CFP: John Stuart Mill and the Positive Philosophy of the 19th Century On the 150th anniversary of Mill's death

Submission deadline: August 31, 2023

Conference date(s):
October 19, 2023 - October 21, 2023

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John Stuart Mill is the most influential English thinker of the 19th century. At the same time, his work is highly representative of the philosophy of that period – Mill dedicated several papers to the thought of his contemporaries, including Bentham, Comte and Hamilton, and worked out his own philosophy in dialogue with them. From this point of view, it is significant that Mill was an enthusiastic reader of Comte’s Cours de philosophie positive. Although his System of Logic was completed at the end of 1841, Mill postponed its publication until after he had read the last volume of Comte’s Cours (1842) and revised his work accordingly – in the last book of his Logic, for example, he, exactly like Comte, puts aside the metaphysical notions of the mind and concentrates on its “sensible manifestations”, i.e., on “mental Phenomena” and their law-like correlations. Moreover, Mill later published Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865), where he presented his final critical view of Comte’s philosophy. 

Mill’s writing on Comte was of paramount importance at least for a young German-Austrian philosopher, Franz Brentano, who discovered Comte through the French translation of Mill’s book mentioned above. Brentano dealt extensively with the works of both Mill and Comte in his youth: in 1869/70 Brentano was already giving a lecture Deductive and Inductive Logic, and Mill is one of the most cited authors in his masterpiece Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874). Although Brentano does not adopt Mill’s view of psychology as a “purely phenomenalist science”, his empirical psychology is entirely based on Mill's inductive-deductive model of science: i) inductively determine the general laws that rule the succession of mental phenomena; ii) derive from them more specific laws that refer to complex mental phenomena; iii) inductively test those specific laws after having deduced them. At the same time, despite the great influence that both Mill and Comte exerted on him, Brentano never regarded them as representatives of a new, ascending phase in philosophy, though he did consider himself to be such. On the contrary, he regarded them as “extreme empiricists”, representatives of skepticism, the second phase of decay in modern philosophy.

Against this backdrop, the conference will address topics relevant to Mill’s relationship to the positive philosophy of his time and beyond: Mill’s philosophy of experience in relation to Comte’s positive philosophy and their differences; Mill’s and Comte’s historicizing naturalism; Mill's relativism; his inductive-deductive model of science and his critique of Comte’s neglect of the questions of proof. The conference will also address Mill’s, Comte’s, and Brentano’s stance toward the following: (associative and empirical) psychology; the status of  causes in the process of knowledge; the positivist criterion of meaning, and strategies for the rebirth of philosophy. It will also pay close attention to thinkers who were involved in the disputes over these issues (H. Spencer, A. Bain, W. Whewell …) and to such topics as utilitarianism, the question of liberty, religion, and issues that can be put in relation with these or similar topics in authors who have themselves practiced a positive philosophy or had been influenced by it. 

Submission Instructions: Those who are interested to take part in the conference are invited to send an abstract of 250–500 words to [email protected] by 31th August 2023. Abstracts must be prepared for blind review. A separate document should include a cover letter containing the following information: the title of the presentation, the name and academic affiliation of the author, and a short description of his/her field of research and a list of main publications. The accepted speakers will be notified no later than September 30th, 2023. The language of the conference will be English. The conference is organized by Tinca Prunea-Bretonnet and Ion Tănăsescu, the Department of Western Philosophy of the Institute of Philosophy and Psychology of the Romanian Academy, Bucharest and will take place online between October 19-21, 2023.

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