Mill and Liberalism
The Earlier Letters of John Stuart Mill, 1812-1848
Among the epigraphs prefacing The Nature and Limits of Political Science is Cardinal Newman’s famous definition of liberalism: “By liberalism I mean…the exercise of thought upon matter, in which from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue and is therefore out of place.” Maurice Cowling, in his extremely contentious book, convicts political science, as well as contemporary politics, of this liberal heresy. The proper mode of political science, he insists, is contemplative rather than practical, metaphysical rather than ethical; but the prevailing mode he finds to be practical and ethical. Political scientists have been unable to resist the illicit “exercise of thought,” the illusion that what they have to say matters in the world of affairs.
One would like to know more about the metaphysical problems that Mr. Cowling regards as the proper and exclusive concern of the political scientist. But of these we are told nothing. For Mr. Cowling has written not a grammar of assent but a grammar of dissent. His book is grossly mistitled, being entirely an exposition (or rather a series of illustrations, “exposition” suggesting a far more systematic discourse than we have here) of the “limits” of political science, with hardly a word as to its “nature.” But the misrepresentation goes beyond the title. For it becomes quickly apparent that Mr. Cowling’s own conception of political science has a practical, ethical bias quite as obtrusive as that which he condemns.
What exercises Mr. Cowling is the “liberalism” that he finds implicit in conventional political science. He relates the intellectual presumptuousness of the political scientist, who thinks that his ideas should be of practical import, to the political presumptuousness of the liberal, who tries to impose his principles and ideals upon society. Indeed the first, he says, is a condition of the second, political science as understood by the liberal being no more than a rationalization of his principles and ideals. But is it not possible that Mr. Cowling’s own notion of political science is equally a rationalization of his conservative principles? Wanting to limit the scope of political activity, he has deliberately limited the scope of political science. By voiding political science of ethical content, he denies the legitimacy of political ideals and thus hopes to render them impotent in the political arena. It is a bold move—to exorcise thought from political science so that the liberal may not exercise thought in politics.
Mill and Liberalism is more of the same—only instead of random quotations from Max Beloff, Geoffrey Hudson, Gunnar Myrdal, David Butler, Walter Lippmann, and George Kennan (these from two facing pages of text), we are presented with random quotations from John Stuart Mill. Mill now figures as the archetype of the liberal political scientist, conspiring to convert his discipline into a temporal religion and to create an “intellectual clerisy” as doctrinaire and intolerant as any priesthood of old.
Mr. Cowling was provoked to write his latest book, he explains …