Mill's Principle  Of Intellectual Humility

By Tim Ruggiero

"[A man should] look upon all things with a benevolent, but upon great men and their works with a reverential spirit; rather to seek in them for what he may learn from them, than for opportunities of showing what they might have learned from him; to give such men the benefit of every possibility of their having spoken with a rational exhaust every other hypothesis, before supposing himself wiser than they; and even then to examine, with good will and without prejudice, if their error do not contain some germ of truth..."  

-- From John Robson, J.S. Mill: A Selection Of His Works


"In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner."  

-- J. S. Mill, On Liberty

Imagine a world in which people frequently questioned their own attitudes and beliefs, entertained opposing points of view, and lived up to the Millian standard of tolerance and open-mindedness: in addition to being wiser, would not such a world also be saner and more compassionate? Is it not a defiant self-righteousness that leads people to see the "other" as enemy or traitor, as heretic or sinner, and that fuels the desire, as one scholar put it, "to censure, ban, and excommunicate, to torture and kill in the name of God's truth, to declare crusades and holy wars, to issue edicts mandating death to those who do not agree with us"?

There is something noble about Mill's exhortation to broad-mindedness. I must wonder, though, what meaning our philosopher's words have once they're brought down from the misty heavens and considered within the context of everyday exchanges of thought and opinion. People often have very strong views and are not able to achieve a critical distance from them. Sometimes whole identities have been built on the edifice of a single worldview, be it religious, philosophical, or political. Challenging a person's convictions or beliefs may, in fact, amount to attacking their very sense of self.

A religious fundamentalist, for instance, is not apt to receive an argument for atheism patiently and with an open mind; for him the truth of the matter has already been decided. He cannot look at religion with the cool detachment of a physicist or biologist, or see the atheist as a fellow truth-seeker from whom he has anything to learn.

Likewise with the atheist: he can be every bit as stubborn and arrogant as the religious true-believer, as unaccepting of alternative points of view, as unwilling to admit he may ultimately be wrong.

Often the most that can be expected during heated arguments is that the parties will throw up their hands and acknowledge that "you have your opinion, and I have mine, but let's not let it come between us." This last-minute agreement to co-exist is preferable to coming to blows, but is hardly proof of an open mind; the first evidence of that comes when one can harbor a doubt or two about his own position, or concede that his view is at best fragmentary and partial.

Might the Millian principle of humility be too exacting for most mortals? Aren't most of us, to one degree or other, emotionally invested in some -ism or -ology, and thus impervious to all high-minded appeals to objectivity? Even if the answer to these questions is an emphatic "yes," it is still necessary from time to time to be reminded of the fallibility of all belief systems. "There is room for words on subjects other than last words," Robert Nozick once wrote. "Only the refusal to listen guarantees one against being ensnared by the truth."


More On John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

He grew up in London, was the son of James Mill, a philosopher himself and author of History of India.

His early education is one of the most formidable on record. He began his study of Greek at age three, Latin at age eight; by the time he was 14, he had already  mastered logic and mathematics and read most of the classics of literature. Before he was 20 years old he edited Jeremy Bentham's book On Evidence.

The works by which he is most remembered are System of Logic (1843), On Liberty (1859), and Utilitarianism (1863). Other works of interest are Considerations on Representative Government (1861), Auguste Comte and Positivism (1864), The Subjection of Women (1869), and his Autobiography (1873).


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