Reply to Louis B. Zimmer on Mill’s ‘Negative Argument’

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. "Reply to Louis B. Zimmer on Mill's 'Negative Argument'." Journal of British Studies 17, no. 1. 1977.


Dr. Zimmer’s misreading of my book on Mill is far less important than his misreading of Mill himself. Let me dispose of the lesser issue first. I did not “fault” Mill for making so much of the negative argument in The Subjection of Women; I merely commented on its significance. Nor did I ignore the presence of that argument in On Liberty. On the contrary, I raised the point about The Subjection of Women to confirm my thesis that that book was closer to On Liberty, both in its theme and mode of argument, than any of Mill’s other writings. (On Liberty, I wrote, was “the case of women writ large.”) In the first part of my book (the 139 pages Zimmer refers to), I discussed the negative argument explicitly and implicitly, first in connection with the negative qualities Mill attributed to society in On tiberty, then in my counter- position of On Liberty to Mill’s other writings in which he had criticized both the Benthamites and the philosophes for their negative position in relation to history and established institutions. Throughout that first section, my point was precisely the negative nature of On Liberty: the negative principle of prevention of harm and the rejection of any positive principle such as the promotion of good; the negative attitude displayed towards authority, society, and public opinion; the negative implications of a doctrine of moral, social, and economic laissez-faireism. Other critics, indeed, have taken me to task for interpreting Mill’s principle of liberty too rigorously in negative terms. It seems odd now to be charged with the opposite fault.

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