Mill, John Stuart

views updated May 14 2018

Mill, John Stuart






John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was born in London, the eldest son of James Mill, a leading disciple and friend of Jeremy Bentham. In his Autobiography (1873) the younger Mill described the remarkable education he received from his father, beginning Greek at the age of three and Latin at eight. At 15, massively instructed in a wide range of subjects, including economics, history, philosophy, and even some branches of natural science, he first read Bentham and emerged with a unifying conception of things and a sense of purpose in life. In 1823 he followed his father into the service of the East India Company and remained with the company until he retired in 1858.

For some years Mill vigorously promoted the Benthamite cause by speech and pen, but during a period of serious mental depression that started in 1826, he became convinced that there were serious weaknesses in his inherited opinions. At the same time he was subjected to new influences “which enlarged my early narrow creed,” among them the ideas of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Carlyle, Goethe, the Saint-Simonians, and Comte. In these crucial years he came to value poetry and art, both for themselves and as a means of cultivating the feelings and character, and he developed a fuller conception of happiness as involving the rich and varied growth of personality. His conception of social and political affairs also underwent a change: he came to appreciate the Saint-Simonian division of history into organic and critical periods; to see that political institutions must be related to the state of society; and to accept the important role an intellectual elite can play in shaping and making coherent the attitudes and beliefs of a society in a stage of transition. It was at this time too that his fears about the growth of mass conformity and its stifling effect on individual freedom took firm root.

In the decade beginning in 1831 Mill published several articles containing clear signs of his changed outlook; notable among them are the series of articles entitled “The Spirit of the Age” (1831), the essay “Civilization” (1836), and his studies of Bentham (1838) and Coleridge (1840a). His judgment on Bentham is especially interesting, manifesting as it does some of the vital differences that were to distinguish Mill from his educators. He praised Bentham’s contribution to the philosophy of law and his work for the reform of legal institutions; he greatly admired his methodological principle of breaking up wholes into their parts and abstractions into things; but he rejected a conception of man which, he claimed, has no room for the pursuit of spiritual perfection as an end in itself. Moreover, Bentham’s theory of government, he argued, ignores the dangers arising from a despotic public opinion and the importance of establishing checks on the will of the majority. Mill’s new attitude toward these two related matters was strongly confirmed by a careful reading of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and he wrote lengthy reviews of the two parts of Tocqueville’s work when they appeared (1835; 1840b).

Meanwhile, Mill had met Harriet Taylor, the wife of a London businessman, and there soon began what he called “the most valuable friendship of my life.” They were married in 1851, two years after Mr. Taylor’s death. Mill’s extremely high estimate of his wife’s abilities and of her contribution to his own writings has generally been regarded with skepticism, although quite recently, through works by Hayek (1951) and Packe (1954), there has been a reaction in her favor. However, it must be emphasized that the claims of Hayek and Packe for Mrs. Mill have been strongly contested.

Mill’s first major work, A System of Logic, was published in 1843 and ran to several editions, as did the Principles of Political Economy, after it appeared in 1848. With these two works Mill’s reputation as an outstanding thinker of his day was firmly established. The later editions of the Political Economy show a more pronounced sympathy for socialism and for the claims of the working class than Mill’s early opinions would have permitted, and it is probably here that Mrs. Mill’s influence is most generally allowed, when it is admitted at all. On Liberty (1859) came out in the year after Mrs. Mill’s death, and Mill insisted that it was a joint product. Mill now spent much of each year in France, where his stepdaughter, Helen Taylor, managed a small house at Avignon, near her mother’s grave. His main work on political institutions, Considerations on Representative Government, appeared in 1861, and in the same year he wrote for Fraser’s Magazine a set of essays on moral philosophy (1861b) which came out as a book, Utilitarianism, in 1863. The most notable of his remaining works are Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865) and The Subjection of Women (1869). From 1865 to 1868 Mill represented Westminster in Parliament. He died at Avignon in 1873. His Autobiography, edited by Helen Taylor, was published later in the same year.

Mill’s social and political thought can usefully be approached in terms of four major concerns: (1) the problem of method in the social sciences; (2) his elucidation of the principle of utility; (3) the freedom of the individual; and (4) his theory of representative government. All four are related, and the interdependence among the last three, at least, has long been recognized.

Method in the social sciences

In his Essay on Government (1820) James Mill had tried to demonstrate the necessity for representative government by arguing from the postulate that men’s actions always conform to what they take to be their interests and that men’s interests in turn can be analyzed in terms of pain and pleasure. Accordingly, a representative assembly should have sufficient power to check the rulers, who, like all other men, are concerned only with advancing their own interests, yet who will thus be made accountable to a body whose interests are identical with those of the whole community. This identity of interests between the representative assembly and the community is possible if the franchise is extended. John Stuart Mill and his circle of young utilitarian radicals initially regarded James Mill’s essay as a masterpiece; yet when the new influences began streaming in upon the younger Mill, he began to have doubts which were considerably increased by Macaulay’s famous attack on James Mill’s essay in the Edinburgh Review (1829). But he became convinced that the various types of reasoning employed by his father and by Macaulay were both wrong, and he was thus led to his own conclusions about the proper methods of study in social matters, later published in Book 6 of A System of Logic (1843).

Mill denied that the actions of rulers can adequately be explained in terms of their interests. Such an explanation leaves out factors like a sense of duty, philanthropy, and the traditional attitudes of a community, as well as group or class sentiment and inherited standards of behavior among rulers themselves. The force of these traditional standards may override the personal interests of the rulers. Moreover, Mill believed, accountability to the governed is not the only way of ensuring an identity of interest between rulers and ruled, since to some extent their interests in fact coincide: it is in the interest of both, for example, that law and order be maintained. Nevertheless, the selfish interests of rulers do play an important, if by no means exclusive, part in shaping their conduct, and constitutional checks are therefore necessary.

Where James Mill and Bentham had gone wrong, according to the younger Mill, was in supposing that social phenomena depend on one causal factor or law of human nature, with others producing only trivial effects. In fact, the several aspects of human nature contribute to determining social phenomena, and none of these aspects is negligible. Mill believed that a science of society is possible. Its model should be astronomy, even though the science of society would never achieve the kind of precision in its predictive powers that astronomy has. James Mill’s error was to adopt the deductive method of geometry; social science must rest on the laws of individual psychology which are discoverable by direct observation and experiment, and unless generalizations about social phenomena can be connected with, and shown to be derived from, these inductive laws, they cannot be regarded as having a scientific basis.

John Stuart Mill set great store by “ethology” (his term for knowledge of the formation of individual, group, and national character), whose laws are derived from those of psychology by deducing what sort of character will be produced, given the laws of mind and a specific set of circumstances. But psychological and ethological laws do not suffice to explain sociological phenomena, since the special circumstances of the society in which a particular phenomenon occurs must be taken into account. The propositions of sociology are therefore only crude, i.e., related to tendencies. The main aim of sociology must be to discover empirical generalizations about social development, generalizations that do not have the status of laws but that nevertheless can be related to the laws of human nature. Mill thought that an appreciation of the enormous importance of the state of intellectual knowledge as an agent of social change and as the chief cause of social progress might contribute to the discovery of such sociological “laws”.

Mill’s belief in the importance of knowledge explains his concern to ensure the existence of an active intellectual elite in an age of mass pressures. In his view the state of knowledge is the product of a small minority, and progress will give way to “Chinese stationariness” unless society secures to its potential innovators the means for their creative role; and among these means the first requirement is the freedom of the individual. Not that freedom is merely an instrumental value for Mill, but it is fundamental even as such.

Utility. The principle of utility, as Mill expounded it in Utilitarianism (chapter 2), “holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” By “happiness” Mill meant pleasure and the absence of pain. “Pleasure and freedom from pain,” he argued, “are the only things desirable as ends,” and all desirable things are desirable “either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.” On the evidence of this passage alone, Mill appears to be expounding the orthodox Benthamite creed. But it is well known that later in the same chapter he went on to maintain that the quality of pleasure is no less important than its quantity. Indeed, he insisted that the pleasure derived from the higher faculties is more valuable than any other sort and could even be said to have an “intrinsic superiority.” Mill’s elucidation of the principle of utility is clearly inspired by, and intelligible only by reference to, an ideal of human development that he had earlier in his life explicitly contrasted with Bentham’s narrow and constricting conception of man, with its failure to recognize adequately the role of such powerful factors as a sense of honor and a sense of personal dignity. Without ever retracting his affirmation that happiness is the sole desirable end, he so described its constituent elements that they reflected his own scale of values. Prominent in that scale was the Greek ideal of self-development, individual spontaneity, mental cultivation, and the importance of men “for ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties” (On Liberty, chapter iv).

One of Bentham’s teachings that Mill never abandoned was that appeals to “the moral sense” or “right reason” merely serve to enthrone sentiment as its own reason and are incapable of providing a real solution to moral problems. Such appeals play the same sort of role in moral argument as reliance on intuition does in knowledge of truths in mathematics. Mill rejected the claim that truths of this kind can be known independently of observation and experience and was keen to demonstrate the falsity of this claim, since it seemed to him to support prejudices in favor of outdated institutions that have no backing in reason and rely on the alleged validity of intuition. Mill argued that if the principle of utility replaces “the moral sense,” moral questions become amenable to rational consideration and the principle of utility itself supplies a tangible if not foolproof criterion for deciding moral issues.

Mill shared Bentham’s conviction that moral values and the feeling of moral obligation can become purely secular phenomena, however much they may have owed to religion in the past. Every society, he contended, derives its cohesion from a common set of beliefs and values which have, until recent times, been supplied by supernatural religion. With the decline of the religious sanction, however, a secular vision of life must become the source of the necessary integrating beliefs and values. Mill did not conceal his hope that an elevated brand of utilitarianism, such as he sketched in his posthumously published essay, “Utility of Religion,” would take the place of religion. He looked forward to a time when men would come to feel it their duty to serve humanity at large, when society would strive to cultivate in all its members a profound sense of unity with each other and a deep concern for the general good. While these are, to be sure, earthly goals, the conception and mode of life involved may well merit the name of religion, and Mill was sure that it was a better sort of religion than the supernatural one that was widely thought to have an exclusive right to the title. It was above all Comte who convinced him of the need for, and feasibility of, a “religion of humanity.” While Mill thought that such a religion of humanity could secure a hold over men’s minds, he did fear that it might militate against freedom and individuality.

Freedom of the individual

Freedom of speech and publication are prominent among the conditions of good government in Benthamite political thought, and some of Mill’s earliest journalistic efforts were based on this view. By the time he came to write On Liberty, his emphasis had changed: what had become central was the fear that society would become increasingly hostile to the full and varied expression of individual character. For his watchword Mill now took Wilhelm von Humboldt’s assertion of the absolute importance of the rich and diverse development of the human personality, thereby provoking the charge that he (Mill) had abandoned the principle of utility. However, he took care to say in his introductory chapter that his ultimate standard for judging all ethical questions was still utility; but, he insisted, “it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being.”

It was Mill’s realization that popular government is no guarantee of freedom that gave much of the driving force to On Liberty. Tocqueville’s account of democracy in America strengthened Mill’s misgivings about the Benthamite assumption that to identify the interests of rulers and ruled is a necessary and sufficient condition of good government. Even a government based on the will of the people can exercise tyranny, and more than that, the informal pressures of society can become oppressive, especially in England, where, in contrast with France, the weight of public opinion was heavier than that of the law. Mill believed that the restrictions imposed on individuals, whether by law or by opinion, ought to be based on some recognized principle rather than on the preferences and prejudices of powerful sections of the public, and he set himself the task of formulating such a principle and of illustrating how it would work.

He described his principle in a number of different ways. At first he permitted social control only if it serves “to prevent harm to others” or to deter a person from inflicting “evil” on someone else; and here the line of division is between conduct which “concerns others,” for which a person is answerable should it result in “harm,” and conduct “which merely concerns himself,” over which society has no jurisdiction at all. But later Mill talked about infringing “the interests” or “the rights” of others; and at other times he referred to the violation of “a distinct and assignable obligation” or a “perceptible hurt” to an “assignable individual.” This variety of definitions of the sphere of liberty gives rise to complex problems of interpretation but should not obscure Mill’s intention to make the area of freedom as large as possible and his clear recognition of the need for some restraint, both as a condition of social life of any sort and as a safe-guard of freedom itself. Nor did Mill recommend indifference to conduct that falls short of accepted standards of private morality, even when it does not actually violate the interests of others; yet we should only try to persuade someone to give up his self-regarding vices, not to coerce him.

