John Stuart Mill on libidinal collapse: some thoughts on socialisation and human purpose

I’ve intended for years to read the autobiography of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. As an undergraduate philosophy student being introduced to utilitarianism, the lecturer briefly explained Mill’s peculiar biographical trajectory as an aside to explaining his mature philosophy. He was raised by his father James Mill, close collaborator of Jeremy Bentham, with the intention of demonstrating the untapped capacity of children to learn. He was taught Greek from the age of three and received an intense classical education in the expectation this would equip him for a life of social reform. In late adolescence and early adulthood he fully identified this role and the purposes in life which followed from it:

From the winter of 1821 [note he was 15 at this point], when I first read Bentham, and especially from the commencement of the Westminster Review, I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object. The personal sympathies I wished for were those of fellow labourers in this enterprise. I endeavoured to pick up as many flowers as I could by the way; but as a serious and permanent personal satisfaction to rest upon, my whole reliance was placed on this; and I was accustomed to felicitate myself on the certainty of a happy life which I enjoyed, through placing my happiness in something durable and distant, in which some progress might be always making, while it could never be exhausted by complete attainment. This did very well for several years, during which the general improvement going on in the world and the idea of myself as engaged with others in struggling to promote it, seemed enough to fill up an interesting and animated existence.

However five year later he suffered a short and sharp collapse, prompted by an unsettling question which led him to awake from this “interesting and animated existence … as from a dream”. While in a “dull state of nerves” he reflected on these purposes which had animated his life until this point and found them wanting, which led his entire world to come crashing down:

In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

It would be easy to ascribe this mental collapse to the corrosive influence of his father, with the experimental education given to Mill and the great hopes for social reform invested in him. But my instinct is to treat Mill’s case as an extreme instance of a broader problem, with his unusual background and propensities enabling us to see much more clearly something which might otherwise simply fade into the background of the life-course. He inherited purposes from his natal context, selecting from the opportunities available to him as we all do, in a process as much sociological as psychodynamic. The potential future lives we can imagine for ourselves in adolescence are a function of the possibilities represented to us. If we can’t conceive of a future we can evaluate as worthwhile then we might search beyond that context if we have the inclination, opportunities and resources to do so; or we might seek to adapt ourselves to the constraints of the context, made simpler if we rely on others to complete and confirm our deliberations about who we are and who we should be.

It’s interesting to consider how the psychodynamics of this intersect with the sociological dynamics. If we endorse our natal context, to use Margaret Archer’s term from The Reflexive Imperative, does this entail an identification with our caregivers? Or perhaps we can reject the natal context (in a sociological register) but still endorse the familial one (in a psychodynamic register), in the sense that we see the good as residing in how they have lived, which we might come to partake in if we reflect the parameters of their existence back to them. If this good is something we experience as withheld from us, left tantalising off stage but nonetheless felt to be there, this identification comes to be a way of filling a lack, even if we might simultaneously disown that aspiration by putting an idiosyncratic spin on how we seek to do this in practice. It might also be a way of addressing a lack which we intuit in them, reiterating their life project with more acuity and panache in the (likely unverbalised) hope this lack comes to be filled inter-generationally.

The problem is that these dynamics of identification and projection are affective rather than normative. They are the underlying psychic infrastructure which makes evaluative normativity possible (i.e. I can only formulate a reflective life project if I feel things about life) but the emergence of adult reflexivity necessitates a relative autonomy from them. It’s only when we can ask “why does this matter to me?” (and keep on asking it, if we’re dispositionally inclined towards meta-reflective internal conversations) that we can begin to secure the libidinal investment in our purposes. This is a case of reflective endorsement of an equally reflective end (there is a dual movement here, I think) rather than nebulous inclinations we carry from our past dramas, contingently reproduced through the years but on precarious foundations; liable to crumble when some unexpected event, an inciting incident, leads us to look at our stated goals from a new perspective and to find that these are in some sense not our own.

