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At the Ottoline Club

David Mitchell | May 31, 2017

“J S Mill’s Philosophy of History”, a talk given at NCH on 14th March 2017 by Dr. Callum Barrell, Lecturer in Politics & International Relations.

Those present were: Dr. Callum Barrell, Dr. Brian Ball (Faculty of Philosophy), Dr. Naomi Goulder (Faculty of Philosophy), Dr. George Zouros (Faculty of Economics), Dr. Sebastian Ille (Faculty of Economics), Prof. Anthony Grayling (Master), Dr. Charlotte Grant (Faculty of English), Dr. Christoph Schuringa (Faculty of Philosophy), Mr. Fred Pelard (Visiting Fellow), Dr. Robert Craig (Faculty of Law), Dr. Mike Peacey (Faculty of Economics) and Dr. David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).

As a colleague whose research interests are decidedly interdisciplinary, Callum duly delivered a talk that straddled the faculties. His main thesis was that John Stuart Mill developed over a period of years a philosophy of history which very much informed his mature political ideas and in particular his proposals for political change. From having written at the age of 21, in terms that up to that time were rather usual among the exponents of utilitarianism, that the importance of the past as a guide to political action tended to be greatly overrated, Mill moved in the course of the next fifteen years to a quite different outlook, according to which it was a basic requirement upon normative doctrines that they relate themselves to a conception of ‘universal history’.

Mill’s philosophy of history and equally, Callum maintained, his theory of politics are best represented in his System of Logic, whose first edition appeared in 1843. Callum referred a good deal also to a new chapter added to the work in its 1862 edition, containing ‘Additional Elucidations on the Science of History’. This is a main source for Mill’s developed reflections on ‘universal history’, which show many signs of his study of recent and contemporary English and, especially, French writers. Universal history is discerned, Mill had claimed, by way of a process of separating off as far as possible all ‘disturbing’ and ‘modifying’ local factors, and in the 1862 chapter he credited the historian Buckle with having shown that something of this kind can be achieved if one surveys human conduct sufficiently en masse: different local peculiarities to a considerable extent cancel each other out. The same framework of the general but idealised and the contingently varying was also regarded by Mill as helping reconcile the presence of patterns and laws in history with the reality of free will.

Callum’s exposition of Mill’s views and his situating of them in the intellectual context of the time were much elaborated and augmented in his responses to points raised in discussion. Both Anthony and Naomi asked for more detail as regards how Mill’s ideas of moral progress fitted into his theorising about history. He rejected Whiggish teleologies, said Callum, and after having briefly been enthusiastic about Comte’s grand three-stage narrative of social development, settled into a much more circumspect stance. One firm conviction, which emerges for instance from the correspondence with Tocqueville, is that historical understanding can be expected to uncover large-scale trends, in the light of which and upon which practical interventions can then operate; but those trends are certainly not bound to be progressive.

Other exchanges, with Anthony and with Christoph, brought out some really illuminating comparisons with Federalist No. 10 and with the historicism of Herder. Callum had also proposed at the outset that we might consider how viable today are Mill’s suggestions about the political uses of a sense of universal history, whatever we might take that to be. He elicited rather more discussion, perhaps, than he would have anticipated of how to apply Mill’s thinking to current affairs, as Anthony and then Robert plunged into issues raised by the Brexit referendum and its sequel. The notion of ‘constitutional morality’, developed in the Considerations on Representative Government of 1861, was found particularly suggestive. It was prominent in the wonderful History of Greece by Mill’s friend George Grote, Callum reported; and Mill saw it as one half of a double condition necessary for the thriving of democracy, the other being the presence of a ‘democratical sentiment’ among the populace. Taken together with some moderately reassuring information from Callum about how Mill’s views on the franchise and on the colonies evolved, these observations reinforced the sense of the continuing relevance of the first utilitarian whose political thought is imbued with a genuinely historical consciousness.

David Mitchell

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy