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John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill
(Photogravure, 19th Century)

John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873) was an English philosopher, political economist and Member of Parliament of the early Modern period.

His philosophical roots were in the British Empiricism of John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. But he is best known for his further development of the Utilitarian theory of his teacher, Jeremy Bentham, which he popularized as a movement and of which he became the best known exponent and apologist.

He was instrumental in the development of progressive political doctrines such as Socialism, Libertarianism and Feminism, and he was active in calling for political and social reforms such as the abolition of the slave trade, universal suffrage, labour unions and farm cooperatives.

He was perhaps the most influential English-speaking philosopher and liberal thinker of the 19th Century, and he made important contributions to British thought, especially in Ethics and Political Philosophy.


John Stuart Mill was born on 20 May 1806 in the Pentonville area of north-central London, the eldest of nine children of the Scottish philosopher and historian James Mill (1773 - 1836). His mother was Harriet Barrow, but she seems to have had very little influence upon him.

We have a detailed account of his youth from Mill's own "Autobiography" of 1873. He was given an extremely rigorous upbringing and education by his father, with the advice and assistance of the English social reformers Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place (1771 - 1854), and was deliberately shielded from association with children his own age (other than his siblings). His father was an almost fanatical follower of Bentham and Associationism (the idea that mental processes operate by the association of one state with its successor states), and wanted to deliberately groom John as an intellectual genius who would carry on the cause of Utilitarianism after he and Bentham were dead.

Mill was anyway a notably precocious child, leaning Greek at the age of three. By the age of eight, he had read Aesop's "Fables", Xenophon's "Anabasis", and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato, as well as arithmetic and a great deal of history in English. At the age of eight he began learning Latin, algebra and Euclid and to teach the younger children of the family. By the age of ten he could read Plato and Demosthenes, and was familiar with all the Latin and Greek authors commonly read in the schools and universities at the time, such as Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Tacitus, Homer, Dionysus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Thucydides. In his "spare time", he enjoyed reading about natural sciences and some popular novels (such as "Don Quixote" and "Robinson Crusoe"). One of Mill's earliest poetry compositions was a continuation of the "Iliad".

At about the age of twelve, Mill began a thorough study of scholastic Logic, reading Aristotle's logical treatises in the original language. In the following year he was introduced to political economy and studied the works Adam Smith and David Ricardo (a close friend of his father, who would often discuss economics with the young Mill).

At fourteen, Mill spent a year in the mountains of southern France with the family of Sir Samuel Bentham (Jeremy Bentham's brother), also attending the winter courses on chemistry, zoology and logic of the Faculté des Sciences in Montpellier, as well as taking a course of higher mathematics with a private tutor. He also spent some time in Paris with the renowned French economist Jean-Baptiste Say (1767 - 1832), who was a friend of Mill's father, and met several other notable Parisiens, including the utopian socialist thinker Henri Saint-Simon (1760 - 1825), all through his father's myriad connections.

In 1823, at the age of 17, Mill chose (rather than take Anglican orders from the "white devil" in order to study at Oxford University or Cambridge University) to follow his father to work for the British East India Company. He led a long and active career as an administrator there, rising through the ranks to become the chief of office in 1856, and retiring with a pension in 1858 when the Company's administrative functions in India were taken over by the British government following the Mutiny of 1857.

All his intensive study, however, had had injurious effects on Mill's mental health and state of mind and, in 1826, at the age of twenty, he suffered a nervous breakdown, probably from the great physical and mental arduousness of his studies and the suppression of most normal childhood feelings. This depression eventually began to dissipate, however, with Mill taking solace in the Romantic poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Goethe. He was also introduced around this time to the Positivism of Auguste Comte, which had a strong influence on his future thinking.

He began having articles published in the "Westminster Review" (a journal founded by Bentham and James Mill to propagate Radical views) and in other newspapers and journals including the "Morning Chronicle" and the "Parliamentary History & Review. In 1834, Mill co-founded the Radical journal, the "London Review" with Sir William Molesworth (1810 -1855) and then, two years later, purchased the "Westminster Review" and merged the two journals, using it to support politicians who were advocating further reform of the House of Commons.

In 1851, Mill married Harriet Taylor (on the death of her husband) after over twenty years of intimate friendship. Brilliant in her own right, she was a significant influence on Mill's work and ideas during both friendship and marriage, including his advocacy of women's rights. After only seven years of marriage, though, she died on a trip to Avignon in the south of France in 1858 after developing severe lung congestion. Mill took a house in Avignon in order to be near her grave and thereafter divided his time between there and London.

He became involved with the abolitionist movement against the slave trade (as well as other contemporary reform movements on the prisons, poor laws, etc), and penned a famous rebuttal in 1850 (which came to be known under the title "The Negro Question") to Thomas Carlyle's anonymous letter in defence of slavery.

From 1865 to 1868, Mill served as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Westminster, as well as serving as Lord Rector of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. During his time as an MP, Mill became the first person in Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote, and advocated easing the burdens on Ireland, as well as working indefatigably for such political and social reforms as proportional representation, labour unions and farm cooperatives.

Mill died on 8 May 1873 in Avignon, and was buried alongside his wife.

