Mill, John Stuart (1806–1873)

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John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher, economist, and administrator, was the most influential philosopher in the English-speaking world during the nineteenth century and is generally held to be one of the most profound and effective spokesmen for the liberal view of man and society. In the belief that men's opinions are the dominant influence on social and historical change, Mill tried to construct and to propagate a philosophical position that would be of positive assistance to the progress of scientific knowledge, individual freedom, and human happiness. Despite numerous flaws in his theories, he succeeded in providing an alternative to existing views on morals and politics and their foundations that was both specific and cohesive enough to give a markedly liberal tendency to social and political opinion, and also sufficiently tolerant and inclusive to gain it access to an extraordinarily large and diverse public. Mill cannot be ranked among the greatest of pure philosophers, either for his originality or for his synthesizing power. His work in logic, however, broke new ground and gave a badly needed impetus to the study of the subject, while his reformulations of classical British empiricism and Benthamite utilitarianism gave these positions a relevance and continuing vitality that they would not otherwise have had.

Although Mill's views on economics will not be discussed in the present article, an excellent summary of them is contained in the article on Mill by F. Y. Edgeworth in Palgrave's Dictionary of Political Economy.


John Stuart Mill was born in London, the son of James and Harriet Burrow Mill. Outwardly his life was not eventful. He was educated by his father and never attended school, although for a short time he read law with John Austin. In 1823 he became a clerk in the East India Company, where his father was a high official, and worked there until 1858. Eventually he became chief of his department, a post involving considerable administrative responsibility. In 1831 he was introduced to Harriet Taylor, the wife of a successful merchant and mother of several children. Friendship between Mill and Mrs. Taylor rapidly developed into deep though Platonic love, and for the next twenty years they saw each other constantly, despite the increasing social isolation this involved. Mill was convinced that Mrs. Taylor was a great genius: He discussed all of his work with her and attributed to her an enormous influence on his thought. Her husband died in 1849, and three years later she married Mill. In 1858, while the Mills were on a tour of France, Harriet died in Avignon. Mill bought a house nearby so that he could always be near her grave.

In 1857 Mill had written a brilliant defense of the East India Company for the parliamentary debate on renewal of the company's charter. When renewal was not granted, Mill retired, refusing an offer of a position in the government as an official for Indian affairs. In 1865 he was invited to stand for election to Parliament as an independent member for Westminster. He accepted, and although he refused to campaign, contribute to expenses, or defend his views, he won, and served until the next election, in 1868, when he was defeated. Thereafter he spent his time alternately in London and in Avignon, admired and sought after by many, accessible to few. He died after a very brief illness, attended by his wife's daughter Helen, who had looked after him since her mother's death.

education and philosophical radicalism

Until 1826 Mill's thought was completely controlled by his father. James Mill gave him one of the most formidable educations on record, starting him on Greek at the age of three and Latin at eight. By the age of fourteen he had read most of the major Greek and Latin classics, had made a wide survey of history, and had done intensive work in logic and mathematics. He had also been prepared for acceptance of the central tenets of philosophical radicalism, a set of economic, political, and philosophical views shared by the group of reformers who regarded Jeremy Bentham and James Mill as their intellectual leaders. When at the age of fifteen John Stuart Mill read Bentham's Traité de législation, it had the effect on him of a religious revelation. It crystallized his thoughts and fixed his aim in lifeto be a reformer of the world. Guided by his father, he threw himself into the work of the radicals; he edited Bentham's manuscripts, conducted a discussion group, wrote letters to the press and articles critical of laws, judicial decisions, and parliamentary debates and actions.

depression and change of views

Late in 1826, Mill suffered a sudden attack of intense depression, which lasted for many months. The attack led him to reconsider the doctrines in which he had been raised and to seek other than Benthamite sources of thought. He believed that his capacity for emotion had been unduly weakened by strenuous training in analytic thought, with the result that he could no longer care for anything at all. In the poetry of William Wordsworth he found something of a curean education of the feelings that helped to balance the education of intellect given to him by his father. In 1828 he met Gustave d'Eichthal, a French follower of Comte de Saint-Simon, who sent him an early essay by Auguste Comte and a great deal of Saint-Simonian literature. He also met John Sterling, a disciple of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Mill came to admire both the Saint-Simonians and the Coleridgeans, and he attempted to incorporate into his own thinking what he took to be sound in their doctrines. In 1829 he published nothing at all, but by the following year he had reached a philosophical position that seemed to him far more adequate than the older Benthamism. He never again changed his philosophical views so radically.

comte and saint-simon

The historical standpoint of the Saint-Simonians, as well as the appreciation of the value of old institutions emphasized by Coleridge, impressed Mill as important additions to Benthamism, which, he thought, simply neglected such factors. He accepted the outlines of the Saint-SimonianComtian philosophy of history, and particularly its theory that in social change there is an alternation between "critical" periods, in which society destroys outmoded forms of life and tends toward disintegration, and "organic" periods, in which new forms of common life are evolved and social cohesion is reestablished. He agreed also with the French view that in his own times society had come to the end of a critical period. From Coleridge he learned to think of the cultured class as the leader of opinion in a nation. He also came to believe that the problem he had in common with other intellectuals was that of assisting the world, and especially England, to emerge from the critical period and progress toward a new organic period. Unless this was done, he thought, the tendency toward disintegration might possibly grow too strong to be controlled.

Three important consequences followed from this. First, merely negative remarks upon institutions, laws, and political arrangements were no longer sufficient. Although much remained that needed to be changed, it was necessary now to replace what had been destroyed with something better. Second, the views of those who defended the old and outmoded could no longer be dismissed, in Benthamite fashion, as mere lies used in defense of vested interests. What is now outmoded must, at one stage of historical development, have served a valuable purpose; otherwise it could not have survived. Those who defend it are those who see the good still in it; hence we must seek for the truth in their views, and not merely reject the falsity. The particular vice plaguing social thought is not the tendency to make mistakes of fact or faulty inferences from facts, but the great ease with which data can be overlooked: in a word, one-sidedness. Hence, if we are to obtain sound social views, our greatest need is for a complete survey of data, and this is possible to achieve only if we can appreciate the truth that our opponents have learned. For each man is naturally one-sided and can overcome this only by education and effort. Third, the tactics of a reformer must be adapted to the period in which he lives. In particular, during a critical period there is no point in promulgating an entire system: no one will listen, and the ideas will not serve to improve social cohesion. One must proceed cautiously, piecemeal, educating one's public as one goes. One mustespecially in England, Mill held, where any appearance of system is abhorrentconfine oneself to particular issues, only slowly insinuating more general principles; or else work only from points on which there is general agreement, so as to avoid any shocking appearance of novelty.

