Mill, John Stuart
John Stuart Mill 1806-1873
British philosopher, economist, autobiographer, essayist, and critic.
The pre-eminent British philosopher of the nineteenth century, Mill is admired for the probity of his theories and for their ability to transcend the conventional boundaries of philosophy, sociology, history, and politics. Critics regard his essay On Liberty as a seminal work in the development of British liberalism. Enhanced by his powerful, lucid, and accessible prose style, Mill's writings on government, economics, and logic suggest a model for society that remains compelling and relevant.
Mill was born in London, the eldest of the nine children of James and Harriet Mill. His father was a devout follower of his friend Jeremy Bentham's radical brand of utilitarianism, which stressed pragmatism, agnosticism, and "the greatest good for the greatest number" as its philosophical ideals. As an educational theory, utilitarianism called for rigorous training with particular emphasis on logic and analysis. The elder Mill, anxious to raise his son in accordance with the strictest utilitarian principles, soon embarked on a training project that he dubbed the "Great Experiment." His education completely overseen by his father, young Mill was reading Greek at the age of three, had completed a university-level course of study by the age of eight, and by the age of sixteen had mastered French, psychology, law, and political economy and had founded the Utilitarian Society. To Mill's father, the experiment had proved a success, but it had also left the young man emotionally and socially under-developed.
In addition to handling the affairs of the society, Mill became embroiled in political debate over the merits of utilitarianism, writing in defense of Bentham's ideas for such periodicals as the Traveller, the Morning Chronicle, and the Westminster Review. Because his father wanted Mill to shun politics, Mill joined the East India Company in 1823. He remained with the company until his retirement thirty-five years later.
In 1825, as he participated in the Speculative Society debate series, Mill began to question his former utilitarian beliefs. This process culminated the following year in a "mental crisis" that precipitated several months of depression. Mill came to the realization that his early training had deprived him of an emotional life; he felt "stranded at the commencement of [his] voyage with a well-equipped ship and rudder, but no sail." Seeking to broaden his spectrum of knowledge, he began to read the works of Comte, Carlyle, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and became particularly enchanted with Wordsworth's Romantic mysticism and Carlyle's passion for social reform. In addition, in 1830 Mill met Harriet Taylor, a woman who combined a remarkable intellect with emotional sensitivity, and the two soon formed what he described as a "perfect friendship." Taylor's husband acknowledged and accepted their platonic relationship, although it scandalized many of their friends. After corresponding and meeting publicly for twenty years, they married in 1851, two years after the death of Taylor's husband. Following their marriage, they became virtual recluses as they worked together in their villa in St. Véran, France. Mill credited Taylor with co-authoring almost all his works, particularly The Subjection of Women. Her death in 1858 was a devastating blow, but Mill gradually involved himself in new activities. He served in the House of Commons from 1865 to 1867 and was then elected to the honorary position of rector of St. Andrew's University. He continued to write prolifically and was at work on an essay on socialism when he died in Avignon, France.
Mill distinguished himself in many fields. His public prominence as a political theorist and philosopher was first established in the 1820s with the publication of his early essays and continued to grow while he served as editor of the London and Westminster Review from 1835 to 1840. His reputation was further enhanced by the publication, in 1843, of his first major book, A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive. An argument in favor of empiricism, A System of Logic defended the superiority of inductive reasoning and, in particular, the validity of the syllogism. In 1848, Mill published Principles of Political Economy, in which he studied the interrelationship between capital, labor, and production. Mill showed how the wage system perpetuated poverty in England and Ireland, and he advocated a system of peasant-proprietorships as an alternative to land ownership.
On Liberty, often considered Mill's masterpiece, appeared in 1859. In this work Mill delineated his concepts of liberty, stressing the importance of education and freedom from convention. Upholding the supremacy of individual rights in society, he formulated his notorious proclamation that "the state exists for man, and hence the only warrantable imposition upon personal liberty is self-protection." Mill's Utilitarianism, which originally appeared in 1861 as a series of articles in Fraser's magazine, represents a revision of his views on Bentham's philosophy. Critiquing Bentham's notion that the "calculus of pleasure and pain" is the main motivating force in human behavior, Mill described altruism as an impetus for action and differentiated between gradations of pleasure.