On Liberty is probably best known for the eloquent justification of liberty of thought and discussion contained in its second chapter. Mill contended that freedom of expression is no less necessary when an honest government is backed by the people than when the government is corrupt or despotic; and small minorities—even a single dissenter—have as much right to express their views as do large or overwhelming majorities. His case, argued at length, rests on the claim that to suppress an opinion is wrong, whether or not that opinion is true. For if it is true, we are robbed of the truth, and if it is false, we are denied that fuller understanding of the truth which comes from its conflict with error. And when, as often happens, the prevailing view is part truth and part error, we shall know the whole truth only by allowing free circulation of contesting opinions.

Mill’s argument here is strictly utilitarian, in terms of the social benefits to be derived from a policy of freedom and access to truth. In his plea for individuality, however, there is an appeal to the idea of intrinsic goodness which he combined with instrumental arguments. The free development of individuality is indeed socially advantageous; it makes for improvement, progress, and variety in ways of living. But it means also that men may choose to live their own lives in their own distinctive ways, and Mill insisted that a man’s own mode of “laying out his existence” is best simply because it is his own mode. Moreover, it is only by cultivating individuality that we can become well-developed human beings, and “what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be?” Mill therefore believed in liberty both as a good in itself and as a means to hap piness and progress: for him the ideas of happiness and progress were thoroughly infused with his conception of a freely choosing human agent.

It has often been said in criticism of Mill that in his zeal for liberty and his opposition to the extension of state interference, he attached too little importance to justice and welfare and failed to realize that these values can be promoted by government action without serious danger to freedom. It may not be possible to dismiss such a charge entirely, but in Mill’s defense one can point to those passages of the Principles of Political Economy (especially book 2, chapters 1 and 2; book 4, chapters 6 and 7), where he showed himself to be fully aware of the injustices involved in the existing system of private property. One should also mention his fair-minded account of socialism and communism, his enthusiasm for the cooperative movement, and his idea of “the stationary state,” in which there would be no more “trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life” and where “while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back, by the efforts of others to push themselves forward” (book 4, chapter 6, paragraph 2). He looked forward to the ultimate victory of socialism over the private property system, but it was to be a socialism which respected individuality. For the foreseeable future, the main task was so to improve the system of private property as to ensure that everyone shared in its benefits, and the measures on which Mill chiefly relied to achieve this end were a limitation on the inheritance of property, the restriction of the growth of population, and a great increase in the quantity and quality of education.

Representative government

In his major work on political institutions, Considerations on Representative Government, the decline of individuality and the growing power of mass opinions are major reasons for Mill’s advocacy of a number of reforms to protect minorities and to ensure that the influence exerted by educated minds on government is greater than that to which their numerical strength entitles them. But it is a wide-ranging book, and its interest lies as much in the discussion of general principles as in the particular recommendations regarding the ballot, proportional representation, and plural voting, not to mention the treatment of local government, federalism, and nationality.

If Mill’s treatise has not stood the test of time as well as, say, Aristotle’s Politics or Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, nevertheless there is still much to admire; as when, for example, he asserts that institutions need to be adapted to the place where they have to work (his dealings with India had an important influence here) or that a despotic regime may not only help stabilize a society but may even prepare its people for the exercise of the responsibilities of a free electorate. Mill put heavy emphasis on a people’s being properly equipped to assume these responsibilities; for representative government as he conceived it is the best possible form of government because, among other things, its very operation requires such activities of its citizens as are likely to increase both the desire and the capacity to make it work more effectively. One of its greatest virtues is that it puts power in the hands of those whose needs are sure to be considered only when they can voice them and whose rights and interests are sure of protection only when they can stand up for them. In saying this, Mill was surely stating an important part of the case for liberal democracy as it would commonly be made in the contemporary world.

John C. Rees

[For the historical context of Mill’s political thought, seeDemocracy; Freedom; Liberalism; Representation; Utilitarianism; and the biographies ofBentham; Comte; Saint-Simon.]


The bibliography for this article is combined with the bibliography of the article that follows.


The essence of John Stuart Mill’s economics is found in his Principles of Political Economy, published in 1848, and the best introduction to the Principles is Mill’s Autobiography (1873). Here he described the strictly Ricardian economics taught him by his father, James Mill, and his later economic studies with a group of young men at George Grote’s house. He also related the effect that Coleridge, Maurice and Sterling, Saint-Simon and Comte, Carlyle, and finally Harriet Taylor had in modifying his Ricardian Benthamite ideas. Highlighting the role that Harriet Taylor played in the writing of the Principles, he said that the chapter “On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes” was “entirely due to her” (1873, p. 208). Insofar, at least, as the Principles were intended by Mill to be “more than a mere exposition of the abstract doctrine of Political Economy” (1848, p. xcii), the Autobiography does much to explain them.

Harold Laski, for one, realized that there was more to Mill’s Principles than technical economics: “The modern economist may use a technique more refined than that of Mill: he rarely conveys the same sense of generous insight into his material” (see Laski in Mill [1873] 1958, p. xix). Indeed, economists now answer with greater precision and certainty many of the questions that Mill asked, but there are many other questions that they have ceased to ask because, dissatisfied as they may be with Mill’s answers, they see no better way of approaching them. Yet some of these questions are more important than those economists now deal with, and even Mill’s answers would appear better if modern economists truly appreciated the questions he was in fact asking. In particular, he has been misinterpreted because it has been supposed that he was answering the questions posed by the neoclassical school of the later nineteenth century. Yet theirs was an economics of equilibrium; his was an economics of growth and development.


Mill had discussed the problems of method in the essay “On the Definition of Political Economy; and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It,” published in the Westminster Review in 1836. This is an excellent statement of the value, character, and limitation of pure, abstract theory. In Book 4 of A System of Logic (1843) he discussed the problems of method in the social sciences generally: while still arguing the deductive character of political economy, he stressed the importance of the “inverse deductive or historical method.” In the Principles, Mill decided to follow the example of Adam Smith, whose work “associates the principles with their applications” ([1848] 1965, p. xci). This approach, he saw, “implies a much wider range of ideas and of topics, than are included in Political Economy, considered as a branch of abstract speculation,” for there are no practical questions which can be decided “on economical premises alone” (ibid.). Mill recognized that competition is limited in the real world (in part by custom), so that the results of analysis of a competitive model must be treated as “truths only in the rough” (ibid., p. 422). He did not seem to notice that his doubts about the universality of self-interest raised doubts about the validity of any analysis based on the concept of the economic man. This economic man was defined as a “being who desires to possess wealth” (1844, p. 137), but Mill in the Principles indulged in some fine preaching against the obsessive pursuit of wealth: “it is only in the backward countries of the world that increased production is still an important object” ([1848] 1965, p. 755). Much of the interest in the Principles resides in its discussion of values: policy can be determined only after a choice of ends, and problems arise out of a conflict of ends. What Mill did not notice, and what is still often ignored, is that the prediction of behavior depends on an understanding of the values held by society. Values are part of the data of the “science” of economics as well as a basis for the practical art.


However much Mill the preacher might doubt the importance of increasing production, Mill the economist was realistic enough to devote Book 1 of the Principles to the causes of productivity and of increasing productivity. Modern economists in developing countries, advanced or backward, would do well to study this book. Not least important is his concern with human resources and investment in people. Proper understanding of the book requires recognition that the problems he discussed are those of growth and development. For instance, the continued distinction between productive and unproductive labor is related to his concern for the liquidation of the primitive sector of the economy, in which menial servants are maintained in idleness on a more or less feudal basis, and for the development of industry, the advanced sector. Similarly, the propositions about capital, which have caused so much controversy (“the demand for commodities is not demand for labour” [(1848) 1965, p. 78]), make sense only in the context of the development of industry at the expense of the preindustrial sector.


The problems of population control crop up throughout the Principles. The possibility of “restraint” is the issue: “general improvement in intellectual and moral culture” or a rise in the “habitual standard of comfortable living” is necessary if an improvement in productivity is not to have as a consequence “a more numerous, but not a happier people” (ibid., p. 159). Mill discussed the race between productivity and population further: he appeared less afraid of the effect of “communism” on population growth than was Malthus, but his advocacy of repression by public opinion of “this or any other culpable self-indulgence” (ibid., p. 206) sounds more like Orwell’s bad dream of 1984 than the sentiments of the author of the essay On Liberty. He recurred to the problem in his chapters on wages, where he effectively argued that what is needed is a dramatic improvement: “a system of measures which shall (as the Revolution did in France) extinguish extreme poverty for one whole generation” (ibid., p. 374). Further discussion of the problem is found in Book 4, Chapter 3. All of this has a new relevance as economists become involved in the problems of the newly developing countries.


Mill made a great point of distinguishing between the laws of production and the laws of distribution. The former, he said, “partake of the character of physical truths. . . . It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth. That is a matter of human institution solely” (ibid., p. 199). Book 2, “Distribution,” is, therefore, first concerned with the institution of property and with systems of socialism. Mill recognized that the “rules . . . are what the opinions and feelings of the ruling portion of the community make them.” But these opinions and feelings are not “a matter of chance” (ibid., p. 200); and how the chosen institutions work is as little arbitrary and “as much a subject for scientific enquiry as any of the physical laws of nature” (ibid., p. 21). Although he insisted on the distinction between the laws of production and the laws of distribution, he in fact showed the importance of security and pecuniary incentive for productivity, in ideal forms of socialism and in actual institutions of peasant proprietorship and métayage. His interest in cooperatives (Book 4, Chapter 7) is partly based on the expectation of “a vast stimulus to productive energies” (ibid., p. 792). The chapters on wages, profits, and rent are not without interest in the context of development, but they are unsatisfactory in the context of equilibrium analysis. His argument that distribution is not affected by exchange (Book 3, Chapter 16) is now hard to accept: he ignored the pricing process in the theory of distribution, and his successors were too readily content with his static solution. Yet Mill, in Book 2 and in Book 4, had some brilliant insights into the dynamics and the probable direction of change.


Mill was injudicious in claiming that “there is nothing in the laws of Value which remains for the present or any future writer to clear up; the theory of the subject is complete” (ibid., p. 456). Nevertheless, Book 3, “Exchange,” is the most modern of the five books. The general theory of demand and supply is clearly stated. In this book are chapters on money, monetary theory and monetary policy, and international trade. Schumpeter in his History of Economic Analysis (1954, p. 689) has said that the chapters on money contain some of Mill’s best work; and the chapters on international trade are described by Viner (1937, p. 535) as Mill’s “chief claim to originality in the field of economics.” Viner’s favorable judgment refers to Mill’s performance in the sphere of static analysis; in the context of growth and development Mill’s discussion of “indirect benefits of commerce” is also noteworthy. “The opening of a foreign trade . . . sometimes works a sort of industrial revolution in a country whose resources were previously undeveloped for want of energy and ambition in the people” ([1848] 1965, pp. 593–594). But Mill had political effects in mind too: “The great extent and rapid increase of international trade . . . is the great permanent security for the uninterrupted progress of the ideas, the institutions, and the character of the human race” (ibid., p. 594).


Book 4, “Influence of the Progress of Society on Production and Distribution,” contains the chapters on the dynamics of distribution referred to above and rated by Alfred Marshall as a short but profound study of the causes that govern the distribution of the national dividend; it also contains two important chapters involving social values. “Of the Stationary State” (Book 4, Chapter 6) ends with a magnificent plea for the preservation of natural beauty which may well have inspired Gissing’s novel Demos. “On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes” (Book 4, Chapter 7) contains a brilliant discussion of the “two conflicting theories respecting the social position desirable for manual labourers,” the “theory of dependence and protection,” and the theory of “self-dependence.” The part played by industrialization in developing such self-dependence, thus providing the basis for democracy, had been stressed by Adam Smith and Malthus.

The functions of government

Book 5, “On the Influence of Government,” in addition to six chapters on taxation, contains five chapters on the functions of government. The agenda of government changes with changes in the nature of the economy and with changes in the character (particularly the honesty and efficiency) of the government. We should not expect the English prescription for 1848 to be satisfactory for contemporary England, but Mill’s discussion of the functions of government is not just material for the economic historian. He raised questions that still demand answers; and he reminds us that the appropriate answers depend on much more than economic effects, that liberty and democracy are at issue. The plea for “privacy” in the last chapter should not be ignored: it seemed to him necessary to develop “powerful defences, in order to maintain that originality of mind and individuality of character, which are the only source of any real progress” (ibid., p. 940).

