America and the Enlightenment Philosophers

by Bharath Vallabha

Context is a funny thing.

In an academic context – of philosophy courses and institutional structures – for a long time, my gut reaction to the great Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Hume and Kant used to be: “Oh, not just more of this again. Their views, marred by racism, exhibit a false sense of universalism, and we need to study them alongside non-European traditions to have a more complete view of philosophy.” Call this the critical reaction.

In a political context – of democracy and the rights I have as an American citizen – my gut reaction to the same great Enlightenment thinkers used to be: “Their intellectual courage and genius were amazing and ahead of their time, laying the foundations for a liberal, pluralistic society.” Call this the admiring reaction.

Talk about cognitive dissonance.

When I thought about Kant in relation not just to the slave trade or colonialism, but even in relation to the philosophies of thinkers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Kant’s philosophy seemed to me too abstract and rationalistic; disconnected from the broader embodied and social aspects of human life. But when I thought of Kant in relation to autocratic governments around the world or events like the march in Charlottesville, his philosophy seemed not abstract and rationalistic, but idealistic, humane and profound; foundational to myself as a thinker and as a citizen.

I have lived with this cognitive dissonance for a long time, mostly without it rising to the level of consciousness. But now that I am aware of it, what is the right response?

One option – call it the anti-Enlightenment option — is to adopt a critical reaction in both the academic and the political contexts. On this view, Locke, Hume and Kant were racists, and so their philosophical views are racist.  The Founding Fathers, like Washington, Adams and Jefferson, were influenced by the Enlightenment thinkers and so the founding principles of America are racist. The Enlightenment and the vision of a free America were a sham; a prop to justify power.

But this option is hopeless and confused.

As an American citizen, I cannot endorse this view without immediately giving up on the idea of my rights as a citizen. Whatever the origin of rights in general (be it God or nature or reason, etc.), the political expression of Americans’ rights is grounded in the American Constitution and in the continued respect of Americans for that constitution. If one rejects the Constitution as something created by racist white men in America, who were influenced by the ideas of racist white men in Europe, there is nothing to support citizens’ rights in America.

The anti-Enlightenment option tries to avoid one cognitive dissonance only to fall into another: to affirm the Constitution as a profound document laying the foundation for equal rights while denouncing the creators of the Constitution as nothing but racists. This is absurd. It is psychologically infeasible.  Beyond that, it is abstractionism of an extreme kind. One cannot say the Enlightenment thinkers were too abstract and rationalistic, disconnected from the lived practices and history of the majority of the world, only to then reify the Constitution by removing it entirely from its historical context and the men who created it.

In an important sense, in America the Founding Fathers are primary. An idea of America which does not give them respect and right of place as the Founders is a conceptual confusion. This is not to propagate white hegemony or to affirm white supremacy. It is just a fact. All Americans live within the political framework they created. True, the Founding Fathers were wrong to institutionalize slavery. But the possibility to right that wrong politically (as opposed to through brute force) exists only because of the democratic infrastructure they developed. That is worth remembering and admiring.

A second option to deal with the cognitive dissonance – call it the respect for Western philosophy option – is to adopt an admiring reaction in both the academic and the political contexts. On this view, having only a critical reaction to traditional Western philosophy (the story of the great white, male philosophers from the Socrates to Rawls) undermines having respect for their ideas in a political context. If philosophy departments in America open up to non-Western traditions at the cost of admiration for traditional Western philosophy, this would foster only critical reactions to the Western Enlightenment in the political context, and so would only strengthen anti-Enlightenment forces in politics.

I think this is exactly right.

Disciplines like literature and history in the last forty years opened up to non-Western traditions under the general framework of post-modernism and anti-colonialism: doubting there are truths or norms that transcend cultures and seeing any claim to such transcendence as colonialist. These disciplines conflated opening up to non-Western traditions with a largely critical reaction to Western modernity. As if one can make space for other traditions only through self-immolation.

It would be a mistake if philosophy followed this path. Philosophy doesn’t have to open up to other traditions in the same way other humanities departments did. It can learn from their trials and errors, and forge its own path; one that recognizes the insights of other traditions while admiring the Western tradition.

This option, though, raises a psychological question. Given that in a political context I naturally respected the genius of Enlightenment philosophers, why did I have mainly a critical reaction to them in an academic context? Why was I prone to that mistake?

Partly it was because of the conflation in the humanities departments I just mentioned. In a traditional syllabus of the great, white males, it can feel like the space taken up by Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant, etc. doesn’t allow for much remaining space for other traditions. As if these thinkers have taken up most of the space and non-Western thinkers have to a claw and dig to find some room. This creates an adversarial feeling: that the traditional side has to lose – be declared bad and racist – in order for the other side to survive. Like many, I fell for this mode of thinking.

There is another reason as well. One internal to how Enlightenment philosophers are generally taught in undergraduate courses.

I took my first Early Modern philosophy course at Cornell when I was a sophomore at age 19. I had moved to America eight years earlier, and was an American citizen for a year. Though aware of the deep race issues in America, I was grateful to be here as America had been good for me and my family. Like my father, I took my new citizenship seriously and saw myself as a patriot – devoted to America as my home, not to India.

