At the same time, Strathern takes the time to do some quality English-bashing. While this is usually tame, he does rise up to show what may be some contempt rather than playfulness in exploring the nature of the English. See the following example:
The English have always been very good at being boring,
and several times in history have emerged for
considerable periods as undisputed world masters in the
field. This was one of them. Under the Puritans all
conspicuous signs of enjoyment were banned. Even
Christmas was banned, despite what it celebrated.
Citizens were expected to work all day and spend the rest
of their time conforming. Life was given over to Puritan
indoctrination, the thought police, informers (on the likes of
wicked Christmas pudding eaters), and long sessions spent
studying the principles of Markism, Lukism, and Johnism.
Until in the end even the English had had enough, and
decided to invite Charles II to take over. They preferred to be
ruled by a drunkard who lived with a prostitute, that than do
without Christmas pudding. [p. 19-20]
Strathern also exposes his distaste for actual philosophy (this is made clear in a different book discussed later in this post) by attacking the contributions of philosophers who dared to believe that metaphysics is a fit subject to explore. I have no idea where this fits in with mainstream, working (in academia) philosophers; it certainly was not prominent at any of the various colleges/universities that saw fit to let me take classes in the subject. He is more couched in his criticism here, allowing some merit at least to Kant, but only in the aesthetics of the system he created (German philosophers really do have an innate love of systems), not in value derived from the system.
Without Descartes there might have been no modern philosophy.
But it was Locke who fathered its main line of development—the
British empiricists, who then provoked Kant to produce the
greatest philosophical system of them all, which in turn gave rise to
the elephantine folly of Hegel, and the consequent disbelief in allsystems by anyone except Marxists and optimistic punters. [p. 42]
I would have preferred for Strathern to give more attention to Locke's works – he even goes a little light in quoting from them in the excerpts at the end of the book – but I cannot find a lot of fault in the book as a general overview. It does help to be familiar with Locke's writing going in, but as a short biography of the man, his time, and his general ideas, this book is fine.
Not that the book has an encouraging start. The entire introduction is dedicated to Jeremy Bentham, with Strathern seemingly eager to reduce Mill to simply repeat the ideas and take the credit. Strathern does make the effort to show where Mill branched off on his own in regards to the philosophy, but he does so with much amateur guessing as to the psychological motives behind his work (having already exposed his distaste for psychology/psychiatry; it being a fake science, like economics, according to Strathern).
He does – supposing on Mill's sexual experience on resentment of his father aside – a rather elegant job of not letting the history of the man or his era overwhelm the deeper thoughts expressed in the philosophy while still doing justice to them. Here are the various bits of the book that caught my attention:
A few years later [after entering the civil service at the age of eighteen]
John Stuart Mill also took on the task of of editing the influential
Westminster Review, which attracted such writers as Coleridge and
George Eliot. (Among this magazine's many philosophical and literary
achievements were the introduction of Kant to general English
readership and a review of of the unknown Schopenhauer, whichovernight made him belatedly famous in Germany. [p. 26]
This really doesn't stress Mill's importance with the Westminster Review as it does the Review's importance all on its own. Mill is, by extension, important early on because of his relationship to it rather than vice versa.
Metaphysics Mill was content to dismiss, but German metaphysics was
one of the few subjects that provoked his passionate outbursts. He
even declared that being conversant with Hegel "tends to deprave one'sintellect." [p. 27]
This combines Strathern's general distaste for metaphysics and his outright hatred of Hegel (or at least the Hegelian philosophic system). But at the same time it gives good insight into the otherwise proper – to the point of being a caricature of the trait – Mill having human emotions.
Strathern points out Lobachevsky's introduction of non-Euclidean geometry, which rendered mathematics that "often had no correlate in the physical world. Mathematical space and physical space were in no way identical: here experience and mathematics were two entirely different things." [p. 36] This is related to how empiricism cannot explain a complete and thorough understanding of mathematics, a problem which Mill never quite overcame.
Mill realized that the laws that govern economics are concerned with
production, not with distribution. The productivity of labor, of the soil, of
machinery—these can all be organized more or less efficiently according
to certain objective laws. These laws are affected by certain limiting
factors, such as nature (glut or famine), productivity (of labor, or machine),
and so forth. Wealth is thus produced according to laws and objectivefactors which enable us to maximize its quantity. [p. 37]
This is a huge breakthrough in terms of viewing economics. It had, to date, only been concerned with looking at one half of the equation. Mill argued that what had long been ignored was the moral component to the distribution of goods, services, and wealth. It could not be approached with only efficiency or a desire to maximize transactions as the sole guiding principles.