Strong as was his plea in Book 1 for security of property, he also argued in Book 2 that the rights of property are not absolute, and in Book 5 he argued for considerable restriction on the rights of inheritance and bequest. He noted with approval the endowment of charitable foundations in the United States and commented that a man would make a similar bequest in England “at the risk of being declared insane by a jury after his death” (ibid., p. 226). The discussion of the economic importance of “limited liability” and of sound laws relating to insolvency (Book 5, Chapter 9) reminds us of the importance of examining some of the institutions we take for granted. The discussion of protection for infant industry (Book 5, Chapter 10) is still relevant; “the superiority of one country over another in a branch of production, often arises only from having begun it sooner” (ibid., p. 918). Finally, attention is directed to education: public provision is defended but monopoly denounced (ibid., pp. 949–950). He made a plea for support of research and scholarship, particularly for support of university professor-ships: “the greatest advances which have been made in the various sciences, both moral and physical, have originated with those who were public teachers of them” (ibid., p. 969). This is a generous tribute from the servant of the East India Company who was developing the economics of the stockbroker Ricardo; but then Adam Smith and T. R. Malthus were professors.

V. W. Bladen

[For the historical background of Mill’s economic thought, see the biography ofRicardo.]



(1822) 1936 Two Letters on the Measure of Value, Contributed to the Traveller (London) in December, 1822. Reprint of Economic Tracts, No. 16. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

(1836) 1948 On the Definition of Political Economy; and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It. Pages 120–164 in John Stuart Mill, Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy. London School of Economics and Political Science.

(1844) 1948 Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy. London School of Economics and Political Science, Series of Reprints of Scarce Works on Political Economy, No. 7. London School of Economics and Political Science. → Five essays, of which the fifth was previously published in 1836.

(1848) 1965 Principles of Political Economy, With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy. 2 vols. Edited by J. M. Robson. Collected Works, Vols. 2–3. Univ. of Toronto Press. → This edition collates numerous earlier editions. The two volumes are paginated continuously.


(1831) 1942 The Spirit of the Age. Introductory essay by Friedrich A. von Hayek. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Five articles first published in the Examiner.

(1835) 1962 Tocqueville on Democracy in America (Vol. I). Pages 187–229 in John Stuart Mill, Essays on Politics and Culture. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published in Volume 21 of the Westminster Review.

(1836) 1962 Civilization. Pages 51–84 in John Stuart Mill, Essays on Politics and Culture. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published in Volume 25 of the Westminster Review.

(1838) 1962 Bentham. Pages 85–131 in John Stuart Mill, Essays on Politics and Culture. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published in Volume 29 of the Westminster Review.

(1840a) 1962 Coleridge. Pages 132–186 in John Stuart Mill, Essays on Politics and Culture. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published in Volume 33 of the Westminster Review.

(1840b) 1962 Tocqueville on Democracy in America (Vol. II). Pages 230–287 in John Stuart Mill, Essays on Politics and Culture. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published in Volume 72 of the Edinburgh Review.

(1843) 1961 A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive: Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation. London: Longmans.

(1859) 1963 On Liberty. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill.

(1861a) 1962 Considerations on Representative Government. Chicago: Regnery. → A reprint of the original edition.

(1861b) 1957 Utilitarianism. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill. → First published in three parts in Volume 64 of Eraser’s Magazine.

(1865) 1961 Auguste Comte and Positivism. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press. → First published in two parts in Volume 83 of the Westminster Review.

(1869) 1911 The Subjection of Women. London and New York: Longmans.

(1873) 1958 Autobiography. With an appendix of hitherto unpublished speeches and a preface by Harold J. Laski. Oxford Univ. Press. → Published posthumously. There have been several editions of the Auto-biography, including one in 1944 from the original manuscript in the Columbia University Library, published by Columbia University Press, and The Early Draft . . . , published in 1961 by the University of Illinois Press.

(1874) 1958 Utility of Religion. Pages 45–80 in John Stuart Mill, Nature and Utility of Religion. New York: Liberal Arts Press. → Written between 1850 and 1858. Published posthumously.


Bibliography of the Published Writings of John Stuart Mill. Edited from his manuscript, with corrections and notes, by Ney MacMinn, J. R. Hainds, and James McNab McCrimmon. Northwestern University Studies in the Humanities, No. 12. Evanston, 111.: Northwestern Univ., 1945.

Collected Works. Univ. of Toronto Press, 1963—. → A projected multivolume publication.

Essays on Politics and Culture. Edited and with an introduction by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. → These essays were originally published between 1831 and 1874.


Cannan, Edwin (1893) 1953 A History of the Theories of Production and Distribution in English Political Economy, From 1776 to 1848. 3d ed. London and New York: Staples.

HalÉvy, Élie (1901–1904) 1952 The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. New ed. London: Faber. → First published in French.

Hayek, Friedrich A. VON (editor) 1951 John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Correspondence [i.e. Friendship] and Subsequent Marriage. Univ. of Chicago Press. → An errata slip indicates the correct title.

Macaulay, Thomas B. (1829) 1898 Mill on Government. Volume 7, pages 327–371 in Thomas B. Macaulay, The Works of Lord Macaulay. Albany ed. London: Longmans.

Mill, James (1820) 1955 Essay on Government. New York: Liberal Arts Press.

Myint, Hla 1948 Theories of Economic Welfare. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Myint, Hla 1958 The “Classical Theory” of International Trade and Underdeveloped Countries. Economic Journal 68: 317–337.

Packe, Michael St. John 1954 The Life of John Stuart Mill. London: Seeker & Warburg.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1954) 1960 History of Economic Analysis. Edited by E. B. Schumpeter. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Stephen, Leslie (1900)1950 The English Utilitarians. London School of Economics and Political Science, Series of Reprints of Scarce Works on Political Economy, Nos. 9–11. 3 vols. London School of Economics and Political Science; Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → A sequel to the author’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. A detailed study of Bentham and the two Mills.

Taylor, Overton H. 1960 A History of Economic Thought: Social Ideals and Economic Theories From Quesnay to Keynes. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Viner, Jacob 1937 Studies in the Theory of International Trade. New York: Harper.

Mill, John Stuart

views updated May 29 2018

Mill, John Stuart 1806-1873


Defining the social sciences as encompassing mental or cultural sciences that deal with the activities of the individual as a member or group (Social Science, Merriam-Websters Medical Dictionary 2007) provides space for interpreting which subjects are appropriate for social scientific inquiry. However, in the case of John Stuart Mill, the British economist, moral and political philosopher, and administrator, it is difficult to argue that he is not the quintessential social scientist. Additionally he is someone others attempt to emulate in their intellectual work and philosophical beliefs.

During the early nineteenth century, Mill sought philosophical enlightenment, focusing on the common person. His investigations of moral and ethical thought began early, although they were published later in his life. Some believe that Mill did not fully explore some of his more radical beliefs, yet he left an indelible mark on democracy and law, economic trade, feminism and womens rights, labor theory, mathematics, political theory, poverty and welfare concerns, psychology, religion and theology, and scientific method and empiricism.

It is clear that Mill influenced African American economists, such as Abram Lincoln Harris Jr. (1899 1963). Harris, who chaired Howard Universitys Economics Department (19361945) and also served on the University of Chicago faculty (19461963), began as a Marxist but was influenced during the Great Depression by the moderately socialistor at the very least liberalwritings of Mill. Harris finds his beliefs at home with Mill because both men believed that justice would come from a class-based solution generated by social science objectivity and expertise (Holloway 2002, p. xiv).

Harris suggested that a unified militant worker effort, organized along racial lines, could alleviate African American social and economic inequality. The racially and economically entrenched working class had historical and social reasons for continued divisive operations, but Harris and Sterling Spero, in The Black Worker (1931), argued that the problems were solvable through time and higher academic achievement by the next generation of African Americans. The historical basis for worker problems spawned from slavery and the fact that many African Americans led agrarian lifestyles prior to moving to urban, industrialized areas meant that they were unfamiliar with unions and organized worker movements. In addition the leadership of groups such as the National Urban League proffered an antiunion sentiment that appealed to many African Americans but led to additional racial stratification for the working class. Harriss book The Negro as Capitalist (1936) launches a savage attack on the impact of African American business people on the African American masses.

As a child John Stuart Mill, who was born in the London suburb of Pentonville, the eldest son of James Mill and Harriet Barrow, flourished and delved into classical writings. He was educated only by his father, who served as a leading member of philosophical radicals strongly linked to the utilitarian teachings of Jeremy Bentham (17481832). Though James Mill served as an East India Company administrator, he used Benthams associationalist psychology to educate his eldest son, who knew both Greek and Latin by the time he was eight years old. Learning these languages allowed John Stuart Mill to read most of the classics by the age of fourteen. In addition he had a wide understanding of history, logic, mathematics, and economic theory.

Influenced by his reading of the philosophical radicals, Mill began to think of himself as a person seeking to improve the human condition but at the same time focusing on the interest of the individual. In 1826 Mill suffered a lengthy depression, which perhaps strengthened and elevated his philosophical convictions. He found some solace for his feelings in the poetry of William Wordsworth (17701850).

After his recovery, Mill began to question and revise his utilitarian views. Originally he worked from three defining characteristics of Benthams teachings: the greatest happiness principle, universal egoism, and the artificial identification of ones interests with those of others. In 1828 he met Gustave dEichtahl (18041882), a follower of Henri de Saint-Simon (17601825), and began to consider how social and cultural institutions shaped history and overall human development. Influenced by thinkers such as Auguste Comte (17981857) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (17721834), Mill came to believe that British society was on the cusp of an organic period, when society would replace inefficient and bureaucratic institutions with better organizations. He also believed that British society needed him as a catalyst for change; otherwise society would stagnate.

Exploring Wordsworths poetry was crucial also in Mills relationship with Harriet Taylor (18071858), whom he met in 1830. Though Taylor was married at the time, Mill and Taylor formed a close friendship. In 1851, two years after the death of Taylors husband, Mill and Taylor married, against the wishes of Mills family, especially his father. James Mill supported Epicurean principles but practiced Scots Calvinism. In this sense Mill surpasses his father to have a richer understanding of the role of pleasure in human development and attributes that philosophical growth to Harriet Taylor. She convinced Mill that individuals were not maximizing the benefits in their lives and that a new theory of the human condition was necessary. Taylor died in 1858; however, one can see her influence over Mills later works.

Although Mill still believed in utility and positivism, his position on how to present and implement social change differed from that of most of Benthams followers. For Mill, new philosophical proclamations that demanded quick modifications must be avoided, and slow, gradual delivery of new thoughts were necessary for acceptance and integration with existing values. Examples of how Mill introduced new ideas slowly come from On Liberty (1859) and The Subjection of Women (1869). In On Liberty, Mill examined government formation and proclaimed that the success of government organization depends on utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interest of man as a progressive being (Mill 2005 [1859], p. 224). A sharp criticism of government came from Mill in The Subjection of Women, where he stated: Stupidity is much the same the world over. A stupid persons notions and feelings may confidently be inferred from those which prevail in the circle by which the person is surrounded. Not so those whose opinions and feelings are emanations from their own nature and faculties (Mill 2004 [1869], p. 273). Each individual is responsible for his or her own happiness, but government is responsible for helping each person develop a path to happiness. Thus in his fight for suffrage rights for women, Mill felt that the Conservative Party was foolish in not responding to the will of the people in a manner that improved utility.

Mill reached beyond his roots in conventional politics to comment on the connection between logic and economic theory and political and social life. After declining to study at Oxford or Cambridge University, he worked for the British East India Company until 1858, then he was an independent member of Parliament from 1865 to 1868 and served as the lord rector of the University of St. Andrews during the same period. Trade and growth theory received particular attention from Mill, who at an early age had read the complete works of Thomas Malthus (17661834), David Ricardo (17721823), and Adam Smith (17231790). Much influenced by Ricardo and his father, Mill investigated taxation, wages and profit, competition, and the division of factors of production. In Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, published in 1869, Mill, accepting the human minds importance to good decision making, revised and corrected his fathers work, Analysis of the Phaenomena of the Human Mind (1829). James Mill believed that one derives an idea, no matter how complex, from its associated parts. Mill took his fathers associationism conception one step forward and proposed that when considering pleasure one can have lower levels of pleasure that make up higher levels of pleasure. As a person builds pleasure upon pleasure, a new whole comes into being.

In political economy, researchers attribute social scientific investigative methodology to Mill. In later revisions of his text Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill argued, rather radically, that progressive taxation was bad and akin to stealing, that the wage system needed to be abolished because it lacked equality, and that production was closely linked to social networks, thus making competition difficult. Maximizing human development and pleasure required freedom for the person to grow. Freedom in the economic marketplace, laissez faire economic policies and principles, framed only one part of the picture. Individuals must also have political freedom. His text is still used at Oxford University in the early twentieth century and continues to influence thought. For example, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, and Peter Singer have produced controversial yet honest social commentary similar to Mills.