If that Early Modern course had discussed how Enlightenment philosophers had struggled to create the idea of a modern, democratic republic – of which America, my new country, was the first experiment – my admiration for these thinkers in an academic context would have become immovable. Instead, the course focused only on the usual format of Descartes through Hume as Rationalists vs Empiricists and Kant as the synthesis. Whatever the merits of this format (and there are many), if at least some philosophy courses are meant to foster a sense of critical thinking for American citizens and help appreciate the philosophical struggles of the Founding Fathers, this course wasn’t one of them.

The course seemed strangely displaced in space, as if it hovered in an in-between realm between nationalism and globalism. It acknowledged no patriotic, civic educational purpose: it was as if the exact same course could have been taught anywhere, in any country. And yet it didn’t really take a global perspective to philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries, limited as it was to only European philosophy. And so I became focused on this tension between the course’s global posture and its parochial, European focus.

Later in a political philosophy course which covered the work of Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke and Kant, I experienced the same tension. Here were texts that were essential to the Founding Fathers’ vision of democracy, and so which were central to me as an American citizen. And yet, the texts seemed disconnected from my life. Why? Because the posture of the course treated the authors and texts as if they lived mainly in a transnational, pure realm of ideas.

It was easier for me to admire Enlightenment philosophers in a political context because I felt connected to them through the Founding Fathers. America itself – a land where in principle people could live together irrespective of religious, racial or cultural differences – was my link with the Enlightenment philosophers. In an academic context, however, America seemed to be seen as just one more local identity to be transcended, as if my link to Enlightenment philosophers must be at the level of disembodied, pure reason. But far from making me feel connected to them, this view from nowhere perspective only raised the question whether the Enlightenment philosophers, or indeed anyone, could occupy such a perspective.

Nowadays, treating a philosophy classroom as a political space seems synonymous with syllabus wars. But there is a different sense in which a classroom in America is a political space: a space of civic education, of Americans debating what they have in common as Americans. And in that space Enlightenment philosophers have a special role. Not because they are white or because philosophy exists only in the West. But because of the unique causal and conceptual relation between America and the Western Enlightenment.

Bharath Vallabha studied philosophy at Cornell and Harvard and taught at Bryn Mawr. Currently he has an administrative job at an accounting firm. His reasons for leaving academia can be found in an interview at Free Range Philosophers. He blogs at






43 responses to “America and the Enlightenment Philosophers”

  1. Excellent essay and particularly topical in Australia at the moment, so I hope I can bring it to the attention of a few people.

  2. If the last essay was risqué because of its treatment of hot-button topics, this one is even more so! Congratulations to the author for his lucid exposition and for bravely confronting a difficult issue that is bound to raise a few hackles.

    This raises the spectre of presentism. Inevitably we judge past philosophers through the lens of present values and experience. But should we? Alternatively we could make the effort to understand the milieu in which they developed their concepts. If we did that we might be filled with admiration for the manner in which they transcended their milieu, even if imperfectly.

    Then there is the matter of realism. Who amongst us is a saint? We are all imperfect. That some can still produce great works, despite all the imperfections they share with the rest of us, should be an occasion for admiration.

    In a traditional syllabus of the great, white males

    Why express this in a racial, sexist way? I know this is common in some circles but I don’t think any good purpose is served by using a phrase that has become pejorative.

    As if one can make space for other traditions only through self-immolation. It would be a mistake if philosophy followed this path.

    Well said. You develop this thinking further in your Free Range Philosophy interview. One can use the study of history as an analogy. To study only West European history would be unthinkable. Quite naturally every region gives precedence to its own history because it is the means of understanding one’s own culture. The same could be said of philosophy. However a proper understanding of one’s own culture requires one to see it in a larger context.

    Your last paragraph sums things up nicely.

  3. Bharath Vallabha

    Re “syllabus of great, white males”, point taken.

    As I think of it now, did I mean it descriptively, as in I think traditional Western philosophy consists only of great, white males? No, I don’t, since I think there are many more dimensions to Western philosophy. So what did I mean? Probably something like, “traditional Western philosophy as it was taught to me”. Or even more, “traditional Western philosophy as I understood to when I was learning it.” If that is what I meant, what follows from that? Perhaps I am only muddying the waters by using the phrase in that context. That makes sense. Thanks.

  4. alandtapper1950

    Hi Bharath:

    Here’s what I would like to see: a course called “Reading Ancient Texts”. The texts would include the Gita, the Dhammapada, the Analects, Chuang Tzu, a classic Greek play, some Platonic dialogues, Pericles’ Funeral Speech, the Book of Isaiah, John’s Gospel, Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, and a few other classics. Add or subtract as you see fit.

    I’m dreaming, of course.


  5. An Upanishad or two…

  6. And there is a great deal of more modern material from around the world which sounds highly interesting, but I don’t feel I can just jump in with no context.

  7. Bharath Vallabha

    Alan, I would love to see a course like that, a global wisdom traditions course. I am sure such a course is taught in some places by people with a global perspective, but that kind of broad perspective is not found in the kind of departments I went through.

    I would also love to see broad global courses which aren’t wisdom focused directly, but deal with metaphysics, ethics, phil mind, political philosophy, meta-philosophy, etc. There is just a global treasure trove here waiting to be explored. If one is teaching or writing about meta-philosophy, it just seems incomplete if one does not take a perspective which includes the various forms philosophy has taken in different places. Same with concepts of self, freedom, morality, etc.

