John William Miller (1895-1978) taught at Williams College, where from 1945 to 1960 he was Mark Hopkins Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy. His extraordinary teaching is described in Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers, edited by Joseph Epstein. While deeply indebted to Plato, Kant, and Hegel, Miller arrived at a strikingly original reinterpretation of the history of philosophy, which, he believed, resolved long-standing epistemological and moral problems generated by that history.
The Philosophy of History criticizes all attempts to interpret history on premises not themselves historical. Miller holds that "to view history philosophically is to consider it as a constitutional mode of experience, a way of organization no less fundamental than physics or logic".
In The Definition of the Thing, an unusually provocative and original essay, Miller had already worked out a number of the basic contentions of his mature philosophy.
A neatly written, tightly argued endeavor to set philosophy on a new foundation; but it fails, and the late Professor Miller, unfortunately, can now neither improve on his system nor contest his critics. Miller begins with a distinctly old-fashioned demand for a logically necessary Archimedean point to operate from. Philosophy for him must be neither poetry nor "bad science," i.e., unlicensed poaching in the realm of particular realities, which are always subject to one or more empirical disciplines. Nor should philosophy wander about in the otherworldly mists of religion and the supernatural. Its true vocation is rather to investigate the structure of "the most general fact," the thing. All the sciences presuppose the existence of things (the term includes psychic entities such as thoughts and dreams), and so to define the thing is to "touch that unconditioned of which all particulars are cases." What Miller means by definition is not some sort of cold taxonomic specification, but a fluid and versatile phenonomenology which, as far as it goes, is admirable. Definition, he maintains, is "dialectical, revisory, additive." It has no substantial core to or from which Aristotelian accidents can be added or subtracted. The thing is a supreme and irreducible genus, but no things exist in total isolation, indeed the "universal connectedness" of things is a sine qua non condition for meaningful communication. These are the bare logical bones on which Miller proceeds to put a good deal of analytical meat and muscle. But none of that redeems the fatal narrowness of his position. In Miller's orderly little world, philosophy "has no hypotheses," and any philosopher who says otherwise will presumably be drummed out of the fraternity. Dense, difficult, technically impressive, but not at all convincing. (Kirkus Reviews)