Tag Archives: John Stuart Mill

Why philosophy needs cultural history

Thomas AkehurstDr Thomas Akehurst teaches history and politics at the University of Sussex and the Open University. He is the author of The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe

In this blog post, he makes the case for the value of approaching philosophy through cultural history.

One of the problems facing academic philosophy in the 20th century was that it became, well, more and more academic – specialised, cut off from the interests of the rest of humanity, and it seems not able, or not willing to address our concerns.

This disconnect between academic philosophy and human life, called the “existential gap” has been seen as a particular feature of analytic philosophy – the dominant tradition in British and American universities.[1] Philosophers’ attitudes to this gap have varied tremendously. In the 1950s, many of those practising the discipline in its then powerhouse, Oxford, seemed to revel in its abstruse irrelevance. The philosopher G. J. Warnock reflects back on the period:

I did not believe that it was likely to contribute to the solution of the problems of the post war world; I did not believe it would contribute, certainly or necessarily, to the solution of any philosophical problem. But it was enormously enjoyable; it was not easy, it exercised the wits; and those who think it can never be valuably instructive have simply never tried, or perhaps are no good at it.[2]

And perhaps many academic philosophers and aspiring academic philosophers continue to share something like this view. It’s enjoyable, it pays the bills. There are excellent opportunities to travel. However the 21st century has also seen the revival of attempts to reconnect analytic philosophy with the rest of us. Popular philosophy, applied philosophy, now practical philosophy and philosophy therapy have all become swelling areas of output. Texts in these genres now dominate the two shelves reserved for philosophy books in some larger branches of Waterstones. This desire to speak to a wider audience can only be a good thing if we believe that life, on balance, is worth thinking about.

Unfortunately, this desire for outward-looking communication on the part of philosophers, hasn’t yet been equalled by the willingness for inward looking disciplinary self-scrutiny. Philosophy arises from its culture and context. It carries the assumptions of its time and place and of its historical development. Sometimes this baggage is in plain sight, more commonly it’s hidden from philosopher and reader alike: contraband at the bottom of a suitcase the philosophers didn’t pack themselves.

Contemporary British analytic philosophy has shown very little interest in examining the cultural and political ideas and attitudes it has been moulded and formed by over the years. And this is why the cultural history of philosophy is such an important field. The history of philosophy is shaped by many factors. Philosophical arguments, for sure, have an impact on the direction of the discipline. But a much broader range of issues also help shape and form apparently abstract philosophical positions and developments. And it’s here that cultural-political histories, as well as institutional histories, become very important if we want to understand the philosophical thought that’s presented for our edification.

Cultural history of philosophy is not (yet) the thriving cottage industry it might be. Yet some work has been done. John McCumber has explored how McCarthyism in the US put powerful external pressure on philosophers to abandon certain fields of study, or tailor their conclusions in a safe political direction. Those who did not could expect stymied or terminated careers. George Reisch explores a similar dynamic in the philosophy of science. [3]

Cultural politics coverMy own work points to the way that British philosophers drew conclusions about the wars against Germany in the first half of the twentieth century – and how these conclusions fed through into their philosophical work.[4] They identified a tradition of German philosophy they believed resulted in German aggression, and ultimately in National Socialism. These attitudes and assumptions on the part of the British were poorly defended in their written work, but nevertheless contributed to a purging of the canon of philosophy after 1945. A swathe of European philosophy from Hegel onwards was subject to dismissal and mockery followed by an “active process of forgetting and exclusion”.[5] This exclusionary process marks a crucial moment in the creation of the rift between analytic and continental philosophy that continues to dominate European and American thought.[6]

In the mid-century, British philosophers emphasised the warts of the German/European tradition – Nietzsche was a megalomaniac, Hegel a deceptive state-serving nationalist, Rousseau a sort of evil seductive genius.[7] Even as they condemned German (and allied) thought for its fascist tendencies, the British philosophers held up their own tradition as one of congenital liberality – pointing to a virtuous canon of British thinkers going back to John Locke. These British philosophers were portrayed as liberal in politics, rigorous in philosophy and noble in character. They were carefully airbrushed to remove the stains of historical indiscretion: such as the sanction Locke gave to the expropriation of native American lands, or John Stuart Mill’s paternalist racism, much less the anti-Semitism of Bertrand Russell, the 20th-century hero of British analytic philosophy.[8]

Once philosophy is allied to a national cause, you get nationalist philosophies, with the virtues of “our boys” relentlessly juxtaposed to the vices of the enemy. The German philosophers of the 19th century were no more Nazis than the British philosophers of previous ages were saints. But philosophy mobilized for war resembles the nation-state mobilized for war. Nationalist philosophy is distorting, and homogenizing.