    At the same time, I would also love to see courses which are not less focused on European traditions, but more focused. I would love to see courses on the philosophical responses to the major events in European and American history: say, the French revolution and the arguments between Burke and Paine, or the American independence and arguments between Jefferson and Hamilton. I would love to see Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Hegel placed in relation to debates about the trajectories of England, France, Germany, America, etc. within which these thinkers were exploring their ideas. A course which doesn’t abstract away from such national/”local” concerns and so treat these thinkers only as trans-national figures, but as the national figures they were.

    The national/trans-national distinction got conflated in the last half century with the racist/cosmopolitan distinction. As if Kant’s interest in the welfare of Prussia, or Locke’s interest in England is of a piece with their racist ideas. This seems to me very wrong.

    Big picture point: making philosophy more global doesn’t have to come at the cost of Western philosophy. Contemporary philosophy in the kind of depts I went through hangs in a uneasy middle space, being neither actual global (as in global wisdom and non-wisdom phil courses) nor engaged in cultivating civic pride through debate (as in courses about french and american revolution, etc.). The globalizing and the civic-mindedness can, and I would say should, happen together.

  8. But there is a different sense in which a classroom in America is a political space: a space of civic education, of Americans debating what they have in common as Americans.

    Yes, but not only other Americans, other peoples. I live in Africa, in the middle of a cultural melting pot. I have worked in Germany and I have worked in China. These experiences expose one to quite startling differences which overwhelm one at first. Most of my compatriots remained fixated on the differences, with the result that their bigotry and prejudices remained set in stone.. A few, better educated than the rest, examined these differences thoughtfully, and then, slowly, they were surprised by the discovery of our common humanity, revealing the differences to be far less than our commonality.

    More and more I believe that discovering our common humanity, in a real visceral sense, is key to our happy coexistence, since we are more likely to respect the rights and needs of others like us. And so I believe that studying the philosophies, languages, literature, cultures and values of others are necessary means of discovering our common humanity.

    An interesting example of this is the paper by Martin Seligman and others Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History (

    They examined the primary literature of the following belief systems: Confucianism,Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Athenian philosophy, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, looking for a convergence in shared values. Despite differences in terminology and presentation, they found a strong commonality and concluded that all cultures possess and value the following six fundamental virtues:

    1. Courage
    Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal; examples include bravery, perseverance, and authenticity (honesty).
    2. Justice
    Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life; examples include fairness, leadership, and citizenship or teamwork.
    3. Humanity
    Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others (Taylor et al., 2000); examples include love and kindness.
    4. Temperance
    Strengths that protect against excess; examples include forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self control.
    5. Wisdom
    Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge; examples include creativity, curiosity, judgement, and perspective (providing counsel to others).
    6. Transcendence
    Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and thereby provide meaning; examples include gratitude, hope, and spirituality.

    No African cultures were included in the study because of the slender written record. But I know from experience that our local cultures value exactly these virtues. It is true that the emphasis will vary from place to place, but that is only to be expected. For example, the Zulu peoples value courage more highly. In my region, dominated by the Xhosa people, humanity, wisdom and transcendence are more highly valued. Understanding these things is key to understanding my neighbours and this is generally true on an international level.

  9.  I have always felt that J.S. Mill was a hypocrite considering his high position in the East India Company. He retired from it in 1858. I have been reading about Indian indentured labour during his period at India House. What is remarkable is that no one asks how Mill justified this transfer of Indians to the West Indies to work the sugar plantations using a pittance which to a poverty stricken populace might be a lure. How did Mill square that circle? (Note the irony of the replacement of pure chattel slavery with bond slavery, that ongoing Indian running sore.) 


    It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.

    (from Liberty by John Stuart Mill)

    His mind was clouded by imperialist racist colonial presumptions which are still current.

  10. davidlduffy

    A defence of Locke (via Daily Nous)

    Ombhurbhuvao – you might look at the literature on Mill and India starting from Zastoupil’s John Stuart Mill and India [1994]. That book points out that James Mill explicitly criticized Indian civilisation on Scottish Enlightenment grounds – that it was held back by the clergy and the aristocrats, by an absence of just and codified law, and needed introduction of modern education, emancipation and private property for the peasants, and governance along Benthamite principles. JSM started from that base and moved away and back towards this during his lifetime.

    From Peers [1999] Imperial Epitaph: John Stuart Mill’s Defence of the East India Company

    If he was convinced of the superiority of British civilization, [John Stuart] Mill never descended to the blatant racism that was becoming commonplace in the 1850s and 1860s. Even rumours of rape and murder committed against Europeans in India did little to inflame his passions. Instead, he singled out the British for the ‘atrocities perpetrated in the Indian Mutiny and the feelings which supported them at home.It is true that he only voiced this criticism years after the mutiny. At the time of the mutiny, he said relatively little about the atrocities; yet by 1866-7, his letters make several references to British brutality and racism. The timing is no coincidence: it was during these years that Mill became involved in a campaign to prosecute the governor of Jamaica, Edward John Eyre, for his brutal suppression of an uprising launched by desperate and impoverished Afro-Jamaican peasants in 1865. In return for the deaths of some 30 people at the hands of the rebels, troops and police under Eyre’s orders killed 439 protesters, flogged several hundred more, and destroyed over a thousand dwellings. What became known as the Morant Bay Rebellion reanimated racial fears and hatreds in Britain. Mill’s service on the Jamaica Committee no doubt prompted him to speak out even more vigorously against what he saw as systemic racism. In the case of Jamaica, Mill and his allies were able to raise some awkward questions about British conduct, though they failed to bring the responsible parties to justice. It was a different matter as far as India was concerned; here Mill was much more the lone voice in protesting against race hatred.

