John Stuart Mill

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Biographical Information

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. VĂ©ran, 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.

Major Works

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...

(This entire section contains 1141 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

his early essays and continued to grow while he served as editor of theLondon 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.

Critical Reception

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.


Principal Works