SEE ALSO Bentham, Jeremy; Economics; Ethics; Harris, Abram L., Jr.; Liberalism; Mill, James; Morality; Philosophy; Radicalism; Social Science; Utilitarianism; Women and Politics



Mill, John Stuart. 1963. Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Ed. John M. Robson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Mill, John Stuart. 1998. Utilitarianism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mill, John Stuart. [1848] 1999. Principles of Political Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mill, John Stuart. [1869] 2004. The Subjection of Women. Kila, MT: Kessinger.

Mill, John Stuart. [1859] 2005. On Liberty. London: Longman.


Donner, Wendy. 1993. John Stuart Mills Liberal Feminism. Philosophical Studies 69 (23): 155166.

Halévy, Elie. La formation du radicalisme philosophique. 3 vols. Paris: F. Alcon, 1904. The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. Trans. Mary Morris. London: Faber and Faber, 1928.

Hamburger, Joseph. 1999. John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Harris, Abram Lincoln, Jr. 1936. The Negro as Capitalist: A Study of Banking and Business among American Negroes. New York: Negro University Press.

Holloway, Jonathan S. 2002. Confronting the Veil: Abram Harris Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche, 19191994 Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Mackie, John L. 1974. The Cement of the Universe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, Amartya. 1970. Collective Choice and Social Welfare. San Francisco: Holden-Day.

Social Science. In 2007. Merriam-Websters Medical Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Inc.,June11.

Spero, Sterling, and Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. 1931. The Black Worker. New York: Columbia University Press.

Raymonda Burgman

Mill, John Stuart

views updated May 29 2018


(b. London, England, 20 May 1806; d. Avignon, France, 8 May 1873)

philosophy, economics.

Mill was the son of James Mill, a London Scot who had risen from humble origins to become a prominent intellectual, a collaborator of Jeremy Bentham, and a leading exponent of utilitarianism. Mill’s childhood was a singular one. He was educated at home by his father, learning both Greek and Latin before he was nine years old. All religion was excluded from his upbringing. James Mill, an even more rigid adherent than Bentham to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, was determined to educate his son to be another philosopher in the same mold. At sixteen the younger Mill started to earn his living as a clerk in the East India Office, where his fither was a senior official. At seventeen he published his first article, in the Westminster Review, and in the same year he made his debut as a radical reformer, spending a day or two in the police cells for distributing pamphlets recommending contraception as a solution to the population problem.

In his posthumously published Autobiography, Mill recalls that at the age of twenty he went through a period of acute depression, from which he was delivered by reading the poetry of Wordsworth. Through Wordsworth he met a romanticism that challenged the whole rationalistic ethos in which he had been so carefully bred. After this experience, wrote Mill, “I did not lose sight of … that part of the truth I had learned before … but I thought that it had consequences which required to be corrected, by joining other kinds of cultivation with it” (Autobiography, p.34). Mill’s aim thenceforth became to produce a philosophy that combined the virtues of rationalism with those of romanticism; but the contradictions between them proved to be too fundamental for even the ablest mind to reconcile, and Mill’s philosophy is marred by a certain incoherence that even his most fervent admirers cannot deny.

Mill’s most important work in pure philosophy was his System of Logic, which he began at the age of twenty-four and completed thirteen years later. Soon after he had started work on it, Mill met a beautiful, intelligent, and imperious young woman named Harriet Taylor. He fell in love with her, and she with him; but she was already the wife of a wholesale druggist and the mother of two children. In the nineteen years before the druggist’s death enabled them to marry, Mill and Harriet Taylor were constantly in each other’s company—“Seelenfreunden” (“soul friends”), as they put it, but not lovers. Victorian society’s frowns (and his own sense of guilt) drove Mill to lead a lonely life, and Mrs. Taylor’s hold over his thinking was immense. She was not a Wordsworthian but a rationalist of the left—and, paradoxically, she reinforced the influence of James Mill’s training rather than that of romanticism.

Mill’s marriage to Harriet Taylor took place in 1851; but seven years later she died at Avignon, and Mill bought a house there to live near her tomb. But by this time Mill’s books had made him famous, and in 1865 he was persuaded by the controversial and progressive Viscount Amberley to stand for election to Parliament in Westminster. Mill was elected, and he sat until 1868 as an independent Liberal M.P. He died at the age of sixty-six, having just become the agnostic’s equivalent of a godfather to Amberley’s son, Bertrand Russell.

Mill’s central endeavor as a philosopher was to provide science with a better claim to truth than that afforded by the skeptical philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Locke had written: “As to a perfect science of natural bodies (not to mention spiritual beings) we are, 1 think, so far from being capable of any such thing that I conclude it lost labour to look after it.” Mill disagreed. Indeed, he wrote his Logic precisely to formulate “a perfect science of natural bodies”—or, in other words, a demonstrative theory of induction—by which he hoped to reduce the conditions of scientific proof “to strict rules and scientific tests, such as the syllogism is for ratiocination.”

Mill called himself a “philosopher of experience”; he believed that all knowledge of the universe is derived from sensory observation, and he opposed those who claimed that some knowledge of synthetic truth is either innate or acquired by rational insight. He was what has come to be known as an empiricist, although that word did not then have the commonly accepted usage it has today and Mill rejected it. But he tried to give what we should call empiricism a form that would satisfy the nineteenth century’s demand for certainty.

Mill’s Logic seeks to diminish the value of knowledge achieved deductively—that is, by deriving particulars from universal—and to vindicate the importance of knowledge derived inductively, by the accumulation of evidence from particulars. Our “universal” knowledge, Mill argued, comes from particulars. We begin with particulars and end with particulars, and it is the method of science that enables us to formulate the “universals” or “generalities” that the mind knows.

In book II of his Logic, Mill claimed that even mathematics is, in a way, inductive. In the manner of Kant he said that mathematical propositions are synthetic propositions about the world of measurable things, but he denied the Kantian view that the mind imposes categories on experience. He argued instead that mathematical propositions are experimental truths of a highly general kind. Mill did not even admit that they are necessarily true, except in the sense that it is psychologically impossible for us to doubt them. His mathematical theory has not had much support from theorists of later generations. He is generally considered to have failed to solve logical problems by proposing psychological answers, and the reform of deductive logic that was begun by Boole and completed by Mill’s “godson” Russell has suggested that Mill was mistaken about what could be done with inductive logic.

Book III of Mill’s Logic has been more influential. Here Mill explained what he means by induction. He said it depends on the “assumption” that nature is uniform and that its future course will be like that of the past. Elementary induction is based on the enumeration of like instances: “All the crows we have seen are black, therefore all crows are black.” Mill next distinguished between uniformity of “togetherness” and uniformity of sequence. In the first class he put properties that exist at the same time and can be measured or counted so as to give our knowledge a formal order. The second class, uniformities of sequence, he called “causal”; and here, instead of mere enumerations, he believed we can establish laws. These laws are discovered with the aid of Mill’s famous “eliminative methods of induction.”

These methods are (1) the canon of agreement, which asserts that if those instances in which a phenomenon occurs have only one feature in common, then that feature contains the cause of the phenomenon; (2) the canon of difference, which asserts that if those instances in which the phenomenon occurs differ from instances in which it does not occur in only one feature, then that one feature contains the cause of the phenomenon; (3) the canon of residues (a variant of the canon of difference), which asserts that if we take away from a phenomenon all the effects we know to be caused by certain antecedents, then the remainder is the effect of the remaining antecedents; (4) the canon of concomitant variations, which asserts that when one phenomenon varies only when another varies, there is either a causal relation between them or they are both causally related to a third factor.

Although Mill’s “eliminative methods of induction” have figured prominently in subsequent controversies about scientific method, their value has been criticized on several grounds. First, they cannot be used to vindicate the assumptions on which they are grounded: the uniformity of nature and the ubiquity of causality, Second, no method of elimination can yield demonstrably certain conclusions about the candidates that remain, although it may well yield high probabilities. Third, science is not primarily interested in the kind of “common sense” causal relations that Mill’s methods can be used to discover. Fourth, science is not properly understood as an inductive enterprise; it does not proceed by the observation of regularities in nature but by the use of conjecture and “experimental refutation,”

Some of these objections to Mill’s inductivism can be met by a more sophisticated reformulation of his thesis, but the consensus among twentieth-century specialists in scientific method is that the more skeptical approach of Mill’s predecessors, including perhaps Kant as well as Locke and Hume, comes closer both to the realities of scientific discovery and to the exigencies of logic.

In 1848, shortly after the publication of his Logic, Mill brought out another of his most influential books, The Principles of Political Economy. This is a curious mixture of orthodox economic theories and arresting, original ideas. Some of the new ideas are expressed in the language of classical economics, so that the shock of them is softened. Mill maintained that “the economic man” is a fiction, a way of registering the tendency of men to pursue wealth. He suggested that economic principles should be tested by their stability in a particular era and by their ability to promote transition to another era.

In his review of political economy as a static science, Mill did little but repeat the principles laid down by Adam Smith and others about production and exchange, the dependence of wealth on production and of profit on the cost of labor, the token nature of money, the need to balance imports with exports, and so forth. It was when he turned from the static to the dynamic side of the subject, to economics as related to social progress, that Mill propelled economic thought into new channels.

He remained true to Malthus on the subject of the population problem. There was no remedy for poverty, he thought, unless excessive numbers could be reduced, although, unlike Malthus. Mill favored contraception as well as “moral restraint But Mill differed from his predecessors in his understanding of the concept of property and on the distribution of wealth. Property rights were conventional; and although private property was a useful institution, the only basis of a sound entitlement was a man’s own labor. There was no natural right to inheritance or to the ownership of land. In the first edition of his Political Economy, Mill criticized the socialist theories put forward by Louis Blanc and others as unrealistic, but in later editions he withdrew these strictures and wrote sympathetically of socialism. It is probable that he made these changes under pressure from Harriet Taylor, a convert to socialism.

The intrusion of socialist sentiments into a book that was substantially based on the principles of classical economics has seemed to some readers to be yet another mark of Mill’s inconsistency. A similar criticism might be addressed to his writings on politics and ethics. In ethics Mill affirmed his adherence to his father’s utilitarianism, the doctrine that the rightness of an act is to be measured by the extent to which it promotes pleasure. But Mill rejected his father’s belief that pleasure has only quantitative differences. Ever since he had read Wordsworth, Mill had believed in the superiority of the “’pleasures of the mind” over the brutish pleasures of the uncultivated: “Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’s But Mill was never able to produce any utilitarian or empirical reason to justify this preference.

The same ardent belief in the values of culture influenced Mill’s political theorizing. He was an eloquent champion of freedom; but although he sometimes defined freedom as the absence of constraint, he went on to speak of it as “self-perfection” and said that men should be free in order to improve themselves. Although Mill came out (as his father had done) in favor of democratic government, he proposed that democratic institutions should be carefully designed to prevent government by the majority: he wanted a form of government by a cultured elite that would rest upon the assent of a progressively more educated populace. Like many another intellectual of the Victorian period, Mill made something of a religion of the culture of the sensibilities, notwithstanding his general belief, as an empiricist, that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge.


I. Original Works, A bibliography is N. MacMinn, J. R. Hainds and J. M. McCrimmon, The Bibliography of Published Works… (Evanston, III., 1945), A more up-to-date bibliography is being published in serial form in the Mill News Letter (Toronto, 1965-), Publication is in progress on the 13-vol. Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (Toronto, 1963 -). Among his earlier writings are A System of Logic, 2 vols, (London, 1843); Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy (London, 1844); Principles of Political Economy, 2 vols. (London, 1848); On Liberty (London, 1859), also repr, with Representative Government and an intro, by R, B. MacCallum (Oxford, 1946); Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (London, 1859); Dissertations and Discussions, 2 vols, (London, 1859), articles repr. from periodicals, chiefly Edinburgh Review and Westminster Review; Considerations on Representative Government (London, 1861); Utilitarianism (London, 1863), also edited by J. Plamenatz (Oxford, 1949); Auguste Comte and Positivism (London, 1865); An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (London, 1865); Inaugural Address to the University of St. Andrews (London, 1867); England and Ireland (London, 1869); and The Subjection of Women (London, 1869), also edited with an intro, by S. Coil (London, 1906).