Published in 1869, Mill's revolutionary treatise The Subjection of Women remains one of the pioneering works of liberal feminism. By exploring such issues as the psychology of the sexes, social conditioning, women's education, and marriage laws, Mill argued for full equality and voting rights for women. He also developed an androgynous ideal for men and women that challenged the rigid division between masculinity and femininity characteristic of dominant Victorian and Romantic gender ideologies.
His Autobiography, published posthumously, forms the basis for Mill's consideration as a literary figure. In a direct and perceptive prose style, Mill describes the Benthamite experiment that shaped his extraordinary education and early life. Mill also discusses the causes and effects of his 1826 "mental crisis" and the evolution of his political, economic, and ethical philosophies.
Although his works were greeted with mixed reviews upon publication, most of them came to be recognized as classics in their fields. Mill's death and the subsequent publication of his Autobiography were followed by a resurgence of critical interest in his works. Scholars admire his complex, intricately argued positions, yet point out that they are vulnerable to criticism. For example, R. W. Church, James Fitzjames Stephen, Bernard Bosanquet, and Malcolm Cowley have examined what they consider the inherent inconsistencies of Mill's defense of individuality in On Liberty. Other critics, such as Noel Annan and J. B. Schneewind, have explored the question of the originality of his theories. Several modern critics, including M. H. Abrams, Edward Alexander, and F. Parvin Sharpless, have focused on Mill's theories of and relation to literature, while commentators like Kate Millet, Wendell Robert Carr, and Susan Moller Okin have assessed the merits of Mill's liberal feminism. The diversity of Mill's social concerns and the breadth of his knowledge continue to impress readers. By contributing to the systematization of logic and political economy, expanding the domain of the social theorist, and championing the cause of women's suffrage, Mill has earned a distinguished place among British philosophers.
A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation (essay) 1843
Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy (essays) 1844
Principles of Political Economy, with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy (essay) 1848
* Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and Historical 4 vols. (essays) 1859-75
On Liberty (essay) 1859
Utilitarianism (essay) 1863
Auguste Comte and Positivism (criticism) 1865
An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy and of the Principal Philosophical Questions Discussed in His Writings (criticism) 1865
The Subjection of Women (essay) 1869
Autobiography (autobiography) 1873
**Nature, the Utility of Religion, and Theism (essays) 1874
Collected Works of John Stuart Mill 33 vols. (autobiography, criticism, essays, letters, journalism, and speeches) 1963-1991
*This work includes the essays "Bentham" and "Coleridge."
**This work is commonly referred to as Three Essays on Religion.
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SOURCE: "J. S. Mill's Theory of Poetry," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XXIX, No. 4, 1960, pp. 420-38.
[In the following essay, Robson argues that Mill's theory of poetry combined Utilitarian principles with certain aspects of Romanticism by asserting that poetry advocates moral actions through an appeal to the emotions. ]
John Stuart Mill is often held up to scorn as a cold, mechanical thinker for whom ethics is no more than logic, and politics no more than political economy. Swathed in mournful black, hard-visaged and iceveined, Mill stands for the Victorian virtues to which we (thank heaven) cannot pretend. The picture is patently a caricature, failing to do justice to the man or to his thought, but correcting it seems difficult. Mill is himself mainly responsible for the difficulty, his Autobiography being little more than the history of his education and opinions. His first biographer, Bain, was plus royalist que le roi, and recent biographers (most notably Packe), while reopening important evidence, appear strangely unable to relate his personal experience to his thought. Actually, though most of Mill's work seems to hide rather than to reveal the man, and most of his correspondence is public rather than private, even in his System of Logic there is material to show more than a superficial relation between his life and his thought. What the evidence...
