John Stuart Mill on Use and Abuse of Political Terms


as published on Tait's Edinburg Magazine

Mr. Lewis is known in society as the son of the Right Hon. T. Frankland Lewis, and in literature, as the translator, Jointly with Mr. Henry Tufnell, of two erudite and interesting works are classical antiquity, Midler's Dorians, and Bockh's Public Economy of Athens. Mr. Lewis is also the author of a little work on logic; to which subject, stimulated like many others of the Oxford youth, by the precepts and example of Dr. Whately, he has devoted more than common attention, and was so far peculiarly qualified for writing sack a work as the volume before us professes to be. This alone should entitle him to no slight praise ; for such is the present state of the human mind, in some important departments, that it is often highly meritorious to have written a book, in itself of no extraordinary merit, if the work afford proof that any one of the requisites for writing a good book on the same subject is possessed in an eminent degree.

Certain it is, that there scarcely ever was a period when logic was so little studied, systematically, and in a scientific manner, as of late years; while, perhaps, no generation ever had less to plead in extenuation of neglecting it. For if, in order to reason well, it were only necessary to be destitute, of every spark of fancy and poetic imagination, the world of letters and thought might boast, just now, of containing few besides good reasoners; people to whom, one would imagine, that logic must be all in all, if we did not, to our astonishment, find that they despise it. But the most prosaic matter-of-fact person in the world must not flatter himself that he is able to reason because he is fit for nothing else. Reasoning, like all other mental excellencies, comes by appropriate culture; not by exterminating1 the opposite good quality, the other half of a perfect character. Perhaps the mere reasoners, with whom the world abounds, would be considerably less numerous, if men really took the pains to learn to reason. It is a sign of a weak judgment, as of a weak virtue, to take to flight at the approach of every thing which Gen, by any remote possibility, lead it astray. Men who, for want of cultivation, have the intellects of dwarfs, are of course the slaves of their imagination, if they have any, as they are the slaves of their sensations, if they have not; and it is partly, perhaps, because the systematic culture of the thinking faculty is in little repute, that imagination also is in such bad odour; there being no solidity and vigour of intellect to resist it where it tends to mislead. The sublimest of English, poets imposed an elementary book of logic for the schools; but our puny rhymsters think logic, forsooth, too dry for them,+ and our logicians, from that and other causes, very commonly say with M. Casimir Perier, A quoi un poete est-il bon?

In undertaking to treat of the use and abuse of the leading terms of political philosophy, Mr. Lewis has set before himself a task to which no one but a logician could be competent, and one of the most important to which logic could be applied. If, however, we were disposed for minute criticism, we might find some scope for it in the very title-page. We might ask, what is meant by an abuse of terms; and whether a nan m not at liberty to employ terms in any way which enables him to deliver himself of his own ideas the most intelligibly; to bring home to the minds of others, in the greatest completeness, the impression which exists in his own? This question, though it has a considerable bearing upon many parts of Mr. Lewis's book, throws, how ever, no doubt upon the importance of the object he aims at. His end is, to prevent things essentially different, from being confounded, because they happen to be called by the same name. It is past doubt that this, like all other modes of false and slovenly thinking, might be copiously exemplified from the field of politics; and Mr. Lewis has not been unhappy m his choke of examples. The instances, in which the confusion of language is the consequence, and not the cause, of the erroneous train of thought (which we believe to be generally the more common ease,) are equally worthy of Mr. Lewis's attention, and will, no doubt, in time receive an equal share of it.

Some notion of the extent of ground over which our author travels may be gathered from his table of contents; which, with that view* we transcribe :-

"1. Government. 2. Constitution—Constitutional. 3. Right—Duty—Wrong;— Rightful—Wrongful—Justice. 4. Law—Lawful-Unlawful. 6. Sovereign Sovereignty—Division of Forms of Government. 6. Monarchy—Royalty-King 7. Commonwealth—Republic—Republican. 8. Aristocracy—Oligarchy—Nobility. 9. Democracy. 10. Mixed Government—Balance of Powers. 11. People—Community. 12. Representation—Representative—Representative Government. 13. Rich Middle Class-Peer, 14. Nature-Natural-Unnatural-State of Nature. 15. liberty—Freedom—Free, 16. Free Government—Arbitrary Government-Tyranny—Despotism—Anarchy. 17. Power—Authority—Force. 18. Public-Private—Political—Civil—Municipal. 19. Property—Possession—Estate—Estates of Parliament. 20. Community of Goods."