This set of views dictated the program that Mill followed for the next twenty or more years. He did not abandon his early epistemology or ethical beliefs, but in developing them he always tried to emphasize their inclusiveness and their constructive power, rather than their critical and destructive powers. He refrained (with one major exception) from publishing a systematic account of his ideas, but wrote instead occasional essays dealing with fairly specific issues, in which he always tried to bring out the value of the books he was criticizing. (These tactics are largely responsible for the common view of Mill as a wavering, halfhearted, muddled thinker, appreciative of what others had to say but holding no clear opinions of his own.) He defended what he held to be sound views on philosophy, but he did not explicitly link these views together, except in his System of Logic, which was an entirely different case. Methods of investigation, Mill held, could be relatively neutral as regards political and moral opinion. Since these methods could be discovered from analysis of subjects like physical science, in which there was widespread agreement on results, there was a good chance of obtaining general agreement on the methods. The methods could thus serve as a cohesive, rather than a disruptive, social force.

The System of Logic

Mill's Logic is in fact by no means neutral with regard to substantive issues. It is the first major installment of his comprehensive restatement of an empiricist and utilitarian position. It presents (sometimes, to be sure, only as "illustration") a fairly complete outline of what would now be called an "empiricist" epistemology, although Mill himself used "empiricist" in a deprecatory sense to mean "miscellaneous information," as contrasted with "scientific knowledge." It begins the attack on "intuitionism" that Mill carried on throughout his life, and it makes plain his belief that social planning and political action should rely primarily on scientific knowledge, not on authority, custom, revelation, or prescription. The Logic had a rapid and wide success. Adopted as a text first at Oxford and eventually at Cambridge, it was also read by many outside the universities, including workmen. Its success can be explained in part by its enormous superiority to any book then existing in the field, but credit must also be given to its clear and unmistakable relevance to social problems (and to religious questions: it was attacked as atheistic by some of its earliest reviewers).

With the publication of the Logic, Mill took a major step toward showing that the philosophy of experience, which had hitherto been identified primarily as a skeptical position, could offer at least as much in the way of constructive thinking as any other kind of view. His treatment of deductive inference was far more sympathetic to formal logic than that of previous empiricists; and by arguing that, with care, certainty could be attained even in inductive reasoning, he made it plain that empiricism was not committed to a Humean standpoint. Mill held that the philosophy of experience was more likely than any other to encourage the development of society along liberal lines. He therefore held that it was a matter of considerable importance to show that empiricism was a viable alternative to the less progressive viewsnotably, Scottish commonsense philosophy and German idealismwhich were then dominant. The Logic succeeded in doing this.

The Logic is primarily a discussion of inferential knowledge and of the rules of inference. (The discussion of noninferential, or as Mill also called it, immediate or intuitive, knowledge belongs, in Mill's view, to metaphysics.) It contains six books. In the first two, Mill presented an empiricist theory of deductive inference, and, since mathematics is the chief deductive science, a discussion of the nature of the truth of mathematics, especially of its axioms. In Book III, Mill discussed induction, its grounds, its methods, and its results. Book IV, titled "Of Operations Subsidiary to Induction," contains chapters on observation and description, abstraction, naming, and classification. Book V is a discussion of fallacies. Book VI contains Mill's attempt to extend the methods of the physical sciences, as derived in Book III, to what were then called "moral sciences," that is, psychology and sociology. He argued for the possibility of a science of human nature and action, and assessed the value of the various methods for attaining it. He concluded with a chapter on the logic of morality, discussing primarily the relation between rules for actions and the factual statements that serve as their foundations.

No adequate summary of the contents of the Logic can be given here, but some of Mill's leading views may be indicated.

deductive reasoning

Mill's argument in Book I of the Logic is intended to show the mistake of those who say that deductive inference (as found, for example, in the syllogism) is entirely useless because it involves a petitio principii, but at the same time to make it clear that deduction in general is never the source of new knowledge. Mill agreed that the conclusion of a syllogism may not contain more than is contained in the premises and that "no reasoning from generals to particulars can, as such, prove anything, since from a general principle we cannot infer any particulars, but those which the principle itself assumes as known."

It is useless to defend deduction by saying that it shows us what was "implicit" in our premises, unless we can go on to explain how something can be implicitly contained in what we already know. Mill's solution to this problem and his explanation of the value of rules of deduction rest on his view that "all inference is from particulars to particulars." When we reason "All men are mortal; Jones (not yet dead) is a man; so Jones is mortal," our real evidence for the assertion that Jones will die is our knowledge that Smith, Peters, Wilkins, and many other individuals who resemble Jones in many respects did die. We infer from their deaths to his. The general premise that all men are mortal is not itself our evidence. It is rather a note, or register, of the particular evidence on which the conclusion really depends, together with the prediction that what we have found in cases that we have already observed will also hold in similar cases not yet observed. The real inference, Mill thought, comes in constructing the general proposition on the basis of observation of particular cases. Deduction is to be understood as a way of interpreting the note that has been made of our previous inference. It is valuable because misinterpretation is very easy; but it no more gives us new information than do propositions that are true by definition. Such propositions, which Mill called "verbal," only pull out of a word what was previously put into it; and in the same way, a syllogism simply retrieves from a general proposition a particular one that was previously assumed to be in it. Since there is no real progress of thought in deduction, deductive inference is merely apparent inference. Induction is the only procedure that gives us nonverbal general propositions that go beyond what has actually been observed. Hence, only in induction do we make real inferences.

