Maurice Cowling, 1926–2005


My encounter with Maurice Cowling started in 1963 with the publication of his first two books: Mill and Liberalism and The Nature and Limits of Political Science. The book on Mill was important to me because I was starting work on a doctoral thesis on John Stuart Mill, still struggling to clarify what I wanted to say. Cowling’s The Nature and Limits of Political Science was an astute Oakeshottian critique of the modern science of politics. I had already discovered Oakeshott when studying Hobbes as an undergraduate and I used Cowling’s book as one of the readings when I first taught the philosophy of the social sciences. But it was the Mill book which was of first importance to me. Along with Gertrude Himmelfarb and Wilmoore Kendall, Cowling was a dissenter from the ranks of those who elevated Mill as the patron saint of the liberal tradition. Cowling detected in Mill a strand of moral totalitarianism, an idealistic progressivism and elitist intellectualism, which made him dangerous from Cowling’s acerbically skeptical standpoint. At the same time, the University of Toronto’s great project to publish a definitive edition of all Mill’s works was underway, in the hands of those who, by and large, defended the traditional view of Mill as the theorist of the open, individualist society. Cowling was an uncompromising controversialist. Thus I decided that in my dissertation I would adjudicate the controversy over Mill’s political theory by reviewing the arguments on both sides and testing them against careful reading of his major political texts. My conclusion was that Cowling’s view had considerable merit, if overstated (which is a compliment in his view). I owed my direction in this respect to Cowling long before I met him.