Mill, James (1773–1836)

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James Mill, a British historian, economist, psychologist, utilitarian philosopher, and father of John Stuart Mill, was born in Scotland but spent most of his adult life in London. His father was a shoemaker, but his mother was ambitious for James to get a good education and to rise to a higher rank in society. He attended the University of Edinburgh, supported by the patronage of Sir John Stuart (17591815), for whom John Stuart Mill was named. Mill distinguished himself as a Greek scholar, receiving his MA in 1794. He then studied divinity and was licensed to preach in 1797. He gave some sermons, but by this time he was an agnostic, basing his disbelief in a benevolent deity, according to his son, on the degree of evil in the universe. He did some tutoring in Scotland, but in 1802 he moved to London where he sought to make a living as a writer and editor. He contributed to a wide assortment of newspapers and journals, and, from 1803 to 1806, he edited the St. James Chronicle and the Literary Journal. The latter was an ambitious periodical that professed to give a summary view of all the leading departments of human knowledge. In 1805 he married Harriet Burrow, and their first child, born in 1806, was John Stuart Mill.

In 1808 Mill made the acquaintance of Jeremy Bentham (17481832), the founder of the utilitarian tradition in modern philosophy. Mill adopted Bentham's utilitarian philosophy and used it as the foundation for his writings on government, education, freedom of the press, and other topics. In 1806 Mill began an ambitious project: to write The History of British India, emphasizing the social conditions and movements rather than battles and rulers. This was not completed until 1818, but it immediately became the definitive work on the subject and led to Mill being offered a position at India House, from which the East India Company managed British interests in India. He rose to the position of head of the office and served there until his death.

Mill was not only a "disciple" of Bentham. He was a friend and for a time financially dependent on Bentham's support. At times he and his family lived in houses owned by Bentham, and he and his family spent several summers at Bentham's summer houses. On these summer visits Bentham depended on Mill to be his conversational companion. Mill also edited some of Bentham's writings.

One of Mill's life works, and that for which he is now most famous, is the education that he gave his son John Stuart Mill. From infancy John Stuart was tutored by his father, seven days per week, studying in the room where James was writing the History of British India and other articles to support the family. At the end of each day they would take a walk at which time John Stuart would report to his father what he had learned, and he was severely reprimanded if he had not gotten it right. At age three John Stuart was learning Greek from vocabulary cards; so he had already learned English. At age eight he began Latin. By the time that he was twelve he had read, in Greek and Latin, enormous tomes of classical literature, as reported in John Stuart Mill's Autobiography (1873).

James Mill was active in promoting the Benthamite philosophy in current politics. He was one of the founders of what came to be known as "philosophical radicalism," a force to the left of the two major parties, the Tories and Whigs. The group included such well-known persons as Francis Place (17711854), a successful tailor and organizer of London demonstrations by working people; David Ricardo (17721823), the economist, who was probably Mill's best friend; and John Austin (17901859), the utilitarian jurist. The radicals advocated extension of suffrage to all tax payers, if not universal suffrage; the secret ballot in elections; the removal of tariffs on imported grain and, in general, free trade; and other legislation for the benefit of the mercantile and working classes.


Mill wrote on a wide variety of topics for a number of periodicals. These show the breadth of his interests and expertise. Subjects included money and exchange, Spanish America, China, General Francisco de Miranda (17501816), the East India Company, liberty of the press, Bentham's law reforms, education, prison discipline, slavery, and religious toleration. In 1805 he published a translation of C. F. Villers's History of the Reformation. In 1807 he wrote Commerce Defended, an answer to a book that claimed that Britain could be independent of commerce. He wrote a number of articles for the supplement to the fifth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which appeared from 1816 to 1823. Some of these articles were later published independently, the most important being those on "Jurisprudence," "Prisons," "Education," and "Government." Mill's History of British India, in three volumes, was finished and published in 1818. In 1821 Mill published Elements of Political Economy, which he intended as a "schoolbook" based on his teaching Ricardian economic theory to John Stuart Mill. From 1824 to 1826 he contributed to the Westminster Review, a periodical started as an organ of the Radicals to answer the Quarterly Review of the Tories and the Edinburgh Review of the Whigs. In 1829 appeared his Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, in two volumes, putting forward his "associationist" psychological theories. His last major work was the Fragment on Mackintosh, published in 1835 after a delay caused by Sir James Mackintosh's (17651832) death. In it he presents his ethical views in opposition to those of Mackintosh.


