Mill, Wordsworth, Role Models, and Personal Possibilities

by lizmckinnell

I have been spending far more time than is reasonable on an article about John Stuart Mill and William Wordsworth. While a central strand of it has remained constant, the process of writing, rewriting, discussing with colleagues, near misses from journals and more rewriting has transformed large portions of the article. I hope to be getting rid of it towards the end of the month, but maybe this is too optimistic. I had some thoughts about what I am trying to do in this paper that extend to broader ideas about role models and the emulation of others, and particularly to how this might apply to my own situation: a junior woman in philosophy, in regular contact with women who are more junior and more senior.

What happened to Mill is pretty well-known. Short version: he was raised by his father and Jeremy Bentham with the intention of creating the perfect utilitarian theorist. In pursuit of this goal he had a rigorous and rather restrictive education, leading his attention away from such things as art and poetry in favour of the classical languages needed to read philosophical texts, economics, and other disciplines that might be regarded as ‘useful’ to him as a utilitarian thinker, and to society more generally. This may, by the way, put us in mind of certain trends in contemporary education policy, but I’ll save that for another day.

Unsurprisingly, the young Mill suffered from a ‘mental crisis’ in his twenties. His attributes his recovery, in part, to reading the poetry of Wordsworth. Variously, Mill’s crisis is put down to some kind of Oedipus complex, to Victorian repression, to plain intellectual overwork (tell me about it), or to something rotten at the heart of Benthamite utilitarianism itself. Mill’s own interpretation comes closest to the last of these possibilities. He describes the associationist ideas about education associated with Bentham and with James Mill: ‘the object of education should be to form the strongest possible associations of the salutary class; associations of pleasure with all things beneficial to the great whole, and pain with all things hurtful to it’. Pleasure, then, should be taken in those things which serve a purpose. But what purpose is that? To the Benthamite, there can be only one answer: the maximisation of pleasure. Now the risk here is that we open up a massive regress: pleasure in causing pleasure, which in turn should be taken in causing pleasure, and so on. We are at risk of the bottom falling out of it – if this is all there is, then how can we ever take pleasure in something merely for its own sake? Everything we enjoy might ultimately be experienced as empty and meaningless. This seems to be what happened to Mill – his description resembles very closely a lot of first-person accounts of severe depression, in which nothing of meaning or significance can be found in the world.

So how did reading Wordsworth help? Well, it might be nice for us simply to say that Mill realised, through reading Wordsworth, that daffodils were nice too, not just utility maximisation. But this doesn’t really work. Why, if that were the case, couldn’t he get the same effect just from looking at some lovely daffodils? Mill’s answer was that the sensibilities that were needed to engage with natural beauty in a profound way were lacking in him because of the nature of his childhood education. Nothing could have value for him beyond the valuing response itself, and this had lost its charm. What Wordsworth taught him, therefore, was a certain kind of cultivation of the character – a new way that it could be like to be him. Through revealing how the world could appear for Wordsworth, new possibilities lit up for Mill.

Now, there are problems with this that I won’t bother you with, but an interesting puzzle arises when we ask why it was Wordsworth, rather than Coleridge perhaps, or Shelley, who had this great effect. Looking at things that Mill wrote later on, this seems odd: he describes Wordsworth as an ‘unpoetical’ poet (unlike Shelley) and as a poor philosopher (unlike Coleridge). In a sentence that he later omitted from his ‘Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties’, Mill describes Wordsworth’s attempts at lyric poetry as ‘cold and spiritless’. How, then, might this unlikely candidate have been such a great influence on Mill?

The clue, I think, can be seen if we look to Aristotle, a figure who was very influential on both Wordsworth and Mill. Aristotle’s ethics focus primarily on the idea of cultivation of the character – an element that Mill diagnosed as missing from Benthamite utilitarianism. To live a good life, one needs to become a certain kind of person, and this is a matter of feeling, as well as thinking. We get there through developing the right habits. If we repeatedly act in virtuous ways, we train our personalities such that we become virtuous. But the individual cannot do this in isolation – he (and for Aristotle, it was a ‘he’) had to look to the virtuous man (and for Aristotle it was a man), who he could emulate in order to cultivate the appropriate habits. It is through this emulation and repetition that we develop the right thoughts and feelings. Truly knowing (rather than merely imitating) the right way to respond in given situations, is called phronesis, or practical wisdom. This is not something that can be learned merely through philosophy texts, but through observing, interacting and living.

