Monday, May 12, 2008

Alan Wolfe on J.S. Mill

Alan Wolfe reviews Richard Reeves's new biography of John Stuart Mill. In it he suggests that Mill is insufficiently appreciated in contemporary academic philosophy, which is plausible; but he seems to suggest that the reason is that contemporary academic philosophy is split between analytic and continental theorists, which is less so. The fact is, very few of the great British thinkers of the nineteenth century are taken seriously in contemporary academic philosophy, and of them Mill is probably the one who is taken the most seriously (or perhaps second to Sidgwick), because of his importance for utilitarianism. Dugald Stewart, Lady Mary Shepherd, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Whewell, Richard Whately, John Henry Newman, George Boole, Augustus DeMorgan, Lewis Carroll, John Neville Keynes, T. H. Green, etc.: we don't generally have undergraduate courses devoted to them, we very rarely have graduate courses devoted to them, and for a number of them a student will be lucky if they even have some vague idea to associate the names with any philosophical view whatsoever. It's a serious curricular flaw, whose continued propagation simply mystifies me: once we get out of 'Early Modern' courses we hit the 'Nineteenth Century' courses: which is virtually always really just nineteenth-century German philosophy. There is no good reason for this, and yet we keep doing it. One more thing I don't understand about the way philosophy is usually taught....

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