Mill's philosophy is empiricist, assuming that all knowledge ultimately comes from sense experience, including muscular contractions and sensation from bodily organs. He believed that the inductive method, which had been fruitful in the physical sciences, would be equally effective in philosophy. In Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind Mill, using the method of introspection, attempts to give a complete analysis of mental phenomena, resolving them into the primitive feelings from which they are derived by association. "Feeling," according to him, includes every phenomenon of the mind. One's experience is either a knowledge of feelings separately or a knowledge of the order in which they follow each other. Some philosophers had claimed that there are feelings not derived from sensations, but Mill thinks that this is a mistake. He follows David Hume in distinguishing between impressions and ideas. "Ideas" are copies of previous "impressions." Impressions, for Mill, are caused by the external world acting in some way on the mind. The philosopher can only classify the various modes in which they present themselves. One's consciousness reveals simply a series of "sensations" and "ideas." The mind is a stream of these phenomena. The connections of ideas are due to association in either "synchronous" or "successive" order.

When Mill turns to an analysis of sensations and ideas exciting to action, he again attempts to resolve them into simple laws. A desire is an idea of a pleasant sensation; an aversion, an idea of a painful sensation; each having tacit reference to a future time. One associates these pains and pleasures with their causes, coming to desire the causes, and one associates these with one's own actions as possible causes. In this theory of action Mill is a psychological hedonist, but he is not a psychological egoist, in one meaning of that term. Although the pleasure or pain is the agent's own pleasure or pain, it may be associated with the pleasure or pain of another person, such that one desires that person's pleasure or pain. This can even be generalized to a love for humanity, such that one has pleasure at the thought of anyone's pleasure. Thus, it can be possible to be motivated to seek the greatest happiness of everyone, the utilitarian criterion of right action. Mill held, however, that actions are right when they are foreseen to produce the greatest happiness, whether or not this is the motive of the action. But the motive to produce the greatest happiness is important in admiring or despising the character of the agent.

At the same time that Mill recognizes the possibility of altruistic action, of an agent finding pleasure in the sacrifice of his or her own good to the greater good of others, he does not rely on this motive in his political philosophy. He argues from the predominance of selfish interests in his arguments for representative democracy. In his article "Government" he starts from the utilitarian premise that the end of government, as of all conduct, is the greatest happiness. He claims that this can be achieved by assuring for all persons the greatest possible quantity of the produce of their labor. Thus, he defends property, if it reflects this objective. Government is people uniting to delegate to a few the power necessary for protecting this legitimate property. The difficult problems of government relate to the means of preventing these few from themselves having an interest contrary to that of the many. The key is representation. The community as a whole cannot desire its own misery, and, although it cannot act as a whole, it can act through representatives. If these representatives can be prevented by adequate checks from misusing their powers, good government is possible. He believes that responsible representation is possible if election is for brief periods, perhaps annual; by secret ballot; and if the right to vote is extensive enough to prevent the class of electors from having an interest contrary to the whole community. One problem that he addresses is that the people do not understand their own interests. His answer is that ignorance is curable, whereas government by a minority class is sure to be bad.

In Fragment on Mackintosh Mill engages in a polemic against a moral sense ethical theory, even one based on associationist psychology and a greatest happiness principle. Mackintosh agrees that the criterion of right and wrong is the greatest happiness, but he claims that the moral sense is a feeling produced by the contemplation of right and wrong that becomes an independent unit, no longer resolved into its origin. It becomes a particular faculty, necessary to discern right and wrong. On the contrary, Mill says that no particular faculty is necessary to discern utility. To say that conduct is right is the same thing as to say that it produces greatest happiness. If the moral sense orders conduct opposed to the general happiness, it is so far bad. If it never orders such conduct, then it is superfluous. Mackintosh uses the example of Fletcher of Saltoun to illustrate his point. Fletcher would have sacrificed his life to save his country, but would not do anything base to save his country. Mill attacks this. If you refuse to save your country because you think the means base, your morality is immoral. All general rules, he says, imply exception, but only when they conflict with the supreme rule. If a rule for increasing utility diminishes utility in a given case, then it must be broken in that case.


Mill was a significant contributor to the liberalism of nineteenth-century Britain. His articles calling for expansion of suffrage, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free trade, abolition of slavery, state-supported education, and legal and prison reform no doubt had an influence on his contemporaries and the next generation. He was significant in popularizing Bentham's and Ricardo's views. His psychological theories were a foundation on which Alexander Bain and other psychologists sought to use associationism as one element in a more complete psychology. His most significant influence, however, was by way of his son, John Stuart Mill, who reflects, although he significantly revises, the philosophy of his father.

See also Austin, John; Bain, Alexander; Bentham, Jeremy; Democracy; Empiricism; Ethics, History of; Hume, David; Liberalism; Mill, John Stuart; Utilitarianism.


works by mill

A Fragment on Mackintosh. London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1835.

Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (1829). 2 vols. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1967.

The Collected Works of James Mill. New York: Routledge, 1992a.

Political Writings, edited by Terence Ball. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992b.

works about mill

Bain, Alexander. James Mill: A Biography (1882). New York: A. M. Kelley, 1967.

Halévy, Elie. The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. Translated by Mary Morris. London: Faber and Gwyer, 1928.

Stephen, Leslie. The English Utilitarians (1900). 3 vols. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1968.

Henry R. West (2005)