    Perhaps a low hurdle…

  11. ombhurbhuva

    David Duffy:
    Race theory is deep dyed. In the 19th.C. few escaped it, not even Mill. The East India company was in India for the good of its shareholders. Liberal democracy was for people like us, not those in ‘their nonage’. With those you had to be strict, for their own good of course. Henry Farrell has gathered a lot of Millsiana about the problem of philanthropy and the Irish Famine, good money after bad sort of thing:

    William Wilberforce is not without his critics also re the forced apprenticeships of rescued slaves in Sierra Leone:

  12. We are inherently good. Just remove the impediments imposed on us by bad people and our natural goodness will stand revealed in all its resplendent glory. Really?

    This liberal myth infuses today’s thinking. It is a comforting myth that allows to looks back on our unpleasant history with smug satisfaction. And if there are bad people today they are all recidivist conservatives on whom all the world’s ills can be blamed. We Good, Them Bad! How convenient.

    Of course it leaves unanswered the inconvenient question of how it was in the first place that naturally good people evolved to produce a culture with such malevolent results.

    Now every good secular liberal believes in evolution, as well he should. But good secular liberals are strangely blind to the consequences of their beliefs. As it happens, we are still part of this natural order, with an unbroken lineage extending far back in time and that should inform our understanding of the present. Our distant ancestors had no concept of compassion, morality, right or justice. It is unknown in the remainder of the animal world. And in this animal world there is a ferocious struggle for survival and advantage. It is a struggle that recognises only one’s own needs and good. Justice is what is good for me. Rights are the things that protect me. Bugger everyone else.

    We are descended from this order. It should therefore be no surprise that our own behaviour reflects much of this selfish struggle for survival and advantage. There has not been a miracle that somehow severed us from our animal past. And our own history, right up to the present day, amply confirms that this is the case.

    What is surprising is our continuing struggle to rise above this selfish order. It is a difficult struggle because we are struggling against our own nature. And yet, ever so slowly, we are putting in place the institutions, cultures, values and practices that restrain our animal natures and sustain our capacity for good. We are living through a miracle that is slowly separating us from our animal past. It is a precarious struggle with many setbacks. Society is balanced on a tipping point, as we saw in two world wars and the more recent genocides.

    So, before we enjoy the smug satisfaction of condemning past thinkers for their weaknesses and mistakes, we should take time to reflect on who and what we are with thoughtful, nuanced understanding. And if one’s smug self-righteousness survives this introspection then there is no hope, because the mantra of ‘we good, them bad’ contains the seed of future wrongs.

  13. Bharath Vallabha

    Definitely any classroom in any country is a space of civic education. And it’s very interesting to hear about your experience in Africa, and other countries.

    Really, as you say, we have a pressing need to find our common humanity. This is how I see the current moment: there are two extremes to avoid. One extreme denies a common humanity in any robust sense, and sees racial, religious or national identities as fundamentally in conflict. The other extreme acknowledges the ideal of a robust shared humanity, but then imposes a picture of what that shared humanity must be and intolerantly sees any disagreement with that picture as equivalent to the sins of the past (racism, sexism, etc.). Both foster a frenzy of “either you are with us or you are the enemy”. This frenzy is itself a main obstacle to finding our shared humanity, which involves rather the virtues you list and the suppleness of realizing them in our lives.

  14. Bharath Vallabha

    Very much agree about Mill’s hypocrisy. And that he was complicit with a racist, imperialist mindset.

    But, I wonder now, what follows from this? Hypocrisy isn’t limited to people in racist, imperialist times. No one will probably think of me in 100 years, but if they did, I am sure they would see me as hypocritical for being complicit with factory farming, rising economic inequality, global warming, etc.

    The thing is we can’t live our lives just limiting our “injustice footprint’, as in constantly trying to limit all the various ways our lives are complicit with institutional wrongs. People cannot live that way. Part of life is living also for positive projects and trying to do good as one is moved to. And a basic fact is: to focus on some positive projects will involve being complicit in some other structural features which one couldn’t focus on. In Otto Neurath’s image, we have to change the planks while the ship is sailing.

    So I don’t deny the racism of Mill, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, etc. Great, let’s talk about it. Let’s not hide it or sweep it under the rug. But let’s talk about it in the context of the positive, life affirming, humane, noble projects they were also involved in. The noble projects don’t mean we can ignore the racism. Nor does the racism mean the noble projects are forever tainted. Rather, the combination of the noble projects and the racism itself illuminates many features of human psychology and society. The dissonance is what can be ultimately illuminating, if we are strong enough to hold on to it. And not just with Mill and Locke, but with Confucius, Gandhi, Anscombe, Malcolm X,, etc. One aspect of our shared humanity comes out in the dissonance that reverberates in every human life. And I would say being with each other requires seeing that dissonance in oneself and others with a critical and compassionate gaze at the same time.