Utilitarianism remains at least the guiding principle in all labor-market
bargaining, union negotiations, and executive salary levels. It may not be
adhered to, but it undeniably informs all such social interaction—it is the
one common denominator. It remains a yard stick by which most of us
judge the distribution of wealth. Ludicrously inflated earnings for senior
executives of large corporations are said to be "what the market dictates."
This is seen as a matter of production, beyond moral debate. Objections to
such practice make use of Mill's original distinction and insist that it is a
matter of distribution. This means that such remunerations are subject to
more than simply economic considerations. They fall within the realm of
moral judgment. And the most pertinent application here would seem tomany to be the Utilitarian idea of the common good. [p. 40-41]
I would like to think that passage speaks for itself.
Mill is well aware of Hume's argument and seeks to circumvent it. He
does not smuggle an ought into his argument, where previously there had
only been an is; instead he presents a psychological fact. At this point it is
worth reiterating in full Bentham's core Utilitarian principles, to which Mill
continued to subscribe: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of
two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out
what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do....
The standard of right and wrong [is] fastened to their throne. They govern us
in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we make to throw off
subjection will serve but to demonstrate and confirm...[this] principle of
utility." Mill concurs: "I regard utility as the ultimate appeal in all ethicalquestions." [p. 46-47]
Hume had a primary objection of how moral systems inserted ought to and ought not to into arguments without any real logical connection to the is and is not statements that preceded them. While I find Utilitarianism to be a deeply flawed system for determining proper moral action, it was still an improvement over philosophies that stifled the sense of and role of self in determining moral choice.
Bentham's concept of liberty had not been entirely theoretical. His belief in the
freedom of the individual had even led him to suggest that the law forbidding
homosexuality should be repealed: "How a voluntary act of this sort by two
individuals can be said to have anything to do with the safety of them or any
other individual whatever, is somewhat difficult to be conceived." Such
advanced ideas were not widely promoted at a time when those "caught in
buggery" ended up on the gallows. Betham's opinion on homosexuality,
especially coming from a man of high-minded principles who had no
sexual experience whatsoever—he remained chaste throughout his life—speaksvolumes for the liberalizing effect of his Utilitarianism. [p. 57-58]
This is the kind of 1830s thinking that I would be okay with us returning to. I'm not really sure if Bentham's sexuality, or thorough lack of sexual inclination, has any bearing on the merits of his argument; I wouldn't have presented it in a book about Mill.
At one point he was asked, "Did you declare that the English working
classes, though differing from some other countries in being ashamed of
lying, were yet 'generally liars'?" Mill immediately replied, "I did." The
working-class members of the audience responded with appreciativeapplause, and Mill was duly elected. [p. 63-64]
This is a funny story, made better because Mill's original plan for running for office was to do no campaigning, give no speeches, and engage in no debates – thinking that this freed up to voters to make informed choices without undue influence from the candidate.
"So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than
loses in stability by having a preponderant weight of argument against it. For
if it were accepted as a result of argument, the refutation of the argument
might shake the solidity of the conviction; but when it rests solely on feeling,
the worse it fares in argumentative contest, the more persuaded its adherentsare that their feelings must have some deeper ground, which the arguments
do not reach." [p. 65]
And that is how Mill crushes the faith-based/intuitive argument.
"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be
Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a
different opinion, it is because they only know their side of the question."[p. 75, from Utilitarianism]
Rather strong words for a man who was largely arguing in favor of pleasure (of a sort) at all times for the most people.
"Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."[p. 76, from On Liberty]
I would like to think the implications of that are easy to recognize. And yet there is an entire political party dedicated to proving this is not the case, all the while arguing for limited government interference in the lives and over the rights of the individual.
Strathern clearly has a selective reading of Hume's philosophical works (nothing on the Clever Knave, nothing on how the mundane life is anathema to philosophical pursuits is mentioned here). Worse, he seems to have a fundamentally flawed view of it, thinking that there is something more than a general reduction to general uncertainty (on principle, not practicality, logic, reason, or experience).
I am not an expert on Hume. I have read most of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) as well as most of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), with the support structure of a great professor and competent classmates to help me make sense of the material. It would seem that Strathern either didn't read them or has a completely alien understanding of the general points of them.
If there were a book in this series to avoid, this is it. Not because it is likely to offend, but because it really does nothing to help the reader gain a better understanding of the man or his works.