was based upon what he called the ‘sacred truth’. This proclaimed: ‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.’ His aim was to make his philosophy, and with it the principles of the social sciences, as rigid as the laws of natural science. He saw Utilitarianism and its pleasure principle as the new gravity of morality, as a result he confidently expected that one day he would be recognised as the Newton of the social sciences and philosophy. His basic argument was based upon the ‘principle of utility’ that he saw as a moral principle. What gives us pleasure is good, what gives us pain is evil. But for such a principle to be moral it must be viewed in social terms. What is right maximises everyone’s pleasure, what is wrong causes an overall increase in pain and suffering. When confronted with difficult decisions, we must weigh up the net pleasure against the net pain.

This brings us to the main difficulty of Utilitarianism. How is it possible to measure pleasure, either on the individual or the collective scale? Bentham tackled this problem in some detail, coming up with his ‘felicific calculus’ for the precise measurement of pleasure. In his analysis he listed seven different dimensions of pleasure, including its duration and the number of individuals affected by it. He also listed fourteen different types of simple pleasures, ranging through those resulting from power, wealth, skill, good name, and, last but not least, malevolence. Likewise he named a dozen ‘simple pains’, ranging from disappointment to desire (a category that would seem to render most of us masochists). But the plain fact is that pleasure, whether solitary or social, remains beyond precise quantification. And this remains so, even now that we can investigate it at the biological level. There is no fixed scale by which intensity of stimulus can be universally related to consequent enjoyment. An Indian fakir may enjoy a curry, or a bed of nails, which a Dane finds intolerable.

Bentham worked closely with James Mill and took a keen interest in his son John Stuart. Soon both would come to see John Stuart Mill as Bentham’s natural heir, the ideal choice to carry forward the torch of Bentham’s ideas into the next generation.

Bentham died on June 6th, 1832, just two days after the passing of the Reform Bill which he had done so much to encourage. This bill would transform the political face of Britain, extending the franchise to take account of the new urban centers that had mushroomed with the Industrial Revolution. This was not yet democracy as we know it; much of the lower middle class and all the working class still remained without a vote. Yet it is now seen as the beginning of the inexorable move toward universal democracy in Britain, which would be achieved within a century.

Bentham’s death was every bit as extraordinary as his life. His ‘modern scientific’ will specified that at his funeral his body should be dissected in the presence of his mourning friends. His filleted remains were then to be embalmed, dressed in his favorite walking clothes and straw hat, and exhibited in a glass case. This ‘auto-icon’, as he called it, would be far more exact and fitting a memorial than any statue. True to his wishes, this ghoulish sight can now be seen preserved in a glass case at University College, London, which he did so much to found. (Students, acting upon their own version of Bentham’s pleasure principle, manage to ‘liberate’ his mummified head every few years.)

Mill’s Life and Works (#u61948eae-e986-5ed4-ba7b-64528c410a6c)

John Stuart Mill was born in London on 20 May 1806. From his earliest years his education was carried out by his father: James Mill was determined to turn his son into a genius. At the age of three, young John Stuart began studying arithmetic and ancient Greek. By eight he was launched into Latin, algebra, and geometry; by twelve he was deemed ready for logic and philosophy. But not everything went according to plan. Apparently at the age of seven young Mill read Plato’s Theaetetus in the original Greek. Although he understood the words and could follow the sentences, he found that he somehow failed to grasp the gist of the work. Considering that this high-minded dialogue of Plato’s is devoted to a lengthy discussion of the finer points of how knowledge itself should be defined, the child’s puzzlement is not surprising. Not so to James Mill, who instructed him to read it again.

Regardless and relentless, the child’s indoctrination began at six o’clock each morning, continuing throughout the day. He was isolated from all frivolous contact with other children and was allowed no holidays ‘lest the habit of work should be broken and a taste for idleness acquired’. Poetry was forbidden and imagination discouraged. Mill senior believed that private emotion should be suppressed in favour of restrained public expressions of general social approbation or displeasure. His guiding spirit was Walter Landor’s maxim: ‘Few acquaintances, fewer friends, no familiarities.’ James Mill – the leading public champion of Bentham’s pleasure principle and the benign mentor of the great economic thinker Ricardo – was in fact a classic Victorian monster in the privacy of his own home. His obsession with his son’s education knew no bounds. By the age of thirteen John Stuart Mill had in his own words finished ‘a complete course in political economy’. This was no exaggeration: he would now sit in on discussions between his father and Ricardo, absorbing the very latest economic ideas, even occasionally making his own astute contributions.

In 1821 the fifteen-year-old Mill came across Bentham’s Treatise on Morals and Legislation. By the time he had finished reading through this three-volume work, ‘I had become a different human being.’ His admiration for Bentham and his Utilitarian ideas knew no bounds. ‘From now on I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world.’

Bentham was never much interested in publication. He left it to his disciples to put together finished books out of his daily production of unfinished treatises and passing thoughts on every subject that took his fancy. At the age of eighteen John Stuart Mill embarked upon the mammoth task of piecing together thousands of scraps of paper, covered with Bentham’s scrawled handwriting, into a consecutive manuscript of more than a million words. This would eventually emerge as the multivolume work On Evidence.

