Learningguild discussions of Mill’s Liberty in Third Term 2018

I have headed the flyer for this term with the question “Do we really want a culture of open discussion, for ourselves, our children, our country?”.  Underlying and stimulating that question are three sentences in Mill’s second chapter, para. 20, which illustrate how closely he tied freedom of thinking to freedom of discussion: “Not that it is solely, or chiefly, to form great thinkers, that freedom of thinking is required.  On the contrary, it is as much and even more indispensable, to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of. …. Where there is a tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed; where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable.”

Is it in general so very important, we need first to ask, “to attain the mental stature which [one is] capable of”?  (Would ‘ensure the mental development’ be a better wording than ‘attain the mental stature’?  What other kinds of personal development should there be?)  Then “What, other than discussion, is needed for mental development?”.  After those questions have been explored, we may be ready to ask “What kinds of discussion may occur, what is the value of each, and how does it best proceed?”.  We should ask, too, why (about a hundred and sixty years after he wrote Liberty) there is so little participation in open discussion of the kind Mill advocated.

I propose that we keep these questions and Mill’s sentences in mind, and aim to have a major discussion of them at our third meeting (August 19).  At the first (July 15), we’ll discuss his first chapter, and whether we agree with his “one very simple principle” (para. 9), and what we are to think of his summary in para. 12 of what he argues for in his essay.  In the second meeting (August 5), we should make sure we have a clear grasp of the nature and structure of the second chapter.  It contains four arguments that are set out in a logical order at the end (paras 40-43).  These may helpfully be labelled A1, A2, B1 and B2, each of which deserves discussion and illustration.  In the body of the chapter, however, A2 comes last (beginning at para. 34).

As I have already written, particularly welcome will be questions of the sorts illustrated by “What does this mean?” and “Why is Mill so insistent on this?”.  But ask, and ask us to discuss, whatever questions you wish.

I append a list of the opening words of paras 6, 11, 16, etc., for each of the three chapters, to assist us, whatever edition of Liberty we each have, to number all the paras correctly.  In this way each person can readily find a para. to which another has referred.  The edition I have recommended is the Oxford World’s Classics On Liberty and other essays, partly because it includes a very valuable long essay called The Subjection of Women, which is consistent in themes and argument with Liberty.

We invite any member who would like to do so to become a corresponding participant in our study of these chapters and the issues they raise today for Australia and other countries.

This document and sequels to it will be put on our website learningguild.org.au.  Reach them via ‘RELATED DOCUMENTS’, which will appear below ‘MEETINGS’ at the top of the website’s pages.

John Howes