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SOURCE: "Mill's Theory of Culture: The Wedding of Literature and Democracy," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, October, 1965, pp. 75-88.
[In the following essay, Alexander explores the implications of Mill's theory of poetry for his definition of culture and his belief in democratic society.]
Ever since M. H. Abrams' directed attention to John Stuart Mill's essays on the nature of poetry, it has been generally recognized that his literary speculations, however slight in proportion to the main body of his work, are worthy of study. The 1833 essays, "What is Poetry?" and "The Two Kinds of Poetry," are now to be found in anthologies of nineteenth-century literature, as is the definition of poetry as moral inspiration from the 1867 Inaugural Address at St. Andrews University. Much has been written about Mill's theory of poetry, including a book-length study which makes his attitude towards poetry the basis of an inquiry into the relation between poetry and philosophy as such.2 Most discussions of Mill's writings on literature have considered them as isolated phenomena of the early part of his career, laudable yet temporary diversions of a mind essentially political from its fundamental interests.3 Since most of the specifically literary pieces appeared in the early part of Mill's career (before 1840) they are viewed as so many outgrowths of the mental crisis from...
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SOURCE: "John Stuart Mill's Idea of Politics," in Political Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, December, 1970, pp. 461-77.
[In the following analysis of Mill's concept of politics, Halliday argues that Mill rejected the rule-bound theories of Benthamism and Positivism to construct a model of the relationship between the individual and government as a provisional combination of the ideals of laissez-faire and socialism.]
The argument of this paper, which is a complex one, ought to be stated simply in the first instance. John Stuart Mill attempted to study politics without a permanent or substantial commitment to the exact sciences of Bentham, Comte and Saint-Simon. From the early thirties, he subjected both the utilitarianism of the philosophic radicals and the materialism of the French positivists to a radical critique. Mill's own definition or understanding of politics turned primarily upon a notion of self-culture or self-education and came to rest upon a body of distinctions alien both to the logic and to the spirit of utilitarian and positivist orthodoxy. Briefly, the important distinctions were these: distinctions between social education and rational knowledge; between liberty and indifference and between rules of personal conduct and truths of science. Mill confirmed and elaborated these distinctions by recasting and running together two social principles or ideologies, often taken to be incompatible, the...
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SOURCE: "A Critical Assessment," in Happiness, Justice, and Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Stuart Mill, University of California Press, 1984, pp. 279-99.
[In the following excerpt, Berger focuses on limitations in Mill's philosophical writings whereby certain concepts, like morality, happiness, justice, and freedom, are not always defined in clear, logical terms.]
There are many unresolved problems to be faced by a utilitarian holding views such as those of Mill. While I believe the theories I have attributed to him are considerably stronger philosophically than those with which he is usually saddled, there are a great many further difficulties that can be raised. In this concluding section of the book, I shall sketch some of the chief ones. These are problems that I regard as important either to Mill's version of utilitarianism, or to utilitarianisms of all kinds.
The "Naturalistic" Foundations of Morality
I shall begin by pointing out that Mill had a conception of moral justification that he supposed to be true, but for which he gave no arguments. He assumed that a moral theory can be argued for only by showing that its dictates somehow recommend themselves to aspects of human nature. Prior to his "proof of the Principle of Utility, he held that all that one can do by way to proof in ethics is to present considerations . . . capable of...
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SOURCE: "The Feminization of John Stuart Mill," in Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography and Gender, edited by Susan Groag Bell and Marilyn Yalom, State University of New York Press, 1990, pp. 81-92.
[In the following essay, Bell argues that Mill focused on the intellectual capabilities of his wife in his Autobiography in order to challenge prevailing gender ideologies, which defined women exclusively in emotional terms, and to create an androgynous ideal for both men and women.]