Mathematical knowledge is no exception to this. Taking geometry first, as the deductive science par excellence, Mill argued that its conclusions are necessary only in the sense that they necessarily follow from the premises from which they are deduced. But the premises themselvesultimately, the axiomsare grounded on observation and are generalizations from what we have always experienced. (The definitions are in a somewhat different position, although an experiential element is involved in the belief that the entities they define, such as a geometric point or line, really exist.) That two straight lines do not enclose a surface is evident to us every time we look at two straight lines that intersect. The laws of psychology, operating on such experiential data, are sufficient to explain the production in us of the belief that such lines cannot possibly enclose a surface: hence we need not appeal to intuition or to some other nonexperiential source to explain the belief. Even the inconceivability of the denial of the axioms of geometry does not show, Mill argued, that they are not based on experience. For inconceivability is psychological, and the fact that we cannot think of something does not show that that thing cannot exist. Mill went on to offer an account of the way in which arithmetic and algebra are founded on experience. Here the essential point is that groups of four items, for example, may be rearranged into, or formed from, two groups of two items each, or a group of three items together with a group of one item. Seeing that this is always so, we come, through the operation of psychological laws, to believe that 2 + 2, or 3 + 1, must be the same as 4. Algebra is simply a more abstract extension of this sort of belief.

With these explanations Mill hoped to show how mathematics can yield propositions that are not merely verbal and that are certainly true of the world of experience, but that do not depend on any nonexperiential sources of knowledge. His account has never been accepted by philosophers as it stands, but there have been some attempts, among thinkers influenced by pragmatism, to work out a philosophy of mathematics along lines analogous to Mill's.

inductive reasoning and scientific explanation

In Mill's view, induction is clearly of central importance, since it is the only possible source of substantive general propositions. While the details of his theory are complicated, its main lines may be concisely indicated. All methodical and critical induction rests on the fundamental principle of the uniformity of nature; namely, that what has happened once will happen again, if circumstances are sufficiently similar. Mill thought that this is a factual proposition that is itself derived by a primitive and natural process of induction: we first note a few limited regularities and predict that they will hold in the future. After our predictions come true, we spontaneously generalize, saying that since some events have been found to occur in repeating patterns, all events will be found to occur in repeating patterns. Belief in the uniformity of nature is thus derived from, and resolvable into, belief in the existence of less sweeping patterns of occurrences, or into particular causal laws. Mill defined "cause of a phenomenon" as "the antecedent, or concurrence of antecedents, on which it is invariably and unconditionally consequent." Like the "axiom" of the uniformity of nature, the principle that every occurrence has a cause is confirmed by all our experience. It is, in fact, simply a more precise way of stating the principle of the uniformity of nature. The hope of science is to formulate propositions about specific sequences of phenomena that can be relied on to the same degree as the law of causation. And the problem of methodical inductionwhich is the core of the problem of scientific reasoningarises when it is discovered that the simplest method of induction (that of assembling positive instances of a sequence of phenomena and generalizing directly from them) often leads to general propositions that turn out to be false. We then seek ways of obtaining better results. The fundamental technique is to obtain evidence which will allow us to argue as follows: Either A is the cause of a, or else there are some events which have no cause; and since we are certain that every event has a cause, we may be certain that A causes a.

According to Mill, there are four inductive methods: the method of agreement, the method of difference, the method of residues, and the method of concomitant variations. He also discussed a combination of the first two, calling it the joint method of agreement and difference. We use the first two methods in this way. If we find that A under circumstances BC is followed by abc, while under circumstances DE it is followed by ade, then A cannot be the cause either of bc or of de, since they sometimes do not occur when A occurs (and hence by the definition of "cause," cannot be caused by it). But a occurs under both sets of conditions; hence it could be the effect of A : This illustrates the method of agreement. To ascertain if something other than A might be the cause of a we use the method of difference. Will BC without A be followed by a ? If not, we have so far confirmed our view that A causes a, for, in the cases we have examined, A is always followed by a and a never occurs without being preceded by A. Hence, by the definition of "cause," A is, so far as our evidence goes, the cause, or part of the cause, of a or else there are events without any regular cause.

Science does not rely upon induction and experiment alone. It is only infrequently, Mill thought, that we will find genuine causal laws, that is, absolutely invariable sequences. More frequently we will find regularities that hold as far as a limited experience shows but which, we have reason to believe, might well not hold under quite different circumstances. These "empirical laws" are not to be considered basic laws of nature. Much of the practical application of science depends on them, but we cannot claim to have truly scientific knowledge until we can deduce empirical laws from basic laws of nature, showing why the combination of circumstances and laws renders inevitable the limitations within which the empirical laws hold. This makes clear the aim of science: to discover laws of nature and empirical laws, and to connect them, in a deductive system, in such a way as to show how the unrestricted laws would give rise to the regularities reported by the empirical laws. The various sciences are differentiated by the ways in which these two types of laws must be discovered and connected. In some sciences it is possible to discover laws of nature directly, deduce what the empirical laws must be, and then proceed to verify the deductions by checking against experimental data. In others, empirical laws are discovered first, and laws of nature are presented as hypotheses to explain them. These alleged laws of nature are then tested by deducing further empirical laws from them and testing these deductions. In any science, however, explanation comes to an end when laws of nature are reached: These are simply ultimate facts that are to be accepted.

the moral sciences

In the last book of the Logic, Mill argued that the phenomena of individual or social human life are no exception to the law of causation, and that consequently it must be possible to determine what are the natural laws of human behavior. He investigated the various modes of inquiry used in the different physical sciences to determine which are most suited to this sort of investigation, and he sketched an outline of what a completed science of man will be. Here as elsewhere, Mill thought that "however complex the phenomena, all their sequences and coexistences result from the laws of the separate elements." Since the separate elements in this instance are men, it is the basic laws of psychology from which, when the science is completed, all the laws and regularities concerning social phenomena must be deduced. Because of the enormous number of interacting elements, however, the complexity of social action is so great that no direct deduction of its regularities from basic psychological laws will be possible. In order to make this deduction it will be necessary first to construct a science of human character that will cover both the development of human character and the tendencies to action of different types of persons. From the laws of this science, which Mill called "ethology," we may hope eventually to get sociological laws. Even then, however, we will at best obtain statements of tendencies toward action, for the enormous number of factors involved in determining social action will not allow any more accurate predictions. Still, Mill held, "knowledge insufficient for prediction may be most valuable for guidance" in practical affairs. His chief interest lay in the possibility of obtaining scientific guidance for the direction of political decisions.

