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John Stuart Mill – On Liberty, 1859

On Liberty. London: John W. Parker and Son, 1859.

First edition. PMM 345.

‘The statement that John Stuart Mill was Britain’s most important philosopher in the nineteenth century looks like a bold assertion, but in fact it should not be even mildly controversial. The Victorians themselves might have thought that someone else, such as Herbert Spencer, better merited this title, but from our perspective Mill has no serious rivals. Indeed, only Charles Darwin could possibly rival Mill’s claim to having been nineteenth-century Britain’s most important intellectual figure. On Liberty is, as Mill foresaw, … [a] work that is still read and that still exerts a tremendous influence …. In terms of the book’s impact on real-world social and political decision making, Mill’s powerful defence of freedom of expression may be its most important component. He maintained that baneful consequences follow the suppression of ideas, whether the ideas in question are wholly true, partially true, or even wholly false; in the latter case, the danger is that in the absence of a need to defend them against challenge, true ideas will become practically impotent ‘dead dogma’. Philosophically, the richest section of the book is the discussion of ‘individuality’, where Mill argued for the importance of resisting the ‘despotism of custom’ and allowing individuals to choose their own ways of life’ (Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century British Philosophers, Thoemmes Press).

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