As Mill later tellingly remarked in his Autobiography, ‘I was never a boy.’ One can imagine the domestic atmosphere presided over by a man described by his son: ‘for passionate emotion of all sorts … he professed the greatest contempt. He regarded them as a form of madness.’ But what did young Mill’s mother make of all this? Either through fear, weakness, or resignation, she did nothing. She had evidently seen it all before: her mother had run an asylum. Indicatively, John Stuart Mill does not mention his mother once during the entire 325 pages of his Autobiography.

So successful was James Mill’s brainwashing of his son that by the age of twenty even John Stuart’s inner life was governed utterly by reason. He could allow himself no deviation from the tyranny of his indoctrinated mind. He even seems to have remained unaware of his exceptional talents, judging them to be ‘below rather than above par, what I could do could assuredly be done by any boy or girl of average capacity’. Such a judgment could only have come from someone who had simply never met – or freely conversed – with someone of his own age. Even so, a growing self-awareness gradually began to dawn in the young man who had never been a boy. Working obsessively as ever amidst the gloom of a foggy London autumn day in 1826, he found himself pausing to ask himself: ‘Suppose that all your objects in life were realised … would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’ In his own words: ‘An irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.’ The young man who believed utterly in the philosophy of happiness was incapable of achieving this for himself.

John Stuart Mill was having a long-overdue nervous breakdown. Typically he appears to have kept this to himself. Even more typically, neither his mother nor his father seems to have noticed. Yet amidst the inner turmoil a sea change was taking place. Mill began reading the romantic poetry of Wordsworth and the writings of irrational thinkers such as the French social reformer Saint-Simon. Then one day he found himself ‘accidentally’ reading the Mémoires of the sentimental French poet Jean-François Marmontel. When he came to the passage where the poet describes the death of his father, Mill burst into tears. He claimed that he was moved by his own ‘vivid conception’ of the scene, though he makes no reference to what was actually taking place in it. His suppressed wish that such a scene should take place in his own life would not have been so transparent in those pre-Freudian times. Mill concluded that he was now cured: ‘The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone.’ John Stuart Mill would now devote himself to the introduction of humanity into his philosophy.

Although he retained his belief in the Utilitarian principle, Mill began to form critical judgments of its founders. Regarding Bentham, he realised: ‘Self-consciousness, that demon of the men of genius of our time [that is, the Romantics such as Wordsworth] never was awakened in him.’ He concluded that Bentham belonged to ‘a generation of the leanest and barrenest men whom England had ever produced’. This latter comment betrays more than a hint of subconscious antagonism toward his father. Yet at the same time he still believed that Bentham was ‘a great benefactor of mankind’. Besides introducing a human element, Mill would also seek to broaden the whole concept of Utilitarianism. In doing so he would transform what had begun as a far-reaching and ameliorative liberal idea into a distinct and logically argued philosophy.

Despite his pronouncement that he was cured, Mill only gradually recovered from his breakdown. He now courted his father’s disapproval by attending classical concerts. Yet in the midst of an enjoyable performance his overheated logical mind would be gripped with the fear that all music must inevitably come to an end. It had only a limited number of notes, and these would surely soon all be used up. (Despite this simple blunder, Mill’s exceptional logical powers were fortunately restored along with his sanity.)

The inevitably somewhat priggish, driven, and extraordinarily precocious young man whom Mill had been, emerged from his mental ordeal as a human being of rare quality. In place of the unimaginative rigidity instilled by his father, he became an exceptionally understanding man, habitually able to see and empathise with the other person’s point of view. His nobility of purpose was now tempered by practicality. He developed a wide feeling for what human happiness means and a contempt for narrow and unforgiving sectarianism.

Then the inevitable happened. At the age of twenty-four he fell in love with a woman he found darkly attractive and highly intelligent. The twenty-two-year-old Harriet Taylor was a poet of turbulent but contained emotion, and she immediately reciprocated his love. Unfortunately she was also married – to an energetic and successful businessman, whose exceptional qualities of understanding turned out to be the match of Mill’s. John Taylor loved his wife but was quickly persuaded by his forceful partner that she loved John Stuart Mill. Harriet’s sense of loyalty to her husband – for whom she retained a deep fondness – made her assure him that while she insisted upon seeing her lover, there would be no ‘impropriety’ between them. Within a year Queen Victoria had ascended the British throne: meanwhile this very Victorian state of affairs would continue for another twenty years.

Mill took to seeing Harriet Taylor regularly, sometimes even staying for the weekend when John Taylor was away on business. When such occasions did not arise, John Taylor would tactfully retire to his club after dinner, and his wife’s lover would turn up for a platonic evening of earnest philosophic discussion and poetry. Over the years John Taylor developed a certain irritability, John Stuart Mill developed a pronounced tic in one eyebrow, and Harriet herself was beset by a series of nervous complaints – but otherwise all remained swimmingly smooth on the surface. Exercising their powers of sublimation to the utmost, the well-tried trio succeeded in their chosen paths. Taylor made money in the chemical business, Mill became an exceptional philosopher, and Harriet played a major role in developing his ideas. (Mill later claimed that she co-wrote many of his major works.) Meanwhile the Victorian gossips had a field day. Mill would cut dead any friend who even so much as mentioned the name of his lover; Taylor took to enjoying bibulous institutional dinners; and Harriet developed a remarkable ability to faint.
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