  15. The argument in my most recent essay depends heavily on the proper understanding of Mill’s harm principle, which is one of a handful of absolutely fundamental principles that govern liberal societies.

    I can’t think of a single way in which Mill’s racism is relevant to this fact. Just as I can’t think of a single way in which Picasso’s miserable treatment of women is relevant to his contribution to modern painting.

    I don’t mind the fact that there are people out there who want to dwell on these biographical aspects of Mill or Kant or whomever, though I might suggest that they are wildly missing the point. But where I draw the line is where these sorts of preoccupations are used to justify the destructive excavation of the philosophical canon. At that point, the centrality of these peoples’ work to the basic foundations of the best aspects of Western civilization, of which its liberalism is a significant one, need to be vigorously emphasized and fiercely protected from intellectual vandalism.

  16. …intellectual vandalism

    That is such an appropriate phrase and summarises the problem in a pithy manner.

  17. It is hardly intellectual vandalism to be frank about the warts.

  18. Never said it was. But the warts are irrelevant to everything that is philosophically interesting about Mill’s work. So harping on them is typically pointless at best and contributes to intellectual vandalism at worst.

  19. Mill was writing about liberty. It is no mere biographical that he held certain prejudices of the time which led him to exclude a large portion of the human race, possibly the majority, from the liberties he was talking about. These prejudices are directly relevant to his subject in a way that Picasso’s treatment of women was not relevant to his artistic skills.

  20. Once again we disagree entirely.

  21. ombhurbhuva

    Mill wrote:
    ”The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

    His attitude towards India and Ireland would be consistent with this in that they would not be regarded as civilised communities.

    I agree though that we must distinguish between what is being said and who is saying it. A scoundrel might write a book on angling or the life cycle of the common gnat and his turpitude would not bother us but when it comes to ethics as Gandhi said “my life is my message”. Lofty sentiments from people who try to live up to them are more persuasive particularly when they admit to falling short themselves. However the principles they espouse are the important element even if they are actually not practising what they preach.

  22. Mill practiced an awful lot of it, given his time and place. I must admit to having very little patience for this sort of critique.

  23. However the principles they espouse are the important element even if they are actually not practising what they preach.

    Sure, but as you point out, part of what he was “preaching” was to exclude large portion of humanity as being eligible for liberty.

    If we were reading that from someone living today we would probably laugh and stop reading right there.

    It is because of context that we realise Mill might still have something of value to say about liberty.

  24. The principles he argued for exclude no one. And they are foundational for any liberal society.

  25. alandtapper1950

    Labnut, thanks for the link. I used to teach ethics. I would always ask the students about the virtues or character traits they valued most. The replies were always of the justice and humanity types. Never did anyone mention temperance, wisdom, transcendence or even courage. But when I explained to them the four classical virtues, they readily saw how they were also necessary parts of a good life. From that experience I came to think that ethics has to be taught, since parts of it do not otherwise get absorbed, at least in my cultural world.

  26. alandtapper1950

    The obvious reply to Mill, I think, is that “mankind became capable of being improved by free and equal discussion” about 50,000 years ago.

  27. alandtapper1950

    Edmund Burke’s record on India makes an interesting contrast to that of the two Mills.

  28. Bharath Vallabha

    I strongly agree with the last paragraph. It’s well stated. If many on the left don’t wake up to this fact, they are going to undermine the foundations of the very equality they prize so much. I feel grateful to those resisting the extremes of the left and right so we can hold on to the founding ideas of liberal societies.

    Re the first two paragraphs: certainly the principles of liberalism such as the harm principle don’t have anything to do with mill’s racism. Because as principles they have nothing with Mill as a person at all. We can adopt On Liberty as a guide for our society and blot out his name, and that wouldn’t affect the principles. In this sense, the principles and biography are orthogonal to each other.

    But civic education and participation isn’t just a matter of downloading, or even only debating, abstract principles. It is about continuing traditions and ways of life, learning we are standing on the shoulders of giants, while using what is good in them to make the next critical moves forward. Continuation as transformation, and vice versa. In this sense, in civic engagement principles and biography are connected. Which then raises the issue of how to reconcile the two in order to form a cohesive whole: principles with a human face (to paraphrase an idea of Hilary Putnam’s).

    The problem with the sjw mindset is not that they are concerned with Mill’s racism. It is that they fail to accept the basic reality that Mill is one of our main forefathers, like a civic grandfather. They want to, as it were, tear out his picture from our cultural album, and put in pictures of Gandhi, MLK, etc. But this is incoherent, because Gandhi and MLK themselves accepted Mill as one of their forefathers. Gandhi would agree with you and not with sjws that there is an obvious distinction between Mill’s principles and his racism, and Gandhi would push for the intellectual honesty of acknowledging that we didn’t invent this wheel from scratch, and that in some ways we are building on Locke, Mill, etc.