How far, then, had social science actually progressed? Mill thought that the basic laws of psychology were by then well established: they were the laws put forward by psychologists of the associationist school, among whom James Mill was preeminent. But the science of ethology, which John Stuart Mill had hoped to found himself, eluded him, and he gave up work on it shortly after he published the System of Logic. Although the absence of the intermediate laws that this science was designed to contribute made impossible the completion of sociology, Mill thought that at least one basic law of social change had been discovered and substantially proven: Comte's law of three stages. One element, Mill argued, is more important than any other single factor in causing change in society: "This is the state of the speculative faculties of mankind, including the nature of the beliefs which they have arrived at concerning themselves and the world by which they are surrounded. the order of human progression in all respects will mainly depend on the order of progression in the intellectual convictions of mankind." Comte had shown that opinion always passes through the same three phases. Men first try to understand their universe in theological terms, then in metaphysical terms, and finally in scientific or, as he called them, positive terms. He had also shown that correlated with these three stages of opinion are types of social organization, which change as opinions change. This generalization, for Mill, was enormously important to our understanding of history and to our practical decisions, and up to that time it was the sole example of a well-founded sociological law. But Mill had high hopes that, with work, much progress could be made in constructing a social science; and he looked forward to a time when "no important branch of human affairs will be any longer abandoned to empiricism and unscientific surmise."

Epistemology and Metaphysics

With respect to metaphysics in the contemporary sense of systematic knowledge transcending experience, Mill claimed to have none; and his epistemology consists largely of an account of experiential knowledge in which he intended to show why nothing beyond such knowledge is either possible or necessary. Mill presented an empiricist theory of our knowledge of the external world and of persons which is equally free of the skepticism of David Hume and the theology of George Berkeley. He consequently covered quite thoroughly a good deal of the ground that was gone over again in the discussions among empiricists and logical positivists in the second and third decades of the twentieth century.

aim and method

Mill held that we must know some things intuitively, without inference, if we know anything at all, and he rejected skepticism as failing to make a relevant distinction between knowledge and doubt ("In denying all knowledge it denies none"). For if all knowledge were inferential, there would be no firm starting point for inference, and we should be led into a vicious infinite regress of premises. But because whatever can be known only by intuition is beyond the realm of rational discussion and experimental test, such intuitive knowledge is not easily distinguished from dogmatic opinion. Hence, it was Mill's aim to reduce to an absolute minimum the number of points at which intuitions are required. In the Logic he argued that no intuitions are necessary for mathematics, logic, or the procedures of natural science. In the Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865), he pursued these questions further and explicitly took up the questions he had claimed to avoid in the earlier workespecially those concerning the foundations and nature of our knowledge of bodies and of minds.

Mill argued that we cannot tell by intuition or by introspection what we know intuitively. In order to distinguish what is directly given to consciousness from what is there as a result of inference, we must try to investigate the origins of the present contents of our minds. And again, this cannot be done directly, because the minds of infants are not accessible to us. Hence, Mill concluded, "the original elements can only come to light as a residual phenomena, by a previous study of the modes of generation of the mental facts which are confessedly not original." This is the psychological method that was originated by John Locke. In using it, Mill attempted always to show how experience, acting in accordance with known laws of psychology, can explain all of our knowledge. If successful, such accounts make unnecessary (and therefore unwarranted, according to sound scientific methodology) any appeal to extraordinary faculties or to nonexperiential sources of knowledge.

matter and mind

Mill attempted to explain our belief in the existence of matter and in the existence of our own and other minds by using a psychological method. The "Psychological Theory of the Belief in an External World," as he called it, postulates first, a mind capable of expectation (that is, of forming the conception of possible sensations that would be felt if certain conditions were realized), and second, the psychological laws of association. The claim is that these two factors, operating on experienced sensations and reminiscences of them, would generate not only a belief in an external world but, in addition, a belief that this belief was immediate or intuitive. Mill argued first that by an external object we mean only something that exists whether it is thought of or not, that stays the same even if the sensations we get from it change, and that is common to many observers in a way that sensations are not. One's concept of the external world, Mill said, is made up only to a slight degree, at any moment, of actual sensations, but to a large degree of possible sensationsnot of what I am sensing, but of what I would sense if I moved, or turned my head, and so forth. These possible sensations, moreover, are thought of as being in groups: numbers of them would be present if I did this, numbers of others if I did that. Contrasted with any particular actual sensation, these groups of possible sensations seem stable and permanent. Moreover, there is not very much regularity in the sequences of our actual sensations, but there is considerable regularity associated in our minds with the groups of possible sensations: We will regularly get this sensation following that one if we do this following that. Hence ideas of cause and power, which (as had been argued in the Logic ) depend on regularity and succession, are associated with the groups of possible sensations, and not with the actual sensations. At this stage we begin to refer any actual sensation to some group of possible sensations, and even to think of the possibilities as the cause or root of the actual sensation. The groups of possibilities, having permanence and causal power, are so different from fleeting actual sensations that they come to be thought of as being altogether different from them. When it finally becomes clear that the permanent possibilities are publicly observable, we have a concept answering in all respects to our definition of externality. Hence, Mill said, matter "may be defined, a Permanent Possibility of Sensation"; this is all, he held, that the plain man believes matter to be, and indeed, Mill shared this belief. Mill's aim, however, was not so much to defend the belief, as to account for it. And his account, which appeals only to psychological laws known to operate in many other kinds of cases, is simpler than accounts that would make the belief in matter an original part of our mind or an intuitive belief: Consequently, he held, it is a better account.