To explain thoroughly the various senses of any one of these terms, would require, possibly, as much space, as Mr. Lewis has devoted to them all. His observations, however, are those of an instructed and intelligent mind. They contain, perhaps, not much that is absolutely new ; except that ideas, which the mind has made completely its own, -always come out in a form more or less different from that in which they went in, and are, in that sense, always original. Moreover, any one who can look straight into a thing itself, and not merely at its image mirrored in another man's mind, can also look at things, upon occasion, when there is no other man to point them out.1

Yet, highly as we think of this work, and still more highly of the author's capabilities, we will not pretend that he has realized all our conceptions of what such a work ought to be. We do not think he is fully conscious of what his subject requires of him. The most that he ever seems to accomplish, is to make out that something is wrong, hut not how that which is wrong may be made right. He may say, that this is all he aimed at; and so, indeed, it is. But it may always be questioned, whether one has indeed cut down to the very root of an error, who leaves no truth planted in its stead. Mr Lewis, at least, continually leaves the mind under the unsatisfactory impression, that the matter has not been probed to the bottom, and that underneath almost every thing which he sees, there lies something deeper which he does not see. If in this we should be deemed hypercritical, we would say in our defence, that we should never think of ranging Mr. Lewis in the class of those, from whom we take thankfully and without asking questions, any trifling matter, which is all they have to bestow. The author of such a work as the present, is entitled to be tried by the same standard as the highest order of intellect; to be compared not with the small productions of small minds, but with ideal perfection.

Mankind have many ideas, and but few words. This truth should never be absent from the mind of one who takes upon him to decide if another man's language is philosophical or the reverse. Two consequences follow from it; one, that a certain laxity in the use of language must be borne with, if a writer makes himself understood; the other, that, to understand a writer who is obliged to use the same words as a vehicle for different ideas, requires a vigorous effort of co-operation on the part of the reader. 'These unavoidable ambiguities render it easier, we admit, for confusion of ideas to pass undetected: but they also render it more difficult for any man's ideas to be so expressed that they shall not appear confused; particularly when viewed with that habitual contempt with which men of clear ideas generally regard those, any of whose ideas are not clear, and with that disposition which contempt, like every other passion, commonly carries with it, to presume the existence of its object. It should be recollected, too, that many a man has a mind teeming with important thoughts, who is quite incapable of putting them into words which shall not be liable to any metaphysical objection; that when this is the case, the logical incoherence or incongruity of the expression, is commonly the very first thing which strikes the mind, and that which there is least merit in perceiving. The man of superior intellect, in that case, is not he who can only see that the proposition precisely as stated, is not true; but he who, not overlooking the incorrectness at the surface, does, nevertheless, discern that there is truth at the bottom. The logical defect, on the other hand, is the only thing which strikes the eye of the mere logician. The proper office, we should have conceived, of a clear thinker, would be to make other men's thoughts clear for them, if they, cannot do it for themselves, and to give words to the man of genius, fitted, to express his ideas with philosophic accuracy, Socrates, in the beautiful dialogue called the Phaedrus, describes; his own vocation as that of a mental midwife, not so Mr. A., or B., who, perhaps, owes the advantage of clear ideas to the fact of his having no ideas which it is at all difficult to make clear. The use of logic, would seem, to such a person, is not to help others, but to privilege himself against being required to listen to them. He will not think it worth his while to examine what a man has to say, unless it is put to him in such a manner that it shall cost, him no trouble at all to make it out. If you come to him needing help, you may learn from him that you are a fool; but you certainly will not be made wise.

