The Liberalism Trap: John Stuart Mill and Customs of Interpretation

Arguments about liberalism’s meanings, endurance, imminent death, or revival are widespread in modern political thought. But what effect do these preoccupations with liberalism have on the way political questions are taken up?

In The Liberalism Trap, Menaka Philips argues that the focus on liberalism has become a customary limit on our political imaginations. To examine the costs of that custom, Philips turns to John Stuart Mill-the so-called paradigmatic liberal. As she argues, Mill’s famed liberal status is habitually substituted for his political arguments such that the now standard association of Mill with liberalism determines how and why he is read. Philips, however, takes a break from that ready association. Her comparative reading of Mill’s work concerning women’s emancipation, class reform, and the British Empire recovers a thinker guided not by the ideological certainties he is often made out to represent, but by a politics of uncertainty-a politics which generated radical, gradualist, and paternalist strategies throughout his proposals on domestic and imperial questions.

By reading Mill against the limits of liberalism, Philips draws out the possibilities and risks of Mill’s own political practice, while inviting a critical evaluation of the customs of interpretation that shape contemporary political thought.

Read More