John Stuart Mill Essay - Critical Essays

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.

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. 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.

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 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.

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

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.


John M. Robson (essay date 1960)

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...

(The entire section is 8850 words.)

Edward Alexander (essay date 1965)

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...

(The entire section is 6119 words.)

R. J. Halliday (essay date 1970)

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...

(The entire section is 7866 words.)

Fred R. Berger (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 9936 words.)

Susan Groag Bell (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 5240 words.)

Michele Green (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 7530 words.)

Stefan Collini (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 12969 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 685 words.)