That, at times of existential threat, philosophers respond like many other people and get defensive and jingoistic is perhaps not very surprising and not especially condemnable. And there’s no doubt that for the philosophers I’ve studied, Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, R.M. Hare, amongst others, the Second World War was such a threat. Perhaps the realization that philosophers were ready to draw simple nationalist distinctions and assassinate the characters of fellow philosophers might give us reason to doubt some of the more grandiose claims about philosophy’s ability to cultivate calm rationality in its practitioners. But the Nazis were a terrifying threat – and there but for the grace of God go we all.

The problem is not that these men drew hasty conclusions. The trouble is that analytic philosophy has so solidly refused to countenance the possibility of any influence beyond the narrow scope of “strictly philosophical” questions that these hasty judgements and nationalist prejudices have been left unexplored and unchallenged by contemporary analytic philosophy. Not only have these attitudes gone underground and helped to to cement the foundations of the an unhelpful rift between analytic and continental philosophy, but at times they resurface in all their mid-century glory – in the analytic philosophers’ last words on Jacques Derrida, for example.[9]

Many analytic philosophers now want to be heard. But still very few seem to want to make a serious exploration of their past and its baggage. All the time this is the case, the discipline and what it offers to the public remain weighed down by unchecked cultural assumptions, political assumptions, and uncodified traditions. This short article has explored just some of these. Much remains to be explored. Analytic philosophy needs the cultural history of philosophy to sort through this historical accretion, assess it, and hopefully discard what is no longer needed. As a result, analytic philosophy may walk a little lighter and may find itself with new and surprising things to say to the public it wishes to cultivate.


[1]          Preston, Aaron Analytic Philosophy: The History of an Illusion (Continuum, 2007) 25

[2]            Warnock, G.J. Essays on J.L. Austin (Clarendon Press, 1973) 59.

[3]            McCumber, John Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the Mccarthy Era (Northwestern University Press, 2001). Reisch, George A. How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic. (CUP, 2005).

[4]            Akehurst, Thomas L. The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe  (Continuum 2010)

[5]            West, David  “The Contribution of Continental Philosophy,” in A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, ed. Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit, Blackwell Companions to Contemporary Political Philosophy (Blackwell, 1995), 39.

[6]                   Simons, Peter. “Whose Fault? The Origins and Evitability of the Analytic Continental Rift”. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 9, no. 3 (August 2001).

[7]            Berlin, Isaiah Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty. Edited by H. Hardy. (Chatto and Windus, 2002). 43.  Russell, Bertrand History of Western Philosophy (George Allen and Unwin, 1946). 794.

[8]            Bracken, Harry  “Essence, Accident and Race,” Hermathena, no. 116 (1973). Mill, John Stuart On Liberty, 1859, Moorhead, Caroline Bertrand Russell: a Life (1993 Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd.).

[9]            Blackburn, Simon “Derrida May Deserve Some Credit for Trying, but Less for Succeeding,” The Times Higher Education Supplement, no. 1666 (12 November 2004).

‘A Feminine Philosopher’: John Stuart Mill in Parliament

Hookway pic 2Dr Demelza Hookway is an Honorary University Fellow in the College of Humanities at the University of Exeter and is currently writing a book on the cultural history of John Stuart Mill, based on her PhD research at Exeter. In this guest post for the Cultural History of Philosophy Blog, published to coincide with the UK General Election in 2015, she looks back to John Stuart Mill’s career as an MP and detects parallels with recent responses to Ed Miliband…

As the UK’s parliamentary candidates have been scrutinised ahead of the 2015 General Election, journalistic attention has inevitably shifted from policy to character. Jeremy Paxman’s questioning of Ed Miliband during the ‘Battle for Number 10’ TV debate stands out as a memorable example of this character-focused approach. Towards the end of the interview, Paxman suggests that Miliband is too sensitive to be an effective leader (‘you know what people say about you because it’s hurtful, but you can’t be immune to it’, followed after the interview ended by an audible ‘are you OK, Ed?’), not manly enough to interact with other world leaders (a one-to-one encounter with Putin would leave Miliband ‘all over the floor in pieces’) and too intellectual to be popular with the electorate (‘they see you as a North London geek’). Miliband famously retorted with an assertion of his masculinity and resilience – ‘Hell yes, I’m tough enough’ – and you can watch the key section of the interview here.