    Many people are traumatized by the effects of colonialism, sexism, etc. Due to the trauma they are not able to see how much of their own lives are tied up with good things created during colonialism. Colonialists were able to create those good things not because they are better as humans, or more rational or smarter than those they colonized (which was the colonialists’ own interpretation) but just for a whole bunch of contingent reasons which have nothing to do with which race is smarter. But one can’t help people with trauma simply by saying, “Well, it’s obvious that principles have nothing to do with racism!” They are unable to see that obvious point because of the trauma. What is needed for civic life are ways of healing the trauma so that the obvious point can be appreciated. The wisdom of MLK and Gandhi, like that of Emerson and Dewey, was they recognized civic life is as much about doing that healing work as it is about debating principles. We need more of that.

  29. Really good stuff, this. But I really have to push back against the characterization of Mill that’s being formed in several of the comments I’m reading here. Mill was remarkably forward looking and progressive for his time and place, his fight for women’s suffrage being just one illustration.

    And let’s remember that Gandhi and MLK had their bigotries too, so I don’t see how swapping either of them for Mill would help. That’s why it’s, in my view, quite foolish to take this sort of approach to historical figures.

  30. Well, as you say, we disagree entirely again

    To me it is a mistake to try to sanitise these texts, to overlook the flaws, to remove them from their social and historical context.

    The harm principal he described is no less important for admitting that Mill, motivated by the prejudices of his time, said that a large portion of humanity from this consideration.

  31. As I said to Bharath, Mill was remarkably progressive for his time and place. And as I also said to Bharath, I don’t find this sort of critique of historical figures compelling.

  32. The truth of principles, the value of the principles or the greatness of the principles are not changed or diminished one jot by the behaviour of the person who formulates the principles. It really is that simple.

    Should we admire the person who formulated the principles? Yes, for the clarity of his intellectual foresight; for his ability to make important contributions to thought, moving the field forward; for his ability to see truth despite having his vision clouded by a complex milieu.

    Should we show understanding for how a person is shaped by his milieu, and yet, in some ways rose above it? Absolutely.

    People are complex things. We can admire them in part and be sad or condemnatory about their shortcomings, all at the same time. But the past is past so what does the condemnation help? It changes nothing but clouds our own minds.

    It is not for nothing that the statement ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone‘ has endured for two thousand years. Nor that we are daily admonished ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us‘.

    We are morally imperfect beings engaged in a daily struggle to rise above our imperfections. No one is exempt.

  33. I have often wondered why we are so prone to making tu quoque arguments, in their various forms(I use the term loosely). My own view is that this is centred around trust as being the foundational virtue that gave rise to all other virtues.

    Our species made a giant leap forward when it learnt to apportion tasks according to specialisations, the so-called division of labour. This requires trust that others will perform their tasks since none of us can police all others. We have developed a complex suite of behaviours that demonstrate our trustworthiness and these are the virtues. We have also developed a finely honed ability to detect trustworthiness in others. We are acutely sensitive to anything that might indicate untrustworthiness in others. We search for the smallest signs of dishonesty, hypocrisy, inconsistency or unreliability. We punish this behaviour because it is so damaging to the trust that binds our complex society together.

    Therefore it is quite natural that we bring this attitude of mind to judging past great figures. But is it helpful? Certainly it is essential in the present day. And it is also certain that dishonesty and hypocrisy arouse strong emotions, which is as it should be. But this is also the problem. The very strength of these emotions about dishonesty and hypocrisy, valuable as as it is today, cloud our view of the past. And it is not helpful either since trust is only about the present, not the past.

    Our acute sensitivity to dishonesty, hypocrisy, inconsistency, etc, valuable as it is today, poisons our view of the past and it is difficult to rise above this.

  34. davidlduffy

    More from Peers [1999], if anyone is interested.

    Mill carefully laid out his defence of the East India Company’s institutions and methods of rule in such a way as to be broadly in agreement with the principles he was developing about government in general. Put briefly,his ideal was representative government, with public debate serving as the best safeguard against bad government. In India, however, representative government was impossible, owing to the state of the people. Mill noted that government ‘must be adapted to the capacities and qualities of such men as are available.’ And nowhere was this more crucial than in India. In India, where might had historically been the same as right, there was no real alternative in the foreseeable future to autocratic rule. There was no possibility of free and enlightened public discussion. The peoples of India were not ready for participatory government; since they were incapable of recognizing what was in their best interest, despotic rule was currently the only option.

    …[T]he ideal despotic government was one that contained its own checks and balances: this was provided in India in the shape of the unique double government of the East India Company and Parliament. The checks and balances of the British government and the East India Company protected the Indian people from the whims of British domestic politics and acted as a brake on over-centralization, while simultaneously ensuring that Indian affairs remained in the hands of an expert and relatively disinterested bureaucracy…It is also worth noting that Mill and [Sir John William] Kaye both used the recent history of Ireland to highlight just what could happen should party politics impinge upon colonial affairs.

    …Like Kaye, Munro, and Malcolm, Mill came to idolize the stoicism of the East India Company’s service. This emphasis on leadership reflects Mill’s admission that good government cannot be reduced to functional terms, that is to say the systematic application of Bentham’s felicific calculus. Allowance must be made for the encouragement and application of virtue. It is therefore a question of character, which in this case places a premium on such stoical traits as self-sacrifice, courage, and dedication to duty. Stoicism was an integral part of virtue, which was a character trait that Mill had come to value over and above the emphasis on self-interest and rational calculation that lay at the heart of utilitarianism.