Works published later are Autobiography, Helen Taylor, ed. (London, 1873), repr., with an appendix of unpublished papers, and an intro. by H. J. Laski (London, 1924); Three Essays on Religion (London, 1874); Chapters on Socialism, W, D. K Bliss, ed. (New York, 1891); Early Essays, J. W. M. Gibbs, ed. (London, 1897); On Education, F.A. Cavanagh, ed, (London, 1931), printed with writings on the Same subject by James Mill; The Spirit of the Age, edited, with an intro,, by F. A. son Hayek (Chicago, 1942), articles contributed to Examiner in 1831; Four Dialogues of Plato, edited, with an intro., by R, Borehardt (London, 1946); On Bentham and Coleridge, edited, with an intro., by F. R. Leavis (London. 1950), repr. from Dissertations ami Discussions; An Early Draft of John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, J. Stillinger, ed. (Urbana. Ilk, 1961); Milts Essay’s on Politics and Culture, G. Himmelfarb, ed. (New York, 1962); Mill’s Essays on Literature and Society, J. B. Schneewind, ed. (New York-London, 1965); and Mill’s Ethical Writings. J. B. Schneewind, ed. (New York-London, 1965).

II. Secondary Literature. Biographical studies are A. Bain, John Stuart Mill (London, 1882), a study of Mill and his philosophy, with personal recollections by a close friend of his later years; W.D. IX Christie, X 5. Mill and Mr. Abraham Cowley, Q.C. (London, 1873); G. J. Holyoak, John Stuart Mill as the Working Class Knew Him (London, 1873), a short personal memoir; and M. St. J. Packe, The Life of John Stuart Mill (London, 1954), the standard biography.

Critical and expository studies include R. P. Anschutz, The Philosophy of J. S. Mill (Oxford, 1953), and K. Britton, John Stuart Mill (London, 1953), both written from the point of view of modern analytic philosophy; Britton stresses the lasting value of Mill’s achievement and is less sharply critical of Mill’s shortcomings than is the Anschutz work; M. Cowling, Mill and Liberalism (Cambridge, 1963), a brisk conservative criticism of Mill; R. Jackson, Examination of the Deductive Logic of J. S. Mill (Oxford, 1941); O. A. Kubitz, The Development of John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic (Urbana, III., 1932); E. Nagel, ed., Mill’s Philosophy of Scientific Method (New York, 1950)—this and the works of Jackson and Kubitz are up-to-date books concerned with Mill as a logician; E. Neff, Carlyle and Mill (New York, 1926), an instructive comparison of rival philosophies; B. Russell, John Stuart Mill (London, 1955); J. B. Schneewind, ed., Mill: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York, 1968), short studies of Mill’s thought from a philosophical perspective; and C. L. Street, Individualism and Individuality in the Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Milwaukee, Wis., 1926), a study of Mill’s ethical and political theory.

Maurice Cranston

Mill, John Stuart

views updated Jun 11 2018


MILL, JOHN STUART (1806–1873), British philosopher.

John Stuart Mill was the most influential British philosopher of the nineteenth century. He made significant contributions to philosophy, economics, political theory, and women's liberation.

Mill was born on 20 May 1806 at Pentonville, London. His father was James Mill (1773–1836), an important philosopher in his own right, as well as a prominent leader of the Philosophic Radicals, the author of A History of India, and a high-ranking employee of the East India Company. The Philosophic Radicals was a political group intent upon reforming all aspects of British society in the transition from a feudal and agrarian economy to an industrial economy. They generally opposed the conservative Tory landholders, the Church of England, and slavery. Under the influence of Adam Smith (1723–1790) and David Ricardo (1772–1823) they advocated free trade. They also advocated birth control and education as means of improving the condition of the working class. The other prominent leader of the Philosophic Radicals and a family friend was Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832).

Both James Mill and Bentham exercised an enormous influence over Mill.

James Mill had adopted the Enlightenment view that a carefully controlled environment, especially in education, could mold human beings to achieve extraordinary heights. These educational views were rigidly imposed on Mill who, in his Autobiography, describes his remarkable intellectual achievements. By the time he was sixteen, he had read and studied practically everything now considered part of a classical liberal education. Mill also developed from this rigorous training a keen analytical mind and the virtue of being highly self-critical in the Socratic sense. At the same time, Mill describes the negative effects of this educational system: a total emotional dependence upon his father, and a starved emotional life. Mill was involved in editing Bentham's writings and as a result became an early proselytizer of the Philosophic Radical position.

Mill briefly studied law with another neighbor, the famous jurist Charles Austin, but at the age of sixteen Mill entered the employment of the East India Company under his father's watchful eye. He remained in the employ of the Company until its dissolution in 1858, having succeeded to his father's position as chief examiner. He was responsible for correspondence with high-ranking Indian civil servants. The Company during Mill's tenure was concerned largely with the administration of India. His position, along with his self-discipline, allowed him to maintain a prolific writing career and correspondence.

From 1826 to 1830 Mill underwent a severe personal crisis. Part of it was intellectual, in that he came to see the shortcomings of the positions that James Mill and Bentham so prominently advocated. Part of it was psychological, as he struggled to achieve independence from his father's domination. Part of it was emotional, as he sought to fill the emotional vacuum of his early educational upbringing.

Four things enabled Mill to resolve his crisis. First, he read and met prominent Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), initially through his friendship with the poet John Sterling (1806–1844). Second, he was exposed to Continental thought, especially the works of Henri Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) through another close relationship this time with Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881). Carlyle also encouraged Mill's critique of the thought of James Mill and Bentham. Third, Mill met and fell in love with Harriet Taylor (1807–1858) in 1831 through his association with a Unitarian group under the leadership of William Fox. What ensued was a celibate but scandalous romantic relationship that lasted until the death of Taylor's husband in 1849 and the subsequent marriage of Mill and Taylor in 1851. Harriet Taylor Mill exercised an enormous influence on Mill, comparable to that of his father, but more positive. In addition to encouraging the cause of women's liberation, she helped Mill gain a deeper appreciation of perhaps his most important idea, personal autonomy.

In 1835 Mill became the nominal editor of the London Review, the official organ of the Philosophic Radicals meant to rival the Whig Edinburgh Review. The fourth crucial event in Mill's own liberation was the death of his father, James Mill, in 1836. From 1836 to 1840 Mill was the owner and editor of the London and Westminster Review. During that time he published two significant reviews of the two volumes of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835 and 1840). It was during this time that Mill was heavily influenced by the conservative views of Carlyle and Coleridge, and he tried to use his editorship to achieve a new synthesis, both intellectual and political, of both liberal and conservative views. By his own admission he failed. It was during this time that he wrote two essays, one on Coleridge and the other on Bentham, the latter serving both as a stinging critique of the views of the Philosophic Radicals and a catharsis.

Mill achieved fame in 1843 with the publication of A System of Logic. In addition to its discussion of technical topics in philosophy, it expressed both the hope and the limitations of producing a social science that could be the basis of sound public policy. The work was influenced by a long correspondence with Auguste Comte (1798–1857). Mill would eventually renounce his relationship with Comte because of the latter's views on the inherent inferiority of women, a narrow positivism, and what Mill saw as the totalitarian implications of positivism.

Mill achieved even greater fame in 1848 with the publication of the Principles of Political Economy, which dealt with all of the economic, social, and political problems created by an industrial and market economy. The work became the standard text in economics for the next fifty years.

Harriet Taylor Mill died in 1858. Thereafter Mill published a series of essays to honor her memory: "On Liberty" (1859), which was heavily influenced by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835); "Considerations on Representative Government" (1861); and "Utilitarianism" (1863). Mill served in Parliament (1865–1867), where he was generally supportive of William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898), and he was elected rector of St. Andrews University (1866). Stefan Collini has characterized his life as that of a public intellectual, a man who, like Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) and others, saw himself as the Socratic questioner of Victorian England's fundamental beliefs. After Harriet's death, Mill spent much time at Avignon in a house overlooking the cemetery where they are now both buried. Among his social acquaintances at this time were John Russell, Lord Amberley (1842–1876) (for whose son, Bertrand Russell [1872–1870], Mill stood as godfather), Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), and John Morley (1838–1923). He published The Subjection of Women in 1869. His carefully orchestrated posthumous publications include the Autobiography (1873), Nature, the Utility of Religion, Theism, Being Three Essays on Religion (1874), and Chapters on Socialism (1891). Mill died at Avignon on 8 May 1873.

Just about every aspect of Mill's thought is subject to scholarly debate. For many years Mill's works System of Logic and Political Economy achieved textbook status in British universities, but this was followed by a long period in which Mill became a straw man accused of multiple inconsistencies. Late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century scholarship has stressed the continuity in his work (Fred Berger, John Gray, John Robson, and Alan Ryan), the periodization of his work (Gertrude Himmelfarb), or the historical development in his work (Nicholas Capaldi). In philosophy he has generally been viewed as the inheritor of the British Empirical tradition that originated with John Locke (1632–1704) and David Hume (1711–1776) (T. H. Green, F. H. Bradley, and John Skorupski), but later he was interpreted as a Romantic and precursor of idealism (Bernard Semmel and Capaldi). In ethics he was routinely characterized as a simplistic utilitarian follower of Bentham (G. E. Moore), but later scholarship emphasized his sophistication (J. O. Urmson) and distance from utilitarianism. With regard to religion, he has been identified as an atheistic follower and advocate of Comte's religion of humanity (Linda Raeder), but others see Mill as a sincere progressive (Eldon J. Eisenach, Robert DeVigne). In politics, he has been widely hailed as the epitome of liberalism (C.L. Ten and Nancy Rosenblum), as a consistent proponent of democracy (J.H. Burns), and as someone who never abandoned radicalism (Alan Ryan and William Thomas); but others (Maurice Cowling, Joseph Hamburger, and Shirley Letwin) see Mill as an elitist authoritarian. Until the publication of the work of Lynn Zastoupil in the 1980s there was little discussion of Mill's views on colonialism.

Much controversy surrounds Mill's economic views, with some seeing him as a kind of socialist (R. Ashcraft, Jonathan Riley; Himmelfarb claims this is true only under Harriet's influence), while others view him as a defender of capitalism (Pedro Schwartz, Samuel Hollander, and Lewis Feuer). Mill's relationship with members and leaders of the working class (aside from Feuer) needs more work. In social philosophy, he has been criticized for encouraging a destructive form of self-expression (Willmore Kendall and Himmelfarb) and hailed for defending a sophisticated form of autonomy (Capaldi). Mill's views on women's issues has been criticized by some feminists (Julia Annas and S. M. Okin) and praised by others (Ruth Abbey, Wendy Donner, and Mary Lyndon Shanley).

There is of course endless fascination with Mill's life and his relationship with Harriet. The Autobiography has been treated by Bruce Mazlish as a form of psychohistory; Janice Carlyle raises important questions about the truthfulness of the whole; Capaldi treats it as a self-conscious exercise in Bildung. The relationship with Harriet has been viewed as negligible (Alexander Bain, Mill's first biographer), and as substantial (F. A. Hayek and Michael St. John Packe); her influence has been described as negligible (H. O. Pappe), as negative (Himmelfarb), and as positive (Capaldi and Jo Ellen Jacobs).

The Collected Works in thirty-three volumes, including extensive correspondence with many major nineteenth-century figures, was edited by John Robson and published by the University of Toronto Press (1980–1991). Nicholas Capaldi published a biography on Mill in 2004; older useful biographies include works by Alexander Bain and Michael St. John Packe.

See alsoCarlyle, Thomas; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Comte, Auguste; Mill, Harriet Taylor; Saint-Simon, Henri de; Wordsworth, William.


Primary Sources

Mill, John Stuart. Collected Works. 33 vols. Toronto, 1963–1991.

Secondary Sources

Capaldi, Nicholas. John Stuart Mill. Cambridge, U.K., 2004.

Eisenach, Eldon J., ed. Mill and the Moral Character of Liberalism. University Park, Penn., 1998.

Hollander, Samuel. The Economics of John Stuart Mill. 2 vols. Oxford, U.K., 1985.

Schneewind, Jerome B., ed. Mill: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y., 1968.

Semmel, Bernard. John Stuart Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue. New Haven, Conn., 1984.

Skorupski, John. John Stuart Mill. London, 1989.

Nicholas Capaldi

Mill, John Stuart

views updated Jun 11 2018


The most influential philosopher in England during the mid-19th century; b. London, May 20, 1806; d. Avignon, May 8, 1873.

Life. One of the two major influences in Mill's life was that of his father, James mill, who tutored John intensively from his 3d to his 14th year with the aim of making his son able to carry on his own work as chief exponent of empiricist and Benthamite utilitarian philosophy. James, and later John, who edited and annotated his father's Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (London 1869), were psychological associationists. The Mills' circle included Jeremy bentham (whose Rationale of Judicial Evidence, 5 v., John edited when he was 21), David Ricardo (whose economics John never outgrew), and John austin, the utilitarian legal theorist. At 17 Mill entered the examiner's office of the East India Company, where he remained for 35 years, reaching, as had his father before him, the highest administrative position in the London office.