Work Back to Top

Throughout his life, Mill tried to persuade the British public of the necessity of a scientific approach to understanding social, political and economic change while not neglecting the insights of poets and other imaginative writers. Philosophically, he was a radical empiricist who held that all human knowledge, including even mathematics and Logic, is derived by generalization from sensory experience. He believed firmly that there is no such thing as innate ideas, no such thing as moral precepts.

His "System of Logic" of 1843 was an ambitious attempt to give an account not only of Logic, as the title suggests, but of the methods of science and their applicability to social as well as purely natural phenomena. Mill's conception of Logic comprised not only formal logic (what he called the "logic of consistency"), but also a "logic of proof" (a logic that would show how evidence tended to prove the conclusions we draw from the evidence). This led him to an analysis of causation and ultimately to an account of inductive reasoning that remains the starting point of most modern discussions on Logic. The "System of Logic" also attacked the Intuitionist philosophy (the belief that explanations rested on intuitively compelling principles rather than on general causal laws) of William Whewell (1794 - 1866) and Sir William Hamilton (1788 - 1856), which he saw as "bad philosophy".

His "Principles of Political Economy" of 1848 tried to show that economics was not the "dismal science" that Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881) and its radical and literary critics had supposed, and it became one of the most widely read of all books on economics in the period, and dominated economics teaching for decades. His early economic philosophy was generally one of free markets with minimal interventions in the economy, and the "Principles" is largely a highly proficient re-statement of Smith and Ricardo's theory of classical capitalist economics. He helped develop the ideas of economies of scale, opportunity cost and comparative advantage in trade.

But in the "Principles", Mill also made the radical arguments that we should sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment, and should limit population as much to give ourselves breathing space as in order to fend off the risk of starvation for the overburdened poor, and advocated his own ideal of an economy of worker-owned cooperatives.

His "Utilitarianism" of 1861 remains the classic defence of the Utilitarian view that we should aim at maximizing the welfare (or happiness) of all sentient creatures. However, he was keen to develop Utilitarianism into a more humanitarian doctrine. One of Mill's major contributions to Utilitarianism was his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures, his insistence that happiness should be assessed not merely by quantity but by quality and, more specifically, that intellectual and moral pleasures are superior to more physical forms of pleasure. He went so far as to say that he would rather be a dissatisfied human being than a satisfied pig. He also turned away from Bentham's external standard of goodness to something more subjective, arguing that altruism was as important as self-interest in deciding what ought to be done.

However, it was Mill's essay "On Liberty" of 1859 that aroused the greatest controversy and the most violent expressions of approval and disapproval. It addressed the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual, and he laid down his "one very simple principle" governing the use of coercion in society (whether it be by legal penalties or by the operation of public opinion), arguing that we may only coerce others in self-defence: either to defend ourselves, or to defend others from harm (the so-called "harm principle"). Thus, if an action is self-regarding (i.e. it only directly affects the person undertaking the action), then society has no right to intervene, even if it feels the actor is harming himself. Man is therefore free to do anything unless he harms others, he argued, and individuals are rational enough to make decisions about what is good and also to choose any religion they want.

"On Liberty" also contains an impassioned defence of free speech, arguing that free discourse is a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress, and that we can never be sure that a silenced opinion does not contain some element of the truth. It introduces the concepts of "social liberty" (limits on a ruler's power to prevent him from harming society, requiring that people should have the right to a say in a government’s decisions), and also the concept of the “tyranny of the majority” (where the majority oppresses the minority by decisions which could be harmful and wrong sometimes, and against which precautions are needed).

Mill's "Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy" of 1865 constituted the first developed presentation of the doctrine of Phenomenalism (the epistemological view which regards sensations as the basic constituents of reality, and attempts to construct the external world from sensations and the possibilities of sensation), and it included his quote: “Matter, then, may be defined as the Permanent Possibility of Sensation”. Although the origins of Phenomenalism can be traced back to George Berkeley, it was only after Mill that a commitment to the doctrine became standard among scientific philosophers, until superseded by Physicalism in the 1930s.

"The Subjection of Women" of 1869, apparently published late in life in order to avoid controversies that would lessen the impact of his other work, was thought to be excessively radical in Mill's time, but is now seen as a classic statement of liberal Feminism. Mill argued that if freedom is good for men, then it is for women too, and that every argument against this view drawn from the supposedly different "nature" of men and women is based on mere superstitious special pleading. If women do have different natures, the only way to discover what they are is by experiment, and that requires that women should have access to everything to which men have access. He felt that the oppression of women was one of the few remaining relics from ancient times, a set of prejudices that severely impeded the progress of humanity.

Likewise, he chose not to have his "Three Essays on Religion" published until after his death, although they remain models of calm discussion of contentious topics, and actually disappointed those of Mill's admirers who had looked for a tougher and more abrasive Agnosticism. In general the essays criticized traditional religious views and formulated an alternative (inspired by Comte) in the guise of a "Religion of Humanity". Mill argued that belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God, encouraged intellectual laziness. Among other points, though, he argued that, although it is impossible that the universe is governed by an omnipotent and loving God, it is not unlikely that a less omnipotent benign force is at work in the world.

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