Mill went on to ask how far a similar theory is adequate to account for mind. The theory will work, he thought, to a large extent, since we know nothing of our mind but its conscious manifestations, and since we know other minds only through inference from the similarities of other bodies and their actions to ours. But memory and expectation pose a fatal difficulty. They involve a belief in something beyond their own existence, and also the idea that I myself have had, or will have, the experience remembered or expected. Hence, if the mind is really a series of feelings, it is an extraordinary series, for it is one that is "aware of itself as a past and future." And if it is not this paradoxical series, it is something more than a seriesbut what that can be we have no idea. Mill concluded that at this point we are "face to face with that final inexplicability at which we inevitably arrive when we reach ultimate facts," and all we can do is accept the facts as inexplicable. Hence, mind is not simply a permanent possibility of sensation.

Sensations and feelingsthe data of experienceare, then, intuitively known; the fact of memory (a consequence of which Mill thought to be expectation) is also known directly; and the kind of link between past and present involved in memory (which Mill took to be the central inexplicable reality about the self) is known directly. Aside from these, there is only one additional inexplicable fact, and that is beliefthe fact that there is a difference between contemplating, or imagining, or supposing, and actually believing. Mill rejected his father's analysis of belief, but could develop no adequate account of his own.


According to Mill, agreement on moral beliefs is the most important single factor making for cohesion in society, and where it is lacking society cannot be unified. In his own times he saw and recognized the significance of the first serious widespread breakdown of belief in the Christian moral scheme. He thought it a task of first importance to provide an alternative view of morality that would be both acceptable to those who still clung, in part, to their older views, and capable of redirecting these older moral attitudes into newer paths. He was a utilitarian in ethics: that is, he held that an action is right if, and only if, it brings about a greater balance of good over bad consequences than any other act open to the agent, and he also believed that only pleasure is intrinsically good and only pain intrinsically bad. Bentham and James Mill had held a similar position, but John Stuart Mill modified their view in a number of ways, attempting always to show that utilitarianism need not be a narrow or selfish view and that it did not force one to rely, for social progress, purely on impersonal institutional arrangements and thereby compel one to leave human personality out of account. By arguing that the utilitarian could appreciate the wisdom embodied in traditional morality as well as offer rational criticism of it, and that he could also accept and account for the high value of self-sacrifice and could make the development and perfection of individual character the key obligation of morality, Mill sought to rebut the most frequent criticisms of the Benthamite morality and thereby make it more generally acceptable. Although his ethical writings (especially Utilitarianism ) have been much criticized, they contain the most influential philosophical articulation of a liberal humanistic morality that was produced in the nineteenth century.

In his ethical writings, Mill pursued the attack on intuitionism that was so constant a feature of his other work. This issue is especially important with regard to moral problems. Intuitionism, he said in the Autobiography, is "the great intellectual support of false doctrines and bad institutions" because it enables "every inveterate belief and every intense feeling to dispense with the obligation of justifying itself by reason. There never was such an instrument devised for consecrating all deep-seated prejudices." The intuitionists supposed, Mill believed, that only their view could account for (1) the uniqueness of moral judgments, (2) the rapidity with which the plain man passes moral judgments, and (3) the authority to be given to commonsense moral judgments. To the first point, Mill answered with the theory that moral feelings may have unique properties, just as water has, and yet may still be derived, by a chemical compounding process, from simpler elements that do not have those properties. Hence, so far there is no need to say that these feelings are caused by unique intuitions. To the second point he replied that rapidity of judgment may be due to habit and training as well as to a faculty of intuition. And with regard to the third point, which is the crucial one, he argued that the utilitarian can give at least as good an account as the intuitionist of the authority of common sense in moral matters. Rules such as those that enjoin the telling of truth, the paying of debts, the keeping of promises, and so forth (Mill called these "secondary rules") were taken by him to indicate, not widespread intuitions, but the results of hundreds of years of experience of the consequences of actions. These rules, based on so much factual knowledge, are of considerable value in helping men to make correct decisions when time or data for a full calculation of the results in a particular case are lacking. The wisdom of the ages, thus embodied in the rules and precepts of commonsense morality, is an indispensable supplement to the limited knowledge and almost inevitable one-sidedness of any single person. It is for these reasons, utilitarians claim, that these rules and precepts have a certain cognitive authority. There is no need to appeal to a faculty of intuition to explain the authority, and therefore such an explanation is, from a scientific point of view, unwarranted.

Mill thus gave a prominent place to moral directives other than the utilitarian principle. But he was basically an act-utilitarian, believing that each particular obligation depends on the balance of pleasure and pain that would be produced by the act in question. The utilitarian principle is so abstract, Mill thought, that it is unlikely to be actually used, except in cases where two secondary rules come into conflict with each other. But it serves the invaluable function of providing a rational basis for the criticism of secondary rules (this is brought out especially well in the essay on justice, Ch. 5 of Utilitarianism ), and there was no doubt in Mill's mind that there can never be a right act that contravenes the principle. This is true even with regard to the rule (to which Mill gave so much emphasis) dictating the development and perfection of individual character. It often seems that Mill placed more stress on individuality, or self-realization, than on general welfare, and critics frequently claim that he contradicted himself by saying that both of these constitute the sole highest good. But there is no contradiction in his views, for he held that self-development is the best way for an individual to work for the common good.

Mill's concern with the problem of free will sprang from his view of the importance of self-development. (He presented this view both in the Logic and in the Examination of Hamilton.) The doctrine of necessity, which he had been taught to believe, seemed to him to make a man a creature of his environment, and this doctrine depressed and disturbed him for many years. When he realized that the desire to improve oneself could be a powerful motive and that actions dictated by this desire, although not contravening the law of causation, are properly said to be due to oneself rather than to one's environment, he felt "as if an incubus had been raised off him." He thought that this view enabled him to make determinism compatible with his emphasis on the individual's responsibility for his own character.

Two aspects of Mill's Utilitarianism have been attacked more frequently than any others. The first is his attempt to broaden utilitarianism by making a distinction between kinds of pleasure, so that an act producing a smaller amount of a more valuable kind of pleasure might be obligatory, rather than an act producing a larger amount of a less valuable kind of pleasure. This line of reasoning has been said to involve him in flagrant contradictions, or else to be sheer nonsense.

