James Mill

The Scottish philosopher and journalist James Mill (1773-1836) implemented and popularized utilitarianism. Although possessing little originality of thought, he indirectly influenced the development of one of the main currents of 19th-century philosophy through the sheer force of his personality.

James Mill's father was a shoemaker in the small village of Northwater Bridge, where James was born and attended the local school. His mother, Isabel, was quite ambitious for the social advancement of her first son, and James, unlike his younger sister and brother, was forbidden manual labor so that he could devote himself exclusively to education and become a gentleman. Through Isabel's intervention and his own intelligence and self-discipline, Mill secured the patronage of the local lord, Sir John Stuart. He entered the University of Edinburgh to study for the ministry. He was impressed by the lectures of Dugald Stewart, leader of the Scottish school of "commonsense" philosophy.

Mill was licensed to preach in 1798 and for the next 4 years earned his living mainly by tutoring. In 1802 he traveled to London in order to take up journalism. He translated, wrote reviews, and edited two journals. In 1805 he married Harriet Burrow, and they later had nine children. His first son, John Stuart Mill, was born in 1806, the year he began his History of India, which was completed 11 years later. This 10-volume work became a standard reference and earned its author a permanent position with the East India Company. Mill's achievement was to interpret historical events in terms of political, economic, and sociological factors.

In 1808 Mill met Jeremy Bentham and became closely associated with his other disciples, including the historian George Grote, the jurist John Austin, and the economist David Ricardo. Under Ricardo's influence, Mill wrote Elements of Political Economy (1821). His other important works include Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (1829) and several influential contributions to the Encyclopaedia Britannica which applied utilitarian principles to social questions ranging from law to education.


Practical Applications of Utilitarianism

According to the principles of utility, man's happiness consists exclusively in gaining pleasure or, more practically, in avoiding pain. Mill's psychology, following David Hume and David Hartley, explains all the data of mental life in terms of association. Thus, he source of individual pleasure is, by and large, the result of associations that the individual has learned. It follows that education should be directed toward forming the appropriate associations, that is, identifying a man's pleasure with that of his fellowmen, just as the function of government is to promote "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." As a result of his own practical efforts in behalf of utilitarianism, Mill lived to see many of the utilitarians' commonsense attitudes toward law, voting, and education incorporated within the Parliamentary Reform Bill of 1830. But undoubtedly the most significant contribution he made was the strict application of these principles to the education of his eldest child. Mill completely supervised his son's early childhood and adolescence. Although the son later acknowledged that his father's system was deficient in cultivating normal emotions, he credited his remarkable education with giving him a 25-year advantage over his contemporaries.

Further Reading on James Mill

Mill's books have not been collected in standard editions or reissued. For a study of his life see Alexander Bain, James Mill (1882). Of great interest is the portrait of James Mill by his son John Stuart Mill in the Autobiography (1873; many editions). Useful background studies are Leslie Stephen, The English Utilitarians (3 vols., 1900), and Élie Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism (1928; new ed. 1934; repr. with corrections 1952).


Additional Biography Sources

Mazlish, Bruce, James and John Stuart Mill: father and son in the nineteenth century, New Brunswick, USA: Transaction Books, 1988, 1975.