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.

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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.

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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.

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Further Reading on John Stuart Mill

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.