- Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society
In her Reforming Philosophy, Laura Snyder has produced a comparative study of two of the most important nineteenth-century intellectual figures: John Stuart Mill and William Whewell. Though she meticulously traces the debate between Mill and Whewell on central issues in science, morality, politics, and political economy, her main goal is to demonstrate that the heir of Bentham's utilitarianism and the Cambridge polymath shared more in common than is usually conceded. She maintains that over the course of their engagement, Mill's and Whewell's positions began to converge, particularly in moral philosophy and political economy. Snyder has undertaken a difficult task, as scholars have tended to see Mill and Whewell as opponents. Indeed, Mill and Whewell often viewed each other in that light. Whewell targeted Benthamite utilitarianism in his writings, while Mill attacked Whewell in his System of Logic (1843). Mill viewed Whewell as an intuitionist, and he believed that the intuitionist philosophy supported false doctrines and bad institutions.
Snyder undermines the conventional, polarized pictures of these two figures by demonstrating that much of Whewell's criticism is valid only of the young Mill, before he undertook his critique of Bentham's one-sided utilitarianism; by pointing to a series of cases where Mill misunderstood Whewell's position; [End Page 256] and by insisting that we read Mill and Whewell in context in order to recover the full complexity of their positions. She emphasizes that both were liberals and that both saw themselves as effecting social and political change through a reform of inductive philosophy. One of the great strengths of the book is Snyder's willingness to examine the entire breadth of Mill's and Whewell's intellectual activity. This allows her to find unexpected connections between different areas of their thought and to the ideas of their counterparts.
The book is divided into five chapters. In chapter 1, Snyder discusses Whewell and the reform of Baconian inductive philosophy, a reform that he intended to apply to all areas of knowledge. Snyder maintains that Whewell was no simple-minded deductivist infected, as Mill thought, by German idealism and Coleridge's transcendental philosophy. Instead, she presents Whewell as constructing an inductive methodology that synthesized empiricism and apriorism based on theological principles. Chapter 2 deals with Mill's radicalization of induction—his attempt to build an ultra-empiricist scientific method that demonstrated that mind contributed nothing to knowledge of the physical world. In the System of Logic, Mill rejected necessity in logic, math, and causal relations. Chapter 3 focuses on the controversy between Mill and Whewell over the confirmation of scientific theories, using their evaluation of Darwin's theory of evolution as a case study.
Moving on to the reform of morality and politics in the fourth chapter, Snyder shows how both Whewell and Mill rejected the simplistic moral system of Jeremy Bentham. Both created moral philosophies emphasizing the necessity of creating morally excellent characters that would naturally find happiness in acting virtuously. Both saw education as key to reforming society. Snyder argues that Mill was wrong in his belief that Whewell's moral philosophy was designed to justify the status quo. Had Mill understood the epistemology underlying Whewell's physical and moral science, especially his notion of the progressive intuition of necessary truth, he might have realized that Whewell's moral philosophy was potentially reformist (263-5). The final chapter tackles the theme of reforming political economy. After a detailed discussion of Whewell and Mill's relationship to Ricardo and Malthus, Snyder concludes that by the end of his career, Mill's views on political economy came to resemble those of Whewell (299).
One problem that I had with the book was its concentration on philosophy. Although Snyder tries to follow Mill and Whewell through almost the entire range of their intellectual work, the book still has a philosophical emphasis. It deals more with philosophy of science, with moral and political philosophy, and with the philosophical dimensions of political...