It would be grossly unjust to Mr. Lewis to accuse him of any thing approaching to this ; but we could have wished that his work could have been more decidedly cited as an example of the opposite quality. We desiderate in it somewhat more of what becomes all men, but, most of all, a young man, to whom the struggles of life are only in their commencement, and whose spirit cannot yet have been wounded, or his temper embittered by hostile collision with the world, but which, in young men more especially, is apt to be wanting—a slowness to condemn, A man must now learn, by experience, what once came almost by nature to those who had any faculty of seeing; to look upon all things with a benevolent, but upon great men and their works with a reverential spirit; rather to seek in them for what he may learn from them, than for opportunities of shewing what they might have learned from him; to give such men the benefit of every possibility of their-having spoken with a rational meaning; not easily or hastily to persuade himself that men like Plato, and Locke, and Rousseau, and Bentham, gave themselves a world of trouble in running after something which they thought was a reality, but which he Mr. A. B. can clearly see to be an unsubstantial phantom; to exhaust every other hypothesis, before supposing himself wiser than they; and even then to examine, with good will and without prejudice, if their error do not contain some germ of truth; and if any conclusion, such, as a philosopher can adopt, may even yet be built upon the foundation on which they, it may be, have reared nothing but an edifice of sand.

Such men are not refuted because they are convicted of using words occasionally with no very definite meaning, or even of founding an, argument upon an ambiguity. The substance of correct reasoning map. still be there, although there be a deficiency in the forms. A vague term, which they may never have given themselves the trouble to define, may yet, on each particular occasion, have excited in their minds precisely the ideas it should excite. The leading word in an argument may be ambiguous; but between its two meanings there is often a secret link of connexion, unobserved by the critic but felt by the author, though perhaps he may not have given himself a strictly logical account of it; and the conclusion may turn not upon what is different in the two meanings, but upon what they have in common, or at least analogous.

Until logicians know these things, and act as if they knew them, they must not expect that a logician and a captious man will cease to be, in common apprehension, nearly synonymous. How, in fact, can it he otherwise In the mind of a person, who knows not very clearly what logic is, but who finds that he can in no way give utterance to his conviction without infringing logical rules, while he is conscious all the time that the reel grounds of the conviction here not been touched in the slightest degree?

It is only in a very qualified sense that these admonitions can he applied to Mr. Lewis; but there are so few persons of our time to whom they do not apply more or less, (and perhaps there here been hut row at any time,) that we are not surprised to find them even in his case far from superfluous. It remains for us to establish this by particular instances.

Mr. Lewis, under the word right, gives a definition of legal rights, and then lays it down that all rights are the creatures of law, that is, of the will of the sovereign; that the sovereign himself has no rights, nor can any one have rights as against the sovereign; because, being sovereign, he is by that supposition exempt from legal obligation, or legal responsibility. So far, so good. Mr. Lewis then says, that to call any thing a right which cannot be enforced by law, is an abuse of language. We answer,—Not until mankind have consented to be bound by Mr. Lewis's definition. For example, when Dr, Johnson says that a man has not a moral right to think as he pleases, "because he ought to inform himself, and think justly, "Mr. Lewis says he must mean legal right; and adds other observations, proving that he has not even caught a glimpse of Johnson's drift. Again, according to him, whoever asserts that no man can have a right to do that which is wrong, founds an argument upon a mere ambiguity, confounding a right with the adjective right: and this ambiguity is "mischievous, because it serves as an inducement to error, and confounds things as well as words."