    So he ended up being a virtue ethicist according to this reading, though elsewhere Peers argues he was hard-headed ends-over-means regarding British security concerns and obvious failures of Company policy (eg ryotwari in Bengal). The most interesting thing to me is that he never visited India – his opinions were shaped by his father and by the Company that he closely identified with.

    His defence of Britain in A Few Words on Non-intervention have a similar flavour:

    …Continental politicians, especially those who think themselves particularly knowing, [believe] that the very existence of England depends upon the incessant acquisition of new markets for our manufactures; that the chase after these is an affair of life and death to us; and that we are a all times ready to trample on every obligation of public or international morality, when the alternative would be, pausing for a moment in that race. It would be superfluous to point out what profound ignorance and misconception of all the laws of national wealth, and all the facts of England’s commercial condition, this opinion presupposes: but such ignorance and misconception are unhappily very general on the Continent; they are but slowly, if perceptibly, giving way before the advance of reason; and for generations, perhaps, to come, we shall be judged under their influence.

  35. Bharath Vallabha

    I get your frustration and your point. It’s like if, accessing a wikipedia page on physics on my phone, I thought “I am so much smarter than Newton because, look, I know so much more than he did. He was so wrong!” This is dumb and intellectually dishonest because though I know things without breaking a sweat about physics that Newton didn’t, obviously he is the physics genius and not me. Presentism, as labnut called it above, is akin to what teenagers do: rely on money and support of the parents and yet lecture them about the world. With teenagers it is understandable; when one does it as an adult, not ok. And it is as absurd to take an attitude of moral superiority to Mill, as it is to take an attitude of intellectual superiority with Newton.

    But Newton was wrong about physics in important ways, just as Mill was morally wrong about races and colonialism. The problem isn’t finding fault with Mill’s racism and thinking through the consequences of that. It’s acting as if my being less racist than Mill is an achievement of mine. It isn’t. At the same time, doesn’t mean we can rest content with Mill’s genius. There is a further issue: what does it mean to exhibit now the kind of moral and intellectual genius Mill had? In what ways would that push us past the historical Mill to address situations we are dealing with that, with his racism, he couldn’t image? So the issue isn’t do we ditch Mill or keep Mill. It’s how do we update Mill. Just because colonialism ended doesn’t mean we are done moving morally and politically beyond the historical Mill. But such moving beyond won’t happen with a teenage mentality, but requires the maturity of acknowledging our inheritances – all of them.

  36. Bharath Vallabha

    Absolutely. Trust is the root emotion. More than an emotion, like a state of being. Wisdom is knowing how to make the circle of trust wider – in the past, present and future – when the temptations are strong to make it smaller. Trust is about the past as well, since we are such narrative beings, rooted in where we came from and where we are going as a way to understand the present.

    A personal example. My father passed away two years ago. He taught me lot about the Bhagavad Gita, living a philosophical life, about love, respecting humanity in all people. He was my first philosophy teacher since my early teens, and our interactions probably mimicked in a cultural way the Upanishadic image of the teacher imparting wisdom to his student under a tree. He felt convinced though that academic philosophy (indian or american) was a confusion (essence of phil is spiritual, nor rational – very kierkegaardian), and a part of him saw my becoming an academic as a betrayal of his vision/love. Because of his phil influence on me since I was a child, our phil conversations became a space of emotional abuse. They were also some of the most exciting and mind opening interactions I had. Naturally this involved for me decades of oscillating between adulation and anger, and struggling to find for myself a balanced middle (which others could point out to me, but I couldn’t thereby just hold on it).

    When I reflect now on him, I can feel both: the admiration/gratitude and the anger/disappointment. I don’t think, “Let me just hold on to the phil of the Gita he imparted”(the principles, as it were), because if it is just about the principles, I don’t need a memory of my father for that; I have many copies of the Gita. He was an inspiration because he was for me a human face of the principles. I cherish that, but it also involves the emotional and intellectual work of sculpting that human dimension of the principles into a form that fits me and my context, so that I can say, “I got this from him and I am passing this on”. He was not a public figure like my professors or like Mill, but if he was, this sculpting would be even more complicated and even more fraught because there would be so many more dimensions to consider.

    If it was only about physics or art or law, Einstein or Picasso or Gandhi wouldn’t have been as famous as they were. They humanized the principles of their domain and so made it feel more accessible, so that even a lay person like me can feel connected to those domains. This kind of humanizing is essential for us to feel part of a community, and not just limited to our lanes of expertise. This is a reason why we don’t blot out the names of Mill and Kant from the texts, because even for professionals, they help humanize the ideas. Hence also the pain of their very human limitations. If a person can easily look beyond those limitations while holding on to the human dimension of the ideas, great! He is very lucky or wise, or both. But most people are not like that. Finding that balanced middle is not a natural instinct, but it is a cultivated skill. Most people need help with that. Not the trigger warning kind of help, but something deeper – more uniting and healing.

  37. Thanks David for those citations. Not only did he not go to India but his father wrote a history of India without visiting either. Young J.S. used to get up at 5a.m. to help him.