The second aspect is his attempt to give some sort of reasoned support to the utilitarian principle itself, which led G. E. Moore to accuse him of committing the "naturalistic fallacy." Moore thought Mill was trying to give a conclusive proof of a first moral principle, but he was mistaken. Throughout his life, Mill consistently held that no such proof of the principle was possible, either deductively or inductively. There is, however, no agreement as to the manner in which Mill attempted, in the fourth chapter of Utilitarianism, to support his first principle so that he would not be open to the same reproach of dogmatism that he had made against the intuitionists. Mill's remarks here are extremely unclear. His problem arises because, while he insisted that there must be a factual basis for moral judgments, he held that moral judgments are different in kind from factual propositions and therefore cannot be strictly derived from them. Although he failed to solve this problem, he at least propounded it in precisely the form in which it has perplexed (not to say obsessed) recent moral philosophers.

Social and Political Philosophy

Mill was more aware than were the older Benthamites of the importance of nonrational and noninstitutional factors to an understanding of society, and was consequently less disposed to rely on legal and governmental reforms for the improvement of it. He believed in democratic government, but he was convinced that it could not work well unless the citizens who lived under it were reasonably well educated, tolerant of opposing views, and willing to sacrifice some of their immediate interests for the good of society. He was profoundly worried about the tendency of democracies to suppress individuality and override minorities: Indeed, this, and not the problem of forcing those who control government to work for the interests of the people, seemed to him the crucial problem of his times. Hence, in his writings on social and political philosophy, his central concern was to show the importance of personal freedom and the development of strong individual character and to devise ways of encouraging their growth.

economic theory

With regard to economic theory Mill at first supported a general policy of laissez-faire, but increasing awareness of the uselessness to the individual of political freedom without economic security and opportunity led him to reexamine his objections to socialism. By the end of his life he had come to think that as far as economic theory was concerned, socialism was acceptable. His reservations about it sprang from his fear that it would give overwhelming strength to the tendencies of the age toward suppression of individuality.

on liberty

Mill thought that his essay On Liberty was the most likely of all his works to be of enduring value. In it he maintained the view, which he had expressed as early as 1834, that "the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection." Mill argued for this view especially in regard to freedom of thought and discussion. "We can never be sure," he wrote, "that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still": These are the lines of his defense, which rests ultimately on his assessment of the importance of sociological knowledge to the direction of social action and on his view of the peculiar difficulties in obtaining it. In the third chapter, Mill argued at length for the importance of "individuality," which, he held, comes from, or indeed is identical with, continued effort at self-development. Even eccentricity is better, he held, than massive uniformity of personality and the stagnation of society that would result from it. Mill's strong emphasis on this point stems from his conviction, here strongly influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville, that the chief danger of democracy is that of suppressing individual differences and of allowing no genuine development of minority opinion. Democratic tyranny would be far worse, he held, than aristocratic or despotic tyranny, since it would be far more effective in utilizing the most efficient of means of social control, the pressure of public opinion. Against this the only reliable safeguard would be the development of personalities strong enough to resist such pressures.

representative government

In more specifically political matters the same concerns are evident. Mill defended representative democracy, but not solely on the grounds used by the older Benthamites. Representative government, he held, is ideally the best form of government because it does more to encourage the growth and development of individuality than any other form of government. By leading people to participate in the processes of governing, representative government makes them more active, intelligent, and well rounded than even the best-intentioned of despotisms could. It thereby gives them vitally important moral training, by cultivating their public sympathies, strengthening their habit of looking at social questions from an impersonal point of view, and aiding their identification of personal interests with the interests of society. Care must be taken, however, to get a true democracy, one in which minorities as well as majorities are represented. For this reason Mill enthusiastically endorsed Thomas Hare's scheme of proportional representation. He also favored plural voting, which would allow educated and responsible persons to have more influence than the uneducated, by giving the former several votes. Mill's view of the function of the representative also shows his concern to get as much intelligence as possible into government. A properly educated constituency, he held, would be able and willing to select the best men available; and since those elected would be better informed and wiser on particular issues than the electorate, it would be absurd to bind the representatives to anything but a very general agreement with the beliefs and aims of the electors.

individuals and society

Mill is frequently criticized for overlooking the organic elements in society and for thinking of society as a mere aggregate of units in which each unit is what it is regardless of its membership in the whole. Mill certainly held this view as far as the most fundamental laws of psychology are concerned. But his view of individual character involves new considerations. Individuals, he held, are radically affected by their membership in society and inevitably formed by the customs, habits, morality, and beliefs of those who raise them. There is, however, no impersonal assurance, metaphysical or otherwise, that the individual will feel himself an organic member of any group. He will do so, Mill thought, only if he is educated to do so. Mill cannot be accused of underestimating the importance of ensuring that men are so educated, and it is not clear that an organic theory has anything better to offer on a practical level.

Religious Views

Mill maintained for the most part a determined silence on religious questions. Although he had written "On Nature" and "The Utility of Religion" by 1858, and although he lived during a period of increasingly free discussion of all possible religious subjects, he thought that the British public would not listen patiently to what he had to say on these questions and that he could not publish his views without alienating readers and losing public influence. And this, as he made quite clear in his correspondence with Auguste Comte, he was determined not to do. Despite his precautions, however, he was generally taken to be atheistic, and he was sometimes criticized for not openly stating the views that, so it seemed, he insinuated but did not defend. The consternation of his followers and the delight of his opponents was therefore considerable when it became apparent from the posthumously published Three Essays on Religion (1874) that Mill did not entirely condemn religious aspirations and hopes and even thought that there might be some faint possibility of the existence of rational support for a religious view of the world. Admirers felt betrayed, and religious critics proclaimed that Mill's secular education and materialistic position here issued in collapse and evident moral and intellectual bankruptcy.

goodness of god

Mill's most famous pronouncement on religion occurs not, however, in the Three Essays, but in the Examination of Hamilton. Discussing the use made by one of Hamilton's philosophical followers, Henry Mansel, of Hamilton's view that we cannot know the Absolute, Mill particularly criticized Mansel's theory that even the moral terms we apply to God do not mean what they mean when we apply them to men. Mill objected to this theory in the name of logic: If terms are not to be used in their usual sense, they ought not to be used at all. But, more strongly, he went on to say that a being, no matter how powerful, whose acts are not sanctioned by the highest human morality conceivable, is not deserving of worship. If Mill were convinced of the existence of such a being he would not worship him. "I will call no being good," Mill proclaimed, "who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures, and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go."


