I must admit that my first encounter with the philosophy of John William Miller was not a pretty one. I first read of him in these pages a decade or so ago, and even though I was thinking a lot about pragmatism and democratic theory, and shared many of his interests, I didn't much like his philosophy. While I liked his style, the vocabulary seemed awkward. His finite idealism confused me. I had problems with his ontology, and his tendency towards historicism seemed odd. I even wrote an essay critical of The Midworld (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), though I never made an aggressive effort to publish it. [End Page 289]
This is a good thing, because I would have regretted publishing that essay. I say this because both Michael J. McGandy's The Active Life: Miller's Metaphysics of Democracy, and the new edited collection of Miller's writings entitled The Task of Criticism, do an excellent job of revealing the contemporary significance of Miller's work. Collectively, they have convinced this skeptic that the midworld and its ontology of functioning objects are an important contribution to contemporary American philosophy.
The Task of Criticism faces several challenges. First, George P. Brockway supervised the publication of five volumes of Miller's collected works, and Fell himself edited a 1990 volume on Miller's philosophy (The Philosophy of John William Miller, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press), followed by Stephen Tyman's Decrying the Ideal (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993). Colapietro published Fateful Shapes of Human Freedom: John William Miller and the Crises of Modernity (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) in 2003. Do we really need another volume? Second, Miller's brand of idealism is not very fashionable these days. Is there any hope that pragmatic idealism can inform contemporary social theory, and make a contribution to the very real and concrete problems faced by modern democratic institutions?
I believe that the answer to both of these questions is "yes." Recognizing the importance of previous volumes devoted to Miller's philosophy, the editors present The Task of Criticism as the first comprehensive introduction to Miller's philosophy, and it attempts to cut a middle ground between a complete collection of essays and a "best of" anthology. The editors want to provide a framework for understanding Miller's philosophy, and in this attempt they succeed admirably.
Why? Because the editors have provided a structure for Miller's thought that was lacking in earlier collections, and by focusing on the issues of philosophical method, historiography, and community, they have provided a framework for understanding Miller's philosophy. In so doing, they have also firmly established the continuing relevance of Miller's work. The recent revival of pragmatic idealism (as evidenced by a recent surge in publications on idealists like Royce and Hocking) is an important development in contemporary American philosophy, and I think Miller deserves a significant role in this movement.
One of the things I like about this collection is its presentation as a work of three generations of Miller's students, all indebted to the work of Brockway, and all dedicated to the task of demonstrating the fundamental importance of Miller's work. The text itself not only includes a variety of Miller's writing on a wide range of topics, but also a very effective introduction to Miller's philosophy, short introductory passages for each essay, and a comprehensive index, as well as a bibliography of works by and about Miller. This is, in short, the first textbook of Miller's philosophy, and it does a fine job of capturing the breadth and depth of his philosophy.
The scope of Miller's philosophical interests is made even more remarkable by the fact that Miller himself showed little interest in forwarding [End Page 290] his own reputation as a professional philosopher. This is the enigma of Miller. He...