The other major influence in Mill's life was that of Mrs. Harriet Taylor, who dominated him for 28 years, first as his Seelenfreundin (as she described herself), then, after her husband died, for seven years (185158) as his wife. He believed her to be the spiritual peer only of Shelley and to lack no virtue, intellectual or moral. At her direction he made changes in the later editions of his Political Economy ("a joint production with my wife") in the direction of socialism and away from the Benthamite laissez-faire tradition of the first edition (London 1848). She led him away from his earlier interest in, and sympathy with, T. Carlyle, S. T. Coleridge, and A. Comte; and many of his major essays, including Utilitarianism (London 1863) and Considerations on Representative Government (London 1863), were first sketched out with her. On Liberty was the development of an early paper by Harriet on toleration.

Teaching. Mill's principal philosophical work is his System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive (2 v. London 1843), an empiricist attack on a prioristic intuitionism, which he regarded as the great intellectual support of false doctrines and bad institutions: "And the chief strength of this false philosophy in morals, politics, and religion, lies in the appeal which it is accustomed to make to the evidence of mathematics and of the cognate branches of physical science. To expel it from these is to drive it from its stronghold" (Autobiography ). A contemporary reader of Logic would find Mill's discussion of the following topics valuablethough perhaps mainly because of Mill's instructive errors.

Logic. Mill believed that in order to find the meaning of a proposition one must first find the meaning of its constituent verbal parts; and for this he is usually criticized on the basis of an analysis of meaning deriving mainly from L. wittgenstein, according to whom propositional meaning is primary and the meaning of individual words is derivative.

Mill was an empiricist: for him, a proposition is significant if and only if it describes what has been or could be experienced. He was in some ways an even more thoroughgoing empiricist than D. hume: failing to distinguish pure from applied mathematics, Mill maintained that even mathematical axioms and theorems are generalizations from experience. One might object that if mathematical propositions are empirical generalizations, they can be disproved by experience; yet what sort of evidence would tell against "things equal to the same thing are equal to each other"?

On the value of the categorical syllogism Mill held a middle position between those who, like R. whately (Elements of Logic, 1826), find in it the ground of all proof, and those who, like J. locke, regard it as worthless because circular. Mill maintains that the syllogism, not being a "real" inference (one in which the conclusion asserts more than the premises), is circular but not worthless. One is really interested in going from "all observed X is Y " to "this X is Y "a formula reminding him of the manner in which he has been in the past, and is in the future, entitled to infer from a number of particular cases yet another particular case: "What is called Formal Logic is the logic of consistency."

Method. That part of his Logic for which Mill is best known is his analysis of the five "experimental methods" (agreement, difference, etc.), which, by eliminating all but one of the initially possible alternatives (eliminative induction), are claimed to be the only rigorous methods of establishing true causal laws. Now Mill maintains that any conclusion drawn from an application of these methods presupposes the "law of universal causation" as a major premise (e.g., all events have a cause; the only possible cause of rust here is moist oxygen; so moist oxygen is the cause of rust). But this law needs to be inductively established, and cannot, without petitio principii, be established by eliminative induction. There remains only enumerative induction (C is the cause of E, where C and E are frequently repeated events). Now if enumerative induction is sufficient to establish the universal law of causation, why is it not sufficient simply to establish particular causal lawswhich, according to Mill, can be established only by eliminative inductionthe sum total of which particular laws are called for to establish the universal law? It is now generally maintained that any attempt to justify inductive reasoning by general postulates about the constitution of nature cannot fail to be circular. (see induction.)

In the social sciences one must generally avoid reliance on unanalyzed experience alone (exemplified by Macaulay's 1829 Edinburgh Review critique of James Mill's essay on "Government") or on the "geometrical" method (exemplified by his father's essay itself) of deducing social phenomena from a single principle. Usually the "inverse deductive method" (attributed by Mill to Comte) should be followed: begin, as Bacon or Macaulay did, by generalizing on the basis of historical evidence; then, since empirical laws are not of themselves sufficient for long-range prediction, go on to show that these generalizations are deducible from the laws of experimental psychology and "ethology" (science of the formation of human character).

Metaphysics. In a later metaphysical work, The Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (London 1865), Mill defends a Berkeleian phenomenalism. But whereas G. berkeley had made the existence of a physical object depend on its actually being perceived, Mill made its existence depend on the possibility of perceiving it: what constitutes the existence of a physical object is that under certain conditions, themselves describable in sensory terms, certain sorts of sensations regularly occur. "Matter, then, may be defined, as a Permanent Possibility of Sensation. If I am asked, whether I believe in matter, I ask whether the questioner accepts this definition of it. If he does, I believe in matter: and so do all Berkeleians. In any other sense than this, I do not. But I affirm with confidence, that this conception of matter includes the whole meaning attached to it by the common world, apart from philosophical, and sometimes from theological, theories" (ch. 11). Now Mill is surely wrong when he claims to be asserting the common conception of things: things as ordinarily conceived exist actually, whereas for Mill things exist only potentially. Further, though Mill insists on the publicity of possible sensations, any particular sensation actually felt or even able to be felt by one person is private and cannot be felt by another person. And finally, Mill might well be accused of falling into the genetic fallacy: to say that one's conception of matter originates in his conception of possible sensations and thus matter is really only a complex of possible sensations is like saying that a man originates in a complex of chemical elements and so is really only a composite of those elements. Like Berkeley, but unlike Hume, Mill backs away from a phenomenalist account of minds or persons. For that which can remember actual sensations and anticipate possible ones can hardly be only a set of possible sensations: here is a "finally inexplicable fact"; but no alternative account of this is proposed by Mill.

Political Theory. In Utilitarianism Mill's primary objective was to explain and defend the truth of an importantly modified Benthamite utilitarianism against intuitionists such as I. Kant and W. Whewell.

On Liberty is quite probably the most powerful political sermon preached in English since the mid-19th century. Mill's main objective was to persuade his hearers that though England was free, it should be freer and that greater freedom could come only if society resolved to avoid the use, not only of government coercion, whether democratic or not, but even of "the moral coercion of public opinion" in order to enforce conformity. Otherwise, he argued, genius, independence, and originality would go to the wall: "The grand, the leading principle, towards which every argument in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity." Each adult should have a private sphere of individual liberty, comprising any of his acts that do not "affect prejudicially the interests of others"; and one should never, above all, interfere with freedom of thought and expression, for the progress of society depends on this. Mill can be criticized on the ground that almost any act a man does may be held to affect prejudicially the interests of others; and that to the extent that people are dissuaded from using nonviolent "tyranny of opinion," they will tend to use the violence of governmental coercion, which even a strongminded man finds far harder to resist.

Religion. Mill wrote Three Essays on Religion. The first two, "Nature" and "Utility of Religion," he wrote under his wife's influence in the 1850s: there is little value in religion. The last, "Theism," written in 186970, is far more sympathetic; it shocked his agnostic and atheist friends when it was published posthumously, though in it issues of truth and appropriate feeling continued to be mingled; Mill's main concern was with the question whether the consequences of belief in God would be beneficial. It is not unreasonable, he claimed, to maintain that God exists: the a posteriori argument from design, as Hume and Kant had said, offers some evidence; and the human soul may be immortal: there is no decisive evidence against it; and Christianity has the status of an inspiring and edifying belief. But Mill could not accept a God who was at once omnipotent and benevolent, an "Omnipotent Author of Hell"; a powerful but finite God seemed more morally stimulating to him. Thus man is enabled to cultivate "the feeling of helping Godof requiting the good He has given us by a voluntary cooperation which He, not being omnipotent, really needs."

See Also: empiricism; eudaemonism; logic, history of.

Bibliography: Bibliography of the Published Writings of J.S. Mill, ed. from his ms, n. macminn et al. (Evanston, Ill. 1945). m. st. j. packe, The Life of John Stuart Mill (New York 1954), excellent bibliog. j. a. passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (New York 1957). r. p. anschutz, The Philosophy of J. S. Mill (Oxford 1953). k. britton, John Stuart Mill (Baltimore 1953). a.v. dicey, Lectures on the Relation between Law and Opinion in England (London 1905; repr. 1924). j. day in A Critical History of Western Philosophy, ed. d. j. o'connor (New York 1964). b. russell in Proceedings of the British Academy 41 (1956) 4359. j. d. collins, A History of Modern European Philosophy (Milwaukee 1954).

[r. l. cunningham]

Mill, John Stuart

views updated May 14 2018


John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was born in London on May 20. The son of the philosopher James Mill (1773–1836) and the godson of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). John Stuart Mill was the most influential British philosopher of the nineteenth century, which saw science and technology transform society as significant contributions were made in metaphysics, logic, the philosophy of science, ethics, social and political philosophy, economics, the philosophy of religion, and the philosophy of education. The System of Logic(1843) and the Principles of Political Economy (1848) became canonical textbooks in their fields. Mill died on May 8 in Avignon, France.


Mill understood his work in technical philosophy as providing a foundation for his social and political philosophy. The purpose of the discussion of the origins of knowledge in the System of Logic is to prepare the ground for the social sciences, and the discussion of the social sciences provides the grounds for Mill's moral, political, and economic views.

The first five books of the Logic are largely polemical, attacking the philosophical position known as intuitionism, which in the nineteenth century had served as the basis for political conservatism. Intuitionism takes the view that there are innate truths, including moral truths. Innate truths can be known independent of experience, and thus custom and tradition were elevated to the status of timeless truth impervious to empirical refutation. In contrast, Mill wanted to argue that customary practice is often no more than a historical accident or that although it may have been justified in earlier social circumstances, it had outlived its usefulness, and all practice should be subject to revision in light of changing circumstances.

Mill argued that almost every general principle in any domain was the result of an inductive process that began with individual experiences, although Mill conceded a few exceptions. For example, the general principle that nature is uniform seems to be an assumption that people bring to their experience insofar as there are many things people do not understand as examples of uniformity or for which they have no experience, although they continue to subscribe to this belief. There are diseases for which the cause or cure is not known, yet it is presumed despite the failure of past research that the hidden uniformity behind them will be discovered eventually. Mill insisted that these few exceptions had no moral or political implications.

Mill engaged in a protracted controversy with William Whewell (1794–1866), professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge, who had published a History of the Inductive Sciences from the Earliest to the Present Time (1837). Whewell coined the term scientist in recognition of the idea that traditional "natural philosophy" had become a new form of knowledge. Whewell was a critic of the philosopher Francis Bacon's (1561–1626) conception of the process of induction and wanted to redefine induction as the process by which scientific hypotheses are formulated. He considered this process a creative act rooted in history but not amenable to strict rules. In this he was close to the Kantian view that the most general principles of knowledge were not based on experience but instead were presuppositions. A successful hypothesis starts as a happy guess and evolves over time into a larger structure of thought incorporating both empirical and nonempirical elements. Whewell insisted on the historically evolving nature of scientific hypotheses and laws.

Mill objected on the grounds that Whewell was conflating induction with hypothesis formation and that what mattered was not the original happy guess but the subsequent inductive process by which the guess is confirmed by empirical observation. At this level Mill's dispute with Whewell was merely semantic.

Social Sciences and Technology

Mill contended that there can be a science of human nature and that its basic laws are the psychological laws of association. Moreover, the basic truths about human affairs, including questions of ends, are not part of the content of the psychological laws of association. To explain the basic truths of human action it is necessary to supplement the psychological laws of association with information about the circumstances in which those laws operate.

Human action, unlike physical interaction, cannot be explained in terms of current circumstances. Actions of human beings are not solely the result of their current circumstances but are the joint result of those circumstances and the characters of the individuals; the agencies that determine human character are numerous and diversified. Is it possible to give a systematic account of the circumstances, past as well as present? Mill at one time thought this possible. The science needed to discover and formulate the hypothetical laws of the formation of character he termed ethology.

Mill's views on technology are embedded in his historical account of the stages of economic growth. His view owes much to Scottish Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume (1711–1776), Adam Smith (1723–1790), and Adam Ferguson (1723–1816). Economic and social progress is marked by three stages: savagery, barbarism, and civilization. By civilization Mill meant a modern industrial and commercial society with a liberal culture such as Great Britain. The rise and development of civilization are dependent on "the natural laws of the progress of wealth, upon the diffusion of reading, and the increase of the facilities of human intercourse" ("Civilization," Collected Works, Vol. XVIII, p. 127).

