John Skorupski

About other people’s ideas, Mill says, Bentham’s only question was, were they true? Coleridge, in contrast, patiently asked after their meaning. To pin down the fundamental norms of our thinking calls for careful psychological and historical inquiry into how people think, and also into how they think they should think—what kind of normative attitudes they display in their actions and their reflection. These must be engaged with to be understood. So thinking from within is inherently dialogical. And it always remains corrigible. Both points are significant in Mill’s argument for liberty of thought and discussion.

What gives this method a critical and systematic edge? It can examine whether some normative dispositions are reducible to other such dispositions. It can also consider whether some are explicable in a way that subverts their authority. Suppose I can explain your low opinion of your brother’s intelligence as the product solely of sheer envy and resentment. That will subvert this opinion: it may be true, but your grounds for thinking it is are not good ones. Or an example Mill would have liked: normative notions of what women’s role should be may simply reflect unequal power relationships between men and women. That, if true, subverts these normative views. It does not show they are false but it does show that they are not justified. Thinking from within seeks to establish what basic normative dispositions are not subvertible in this way, but are resilient under reflection and thus preserve normative authority.

John Skorupski, Why Read Mill Today?, London, 2006, pp. 9-10