This gives a central significance to the idea of a role model. This is not something to which Wordsworth was blind, and neither was Mill: you can see a version of the idea expressed through his notion of ‘experiments of living’ in On Liberty, where a free society would allow people to develop new ways of living that would serve as an inspiration to others. One of the points that I want to make in my article is that Wordsworth served as such a role model for Mill: a model of practical wisdom, not of theoretical philosophy. Wordsworth opened up possibilities for taking pleasure in the natural world – pleasure of a kind that had been denied to Mill until this point.

But other poets wrote about natural beauty – in Mill’s opinion many of them better than Wordsworth ever did. So we still don’t understand the poet’s particular importance. A plausible answer to this lies in the very things that Mill identifies as Wordsworth’s weaknesses. In the ‘Thoughts on Poetry’, Mill makes an interesting comparison between Wordsworth and Shelley, maintaining that each is strong where the other is weak: Shelley is all emotion, with flimsy and casual associations of ideas flitting about all over the place. He excites sensations beautifully, but rushes from one idea to the other without allowing the intellectual component to unfold. By contrast, Wordsworth is a thinking poet. While he does evoke vivid imagery and emotion, it is always in the service of thought: ‘what he is impressed with, and what he is anxious to impress, is some proposition, more or less distinctively conceived; some truth, or something which he deems such. He lets the thought dwell in our mind till it excites, as is the nature of thought, other thoughts, and also such feelings as the measure of his sensibility is adequate to supply’. Here Mill thought that Wordsworth was lacking. His feelings, and his expression of them, were not of sufficient power and depth to describe him as having a poetic nature.

Mill’s education, even in his downcast state, had allowed him to form associations of thoughts, to engage intellectually with associations of ideas, to turn them over, pick them apart and analyse them. What Wordsworth demonstrated for Mill is how one might grow feelings, insipid as he later deemed them to be by comparison to Shelley, from such unpromising soil. It is the very thing that made Wordsworth ‘unpoetical’ that enabled Mill to see some hope for someone in his own situation, and from his educational background.

An important lesson to take from this is that when we search for our models of phronesis, the striking people from whom we can emulate practical wisdom and learn about how to live, we cannot look for saints or superheroes. We need to find people who can show us that certain things are possible for us, with our self-perceived limitations and weaknesses.

In her fantastic essay ‘Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality’, Iris Marion Young argues that while men typically understand the world around them in terms of practical possibilities for action, women and girls are typically raised in such a way that they see it in terms of an absence of possibility for them. The standard way of relating to the world is not then so much an ‘I can’, as an ‘Others can, but I can’t’. We see obstacles, limitations and danger where we see those same environments as a source of practical possibility for others.

But perhaps through role models, one can start to see the ways in which things are not just possible, but possible for someone like us. For Mill, engaging in the world, valuing it, taking pleasure in it, all seemed impossible until he was shown a way that it might be done by someone who was, in relevant respects like him: limited, ‘unpoetical’, stunted by theory, and (in his later opinion) almost insipid.

A recent study of mentors in academia demonstrated that while in many cases female mentors had a positive effect on the self-esteem and career development of their female mentees, in some cases, counter-intuitively, they seemed to have a negative effect. In these cases, the mentors projected an image of themselves as highly-efficient, confident, and untroubled by a lot of the inner and outer barriers that afflict women in academia. They were demonstrating that what they were achieving was possible, but their mentees did not feel that it was possible for them.

Knowing this does not automatically help. The culture in academia (and in academic philosophy especially) is one in which it is very difficult for women to show any weakness. If we demonstrate a lack of confidence in our ability to do the job, share our imposter syndrome, reveal our feelings of ‘I can’t’, we feel (with some justification) that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But what Mill and Wordsworth’s story reveals is that for someone to serve as a model of how things might become for us, they have not only to demonstrate what is possible, but also show how it is possible for someone like me, with all of my limitations, fear and doubt.