Now, we contend that Mr. Lewis is here censuring what he does most thoroughly understand, and that the use of the word right, in both throe cases, is as good logic and as good English as his own. Right is the correlative of duty, or obligation; and (with some limitations) is co-extensive with those terms. Whatever any man is under an obligation to give you, or to do for you, to that you have a right. There are legal obligations, and there are consequently legal rights. There are also moral obligations; and no one, that we know of considers this phrase an abuse of language, or proposes that it should be dispensed with. It-seems, therefore, but an adherence to the established usage of our language, to speak of moral rights; which stand in the same relation to moral obligations as legal rights do to legal obligations. All that is necessary is to settle distinctly with ourselves, and make it intelligible to those whom we are addressing, which kind of rights it is that we mean; If we fail in which, we become justly liable to Mr. Lewis's censure. It has not totally escaped Mr. Lewis that there may be some meaning in the phrase, moral rights; but he has, by no means, correctly hit that meaning. He expounds it thus,—"claims recommended by views of justice or public policy;" the sort of claim a man may be said to ham to anything which you think it desirable that he should possess. Not such thing. No man in his sound senses considers himself to be wronged every time he does not get what he desires; every man distinguishes between what he thinks another man morally bound to do, and what he merely would like to see him do; between what is morally criminal, a fit subject for complaint or reproach, and what excites only regress and a wish that the act had been abstained from. No system of moral philosophy or metaphysics that we ever heard of, denies this distinction; though several have undertaken to account for it, and to place it upon the right footing.

If you may say that it is the moral duty of subjects to obey their government, you may also express this by saying that government has a moral right to their obedience. If you may say that it is the moral duty of sovereigns to govern well, or else to abdicate, you may say that subjects have a right to be well governed. If you may say, that is is morally culpable in a government to attempt to retain its authority, contrary to the inclinations of its subjects; you may say, that the people have a right to change their government. All this, without any logical' inaccuracy, or "abuse of language." We are not defending this phraseology as the best that can be employed; the language of right and the language of duty, are logically equivalent, and the latter has, in many respects, the advantage. We are only contending, that, whoever uses tho word right shall not be adjudged guilty of nonsense, until it has been tried whether this mode of interpreting his meaning will make it sense. And this we complain that Mr. Lewis has not done.

To explain what we meant by saying that almost everything which Mr. Lewis sees has something lying under it which he does not see, we have now to show, that, in catching at an imaginary ambiguity near the surface, he has missed the deeper and less obvious ambiguities by which men are really misled. Two of these we shall briefly set forth.

Speaking morally, you are said to have a right to do a thing, if all persons are morally bound not to hinder you from doing it. But, in another sense, to have a right to do a thing, is the opposite of having no right to do it,—viz. of being under a moral obligation to forbear from doing it. In this sense, to say that you have a right to do a thing, means that you may do it without any breach of duty on your part; that other persons not only ought not to hinder you, but have no cause to think the worse of you for doing it. This is a perfectly distinct proposition from the preceding. The right which you have by virtue of a duty incumbent upon other persons, is obviously quite a different thing from a right consisting in the absence of any duty incumbent upon yourself. Yet the two things are perpetually confounded. Thus a man will say he has a right to publish his opinions; which may be true in this sense, that it would be a breach of duty in any other person to interfere and prevent the publication:—but he assumes thereupon, that in publishing his opinions, he himself violates no duty; which may either be true or false, depending, as it does, upon his having taken due pains to satisfy himself, first, that the opinions are true, and next, that their publication in this manner, and at this particular juncture, will probably be beneficial to the interests of truth, on the whole. In this sense of the word, a man has no right to do that which is wrong, though it may often happen that nobody has a right to prevent him from doing it.

The second ambiguity is that of confounding a right, of any kind, with a right to enforce that right by resisting or punishing a violation of it. Men will say, for example, that they have a right to a good government; which in undeniably true, it-being the moral duty of their governors to govern them well. But in granting this, you are supposed to have admitted their right or liberty to turn out their governors, and perhaps to punish them, for having failed in the performance of this duty; which far from being the same thing, is by no means universally true, but depends upon an immense number of varying circumstances, and is,-perhaps, altogether the knottiest question in practical ethics. This example involves both the ambiguities which we have mentioned.

We have dealt longer on this one topic than the reader perhaps will approve. We shall pass more slightly over the remainder.

