John Stuart Mill & the Dualities:
Bentham & Coleridge

Commentary by Ralph Dumain

“. . . every Englishman of the present day is by implication either a Benthamite or a Coleridgian . . . ”
                  — John Stuart Mill, “Coleridge

Mill reveals himself to be more than just another empiricist-utilitarian philistine, but not by much. He stretches himself beyond the limits of the liberal bourgeois thought in which he was raised, but only to balance it out by the incorporation of the allegedly valid insights of reactionary philosophy. Mill's recognition of German philosophy via Coleridge reveals that anything progressive in German idealism was filtered out of it and it was incorporated into Britain by Coleridge only for reactionary purposes, as a right-wing Romantic reaction.

Mill's recognition of the complementary relation of Coleridge to Bentham is not a true synthesis of opposites; it is merely a dualistic balancing act—introducing checks and balances into the ideological polity in the spirit of bourgeois liberal tolerance. And Mills's incipient social democratic attitude, bolstered by Coleridge's notion of the ideal state and the ideal clerisy, is, philosophically, the importation of organic conservative and reactionary communitarianism into his purview, as a way of mitigating the chaos and class conflict induced by unrestrained bourgeois liberalism. Mill anticipates not only the managerialist welfare state of social democracy and Fabian "socialism", he unwittingly anticipates 20th century corporatism (fascism) as does Carlyle's romantic anti-capitalism.

The ideas borrowed from Coleridge are all idealist in more than their metaphysical basis; they are all about the ideal, almost Platonic or Confucian, notion of the state, the clerisy, etc., in defiance of empirical reality rather than honest recognition of the real social forces at work, and this revanchist critique of capitalist modernity is recognized as a corrective to the one-sidedness of bourgeois liberalism.

This gesture on the part of Mill really reveals the contemporaneous bankruptcy and ominous future of British bourgeois thought. Later the British Idealists, chiefly Bradley, will abuse Hegel to achieve comparable aims, as liberalism morphs into monopolism and advanced imperialism.

True, Mill credits German philosophy with introducing an understanding of history excised from the French Enlightenment, but in the most philistine and obscurantist manner, complete with piffle about tradition and national character.

Yes, Mill fesses up to his ideological environment—middling, mediocre, British middle-of-the-road philistinism. Ultimately, he fails to transcend it, esp. in lapsing into the same mediocre position with respect to the defense of Coleridge's non-fundamentalist Christianity.

The ominous tendencies coming to the fore in the "bourgeois century" can also be found in Carlyle, another reactionary who imported German philosophy to the same effect, also with the armaments of the romantic anti-capitalism of the Right.

Now compare the superior insight of their contemporary Engels to the both of them, as Engels criticizes both British compromising anti-philosophical philistinism and Carlyle.

17 January 2008


Engels on Carlyle’s Reactionary Romanticism ­ Yesterday, or Today?

Engels on the British Ideology: Empiricism, Agnosticism, & “Shamefaced Materialism”

On Bentham and Coleridge (Excerpts) by John Stuart Mill

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide


Online editions of Mill:

Bentham” (1838), in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume X—Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by F.E.L. Priestley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985).

Bentham essay can also be found at:
http://www.efm.bris.ac.uk/het/bentham/bentham
http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/bentham/bentham
http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/MilBent.html

Coleridge” (1840), in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume X—Essays on Ethics, Religion, and Society, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by F.E.L. Priestley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985).


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