JS Mill’s Cauldron Of Ideas


I’m reading a great Dorling Kindersley illustrated book on politics called…. The Politics Book

It’s an introduction to politics aimed at 16-18 year olds and is beautifully illustrated by James Graham. It is also got me thinking.

The section on John Stuart Mill says this:

“Even when societies received wisdoms were true, Mill argued that it was important to maintain a profusion of ideas – for a true idea to keep it’s vitality and power, it needs to be challenged and probed. This was particularly the case with ideas about society and politics , which can never attain the certainty of mathematical truths. Testing ideas is best done by hearing the views of those who hold conflicting opinions. If there are no dissenters, their views must be imagined. Without this discussion and argument, people will not appreciate the basis of even true ideas, which then become dead dogmas, parroted without any real understanding. Even correct principles of behaviour and morality, when they have been converted into barren slogans, can no longer motivate authentic action.”

In other words, No Dissent; No Democracy.

The section is introduced by this quote from Mill:

“That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.”

I would perhaps rephrase the quote to add that this in fact the chief danger of our species. As social animals being part of the group is far more important to most people than being an individual. Combine this with a pathological bourgeoisie fear of conflict and disagreement and we end up with the type of oppressive liberal consensus I posted about the other week, whereby those who dare to say things at odds with the current orthodoxy find themselves demonised, excluded and silenced. History is full of this sort of stuff of course and the social tyranny of the majority can be just as much a tyranny as that of a tyrannical state or capitalist corporation – especially when the outrage of the orthodox can be manipulated by state and corporate power to suppress those who resist that power.

Yet this phenomenon of social tyranny does provide a contradiction for people like myself to contend with. Indeed, this blog is explicitly framed to address this problem – how to reconcile our individuality and diversity with our natures as social animals?

My answer to this is that the only way I can be free is if we are all free, and that to be free does not mean simply to be free from constraint, it also means having equal access to the means of fulfilling our potential. i.e. I am arguing that freedom necessarily implies equal opportunity. I would also say that freedom does not just mean freedom from an oppressive state, it also means freedom from the exploitative and oppressive power of private capital.

Thus just like classic liberals I believe in the primacy of individual freedom but I believe my freedom can only be guaranteed as part of some form of an egalitarian society and I don’t see capitalism or entrepreneurial business as anything to do with freedom but rather as just another form of triumph-of-the-fittest tyranny, not really structurally different from the brutal aristocratic warlords and state Empire builders of previous eras.

In any society those who think and act in new ways (across science, culture, politics and social relations) provide a benefit to everyone (including conformists) because by being willing to take risks they ‘test’ new ways of thinking and doing and the resulting innovations in technology, thought and behaviour that prove to be useful and desirable can be adopted by everyone.

Thus for a healthy society, individuals should be free to think and act according to their own conscience (as long as they don’t harm others). Often this doesn’t happen because of the tyranny of the majority. Which leads to conformity and hampers the testing out of new ideas and ways of life.

Innovation and progress comes about through the thinking and actions of odd-balls, weirdo’s, rebels, radicals, nonconformists, malcontents, bohemians, punks, hippies, geeks, dissenters, nutters, outsiders, loners, mavericks and eccentrics – not conforming, middle class, middle-of-the-road, corporate ‘professionals’.

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3 responses to “JS Mill’s Cauldron Of Ideas

  1. moelarrythecheese

    You’d probably like the Tea Party here in the Colonies. Over here the group presently in power uses all of the tools at its disposal to discourage debate and the consideration of opposing ideas. For example, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was forced through the “legislative process” by the majority without any consideration of competing ideas. The people of the US are now being force-fed a law which has repeatedly been shown to be unpopular with a large majority of the population. Yet the controlling powers are unwilling to change course and consider other views. Anyone opposing the rule of Obama is frequently labeled as being racist in order to bludgeon debate. John Stuart Mill would not approve of our situation here in the States.

  2. Thanks for writing this blog. I am writing a paper for my university (in the Netherlands) about Mill’s principal of the bubbling cauldron of ideas and you seem to have an interesting thoughts. Would you be up for a skype-chat on this?

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