Our author treats with unqualified contempt all that has been written by Locke and others, concerning a state of nature and the social compact. In this we cannot altogether agree with him. The state of society contemplated by Rousseau, in which mankind lived together without government, may never have existed, and it is of no consequence whether it did so or not. The question is not whether it ever, existed, but whether there is any advantage in supposing it hypothetically; as we assume in argument all kinds of cases which never occur, in order to illustrate those which do. All discussions respecting a state of nature are inquiries what morality would be if there were no law. This is the real scope of Locke's Essay on Government, rightly understood: whatever is objectionable in the details did not arise from the nature of the inquiry, but from a certain wavering and obscurity in his notion of the grounds of morality itself. Nor is this mode of viewing the subject, we conceive, without its advantages, in an enlarged view, either of morality or law. Not to mention that, as is observed by Locke himself, all independent governments, in relation to one another, are actually in a state of nature, subject to moral duties but obeying no common superior; so that the speculations which Mr. Lewis despises, tend, in international morality at least, to a direct practical application.

Even the social compact, (though a pure fiction, upon which no valid argument can consequently be founded,) and the doctrine connected with it, of the inalienable and imprescriptible rights of man, had this good in them, that they were suggested by a sense, that the power of the sovereign, although, of course, incapable of any legal limitation, has a moral limit, since a government ought not to take from any of its subjects more than it gives. Whatever obligation any man would lie under in a state of nature, not to inflict evil upon another for the sake of good to himself, that same obligation lies upon society towards every one of its members. If he injure or molest any of his fellow-citizens, the consequences of whatever they may be obliged to do in self-defence, must fall upon himself; but otherwise, the government fails of its duty, if on any plea of doing good to the community in the aggregate, it reduces him to such a state, that he is on the whole a loser by living in a state of government, and would have been better off if it did not exist. This is the truth which was dimly shadowed forth, in howsoever rude and unskilful a manner, in the theories of the social compact and of the rights of man. It was felt, that a man's voluntary consent to live under a government, was the surest proof he could give of his feeling it to be beneficial to him; and so great was the importance attached to this sort of assurance, that where an express consent was out of the question, some circumstance was fixed upon, from which, by stretching a few points, a consent might be presumed. But the test is real, where, as in imperfectly settled countries, the forest is open to the man who is not contented with his lot.

Notwithstanding the length to which our remarks have extended, we cannot overlook one or two passages, less remarkable for their importance, than as proofs of the haste with which Mr. Lewis must have examined the authors and even the passages he has criticised.

Thus, where Mr. Bentham recommends natural procedure in the administration of justice, in opposition to technical Mr. Lewis observes, that as it is impossible to suppose that any mode of judicial procedure should be left to the discretion of the judge guided by no rules, the word natural, 'in this case', "seems to be a vague term of praise, signifying that system which, to the writer, seems most expedient." It shows but little knowledge of Mr. Bentham's habits of mind, to account in this way, of all others, for any phraseology he may think proper to adopt. The fact is, as has been explained a hundred times by Mr. Bentham himself/—that by natural procedure, he means what he also calls domestic procedure; viz. the simple and direct mode of getting at the truth which suggests itself naturally,—that is, readily and invariably, to all men who are inquiring in good earnest into any matter which; -happening to concern themselves, they are really desirous to ascertain. That the technical methods of our own, and all other systems of law, are bad in proportion as they deviate from this, is what Mr. Bentham affirms, and, we will add, proves.

Again, when Mr. Mill speaks of the corruptive operation of what are called the advantages of fortune, Mr. Lewis comments upon the strange, ties of this sentiment from the writer of a treatise on Political Economy; that is, on the production and accumulation of wealth; and hints, that the work in question must have been composed with an object similar to that of a treatise on poisons. Did it never occur to Mr. Lewis, that Mr. Mill's meaning might be, not that a people are corrupted by the amount of the wealth which they possess in the aggregate, but that the inequalities in the distribution of it have a tendency to corrupt those who obtain the large masses, especially when these come to them by descent, and not by merit, or any kind of exertion employed in earning them?

