Personal Tribute to Charles Mills

Like many in the philosophical world today I am in dismay at the loss of Charles Mills. I feel compelled to honour him with a public tribute, as he meant more to me than almost anyone else in the profession and I think socialised affection and grief are a fitting response to this sort of tragedy. I'll try and say a bit about why Mills was so special to me personally, but I think that the characteristics I saw in him would be familiar to many who interacted with him. In this way I hope that my idiosyncratic impressions and experiences will give some more general idea of the man we have lost.



Professionally - by the time I met Mills he was already an international superstar. His work had long been of interest to black or Africana thinkers, but by the mid 2010s when I got to know him he was well established among the white mainstream of political philosophy. As Mills himself would have been first to point out, there are more of them and they have more money for keynote lectures and the like, so his newfound status among this crowd represented a somewhat new experience of the profession. As is implicated in the Daily Nous tribute to Mills, this degree of fame and respect came somewhat late in Mills' career, and I believe it was the perspective he had as someone who had been on the outside for much of his career that gave him a great degree of empathy with those of us who had not yet to (or will not ever) make it to the same degree.

In any case, for whatever psychological reason, from the very first interaction we had Mills acted as a supportive mentor to me, giving me intellectual and professional advice while being incredibly generous with his time. In fact I think our first interaction resulted from me cold emailing him some half baked idea I had in response to his work. He responded with generous feedback in short order, and then agreed to have a video chat with me. I now realise that this is very much supererogatory, but I would never have known it at the time. He made it seem like the most natural thing in the world that he wanted to help me out and had lots of time to give, despite not knowing me from Adam.

Down the years this continued. We'd make a point of meeting up at conferences, and exchanged emails fairly regularly. I'd turn to him for advice or just to check in on what he thought of professional trends or the like. Always, in every encounter, he was wise, kindhearted, eager to help, and so naturally these things that one never felt a burden. I have no doubt at all that whatever measure of professional success I have and will achieve owes no small part to him.

Intellectually - Mills' work has been groundbreaking. No survey of black political thought would be complete without him. His most famous work, The Racial Contract, is now an acknowledged modern classic. It is typical of Mills in its attempt to bring to bear the work of contemporary (especially Rawlsian) political philosophy, combined with his deep knowledge of and respect for the classical liberal tradition, to understand the problems of contemporary societies. In particular, he sought to show how aforementioned political philosophy served an obfuscatory role, but none the less provided intellectual resources which could allow us to get a theoretical handle on how it is that unjust hierarchies are maintained. Thinking through these themes led to another of his most influential papers, Ideal Theory as Ideology, which has been agenda setting in metaphilosophy, as it pushed philosophers to try to attend more to the concrete details of contemporary reality, or at least explain how it is that our abstract reflections relate to the goings on of everyday life. Probably his most culturally resonant work was his essay White Ignorance, which applies the approach advocated for in Ideal Theory as Ideology by bringing together work in naturalistic epistemology, social psychology, history, and sociology, to make the case that there are predictable irrationalities that will be displayed by white majority populations when it comes to reasoning about the situation of a black (or non-white) underclass. And in his recent work (such as this essay Black Radical Kantianism) he has once again been drawing on the liberal tradition, this time in a reconstructive vein, to try to draw from Kantian ethical thought to develop principles for reasoning about how to move towards a just society given a history of injustice.

This is just a tiny survey of a grand career's worth of writings. I think he was among the leading lights of contemporary liberal theory, and at a time when the legitimacy of that mode of society is subject to severe scrutiny and scepticism his loss is a great blow to that tradition (so it has been somewhat amusing, in a grim sort of way, to see Mills singled out as an example of postmodern anti-rational illiberalism by some contemporary reactionaries).

And for me personally Mills thought has been incredibly fertile. It was actually on his encouragement that I got involved in thinking about the demographics of philosophy and what that means for the work that gets done, which led to my very first publication and continues to be part of my work. My most recent paper was a response to the issues he raised in White Ignorance. More generally, the vision of philosophy as able to speak to contemporary realities, deeply informed by interdisciplinary social scientific study, while at the same time conversant with the best of the historic tradition - this inspires me, this is what I want to be. Charles Mills provided the model which I am still trying to live up to.

