Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty, Part One

John Stuart Mill, pages 122-144

The chapter devoted to Bertie’s godfather appears to be the longest in Portraits From Memory. At any rate, it is sufficiently long that the summentary will be divided into two parts, this being the first...

Russell believes that Mill’s intellect was overrated by his contemporaries, while Mill’s morality really was first-rate. His intellect was hampered by being erected on the unsturdy foundations of his father’s views, and its solidity was not enhanced by the renovations attributable to Mill’s wife Harriet and Thomas Carlyle. The simplistic story is that Harriet provided the morals and James Mill provided the intellect. “The amalgam which resulted was practically beneficent, but theoretically somewhat incoherent [p. 123].”

Russell follows by identifying many shortcomings in Mill’s System of Logic. Russell indicates (p. 124) that he read the Logic at the age of eighteen, and even at that time, he had trouble accepting the notion that the authority of induction implied that arithmetic sums were no more true than statements such as “all swans are white.” But Mill needed what was effectively unavailable to him, Boole and modern logic. Mill did not let mathematics permeate his thinking, and hence did not gravitate to a probabilistic view of causation. Mill’s inductive view of causation generally is wrong: “all the sheep that Kant ever saw were within ten miles of Königsberg, but he felt no inclination to induce that all sheep were within ten miles of Königsberg [p. 126].”

Surprisingly, Mill’s thought does not seem to be much influenced by Darwin, despite Mill’s close attention to Spencer. Mill’s neglect occurs not only in later editions of the Logic, but also in his religion essays. [Is Russell being unfair? At the end of Part One of the essay "Theism," Mill acknowledges evolution as a recent alternative to intelligent design. His conclusion is basically that it is too soon to tell whether the theory of evolution will become sufficiently well-established to offer a convincing refutation of intelligent design: “Of this theory [evolution] when pushed to this extreme point, all that can now be said is that it is not so absurd as it looks, and that the analogies which have been discovered in experience, favourable to its possibility, far exceed what any one could have supposed beforehand. Whether it will ever be possible to say more than this, is at present uncertain. The theory if admitted would be in no way whatever inconsistent with Creation. But it must be acknowledged that it would greatly attenuate the evidence for it.” Mill’s Essays on Religion are quite skeptical, and it is reasonable that he offer the best case for theism – and hence not be too quick in embracing evolution – in developing his argument. Indeed, I think Russell is factually wrong when he says that Mill did not discuss Darwin’s explanation for species adaptation in the religion essays; Mill’s discussion takes place in the paragraph preceding the passage quoted above.] Mill’s sort of natural, subconscious mind followed his father James Mill, and viewed man as a rational creature, different from all the other animals.

Mill’s Principles of Political Economy was first published in 1848, but subsequent editions took a much softer line towards socialism, thanks to the influence of Mrs. Taylor, Mill’s future wife. [Russell indicates that he is drawing upon a Mill biography by Packe which was published in 1954. I have read the Packe book, and, somehow, learning that Bertie read it, too, has given me pleasure.] The softer line was in keeping with Mill’s predispositions, however – Mrs. Taylor let those predispositions overcome the received political economy canon. Mill’s hopeful vision of (non-Marxist) socialism involves production being organized by worker cooperatives: no state ownership of the means of production for Mill. Mill’s distrust of the state ran too deep. Mill was sadly wrong in his belief that governmental interference with human action would diminish. People (at least pre-Orwell) tend to predict that the world will unfold as they hope. The only accurate prognosticator from the nineteenth century, therefore, was Nietzsche, because he actually wished for the awfulness that the twentieth century produced.

J. S. Mill did not fully account for the increasing power of large organizations. He did not want the government to run the schools, though he thought that poor kids should receive a publicly subsidized education. “He never realized that, so far as elementary education is concerned, the only important alternative to the State is the Church, which he would hardly have preferred [p. 129].” Mill was less appreciative of Communism (abolition of private property) than he was of Socialism (means of production publicly owned), but he thought Communism would be preferable to the deformed capitalism of his time. A reasonable system of private property – one that did not allocate rewards as a decreasing function of work – presumably would be preferred to communism, however. As far as we know, Mill never heard of Marx, but Marx turned out to wield more influence than any of Mill’s other contemporaries.

Like Mill’s System of Logic, his Principles of Political Economy has been superseded. Mill proved, in both instances, a little too accepting of received doctrines that did not engender overt harm. But Mill’s On Liberty and On the Subjection of Women remain important. [I have never seen The Subjection of Women with the “On” in the title that Russell lends it.] The world has moved away from the message of On Liberty, but the ideas in The Subjection of Women have found more fertile ground. Nonetheless, “[i]t is a disgrace to both men and women that the world should have had to wait so long for champions of women’s equality [p. 131].” Those few voices that supported female emancipation were laughed off the stage, until just shortly before they prevailed. Russell himself met with more energetic opposition to his public support for women’s suffrage before World War I than he received for his public pacifism during World War I. The quick, near-global embrace of women’s rights owes something to industrialization, which undermined the advantage to muscularity in the productive realm. (Indeed, the focus on industry has gone too far, neglecting the biology of humans.) The success of female emancipation also owes something to the decline of hereditary rule: “Napoleon wanted his son to succeed him. Lenin, Stalin and Hitler had no such desire [p. 132].” [What would Bertie say about the Kim dynasty in North Korea?]

On Liberty’s continuing relevance reflects, alas, the decline in individual liberty in the past century. Mill complained about the lack of freedom in Russia, but Russia has become markedly less free in the interim. Shortly after the 1859 publication of On Liberty, freedom was on the march, with the extirpation of slavery in the US, the end of the Napoleon III era in France, and the extension of (male) suffrage in Germany. Mill’s optimism, subsequently justified by such enhancements to liberty, proved less appropriate in the longer term.

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