To add one instance more, Mr. Lewis falls foul of the often quoted sentence of Tacitus, «that the most degenerate states have the greatest number of laws; in corruptissima republica plurimae leges; a position not only not true, but the very reverse of the truth, as the effect of the progress of civilization is to multiply enactments, in order to suit the extended relations, and the more refined and diversified forms of property, introduced by the improvement of society." Mr. Lewis is a scholar, and understands the words of Tacitus, but, in this case, it is clear, he has not understood the ideas. He has committed what he himself would call an ignoratio elenchi. By a corrupt society, Tacitus (we will take upon ourselves to assert) did not mean a rude society. The author was speaking of the decline of a nation's morality, and the critic talks to you of the improvement of its industry. Tacitus meant, that, in the most immoral society, there is the most frequent occasion for the interposition of the legislator; and we venture to agree with him, thinking it very clear, that the less you are able to rely upon conscience and opinion, the more you are obliged to do by means of the law- a truth which is not only not the opposite of Mr. Lewis's position, but stands in no logical relation to it at all, more than to the binomial theorem.

These are the blemishes of Mr. Lewis's work. Yet they do not induce us to qualify our high opinion, both of the book and of its author. It is an able, and a useful publication; only, it is not a sufficient dissertation on the use and abuse of the leading political terms.

We have often thought, that a really philosophical Treatise on the Ambiguities of the Moral Sciences would be one of the most valuable scientific contributions which a man of first-rate intellectual ability could confer upon his age, and upon posterity. But it would not be so much a book of criticism as of inquiry. Its main end would be, not to set people right in their use of words, which you never can be qualified to do, so long as their thoughts, on the subject treated of, are in any way different from yours; but to get at their thoughts through their words, and to see what sort of a view of truth can be got, by looking at it in their way. It would then be seen, how multifarious are the properties and distinctions to be marked, and how few the words to mark them with, so that one word is sometimes all we have to denote a dozen different ideas, and that men go wrong less often than Mr. Lewis supposes, from using a word in many senses, but more frequently from using it only in one, the distinctions which it serves to mark in its other acceptations not being adverted to at all. Such a book would enable all kinds of thinkers, who are now at daggers-drawn, because they are speaking different dialects and know it not, to understand one another, and to perceive that, with the proper explanations, their doctrines are reconcilable; and would unite all the exclusive and one-sided systems, so long the bane of true philosophy, by placing before each man a more comprehensive view, in which the whole of what is affirmative in his own view would be included.

This is the larger and nobler design which Mr. Lewis should set before himself, and which, we believe, his abilities to be equal to, did he but feel that this is the only task worthy of them. He might thus contribute a large part to what is probably destined to be the great philosophical achievement of the era, of which many signs already announce the commencement; viz. to unite all half-truths, which have been fighting against one another ever since the creation, and blend them in one harmonious whole.

• Use and Abuse of Political Terms. By George Cornwall Lewis, Esq. Student of Christ Church, Oxford.—London : Fellowes, 1833.

+ The greatest English poet of our own times lays no claim to this glorious independence of any obligation to pay regard to the laws of thought. Those whom Mr. Wordsworth honours with his acquaintance, know it to be one of his favourite opinions, that want of proper intellectual culture, much more than the rarity of genius, is the cause why there are so few true poets; the foundation of poetry, as of all other productions of man's reason, being logic. By logic, he does not mean syllogisms in and figure, but justness of thought and precision of language ; and, above all, knowing accurately your own meaning.

While we are on this subject, we must be permitted to express our regret, that a meet who has meditated as profoundly on the theory of his art, as he has showed assiduously in its practice, should have put forth nothing which earn convey any adequate notion to posterity of his merits in this department; and that philosophical speculations on the subject of poetry, with which it would be folly to compare any others existing in our language, have profited only to a few private friends.

1 Mr. Lewis has very properly, in our opinion, spared himself the ostentation candour of mentioning the authors to whom he was indebted, obey being mostly writers of established ten of established reputation. Such studious honesty in disclaiming any private right to truths which are the common property of mankind, generally implies either that the author cares, and expects the reader to care, more about the ownership of an idea than about is Value; or else that he designs to pass himself off as the first promulgator of every thought which he does not expressly assign to the true discoverer. This in one of the thousand forms of that commonest of egotisms, egotism under a shew of modesty. The only obligations which Mr. Lewis with a just discrimination stops to acknowledge, are to a philosopher who is not yet so well known as he deserves to be, Mr. Austin, Professor of Jurisprudence in the University of London.

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