John Stuart Mill on Truth and Meaning in Philosophy

What do we want to know when we ask why someone does something? For example, if you asked me, ‘Why are you writing this article?’ what answer would satisfy your expectations? I can respond in at least two ways. One would describe my writing as an act of the body, a certain physiological functionality manifesting as this event of typing. I could say, ‘Respective neurons in my brain send appropriate signals to my arms and fingers, enabling me to write this article’. You might object that this is not what you asked; it is a description of how I am writing and a specifically physiological one. But you couldn’t claim this response isn’t true. It is true. But it is just one part of the whole and probably not the part you meant with your question. ‘Meant’ is the important word here. What you meant with your question (most likely) was that I should explain the meaning of my action – why I am writing this post.

a retro typing machine on an old desk and dark background

The philosophical debate between description with its ‘how’ question and explanation with its ‘why’ question has a long history and continues today in areas such as philosophy of mind and discussions about the laws of nature. Occasionally, things can get confused when we think we can explain something simply by describing how it works. In some cases, such an approach is enough. If I buy a new smartphone, I may want someone to explain its functions and be satisfied with that level of knowledge. However, even then, if I am entirely honest, I wouldn’t say I understand how the smartphone works. I just know how to use it. It is a bit like with grammar of your native language. You know how to speak correctly, even though you don’t always understand why that is the correct way.

Unlike technology and grammar, the situation is more complex with people, our ideas, beliefs, and pursuits. Philosophy is one such example. Interestingly, the history of philosophy also has its debate about what philosophy is and how it should be best understood: the pursuit of truth or the pursuit of meaning. Here, philosopher Simon Critchley locates the critical difference between the analytic and the Continental philosophical traditions. In his 2001 book “Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction”, Critchley proposes that analytic philosophy is concerned with knowledge and questions of truth while Continental philosophy is concerned with meaning and questions of wisdom. Critchley refers to the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill’s ideas to support his interpretation.

In his two essays on philosopher Jeremy Bentham (considered the founder of modern utilitarianism) and romantic poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, published in 1832 and 1840, respectively, Mill uses phrases like ‘Continental philosophers’ and ‘the Continental philosophy’ in relation to German influences on Coleridge. He claims that Bentham and Coleridge’s combined views and methods represent “the entire English philosophy” of its age. Analysing Mill’s opinions, Critchley writes:

“Mill thinks Bentham asks of any ancient doctrine or received opinion, ‘Is it true?; whereas Coleridge asks, ‘What is the meaning of it?’. So, ‘the Continental philosophy’ is concerned with meaning, whereas its Benthamite opposite is concerned with truth. In terms of [Critchley’s proposed interpretation], if Bentham is concerned with the question of knowledge, then Coleridge is concerned with the question of wisdom.”

Critchley (2001)

John Stuart Mill was educated in Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy, and referring to this experience, Critchley relates an episode from Mill’s biography. Realising that the knowledge he received was inadequate for wisdom or happiness, Mill came to appreciate poetry and was reading Coleridgeans, the humanistic philosopher and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Goethe, “whose ‘many-sidedness’ Mill admired”. Then, responding to the historian Thomas Carlyle’s question “whether he had entirely changed his opinion of matters, Mill replied, referring to the logic on which he had been brought up, ‘I believe in spectacles’, but added, ‘but I think eyes are necessary too’.”

What does Mill mean, and how does this relate to the truth and meaning debate? Critchley offers further helpful references where Mill explains, first, the importance of opposite views for an insightful reflection “as mutually checking powers are in a political constitution” and, second, the risk that each of the views claiming exclusivity can fall victim to the danger of “mistaking part of the truth for the whole”. According to Mill, the way to avoid this danger “in social philosophy… (is) to take the other’s view in addition to its own”. Although Mill does not refer to Hegel, Critchley recognises and highlights the parallels to the Hegelian notion of ‘dialectics’, where one must combine various parts into a whole if one seeks the truth. Therefore, Critchley concludes with the insights Mill’s ideas offer on the question of truth and meaning, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’, the analytic and Continental philosophy:

“In Mill’s hopeful view, then, the error in philosophy is mistaking part of the truth for the whole, or, as Hegel puts it, of placing fear of error higher than the desire for truth. In this sense, it is not a question of deciding whether Bentham or Coleridge is right, but in seeing both philosophical tendencies as the combined expression of a larger truth – namely that human beings are concerned by questions of both knowledge and wisdom – they require both spectacles to look through and eyes to see with. Philosophy requires both critical and logical destruction and patient hermeneutic reconstruction. That is, analytic and Continental philosophy are two halves of a larger cultural whole.”

Critchley (2001)

keep exploring!

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Image credit: Photo by Daria Kraplak on Unsplash

One thought on “John Stuart Mill on Truth and Meaning in Philosophy

  1. Pingback: Spreading the Word: What Is Continental Philosophy? – humanfactor

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