This is what I’ve come to think of as libidinal collapse. It can feel like life projects are things we care about but that care can be little more than habit, momentum and inclination. If we accept the formative character of habits (in Dewey’s sense of the reflexive character of habit) then the simple fact of doing something over a long period of time can lead us to become a person inclined towards doing that thing. This doesn’t mean we care about it in the thickly evaluative sense which philosophers like Harry Frankfurt and Charles Taylor and sociologists like Margaret Archer and Andrew Sayer are concerned with. That care is something which has to be sustained and evaluative in which we sort through the aspects of our life in order to understand what matters to us and why; including making changes to our life, where we are socially capable and within the existential parameters of our experience, where evaluation finds our existence wanting. The $4.9 trillion Wellness Industry emerges from this gap, I think, framing an existential challenge in terms of a technics of care with questionable results. But my point is that we can live superficially satisfying lives without caring about the lives we are living, at least until we reach the moment shared by Mill.

Mill shares a line from Coleridge’s Dejection which captures his experience following this moment. It conveys to me an affective nebulousness, cast adrift in psychic waves without any sense of orientation or the possibility of an escape from this predicament. As he puts it, he was “left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail”. It is what Charles Taylor would call a breakdown of second order emotionality; feeling lost in first-order pushes and pulls without a second-order evaluation which gives shape and defines the goods around which a life can be ordered. The intensity of his analytical nature, cultivated at the behest of his father and friends, eroded the capacity for simpler pleasures in life and left him immersed in grief:

“A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear, A drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief, Which finds no natural outlet or relief In word, or sigh, or tear.”

In this state of libidinal collapse Mill found himself in a cold world in which the former pleasures of his existence were foreclosed. His achievements preceded his own reflective endorsement of those achievements as valuable ends, constituting a sort of mobius strip of motivation in which suddenly perceiving the impossibility of his own normative structures (i.e. caring about things he was doing simply because he was habitually doing them) led to a rupture in his psyche. He conveys a sense of meaning as a house of cards; once what Taylor would call the ‘ultimate good’ collapses, the other goods which can be found in life tumble too, leaving us with an affective vacuum in which the world suddenly feels empty of all that is good and is true:

In vain I sought relief from my favourite books; those memorials of past nobleness and greatness from which I had always hitherto drawn strength and animation. I read them now without feeling, or with the accustomed feeling minus all its charm; and I became persuaded, that my love of mankind, and of excellence for its own sake, had worn itself out.

His malaise began to lift when reading Marmontel’s Mémoires, where a scene reflecting on the death of the author’s father once more opened up a space within Mill in which caring could return, as well as inviting obvious psychoanalytical interpretations about why he identified with this scene in particular. It reminds me of C Wright Mills giving advice to a friend that he must coax the sight and sound back into his life:

A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my been grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone. I had still, it seemed, some of the material out of which all worth of character, and all capacity for happiness, are made. Relieved from my ever present sense of irremediable wretchedness, I gradually found that the ordinary incidents of life could again give me some pleasure; that I could again find enjoyment, not intense, but sufficient for cheerfulness, in sunshine and sky, in books, in conversation, in public affairs; and that there was, once more, excitement, though of a moderate kind, in exerting myself for my opinions, and for the public good.

It led Mills to the belief that to pursue happiness as an end inevitably forecloses the possibility of it. To subject them to ‘scrutinising examination’ or make them the ‘principle object’ inevitably leads us to find them lacking. An analytical orientation can dissolve libidinal investments if we imagine that finding joy in life is a question to which we can find an intellectual answer: see also the loneliness and tragedy of Wittgenstein. But the alternative to this isn’t passivity or quietude, imagining that we might float freely in an undisturbed bubble of simple pleasures, it is rather a matter of self-cultivation in Mill’s view: learning not only to find joy in poetry, novels, music and nature but to make this joy part of our lives. Again, to coax the coax the sight and sound back into life.

There’s a broader point here I think about the reflexivity necessary to not only find our pleasures but to learn to take them where we find them. I’d worry that to leave matters here risks an obvious mistake. The fact that our libidinal investments in our life projects can prove so precarious doesn’t mean there’s a problem with having life projects. It means that we must ensure these projects are our own, with secure foundation in the joys and pleasures we have learned to take in life as adults rather than castles in the sky we have constructed in order to appease the internalised figures of our childhood and the imagined interlocutors of our adulthood. If we take the realist approach to reflexivity seriously then it becomes more challenging to build and sustain a good life in a broken and dying world. But it’s by no means impossible. We just need what what Peter Sloterdijk would call an Anthropotechnics which is adequate to the task.

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