The third stage of civilization, as described in Mill's essay of that title, is marked economically by industry, politically by limited government and the rule of law, and socially by liberty. Mill saw examples of these combined features in military operations, commerce and manufacturing, and the rise of joint-stock companies. The consequences of the rise of civilization are economic, political, social, and moral. Economically, there has been a vast increase in wealth in which the masses and the middle class have been the primary beneficiaries. Politically, power is shifting from a few individuals to the masses.

Science, Technology, and Politics

Socially, the most important consequence has been the decline of individuality. The future of civilization depends on the masses exercising power in ways that allow the benefits of civilization to continue. Mill did not believe this would happen on its own. The masses must understand and appreciate the moral foundations of liberal culture.

Unlike both classical liberals such as the Philosophic Radicals Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and orthodox Marxists, Mill was not an economic determinist. The moral world was not a product only of material forces. The functioning of the economy presupposed certain virtues. This explains Mill's economic position in the later Principles of Political Economy, the germ of the recommendations in Representative Government (1861), and the project that On Liberty (1859) would address. The social crisis created by the industrial revolution was class conflict. This crisis was exacerbated in Mill's thinking by the perceived coming of an increasingly democratic society.

Participation in a market economy informed by an individualist moral culture promotes different forms of virtuous behavior. Nevertheless, Mill insisted that there had to be a moral purpose to the technological project. The desire to employ the whole surface of the earth for the production of the greatest possible quantity of food and the materials of manufacture he considered to be founded on a mischievously narrow conception of the requirements of human nature. Among the many things Mill and his father had objected to most vehemently about the new industrial economy was the spoiling of the countryside by the many new and often duplicative railway lines. As hikers, they were sensitive to the destruction of natural beauty and the disappearance of solitude.

Mill also addressed the issue of the stationary state: an economy that no longer grows (a concern for classical economists but not neoclassical economists). Mill did not think that society had arrived at that state, and so more growth was probable. However, he did not consider a stationary state necessarily bad. Wealth is not an end in itself but a means to human fulfillment and individual liberty. Even if there were a stationary state of zero growth, freedom would not necessarily be lost.

Mill was the last major British philosopher to present an integrated view of philosophy and relate the theoretical and normative dimensions of his thought in a direct fashion. Book VI of the Logic remains the classic statement of what human science modeled after physical science might be, its limitations and qualifications, and the extent to which it may be useful. As a statement of the aims of and obstacles to the creation of the human sciences, it is unsurpassed.


SEE ALSO Consequentialism;Liberalism;Locke, John;Scientific Ethics.


Capaldi, Nicholas. (2004). John Stuart Mill: A Life. New York: Cambridge University Press. This is the latest and only biography of Mill in print.

Cohen, Morris R. and Ernest Nagel. (1934). An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. The classic restatement of a Millian view.

Schwartz, Pedro. (1972). The New Political Economy of J. S. Mill. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. The best discussion of Mill's economics.

Skorupski, John. (1989). John Stuart Mill. London: Routledge. A good general discussion of the technical part of Mill's philosophy.

Skorupski, John, ed. (1998). The Cambridge Companion to Mill. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A useful collection of secondary sources on Mill.

Wilson, Fred. (1990). Psychological Analysis and the Philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Wilson takes seriously Mill's project in the Logic to explain human beings scientifically.

John Stuart Mill

views updated May 14 2018

John Stuart Mill

The English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was the most influential British thinker of the 19th century. He is known for his writings on logic and scientific methodology and his voluminous essays on social and political life.

John Stuart Mill was born on May 20, 1806, in London to James and Harriet Burrow Mill, the eldest of their nine children. His father, originally trained as a minister, had emigrated from Scotland to take up a career as a freelance journalist. In 1808 James Mill began his lifelong association with Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher and legalist. Mill shared the common belief of 19th-century psychologists that the mind is at birth a tabula rasa and that character and performance are the result of experienced associations. With this view, he attempted to make his son into a philosopher by exclusively supervising his education. John Stuart Mill never attended a school or university.

Early Years and Education

The success of this experiment is recorded in John Stuart Mill's Autobiography (written 1853-1856). He began the study of Greek at the age of 3 and took up Latin between his seventh and eighth years. From six to ten each morning the boy recited his lessons, and by the age of 12 he had mastered material that was the equivalent of a university degree in classics. He then took up the study of logic, mathematics, and political economy with the same rigor. In addition to his own studies, John also tutored his brothers and sisters for 3 hours daily. Throughout his early years, John was treated as a younger equal by his father's associates, who were among the preeminent intellectuals in England. They included George Grote, the historian; John Austin, the jurist; David Ricardo, the economist; and Bentham.

Only later did Mill realize that he never had a childhood. The only tempering experiences he recalled from his boyhood were walks, music, reading Robinson Crusoe, and a year he spent in France. Before going abroad John had never associated with anyone his own age. The year with Bentham's relatives in France gave young Mill a taste of normal family life and a mastery of another language, which made him well informed on French intellectual and political ideas.

When he was 16, Mill began a debating society of utilitarians to examine and promote the ideas of his father, Bentham, Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus. He also began to publish on various issues, and he had written nearly 50 articles and reviews before he was 20. His speaking, writing, and political activity contributed to the passage of the Parliamentary Reform Bill in 1830, which culminated the efforts of the first generation of utilitarians, especially Bentham and James Mill. But in 1823, at his father's insistence, Mill abandoned his interest in a political career and accepted a position at India House, where he remained for 35 years.

The external events of Mill's life were so prosaic that Thomas Carlyle once disparagingly described their written account as "the autobiography of a steam engine." Nonetheless in 1826 Mill underwent a mental crisis. He perceived that the realization of all the social reforms for which he had been trained and for which he had worked would bring him no personal satisfaction. He thought that his intellectual training had left him emotionally starved and feared that he lacked any capacity for feeling or caring deeply. Mill eventually overcame his melancholia by opening himself to the romantic reaction against rationalism on both an intellectual and personal level. He assimilated the ideas and poetry of English, French, and German thought. When he was 25 he met Harriet Taylor, and she became the dominant influence of his life. Although she was married, they maintained a close association for 20 years, eventually marrying in 1851, a few years after her husband's death. In his Autobiography Mill maintained that Harriet's intellectual ability was superior to his own and that she should be understood as the joint author of many of his major works.

"System of Logic"

The main purpose of Mill's philosophic works was to rehabilitate the British empirical tradition extending from John Locke. He argued for the constructive dimension of experience as an antidote to the negative and skeptical aspects emphasized by David Hume and also as an alternative to rationalistic dogmatism. His System of Logic (1843) was well received both as a university text and by the general public. Assuming that all propositions are of a subject-predicate form, Mill began with an analysis of words that constitute statements. He overcame much of the confusion of Locke's similar and earlier analysis by distinguishing between the connotation, or real meaning, of terms and the denotation, or attributive function. From this Mill described propositions as either "verbal" and analytic or "real" and synthetic. With these preliminaries in hand, Mill began a rather traditional attack on pure mathematics and deductive reasoning. A consistent empiricism demanded that all knowledge be derived from experience. Thus, no appeal to universal principles or a priori intuitions was allowable. In effect, Mill reduced pure to applied mathematics and deductive reasoning to "apparent" inferences or premises which, in reality, are generalizations from previous experience. The utility of syllogistic reasoning is found to be a training in logical consistency—that is, a correct method for deciding if a particular instance fits under a general rule— but not to be a source of discovering new knowledge.

By elimination, then, logic was understood by Mill as induction, or knowledge by inference. His famous canons of induction were an attempt to show that general knowledge is derived from the observation of particular instances. Causal laws are established by observations of agreement and difference, residues and concomitant variations of the relations between A as the cause of B. The law of causation is merely a generalization of the truths reached by these experimental methods. By the strict application of these methods man is justified in extending his inferences beyond his immediate experience to discover highly probable, though not demonstrable, empirical and scientific laws.

Mill's logic culminates with an analysis of the methodology of the social sciences since neither individual men nor patterns of social life are exceptions to the laws of general causality. However, the variety of conditioning factors and the lack of control and repeatability of experiments weaken the effectiveness of both the experimental method and deductive attempts—such as Bentham's hedonistic calculus, which attempted to derive conclusions from the single premise of man's self-interest. The proper method of the social sciences is a mixture: deductions from the inferential generalizations provided by psychology and sociology. In several works Mill attempted without great success to trace connections between the generalizations derived from associationist psychology and the social and historical law of three stages (theological, metaphysical, and positivist or scientific) established by Auguste Comte.

Mill's Reasonableness

The mark of Mill's genius in metaphysics, ethics, and political theory rests in the tenacity of his attitude of consistent reasonableness. He denied the necessity and scientific validity of positing transcendent realities except as an object of belief or guide for conduct. He avoided the abstruse difficulties of the metaphysical status of the external world and the self by defining matter, as it is experienced, as "a permanent possibility of sensation," and the mind as the series of affective and cognitive activities that is aware of itself as a conscious unity of past and future through memory and imagination. His own mental crises led Mill to modify the calculative aspect of utilitarianism. In theory he maintained that men are determined by their expectation of the pleasure and pain produced by action. But his conception of the range of personal motives and institutional attempts to ensure the good are much broader than those suggested by Bentham. For example, Mill explained that he overcame a mechanical notion of determinism when he realized that men are capable of being the cause of their own conduct through motives of self-improvement. In a more important sense, he attempted to introduce a qualitative dimension to utility.

Mill suggested that there are higher pleasures and that men should be educated to these higher aspirations. For a democratic government based on consensus is only as good as the education and tolerance of its citizenry. This argument received its classic formulation in the justly famous essay, "On Liberty." Therein the classic formula of liberalism is stated: the state exists for man, and hence the only warrantable imposition upon personal liberty is "self-protection." In later life, Mill moved from a laissez-faire economic theory toward socialism as he realized that government must take a more active role in guaranteeing the interests of all of its citizens.

The great sadness of Mill's later years was the unexpected death of his wife in 1858. He took a house in Avignon, France, in order to be near her grave and divided his time between there and London. He won election to the House of Commons in 1865, although he refused to campaign. He died on May 8, 1873.

Further Reading

Information on Mill from primary sources is in his Autobiography, four volumes of letters in his Collected Works, and John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Correspondence, edited by F. A. Hayek (1951). Biographies of Mill are M. J. Packe, The Life of John Stuart Mill (1954), and a brief, sympathetic treatment by Ruth Borchard, John Stuart Mill, the Man (1957). Maurice Cowling, Mill and Liberalism (1963); Ernest Albee, A History of English Utilitarianism (1902); Leslie Stephen, The English Utilitarians (3 vols., 1900); and Élie Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism (1928; new ed. 1934; repr. with corrections 1952), are excellent studies. □

Mill, John Stuart

views updated Jun 11 2018


(b. London, England, 20 May 1806; d. Avignon, France, 8 May 1873),

philosophy, economics. For the original article on Mill see DSB, vol. 9.

Mill’s most important contribution to science was to provide an inductive methodology for it. He did so in his System of Logic, particularly in books three to five, where he defines induction as “the process by which we conclude that what is true of certain individuals of a class is true of the whole class, or that what is true at certain times will be true in similar circumstances at all times” (1843, p. 188). Mill believed that such inferences provide a crucial step in scientific inquiry. In typical scientific cases involving several hypotheses and various computations, Mill advocated what he called the deductive method, consisting of three steps: first, a set of inductions to the laws involved; second, ratiocination or calculation, involving combining the laws together with specific initial conditions so as to generate predictions; and third, verification of these predictions by observation and experiment.

Mill’s view of scientific method has had many severe critics, including William Whewell (1794–1866) and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) in the nineteenth century, and many philosophers of science in the twentieth century. Some claim that Mill was erroneously assuming a fallacious principle of induction by simple enumeration, according to which whenever all observed A’s have been B it is legitimate to infer that all A’s are B. Mill, however, was making no such assumption. He was simply offering a definition of induction or inductive generalization while allowing that some inductions are justified whereas others are not. Indeed, he devotes an entire section to when inductive generalizations are fallacious. His view is that the question is an empirical one, the answer to which varies depending on the kinds of instances and their properties. People may need only one observed instance of a chemical fact about a substance to validly generalize to all instances of that substance, whereas many observed instances of black crows are required to generalize about all crows. This is due to the empirical fact that instances of chemical properties of substances tend to be uniform, whereas bird coloration, even in the same species, tends not to be.