Personally - That first video chat I mentioned above opened with Mills taking a look at me and saying "Ah, so I see you're one of those lightskin brothers like me, eh?" He said it with a sparkle in his eye and a cheeky smile. His point was to disarm and somewhat shock, but without doing anything to be off putting, put me at ease by a humorous display of over familiarity. It worked. You would deeply misunderstand Mills if you got the impression of him above as a sort of pious sage figure, dispensing kindly advice with his face always turned towards righteousness.  That captures something of him, but it misses out on the irreverent earthy humour of the man. 

His deeply underrated essay Do Black Men Have a Duty to Marry Black Women? contains one of the few lines of analytic philosophy that genuinely made me laugh out loud when I first encountered it:



And to understand Mills you have to get that aspect of him too. The topic is a serious one, the context is the cultural disrespect and visceral disgust (intermixed with eroticised fascination) black people's sexuality can evoke. If you read the essay it's clear that Mills understands those stakes, and indeed the whole essay is an exercise in taking seriously and reasoning through something that can deeply matter to people's every day lives yet which is often ignored by the professional mainstream. But for all that, Mills would combine it with self-deprecating joking asides, a none-too-pious ability to see the absurdity of the whole situation and our place in it. To laugh rather than cry in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous historical fortune. 

I just cannot overstate how much this means to me personally. This element of Mills, the ability to take things seriously while laughing at them, made me feel more at home in the field than anything else. I often feel in philosophy, even and maybe especially the bits of the field I like, there is a kind of dour protestant sensibility of moral seriousness. It's not that I think this is wrong per se, but it's just deeply unfamiliar to me. I grew up discussing big issues of politics and society with my family, and for all we deeply cared about such things the norm is and was to be lighthearted, to be able to see the funny side and not take oneself too seriously. Mills' sense of humour, and unselfserious down to earth way of being in the field, was a visible proof that I could make it; I could work on the things I care about while still retaining elements of my personality and upbringing that feel essential to being me. 

My absolute favourite memory of Charles Mills is also the last time I saw him in person, three years ago. I had been offered a job at the LSE, and it was the last summer before I was due to move to London and take up the post. We met up for lunch at a conference and went to some basement cafe somewhere a bit out of the way. We laughed and gossiped and lamented the state of the field. Towards the end of the meal with a serious look on his face he told me that given that there are so so few black professors in the UK I had a responsibility to represent black philosophy, and then after a beat followed it up with "well, at least until we can find someone better". I will miss him so much.


Comments

  1. I am very sorry for your loss. I spent nine years at UIC, and I got to know Charles pretty well despite working in a very different area from his. He was great just to hang out with, and he cared about everyone. You’ve captured his warmth, generosity, and humor perfectly. I can hear his funny little laugh right now.

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  2. Thank you for writing this. I know that no tribute feels quite adequate but you capture the loss to so many of a man of such goodness. The impact of his work on so many of us is hard to even quantify.

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    1. thanks to this man who improves us with so much goodness towards everyone ...

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  3. A bit of a long shot, but would you happen to be able to help this other blogger with his request?: https://robertpaulwolff.blogspot.com/2021/09/a-story-about-charles-mills-and-plea.html

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    1. Ah sorry I could not help, but that sounds great so I hope someone finds it!

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    2. No worries. Thanks for your moving tribute to Prof. Mills.

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  4. This is beautiful. Thank you. Charles was one of my grad school professors at UIC in the late 80s and early 90s. I loved catching up with him at conferences. He was loved and will be missed so much.

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  5. I am weeping and laughing at the same time. Thank you for this Liam.
    Mark Lance

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  6. Such a beautiful -- and, fittingly -- warm and funny tribute. Thank you so much, Liam, for sharing this with us.

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  7. What a great & moving tribute. Thank you for sharing that.

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  8. As a Black philosophy major in a small, southern, liberal arts college in the early 1980's, Charles Mills never crossed my path, though, on my own, I found a copy of "The Racial Contract." Many years later as a professor of American History, this book has become a staple in my curriculum to teach students the limits of Enlightenment thought and to cast a critical eye to the ideological underpinnings that constitute our understanding of race. I am saddened by the loss of such an intellectual giant. Your essay made him human. Thank you.

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