Reassessing J.S. Mill's liberalism : the influence of Auguste Comte, Jeremy Bentham, and Wilhelm von Humboldt
The thesis starts by considering the controversial claim made by Joseph Hamburger that couched within the arguments for freedom in On Liberty are calls for high levels of social control, which threaten the conventional reading of Mill as a paradigmatic liberal thinker. The thesis tests this argument against the claims of the revisionary secondary literature, which attempts to reconcile Mill's utilitarian and liberal writings. Examining Hamburger's main line of argumentation, the thesis shows how Mill's thought is more influenced by the thought of August Comte than Mill or the secondary literature acknowledge, while still retaining some crucial differences. The thesis next considers another influence argued to be outside of the liberal tradition, Jeremy Bentham. Even though Mill admittedly inherits utilitarianism from Bentham, he expands the psychological notion of pleasure in fundamental ways, even at the cost of internal consistency. Moreover, the thesis argues that Bentham utilises particular forms of social control in a similar manner as Comte, which is ultimately what Mill rejects in both of their doctrines. However at the same time, it is Comte's positivist philosophy of history that enables Mill to reconcile his utilitarian foundation with his liberal prescriptions. Next, the thesis argues that it is ultimately the influence the Wilhelm von Humboldt that maintains Mill's thought as recognizably liberal. Von Humboldt introduces the notion of individuality to Mill, whose expression is the highest source of pleasure, and is the concept that prevents Mill's moral and political system from collapsing back into a more Comtean and Benthamite formulation. Finally, synthesizing these influences, the thesis uses a hierarchical conception of the self, as articulated by Harry Frankfurt and Gerald Dworkin, to reconcile the high levels of social control correctly perceived by Hamburger with Mill's unambiguous protection and valuation of negative liberty. This socially embedded and highly normative conception of autonomy underpins Mill's progressive doctrine, and preserves his inclusion in the liberal tradition.