The striking thing about Paxman’s accusations is how they evoke nineteenth-century debates about the qualities required to succeed in politics. The charges of sensitivity, effeminacy and intellectualism particularly recall the response to the renowned philosopher John Stuart Mill’s brief political career in the 1860s.

When Mill stood for Parliament in 1865 his liberal credentials were not in question. He was elected as MP for Westminster, and though he failed to win the seat again in 1868, he was often seen as originating, defining or exemplifying liberal principles. But doubts that the philosopher was tough enough for political life were expressed from the outset of his candidature. Like his political integrity, Mill’s intellectual stature was undeniable, but being a man of ideas was seen as a dubious qualification for a politician. As a result, his voice, his body and his emotions were all anatomised and often seen as lacking the strength expected of a man in such a prominent position. As a famous caricature of Mill in Vanity Fair in 1873 expressed it, this was ‘A Feminine Philosopher’.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: John Stuart Mill (1806-73) British social reformer and philosopher (Utilitarianism). Cartoon by 'Spy' (Leslie Ward) from Vanity Fair, London, 1873 (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Cartoon by ‘Spy’ (Leslie Ward) from Vanity Fair, London, 1873 (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The perception that Mill was moving from the safe seclusion of the study to the dangerous exposure of the platform generated much commentary. Supporters worried about how successfully he would be able to convey his theoretical knowledge in person, while detractors claimed that he was doomed in any attempt to do so. In an 1865 article on ‘Philosophers and Politicians’ The Saturday Review stated that ‘the prime characteristic of the Englishman is activity and energy, and the conflicts of the political arena gratify a national instinct’. [1] This model of political manliness was one against which Mill was constantly judged. As he set out to challenge ideas about essential differences between the sexes and to extend the suffrage to women, many commentators questioned Mill’s own performance of masculinity in the combative environment of Parliament.

In 2014, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, commented on the problems politicians could face in making themselves heard over the noise in Parliament. This was clearly an issue for nineteenth-century parliamentarians, too, because a recurring subject of discussion was the suitability of Mill’s voice for public speaking. Those sympathetic to Mill worried that he had a weak voice and that this was compounded by a lack of oratorical skill. On first meeting Mill, Kate Amberley interpreted the quietness of his voice as evidence of his humility and likeability, recording in her journal, ‘he speaks in a very gentle voice, and is not in appearance like a great man’. Transposed to the House of Commons, however, the quietness took on a new, more disappointing aspect: ‘Mill’s speaking seems to bore the house, they say he has spoken too often – [too] much, and cannot be heard’. [2] The doorkeeper of the House of Commons, William White, thought that Mill ‘has not a powerful voice, but then it is highly pitched and very clear; and this class of voice goes much further than one of lower tone – as the ear-piercing fife is heard at a greater distance than the blatant trombone’. [3] For White at least, Mill’s quiet voice was a virtue rather than a cause for regret: a symbol of the different quality Mill introduced to parliamentary debate, and his far-reaching influence.

2_Detail_Gladiators preparing for the ArenaAnother target for attention was Mill’s thin frame. Though broadly supportive of Mill’s parliamentary career, Britain’s foremost comic journal Punch consistently portrayed Mill as lacking the same robustly male physique as the central figures in the ‘battlefield’ of public life. [4]

In February  1867, Punch ran a John Tenniel cartoon entitled ‘Gladiators Preparing for the Arena’, in which a diminutive Mill is positioned close to a bulky John Bright. The physical contrast is underscored by Bright squaring up to a punch bag marked ‘Aristocracy’ while a  feeble-looking Mill with downcast eyes lurks behind him clutching a cup marked ‘Logic’. The following month Punch reported on Mill’s inaugural lecture as rector of St Andrews University, noting that he had ‘fought a good fight about education’, but depicting him as a tiny figure,in the guise of a naughty schoolboy, squaring up to a giant, rotund, cane-wielding don.3_Detail_St_Andrews

In Judy, a conservative journal set up to rival Punch, Mill’s feminisation was the most blatant: in their cartoons, he frequently appeared dressed as a woman. The striking cartoon accompanying ‘Parliamentary’ in Judy on 24 July 1867 shows Mill wearing a bonnet, holding a parasol, and daintily lifting his skirts out of the mud. Here, the focus is on Mill’s support for women’s suffrage. The article concentrates on the way ‘the Lady’s Mill’ had disappointed women by failing to secure them the vote. When Mill failed to retain his seat in Parliament, Judy made enthusiastic use of their established mode of representing him in ‘Miss Mill Joins the Ladies’ on 25 November 1868. ‘Philosophy’ is written on the lampshade in the hallway and is clearly aligned with Mill’s retreat into the private sphere.

