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Together with Rousseau, John Stuart Mill (1806–73) supplied nearly all of the arguments and most of the emotional weather – the texture of sentiment – that have gone into defining the Left-liberal vision of the world.

Mill’s peculiar brand of utilitarianism – a cake of Benthamite hedonism glazed with Wordsworthian sentimentality – accounts for part of his appeal: it provides a perfect recipe for embellishing programmatic shallowness with a cosmetic patina of spirituality. It is a recipe that has proven irresistible to those infatuated with the spectacle of their own virtue.

Another large part of Mill’s appeal rests on his “feminism” – his conviction, put forward in The Subjection of Women, that differences between the sexes were accidental and that, as Leslie Stephen put it, “women could be turned into men by trifling changes in the law”. Both are indispensable elements in the intoxicating potion that constitutes Mill’s appeal and makes much of his thinking seem so contemporary.

Mill’s arguments and pronouncements about man as a “progressive being”, the extent of individual autonomy, the limits of acceptable moral and legal censure, the importance of innovation and (perhaps his most famous phrase) “experiments in living” are all familiar to the point of invisibility. Likewise his corollary insistence on the poverty of custom, prejudice and tradition. Mill’s contentions on these subjects are nowadays less objects of debate than of reverence.

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June 29th, 2009
4:06 PM
This is a genuinely very interesting web site. I do find it quite odd, though, how you (in my view rightly) castigate socialists and their fellow travellers for their reverence to states and abstract collectives, and you castigate liberals (in the old sense) for 'individualism'. Is it a case of 'tyranny is just great, but only when the tyrant agrees with me'?

Michael B
December 24th, 2008
1:12 AM
Mill's is a hyper-individualism and he needs to be subject to a thoroughgoing disciplined review - broadly considered, under the rubric of "the individual and society" and all the existential dialectics that inform that general heading. Still, Mill's instincts are invoked more passionately than his arguments, more strictly or formally understood, and those instincts are reflective of a certain, qualitative irrationalism, the type of irrationalism that can be found in a Kierkegaard, a Shestov, a Nietzsche, et al. So, that terrain is extremely difficult to navigate and arguably becomes almost impassable in the type of late-modern, multi-culti, hyper-individual and relativism-qua-absolutism regimes that have successfully implanted themselves in the western sphere. It needs to be done, but, no small task.

December 22nd, 2008
11:12 PM
Your argument against experimentation has its own glaring weakness, in that it makes no allowance for our being able to identify and retain good experiments.

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