    Let me be clear however: a chastened veneration is not a blacklist. Being less dazzled by the halo we may be able to fully asses his principles. The harm business for instance. Does the society that is liberal and civilised apply it or does it create that society in the first instance? A positive feedback loop sort of. Isn’t it the case that the most societal battles are joined on the notion of harm? ‘No harm’ says Tweedledum – ‘Plenty harm’ says Tweedledee. Let us do our sums on the felicific calculus and work it out.

  38. Liked the essay, but really liked this reply. Nicely put.

  39. 1970scholar

    I am late to the “party” that is this rather extraordinary essay. I read it with great interest, mainly as someone whose knowledge of philosophy is, though admittedly considerable is also that of nonprofessional layperson. I admit I have struggled over the decades over the Enlightenment question. I have always found both the Continental attack on it congenial yet keep going back to my love of Kant, Hume and others associated with the Enlightenment. (Even Locke who gets a bad rap from the far Left). Reading this essay makes me more and not less convinced that these thinkers in question were at the very least attempting to communicate with everyone, not a single tribe or ethnicity, or even time period. Were they successful? At times both yes and no. But try they did and to not see their efforts, or worse, to mistranslate their considerable efforts as a mere mass for more sinister motives does a great disservice to all the thinkers in question. Thanks for writing this!

  40. Bharath Vallabha

    Agree very much. My guess is Western Enlightenment philosophy and philosophers will be central to the 21st century and this will be recognized more and more even by its current detractors.

    There have been two main camps of opposition to Western Enlightenment philosophers. 1) The anti-modernity stance, where modernity was identified with an de-humanizing abstractionism, put forward by both some continental and analytic thnkers like Kiergkeegard, Nietzche, Hiedegger, Wittgenstein, Anscombe, MacIntyre, etc.. 2) The anti-racism and anti-empire stance, put forward by thinkers like Fanon and Marcuse.

    If, as seems likely and as some prognosticate, the 21st century will see of non-European super powers, then in time the force of (2) will subside. (2) really has force when we think of the West as the richest and the best, the world leaders. if China becomes an economic superpower, and pushes ahead of America and Europe, then China becomes the new face of the Empire. And with China’s or any country’s obvious oppressive history, Locke and Kant will start looking pretty good as thinkers.

    Even more so, as our world becomes more techonological, with AI, us becoming more like cyborgs, with the super rich getting brain implants to have greater memory, etc., the egalitarianism that Locke and Kant pushed for will seem more and more like humanism, and the differences between Kant and Anscombe will seem much less interesting than the similarities between them. And better, perhaps some new views merging Kant and Anscombe will emerge, which is what I hope for.

  41. Gautam

    The fundamental question being raised in this essay transcends philosophy, I think. For example, a deeply-committed Christian comes across many things in the Old & New testaments that we would not endorse today (same goes with Hinduism or Daoism or any other tradition) & the “critical” and the “personal” perspectives clash. Yet, their worldview is shaped by these texts in fundamental ways, so the pressing question becomes, how to think about these texts, authors and traditions?

    The two poles of the response — put the texts/traditions/authors on a pedestal beyond criticism, OR, tear them down and chuck them out — both seem dissatisfactory, because at root, they are stop-gap solutions. The poles of the response are an internal tension within ourselves and there is no option but to do the hard work of reconciling these poles.

    This reconciliation is, I think, a fundamentally creative act: the answer is not out there (in the texts) but I have to fashion the answer for myself anew. Descartes or Wittgenstein or Buddha didn’t have the answers for all time, they came up with something that worked for them, and each generation after that had to make it relevant for themselves. One aspect of doing this is to contextualize the texts & authors (e.g., to understand the social context of Descartes or the Buddha). Another aspect is to be more attuned to how these texts & authors have shaped my own perception and thinking (e.g. implicit Cartesian views of mind & body, or Buddhist notions of monkisness vs worldliness).

  42. Bharath Vallabha

    Agree the creative act of reconciliation is inevitable to internalizing older texts. Focusing on only the good or only the bad is a form of bad faith, in the existential sense of treating an fluid open ended being as an object with a fixed, immutable identity.

    Bad faith can be reenforced by a sense of othering. For example, it is one thing for someone who admires Kant to think about Kant’s racism. But some people who focus on Kant’s racism aren’t really familiar with Kant’s achievements – to them Kant is just one more of “those European colonizers”. I suspect some college students protesting traditional curriculum are doing it in this way, treating modern European thinkers as just a block of racists intent mainly just on ruling the world. It’s like pointing at Germans from the 1930s and calling them all fascists, as if there were no distinctions between Einstein, Thomas Mann, Heidegger and Hitler – effectively, essentializing “German” with fascism. It’s a sloppiness of thought and speech which doesn’t even let the creative act of reconciliation come to the surface.

    It goes the other way too when many academic philosophers causally identity philosophy with Western philosophy. For instance, dismissing Indian thought as religion or self-help, or assuming that philosophy began with the Greeks, as if the rest of the world in the 5th century BC was mired in superstition and dogma, and that, say, the Buddha didn’t critically reflect the way Socrates did.

    Giving up bad faith in either direction requires being open to the fundamentally fluid nature of oneself and traditions in general.