A related criticism is that Mill’s inductive philosophy ignores the idea of severely testing a hypothesis; for example, it fails to consider how the sample from which the induction was made was generated. But again this is a vast oversimplication. Mill emphasizes that the generalizations of concern to science are causal laws, and, in one of the most famous sections of his work, he offers “four methods of experimental inquiry” for determining causes. Mill writes:

When a fact has been observed a certain number of times to be true, and is not in any instance known to be false; if we at once affirm that fact as an universal truth or law of nature, without ever testing it by any of the four methods of induction, or deducing it from other known laws, we shall in general err grossly. (p. 373)

More generally, for Mill whether an inductive generalization from “these A’s are B” to “all A’s are B” is justified depends on a variety of empirical factors, including how the A’s were selected.

Some critics claim that Mill trivializes the scientific enterprise by restricting inductions to generalizations from facts ascertainable simply by opening one’s eyes and looking (for example, the fact that these crows are black); and that in so doing he did not allow inferences to more typical theoretical scientific conclusions. Again, this is an oversimplication. What Mill required is that inductions be made from known facts and that the latter be

established by observation and experiment (or from previously established inductions). But his view of what counts as established by observation and experiment is quite broad. He cites examples of inductions in astronomy and physics from empirically established facts about the magnitudes of particular planets in the Solar System, their mutual distances, the shape of the Earth and its rotation, and gravitational forces between the Sun and the planets. Mill did reject the claim of many physicists of his day that the wave theory of light had been empirically established. He did so not because light waves cannot be seen, but on the ground that no legitimate induction had yet been made to the existence of the vibrating luminiferous ether, though he allows that such an inference might be possible in the future from the experimental establishment of other facts.

Another major criticism, offered particularly by advocates of a hypothetico-deductive (H-D) account of science, is that Mill’s first step in his deductive method, the inductions to the laws, is not needed in science. Some, following Karl Popper (1902–1994), say that such a step is illegitimate, since, as David Hume (1711–1776) argued, inductive generalizations are never justified. For the hypothetico-deductivist, the scientist begins not by inductively inferring a hypothesis or law, but by making a guess or conjecture. Following this, H-D theorists say, agreeing with Mill, there is ratiocination and verification of predictions. If the predictions turn out to be true, then some HD theorists will conclude that the hypothesis is probably true, while others (following Popper) will reject this conclusion and say that we can conclude only that the hypothesis has not been shown to be false.

Mill rejected both ideas. From the fact that our hypotheses yield predictions that turn out to be true, we cannot conclude that our hypotheses are probably true, because of the competing hypotheses objection: there may well be hypotheses incompatible with ours which yield the same successful predictions. This can be so, Mill argues against Whewell, even if the predictions are novel and even if the system of hypotheses is simple and coherent. By contrast, from our successful predictions, if we simply conclude (with Popper) that our hypotheses have not been shown to be false, we are not satisfying one of the fundamental aims of science, which Mill regards as “discovering and proving general propositions” (p. 186). Only by including the inductive step, Mill insists, can one avoid the competing hypothesis objection and infer the probable truth of the hypotheses.

Finally, most critics have a field day with Mill’s principle of the uniformity of nature, which he claims warrants inductions, namely that “what happens once will, under a sufficient degree of similarity of circumstances, happen again … as often as the same circumstances recur.” Critics regard this as an unnecessary, unjustified, and vague assumption. Mill’s discussion of this principle is admittedly somewhat confusing. But perhaps a charitable if plausible interpretation is this: Instead of asserting boldly but vaguely that nature is uniform, Mill is claiming less boldly and less vaguely that there are uniformities in nature, that is, there are general laws governing various types of phenomena. This is an empirical claim. Some of these laws are initially arrived at inductively, without presupposing any particular laws or even that there are laws of nature. These can then be used to strengthen inductive inferences to the existence of other laws, which are inductively arrived at. For example, Newton used the inductively inferred fact that the motions of the moons of Jupiter are governed by a central inverse-square force exerted by Jupiter on those moons to strengthen the inductive inference that a central inverse-square force is exerted by Saturn on its moons to produce their similar motions.



A System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive. London: Longmans, 1843 (1959).


Achinstein, Peter. Particles and Waves: Historical Essays in the Philosophy of Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Peirce, Charles S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960–1966.

Popper, Karl R. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic, 1959.

Skorupski, John. John Stuart Mill. London: Routledge, 1989. Snyder, Laura J. Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Whewell, William. The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded upon Their History. 2nd ed. 2 vols. London: Parker, 1847.

Peter Achinstein

Mill, John Stuart

views updated May 11 2018



John Stuart Mill, English political economist and philosopher, was the son of James Mill, the utilitarian economist, who was responsible for his son's precocious upbringing, described in the latter's autobiography. Much of Mill's career, like his father's, was spent with the East India Company, based in London, in a period when the Company was effectively India's administering authority. From 1865 to 1868 he was a member of parliament. His formal occupations did not greatly interfere with his writing–in the 1820s and 1830s, essays for the Westminster Review; then A System of Logic (1843); and his major works, The Principles of Political Economy (1848) and On Liberty (1859). (Page references to the Principles below are to the 1965 variorum edition from the University of Toronto Press.) He was a longtime companion and eventually husband of Harriet Taylor, whose strong stance on women's rights accorded with his own, set out in his essay The Subjection of Women (1869).

Mill's views on population issues were in many respects Malthusian, but he went further in approving of contraception within marriage, in promoting the emancipation of women, and in calling for curtailment of population increase on environmental grounds. The combination of utilitarianism, feminism, and environmentalism yielded an outlook that is surprisingly modern.

In his Autobiography (1873), Mill describes how the Philosophical Radicals, the group with which he was associated in the 1830s, interpreted T. R. Malthus's principle of population, seeing it not, as most of Malthus's readers did, as an argument against the improvability of human affairs, but "as indicating the sole means of realizing that improvability … [for] the whole labouring population through a voluntary restriction of the increase of their numbers" (Mill 1924, p. 74). The later Malthus, of course, also believed in prudential restraint, but more as an exercise of individual virtue than as an outcome of social policy. The policies Mill advocated to promote escape from a low-level Malthusian equilibrium were popular education (convincing people that producing a large family should be "regarded with the same feelings as drunkenness or any other physical excess"–Principles, 1965, p. 368); land reform, to establish a system of peasant proprietorship; and subsidized emigration, especially of young couples. But a big push was called for: "Unless comfort can be made as habitual to a whole generation as indigence is now, nothing is accomplished; and feeble half-measures do but fritter away resources" (Principles, 1965, p. 378). A further policy measure implied in The Subjection of Women was to prevent women being forced into the role of child-producers by "the press-gang of society." In a letter written shortly before his death, Mill agreed with the opinion that "a necessary condition for over-population is woman's subjugation, and the cure is her enfranchisement" (Mill, 1910, vol. 2, p. 303).

Mill was an early, though circumspect, supporter of artificial birth control, presumably under the influence of the radical reformer Francis Place, an associate of his father. He expressed amazement that, in England at least, the idea of voluntarily limiting the size of family after marriage was never mentioned. "One would imagine that children were rained down upon married people, direct from heaven, without their being art or part in the matter" (Principles, 1965, p. 369). (Mill is not usually known for a lightness of touch, but in a footnote in the Principles [1965, p. 156n] he comments on the relevant proximate determinant: "The most rapid known rate of multiplication is quite compatible with a very sparing use of the multiplying power.")

Most of Mill's views on population and even on women's rights are of interest mainly to historians of ideas. On one issue, however, he is still frequently read and quoted: his vision of the stationary state, set out in Book 4, Chapter 6 of the Principles. Classical economists like Adam Smith, James Mill, and David Ricardo saw economic growth leading eventually to stagnation at subsistence wages as profits fell toward zero and consumer demand flagged. This was their view of the stationary state. Mill's stationary state, in contrast, was arcadian–consistent with the prospect of indefinite human improvement in a world without the "unmeaning bustle of so-called civilized existence":

If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it. (Principles, 1965, p. 756)

See also: Malthus, Thomas Robert; Optimum Population; Population Thought, History of.


selected works by john stuart mill.

Mill, John Stuart. 1871. Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy. (1848). 7th edition. London: Parker. A variorum edition appears as volumes 2 and 3(1965) of Mill's Collected Works, published by the University of Toronto Press, 1963–91.

——. 1869. The Subjection of Women. 1869. London: Longmans.

——. [1873] 1924. Autobiography. New York: Columbia University Press.

——. 1910. The Letters of John Stuart Mill. London, Longmans.

selected works about john stuart mill.

Himes, Norman E. 1928. "The Place of John Stuart Mill and of Robert Owen in the History of English Neo-Malthusianism." Quarterly Journal of Economics 42(4): 627–640.

Hollander, Samuel. 1985. The Economics of John Stuart Mill. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ryan, Alan. 1975. John Stuart Mill. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Geoffrey McNicoll

Mill, John Stuart

views updated May 14 2018

John Stuart Mill

Born: May 20, 1806
London, England
Died: May 8, 1873
Avignon, France

English philosopher and economist

The English philosopher and economist (someone who studies the buying and selling of goods and services) John Stuart Mill was the most influential British thinker of the nineteenth century. He is known for his writings on logic and scientific method and for his many essays on social and political life.

Early years and education

John Stuart Mill was born the oldest of nine children on May 20, 1806, in London, England, to James and Harriet Burrow Mill. His father, originally trained as a minister, had come from Scotland to take up a career as a journalist. In 1808 James Mill began his lifelong association with Jeremy Bentham (17481832), the utilitarian (a philosophy saying that anything useful is positive and that to determine if an action is right, the usefulness of its consequences is the answer) philosopher. Mill shared the common belief of nineteenth-century psychologists that a child's character and performance are the result of the experiences and relationships he or she has as a child. With this view, he attempted to make his son into a philosopher by totally supervising his education.

John began the study of Greek at the age of three and took up Latin between his seventh and eighth years. From six to ten each morning the boy recited his lessons, and by the age of twelve he had mastered material that was equal to a university degree in classics. He then took up the study of logic, mathematics, and political economy with the same energy. In addition to his own studies, Mill also tutored his brothers and sisters for three hours daily. Throughout his early years, Mill was treated as a younger equal by his father's friends, who were among the greatest intellectuals in England.

Only later did Mill realize that he never had a childhood. The most satisfying experiences he recalled from his boyhood were walks, music, reading Robinson Crusoe, and a year he spent in France. Before going abroad, Mill had never associated with anyone his own age. A year with Bentham's relatives in France gave young Mill a taste of normal family life and another language.

When he was sixteen, Mill began a debating society of utilitarians to discuss and make popular the ideas of his father, Bentham, and others. He also began to publish on various issues, writing nearly fifty articles and reviews before he was twenty. But in 1823, at his father's insistence, Mill cast off his interest in a political career and accepted a position at East India Company (a successful trading firm), where he remained for thirty-five years.

Adult life

Thomas Carlyle (17951881) once described Mill's life as "the autobiography of a steam engine." Nonetheless, in 1826 Mill underwent a mental crisis. He felt empty of satisfaction even with all of his knowledge. Mill eventually overcame his depression by opening himself to poetry. When he was twenty-five, he met Harriet Taylor, and she became the most important influence of his life. Although she was married, they maintained a close relationship for twenty years, eventually marrying a few years after her husband's death.

"System of logic"

The main purpose of Mill's philosophic works was to repair the British empirical (experimental) tradition extending from English philosopher John Locke (16321704). He overcame much of the confusion of Locke by distinguishing between the connotation, or understood meaning, of terms and the denotation, or real meaning. Mill understood logic as knowledge by inference (the act of transferring a meaning from one thing to another).

Mill's logic concludes with an analysis of the methods of the social sciences. However, the variety of conditioning factors and the lack of control and repeatability of experiments weaken the effectiveness of both the experimental method and deductive (coming to a conclusion by reasoning) attempts. The proper method of the social sciences is a mixture: deductions from the inferential understandings provided by both psychology (study of the mind) and sociology (study of society and groups).

Mill's ideas

Mill suggested that there are higher pleasures and that men should be educated to these higher dreams, for a democratic government based on agreement is only as good as the education and tolerance of its citizenry. This argument is put forth in Mill's famous essay, "On Liberty." Therein the classic formula of liberalism (political philosophy believing in progress, individual freedom, and protection of rights) is stated: the state exists for man, and hence the only justifiable interference upon personal liberty is "self-protection."

The great sadness of Mill's later years was the unexpected death of his wife in 1858. He took a house in Avignon, France, in order to be near her grave and divided his time between there and London. He won election to the House of Commons in 1865, although he refused to campaign. He died on May 8, 1873.

For More Information

Mill, John Stuart. Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. New York: Columbia University Press, 1924. Reprint, Krumlin, Eng.: Ryburn Pub., 1992.

Skorupski, John. John Stuart Mill. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Stafford, William. John Stuart Mill. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

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