J.S. Mill on Being a Great Thinker

by Anna Blanch on July 7, 2010

No one can be a great thinker who does not recognise, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think. Not that it is solely, or chiefly, to form great thinkers, that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much and even more indispensable, to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of. There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers, in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere, an intellectually active people. When any people has made a temporary approach to such a character, it has been because the dread of heterodox speculation was for a time suspended. Where there is a tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed; where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable. Never when controversy avoided the subjects which are large and important enough to kindle enthusiasm, was the mind of a people stirred up from its foundations, and the impulse given which raised even persons of the most ordinary intellect to something of the dignity of thinking beings. – John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty” chapter 2, p 35-36.

The first sentence of the quote is key: “No one can be a great thinker who does not recognise, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead.”

It challenges whether Truth is more important than your Religion, denomination, school of critical theory, ideology, ethical approach to life, latest generally persuasive idea.

This week i’m posting in a new way, but I’ve had an ongoing interest in what it takes to make a good thinker – if you are interested, some of the other posts include:

Anna M Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD candidate in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, University of St Andrew. She also writes over at Transpositions.

  • http://inchristus.wordpress.com Paul D. Adams

    I'm interested! After all, 'tis my rational nature to be so.
    Thanks so much for this fine quote from Mr. Mill.
    My recent post Thinks Well with Others

  • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

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