The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, the most famous male feminist of the nineteenth century, is inspired by a presence that has infuriated many critics—that of his wife Harriet. In Mill's words, she was "the most admirable person I had ever known" (p. 114). He insisted that his published writings were "not the work of one mind, but of the fusion of two" (p. 114), "as much her work as mine" (p. 145).' He attributed to Harriet "the most valuable ideas and features in these [our] joint productions—those which have been most fruitful of important results and have contributed most to the success and reputation of the works themselves." And, downplaying his own contribution, he added that his own part in them was "no greater than in any of the thoughts which I found in previous writers and made my own only by incorporating them with my own system of thought" (pp. 145-6).
Why are these...
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SOURCE: "Sympathy and the Social Value of Poetry: J. S. Mill's Literary Essays," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. LX, No. 4, Summer, 1991, pp. 452-68.
[In the following essay, Green traces the development of Mill's views on poetry as part of the intellectual tradition of the Scottish philosophers and the Romantic poets, which emphasized poetry's ability to develop sympathy, and therefore, according to Mill, made it a necessary addition to purely rational Benthamism.]
In 1835, nearly a decade after the mental crisis which initiated his reevaluation of Benthamism, John Stuart Mill took another step towards intellectual independence with the launching of the London Review. As editor, he hoped that the London Review would represent 'a utilitarianism which takes into account the whole of human nature not the ratiocinative faculty only.' This more complete Utilitarianism depended upon the recognition that poetry was the 'necessary condition of any true and comprehensive Philosophy.'1 Throughout the 1830s, in a series of essays and reviews, Mill articulated his increasing realization of the significance of poetry to social philosophy. In the 1960s, John Robson and F. Parvin Sharpless convincingly demonstrated the connection between Mill's essays on poetry and his revision of Benthamism. Mill perceived that the social value of poetry lay in its potential for educating the...
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SOURCE: "From Sectarian Radical to National Possession: John Stuart Mill in English Culture," in A Cultivated Mind: Essays on J. S. Mill Presented to John M. Robson, edited by Michael Laine, University of Toronto Press, 1991, pp. 242-72.
[In the following essay, Collini traces Mill's posthumous reputation in late nineteenth and early twentieth century to argue that Mill's gradual incorporation into Britain's intellectual canon marks the consolidation of Britain's nationalist self-definition during this period of high imperialism.]
In a fine passage in his essay on Malthus, Keynes celebrates, with a nicely judged sense of pride in his own intellectual ancestry, what he calls "the English tradition of humane science." It is a tradition, he suggests, which has been marked "by an extraordinary continuity of feeling, if I may so express it, from the eighteenth century to the present time—the tradition which is suggested by the names of Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Paley, Bentham, Darwin, and Mill, a tradition marked by a love of truth and a most noble lucidity, by a prosaic sanity free from sentiment or metaphysic, and by an immense disinterestedness and public spirit. There is continuity in these writings, not only of feeling but of actual matter. It is in this company that Malthus belongs."1 Both the roll of honour and the terms of the characterization would repay extended scrutiny: the...
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Annas, Julia. "Mill and the Subjection of Women." Philosophy 52, No. 200 (April 1977): 179-94.
Presents a close reading of Mill's The Subjection of Women. Highlights inner inconsistencies in its arguments, attributing these to Mill's vacillation between reformist and radical approaches to the women's question.
Caine, Barbara. "John Stuart Mill and the English Women's Movement." Historical Studies 18, No. 70 (April 1978): 52-67.
Examines Mill's relationship with the women's movements in nineteenth-century England and highlights the gap between Mill's theoretical insistence on women's equality and his actual domineering relationship with the women in these movements.
Carlisle, Janice. John Stuart Mill and the Writing of Character. Athens: The University of Georgia, 1991, 333 p.
Examines Mill's perception of his works as a direct embodiment of his "nature" as a person in the context of the nineteenth-century emphasis on a link between "writing" and "character."
Gray, John. Mill on Liberty: A Defence. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983, 143 p.
Focuses on Mill's doctrine of liberty to emphasize its coherence and to argue that by developing a utilitarian theory of...
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