Of the Three Essays, the first two, at least, show no reversal or collapse of Mill's views. In "On Nature" Mill argued that the maxim "Follow Nature" is of no use as a guide to action. For "Nature" either means "everything that happens, good as well as bad," in which case it offers no guidance whatsoever; or it means "what happens without any human interference," and in that case the maxim is self-contradictory. Nature in the second sense, Mill went on to argue, offers at least as much evil to our observation as good; it is rather a challenge to amendment than an ideal for imitation. From this, two conclusions follow. First, it is our job to improve nature, especially human nature; for it is only insofar as men have intervened to change things that the world has become civilized, safe, and happy, even to the limited extent that it has. Human virtues are not natural: They are preeminently the results of cultivation. Even justice is an artificial virtue, Mill said, and the idea of natural justice does not precede, but follows, it. Second, in view of the suffering and ugliness presented by much of the natural world, the only religious view that is at all tenable is one which holds that the deity is not omnipotent, that "the Principle of Good cannot at once and altogether subdue the powers of evil," and that, consequently, men should think of themselves as the far from useless helpers of a limited but benevolent God.

utility of religion

In "The Utility of Religion," Mill argued that much of the social usefulness attributed to religion is actually due to the influence of a widely accepted and instilled moral code, and to the force of public opinion guided by that code. The belief in the supernatural origin of morality may once have helped it to gain acceptance, but is no longer needed, or indeed, even effectual, in maintaining this acceptance. The effect of religion on individuals springs largely from our need to have ideal conceptions that move us to action. "The essence of religion is the strong and earnest direction of the emotions and desires towards an ideal object, recognized as of the highest excellence, and as rightfully paramount over all selfish objects of desire." But a religion of humanity, Mill argued, can have this effect to an even greater extent than a supernatural religion. The religion of humanity would cultivate our unselfish feelings and would free us from any need for intellectual juggling or willful blindness with regard to its tenets, since it would rather point out than deny the evil in the world and urge us to work to remove it.


Thus, the first two essays of the Three Essays together suggest that the alternative to a supernatural religion is not simple acceptance of Nature, but the construction of an alternative way of living based on education and convention; and these themes are to be found throughout Mill's thought. The third essay, "Theism," drafted from 1868 to 1870, which assesses arguments in support of a supernatural religious view, seems to make more concessions to traditional religiosity than the other essays; but even these are slight. In this essay, Mill discussed the possibilities of rational support for supernatural beliefs. Dismissing all a priori reasoning, he found only the Argument from Design at all convincing, and this argument gives us at best "no more than a probability" that some intelligent creator of the world exists. For the same evidences that thus support the existence of a creator also go to show that he was not omnipotent and do not prove that he was omniscient. Mill suggested that we think of a limited deity faced with the independent existence of matter and force. To this picture of a Platonic demiurge, Mill thought we are entitled to add that benevolence may have been one (although surely not the only) moral attribute of the creator. But Mill emphasized strongly the importance of the work of man in improving the world. "If man had not the power," he said, "by the exercise of his own energies for the improvement both of himself and of his outward circumstances, to do for himself and other creatures vastly more than God had in the first instance done, the Being who called him into existence would deserve something very different from thanks at his hands."

immortality and miracles

Mill argued that there is no evidence for the immortality of the soul and none against it. After a lengthy discussion of Hume's arguments on this point he found that roughly the same is true of miracles. But in each case he pointed out that there is room for hope : One may, if it is comforting and encouraging, hope that the soul is immortal and that the revelations attested by miracles are true. And it is this point more than any other in the essay that upset Mill's admirers. For while he concluded that the proper rational attitude to supernatural religion is skepticism rather than belief or positive disbelief and that "the whole domain of the supernatural is thus removed from the region of Belief into that of simple Hope," he also held that it may be valuable and justifiable to encourage religious hopes. This, he said, can be done without impairing the power of reason; and indulgence in such hopes may help some men to feel that life is more important and may strengthen their feelings for others. Furthermore, to construct a picture of a person of high moral excellence, such as Christ, and form the habit of seeking the approval of this person for one's acts, may aid that "real, though purely human, religion, which sometimes calls itself the Religion of Humanity, and sometimes that of Duty." Critics may wish to call these views objectionable, but in Mill at least they are not inconsistent. They hark back to his early discovery of the importance of cultivating the feelings and develop the further implications of his idea of the moral importance of educating the emotions. His assessment of the degree to which scientific support can be given to a supernaturalist theory by evidences of design, low though it is, may seem far too high; but his interest in the theory of a limited deity with whom we must cooperate to bring about improvement in the world is hardly great enough or personal enough to lend credence to the accusations that he had undergone an emotional collapse.

See also Bentham, Jeremy; Bradley, Francis Herbert; British Philosophy; Causation; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Comte, Auguste; Empiricism; Hamilton, William; Liberty; Locke, John; Logic, History of; Mansel, Henry Longueville; Mill, James; Mill's Methods of Induction; Moore, George Edward; Saint-Simon, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de; Utilitarianism.


works by mill

Mill's works have not yet been collected. Even the projected University of Toronto Press edition of his Works will probably not contain all of them. Mill's own Bibliography, edited by M. MacMinn, J. R. Hainds, and J. M. McCrimmon (Evanston, IL, 1945), is not quite complete.

