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Alan Ryan Lecture

Re-Reading Mill

Friday, October 4, 2013, 11:30am

Woodburn Hall 218

Second lecture in the series “Capitalism, Its Critics and Defenders” organized by the Tocqueville Program and co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science and the Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory

Senior Lecturer (Professor), Princeton & Professor Emeritus, Oxford University

Re-Reading Mill

Friday, October 4, 2013
11:30 am -1:00 pm
Woodburn Hall 218

ABSTRACT. It is fifty years since I published a little essay on Mill and the Art of Living; and after being asked to review a recent collection of essays on the topic, I have been wondering how my views have stood up over the years. Unsurprisingly, I think some have and some haven’t stood up fairly well. I began with two ideas: first that Mill’s so-called ‘proof’ of the principle of utility was not the philosophical disaster that generations of students had been taught to think it was; second, and more relevant to today, that Mill was right to claim that his defence of freedom in On Liberty was a utilitarian defence. To understand why, we needed to understand the claims he made in the last chapter of A System of Logic on ‘the logic of practice or art.’ So, the first half of today’s paper is about how I would now argue that case. The second half of the paper is less “philosophical,” and focuses on the contrast between Mill’s views on freedom and Tocqueville’s. Some of the motivation for writing On Liberty plainly comes from Mill’s reading of Democracy in America, and particularly from Tocqueville’s account of how the members of a democratic society might so internalise public opinion that they become frightened to think for themselves. Nonetheless, Mill takes the argument in directions Tocqueville did not, arguing for a degree of individual moral and intellectual autonomy that goes beyond the essentially political conception of liberty to which Tocqueville was committed. The paper ends with a brief discussion of the contrast between Tocqueville’s account of the role of women in American society and Mill’s discussion in The Subjection of Women.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE. Alan Ryan began teaching political philosophy at the University of Keele in 1963 and is in his final year as a Lecturer with the Rank of Professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. Since 2009, he has been Professor of Political Theory Emeritus in the University of Oxford. During the intervening years, he has taught at the Universities of Essex (1966-6) and Oxford (1969-87 and 1996-2009) in Britain and Princeton University (1987-96 and 2010-14) in the United States, besides short-term stints at Hunter College (1967-8), UT Austin (1972), UC Santa Cruz (1977) as well as the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He has been a visiting research fellow at the Australian National University on several occasions. His research interests have always focused on the liberal tradition, with a pronounced bias towards John Stuart Mill and the topics that Mill made his own, such as the philosophy of scientific and social scientific inquiry, property rights, the idea of moral and political progress, and freedom. Before and after Mill, he has an affection for Thomas Hobbes, Bertrand Russell, and John Dewey. Alan Ryan is the author of several books, beginning with The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (1969) and The Philosophy of the Social Sciences (1970) and including Bertrand Russell: A Political Life (1987) and John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (1994). In 2012, he published On Politics, a two-volume account of political thought from Herodotus to the present, and The Making of Modern Liberalism, a selection of previously published essays. He is also the editor of the Penguin editions of On Liberty and the Subjection of Women and Mill and Bentham on Utilitarianism. He is an occasional contributor to The New York Review of Books and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1987.