Judy pics

By the time the caricature of Mill as ‘A Feminine Philosopher; appeared in Vanity Fair’s ‘Men of the Day’ series in March 1873, Mill was already strongly associated with ideas of femininity. The accompanying text explained that he was ‘a man of vast intellect and tender feelings’. Leslie Ward described making the study for the Vanity Fair caricature as he listened to Mill give a lecture on women’s rights at Exeter Hall. He remembers that as Mill ‘recited passages from his notes in a weak voice, it was made extremely clear that his pen was mightier than his personal magnetism upon a platform’. [5]

These ideas about Mill were in circulation before his entry into politics, but intensified during this time. They also persisted long afterwards. In a letter written to The Times and published on 20th May 1906 – 33 years after Mill’s death, but marking the one hundredth anniversary of his birth – Thomas Hardy recounted the moment in 1865 when he witnessed something quite remarkable: the philosopher making a public appearance as a parliamentary candidate, addressing the crowds gathered at the hustings in Covent Garden. Hardy’s letter renders in beautifully compact form many of the debates which took place in the second half of the nineteenth century about Mill’s status as a philosopher, a politician, and an advocate of women’s rights. Hardy’s copy of Mill’s On Liberty, which is in the archive at Dorset County Museum, has the letter, ‘A Glimpse of John Stuart Mill’, pasted inside the front cover. On the right hand side, folded up, is an article which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement a couple of days earlier. It was written by the Liberal politician, writer and editor John Morley, and paid tribute, in the most glowing terms, to Mill’s philosophical achievements. Hardy’s letter, as well as recounting a personal memory about Mill, was a response to the way in which John Morley had chosen to depict Mill, in grand and reverential terms, in this centenary piece. [6]

6_Hardys Copy of On Liberty

Morley was a friend and a follower of John Stuart Mill and unsurprisingly strikes a reverential tone in his piece for the Times Literary Supplement. Morley did allude to difficulties – the time before Mill achieved renown, the hostile reaction provoked by some of his opinions, and the uncertainty with which he was viewed by some of his fellow parliamentarians when he became an MP – but in his retrospective overview he also conveyed a sense of inevitability about Mill’s central role in the struggle for social change. In his record of Mill for posterity, Morley sought to affirm Mill’s manliness by asserting that he was a protagonist in the battleground of public opinion. In calling Mill ‘a man out of place’ on the hustings Hardy brought the attention back to the debate about the philosopher’s suitability for public life, though in his awareness of Mill’s vulnerability – in his sense of Mill’s ‘perilous exposure’ – he strikes a far more sympathetic tone than many earlier commentators.

7_ILN_Nomination in Covent Garden

‘Westminster Election: The Nomination in Covent Garden’, Illustrated London News, 1865

Most importantly Hardy turned John Morley’s laudatory statement – that Mill’s ‘life was true to his professions’ – into a question: what does it mean to say that a person’s life is true to their professions? It is a question which resists easy categorisations and blithe insults. It shifts the focus from public performance to motivating principles and underlying philosophies. As such, it is an excellent question to bear in mind as we consider our prospective MPs and elect our next government.

Follow Demelza on Twitter: @demelzahookway


[1] ‘Philosophers and Politicians’. The Saturday Review 4 Mar. 1865 (pp. 253–4).

[2] Bertrand Russell and Patricia Russell, eds. The Amberley Papers: Bertrand Russell’s Family Background. 1937. 2 vols. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966 (p. 297, p. 470).

[3] William White. The Inner Life of the House of Commons. 2 vols. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897 (Vol 2, p. 33).

[4] A key source for cartoons of Mill is John M. Robson’s ‘Mill in Parliament: The View from the Comic Papers’. Utilitas 2 (1990) (pp. 102–43). The article contains many of the cartoons from the periodical press which feature Mill and considers these alongside puns and verse. Robson’s very specific aim in this article is to clarify a point of political history: to establish that it was not Mill’s ‘“crochets” or “whims”, especially women’s suffrage and proportional representation, that damaged his chances for re-election in 1868, but the hardening of party allegiances’ (p. 102).

[5] Sir Leslie Ward. Forty Years of “Spy”. London: Chatto and Windus, 1915 (p. 104).

[6] John Morley. ‘John Stuart Mill’. Times Literary Supplement 18 May 1906 (pp. 173–4).