Mill's books (all of which were published in London, unless otherwise noted) are as follows: System of Logic, 2 vols. (1843; 8th ed., 1872); Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy (1844; written 18301831); Principles of Political Economy, 2 vols. (1848; 7th ed., 1871; variorum ed., W. J. Ashley, ed., 1909); On Liberty (1859); Dissertations and Discussions, periodical essays, 2 vols. (1859), 4 vols. (1875); Considerations on Representative Government (1861); Utilitarianism, reprinted from Frasers Magazine, 1861 (1863); An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865; 6th ed., 1889); Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865); Subjection of Women (1869; written in 1861); Autobiography (1873; more complete edition, J. J. Coss, ed., New York, 1924).

Among Mill's shorter writings of philosophical interest (most reprinted in Dissertations and Discussions ) are the following: "Whately's Elements of Logic," Westminster Review (1828); "The Spirit of the Age," in the Examiner (1831), included in The Spirit of the Age, edited by F. Hayek (Chicago, 1942); "Prof. Sedgwick's Discourse" (1835); "Civilization" (1836); "Bentham" (1838); "Coleridge" (1840); "M. de Tocqueville on Democracy in America" (1840); "Bailey on Berkeley's Theory of Vision" (1842); "Michelet's History of France" (1844); "Dr. Whewell on Moral Philosophy" (1851); "Bain's Psychology" (1859); "Austin on Jurisprudence" (1863); "Plato" (1866); "Inaugural Address to the University of St. Andrews" (1867); "Berkeley's Life and Writings," Fortnightly Review (1871); "Grote's Aristotle" (1873); "Chapters on Socialism," Fortnightly Review (1879), reprinted as Socialism, edited by W. D. P. Bliss (Linden, MA, 1891).

Of Mill's literary essays, the best known are "What Is Poetry?" and "The Two Kinds of Poetry," in Monthly Repository (1833), reprinted in part in Dissertations and Discourses as "Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties."

works on mill


For Mill's life, see his Autobiography ; F. E. Mineka, ed., Earlier Letters, 2 vols. (Toronto, 1963); H. S. R. Elliott, ed., Letters, 2 vols. (1910); J. Stillinger, ed., Early Draft of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961). See F. Hayek, ed., John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor (1951), for their correspondence. See also the standard M. St. John Packe, The Life of John Stuart Mill (1954); A. Bain, John Stuart Mill (1882); and W. L. Courtney, Life of John Stuart Mill (1886); H. O. Pappe, John Stuart Mill and the Harriet Taylor Myth (Melbourne, 1960); A. W. Levi, "The Writing of Mill's Autobiography," in Ethics 61 (1951).

Among many estimates of Mill's life and character are those by R. H. Hutton, reprinted in Criticism on Contemporary Thought and Thinkers, Vol. 1 (1894); J. Martineau, in Essays 3 (1891); J. Morley, in Critical Miscellanies 2 (1877); B. Russell, in Proceedings of the British Academy (1955); W. Ward, in Men and Matters (1914).

General Works

For general commentary on the thought of Mill see Sir Leslie Stephen, English Utilitarians, Vol. 3 (1900); R. P. Anschutz, Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Oxford, 1953); Karl Britton, John Stuart Mill (1953).


See O. A. Kubitz, Development of John Stuart Mill's System of Logic, Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences, VIII (Urbana, IL, 1932); R. Jackson, Deductive Logic of John Stuart Mill (Oxford, 1941); W. Whewell, Of Induction, with especial reference to Mr. J. Stuart Mill's System of Logic (1849), and see E. A. Strong, "W. Whewell and John Stuart Mill," Journal of the History of Ideas (1955). Classic criticisms include: T. H. Green, "The Logic of John Stuart Mill," Works, Vol. II (1886); F. H. Bradley, Principles of Logic (Oxford, 1883), Bk. II, Part II, Chs. 13; W. S. Jevons, "John Stuart Mill's Philosophy Tested," reprinted in Pure Logic (1890).


Among older studies of interest are: W. L. Courtney, The Metaphysics of John Stuart Mill (1879); C. M. Douglas, John Stuart Mill: A Study of His Philosophy (Edinburgh and London: Blackwood, 1895); J. McCosh, An Examination of Mr. John Stuart Mill's Philosophy (London and New York, 1866); and John Grote, Exploratio Philosophica (Cambridge, U.K.: Deighton Bell, 1865; 2 vols., 1900). Few recent discussions center explicitly on Mill.

Ethics and Utilitarianism

E. Halévy, La formation du radicalisme philosophique, 3 vols. (Paris: F. Alcan, 19011904), translated into English by Mary Morris as Growth of Philosophic Radicalism (London: Faber and Gwyer, 1928), is the basic study of the development of Benthamite doctrine; see also E. Albee, History of English Utilitarianism (1900) and J. Plamenatz, The English Utilitarians (Oxford: Blackwell, 1949). Especially valuable older critical works are John Grote, Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy (Cambridge, U.K., 1870) and F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies (Oxford, 1876), Ch. 3. Recent discussions start from the criticisms of G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (London: Cambridge University Press, 1903), Chs. 1 and 3. Compare J. Seth, "Alleged Fallacies in Mill's Utilitarianism," in Philosophical Review 17 (1908); E. W. Hall, "The 'Proof' of Utility in Bentham and Mill," in Ethics 9 (1949); J. O. Urmson, "Interpretation of the Moral Philosophy of John Stuart Mill," in Philosophical Quarterly 3 (1953). I. Berlin's lecture, "John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life" (London, 1962), is more general.

Political Philosophy

See G. H. Sabine, History of Political Theory, 3rd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961); M. Cowling, Mill and Liberalism (Cambridge, 1963). J. F. Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873) is an interesting early attack; others are summarized in J. C. Rees, Mill and His Early Critics (Leicester, U.K., 1956). B. Bosanquet, Philosophical Theory of the State (1899) and D. G. Ritchie, Principles of State Interference (1891) present representative criticism. J. H. Burns, "John Stuart Mill and Democracy," in Political Studies 5 (1957), traces the development of Mill's views. For criticisms of Mill's views on sociological method, see K. Popper, Open Society and Its Enemies, 2 vols. (London: Routledge, 1945), Ch. 14, and P. Winch, Idea of a Social Science (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), especially Ch. 3.

J. B. Schneewind (1967)