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Rousseau And Mill On The Arts And Sciences

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A Discussion of Rousseau and Mill on the Contributions of the Arts and Sciences to Society

Tore DeBella

1 November 2005

"It has become appallingly clear," Albert Einstein famously argued, "that our technology has surpassed our humanity." Somewhat ironically, Einstein himself was among the greatest contributors to the preeminence of science and technology in contemporary society, some two hundred years after Jean-Jacques Rousseau had presented a similar argument against the arts and sciences at the Academy of Dijon.

I. Introduction

In 1750, while visiting an imprisoned Diderot in Vincennes, Rousseau read an advertisement for an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. The theme of the contest was "Whether the Restorations of the Sciences and Arts has contributed to the purification of morals." Writing in the negative, Rousseau won the contest and a year later, his first discourse "On the Sciences and Arts" was published. The arguments within were strongly against the emphasis that the European Enlightenment had placed on reason and the universality of human nature. As such, Rousseau was lauded by critics and vilified by supporters of the Enlightenment.

A century later, in 1863, English citizen John Stuart Mill wrote what would later become one of the most important philosophical works, Utilitarianism. In Utilitarianism, Mill argued for the Greatest Happiness Principle, which "holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness (Utilitarianism 2)." He also elucidated, in response to an objection of this principle, that there are differences in the qualities of pleasures, arguing that "there is no known Epicurian theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation (Utilitarianism 2)." In his essay "Civilization," Mill discusses the role that the developments in art and science play in moving towards a more civilized society, and defends the progress that society has made in these areas against the "noble savagery" of a less civilized society, such as the one defended by Rousseau.

II. Discussion

John Stuart Mill's teleological philosophy of right action, that holds an action is right when it produces the best consequences contrasts sharply with the competing deontological view of the time, which holds that an action is right or moral independent of its consequences. In a teleological line of reasoning, it would seem as though things like artistic and scientific developments, that enrich and prolong life, would be justified if not necessitated by society, and unsurprisingly, J.S. Mill supports these. In Utilitarianism, Mill talks about what he believes to be the "great positive evils" of the world, or those things with would be universally decried and avoided by societies if at all possible. Mill was optimistic about the ability of human progress in the arts and sciences to eventually get rid of human ills altogether. He argued:

"Poverty, in any sense implying suffering, may be completely extinguished by the wisdom of society, combined with the good sense and providence of individuals. Even the most intractable of enemies, disease, may be indefinitely reduced in dimensions by good physical and moral education, and proper control of noxious influences; while the progress of science holds out a promise for the future of still more direct consequences over this detestable foe (Utilitarianism 7)."

This, in part, also explains why Mill was such an ardent advocate of free speech and individual liberties. He believed, that in a free marketplace of ideas, the best ideas sponsored by those with a natural propensity towards them, would rise to the top and push the arts and sciences forward. He warned, however, that society did often times fail to recognize the ideas that would benefit society, and that ensuring individual liberties was the only safeguard against societal suppression of these ideas against its better judgment. In the third chapter of On Liberty, Mill argues:

"If it were felt that the free development of individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being; that it is not only a co-ordinate element with all that is designated by the terms civilization, instruction, education, and culture but itself is a necessary part and condition of those things, there would be no danger that liberty would be undervalued, and the adjustment of the boundaries between it and social control would present no extraordinary difficulty. But the evil is that individual spontaneity is hardly recognized by the common modes of thinking, having any intrinsic worth, or deserving any regard on its own account (On Liberty 1)."

In his essay on "Civilization," Mill describes two different types of civilization: the first being the idea that a civilized country is more "eminent in its best characteristics," Ð'- that its citizens are farther advanced on the road to perfection. They are happier, wiser, and nobler than they would be otherwise. The second type of civilization that Mill describes is civilization as a distinguishing factor from savagery, or that which differentiates Europeans and ancient barbarians. Mill accepts as an uncontested truth that the first type of civilization would be embraced by all people, but wonders as to whether civilization, in the second sense, tends to "impede" certain goods (Civilization 148).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau would be less generous towards the uncontestable benefits of the civilizing forces in both definitions. With regard to the first definition, the logical strain that: individual progress leads to scientific and artistic breakthroughs, and these lead to societal development in the arts and sciences, which in turn lead to things like new medicines that cure diseases and increase aggregate happiness, seems undeniable. Rousseau, however, would have retorted that Mill was overlooking a step: that the progress that leads to the development of, for example, the positive technologies of medicine and transportation also engender the things like pollution, overcrowding, urbanization, and disease that they're designed to remedy. Rousseau calls these associations the "false pathways in the investigation of the sciences" (Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts 11). He anticipates those who defend the false associations of progress, when they discover the failure


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