Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Mill, John Stuart (1806–73)
The Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century British Philosophers


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Biographical Entry



School of Thought:

Empiricism, Feminism, Utilitarianism

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Mill, John Stuart (1806–73)

Mill, John Stuart (1806–73)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052475-0390

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John Stuart Mill was born in London on 20 May 1806 and died in Avignon, in a house next to the cemetery where his wife was buried, on 7 May 1873 (one sometimes sees the date given instead as 8 May). The remarkable education that he received at the hands of his father James Mill is well known from his description in his Autobiography, and for all intents and purposes Mill had no formal schooling. Mill was an employee of the East India Company, where James Mill was also employed, from 1823 to 1858, when (over his protests) control of India passed to the British government. In 1851 he married the widow Harriet Taylor, who died in 1858. The pair had commenced a scandalously close but, they insisted, strictly Platonic friendship many years before the death of her first husband, and the intimate details of their relationship were then and are now frequently made a topic of entertaining but ultimately idle speculation. The question of Harriet’s influence on his work is a somewhat more serious matter, especially in light of the contrast between the hyperbolic praise that he lavished on her ‘great thoughts’ and ‘noble feelings’ (Collected Works, vol. 18, p. 216) and the far less flattering descriptions of her given by others. Mill served as a Member of Parliament for Westminster from 1865 to 1868. He was a secular godfather to Bertrand Russell, as Jeremy Bentham had been, many years earlier, to him.

The statement that Mill was Britain’s most important philosopher in the nineteenth century looks like a bold assertion, but in fact it should not be even mildly controversial. The Victorians themselves might have thought that someone else, such as Herbert Spencer, better merited this title, but from our perspective Mill has no serious rivals. Indeed, only Charles Darwin could possibly rival Mill’s claim to having been nineteenth-century Britain’s most important intellectual figure. His writings – of which there are many; The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill contains thirty-three volumes – range across all areas of philosophy and into a number of other disciplines, and they include everything from weighty theoretical tomes to newspaper articles on issues of the day. Among his most important works are A System of Logic ratiocinative and inductive (1st edn, 1843; 8th edn, 1872); Principles of Political Economy with some of their applications to social philosophy (1st edn, 1848; 7th edn, 1871); ‘Bentham’ (1838); ‘Coleridge’ (1840); On Liberty (1859); Utilitarianism (1861); Considerations on Representative Government (1861); The Subjection of Women (1869); Autobiography (1873); and Three Essays on Religion (1874).

In epistemology Mill was little bothered by the ‘problem’ of scepticism. He presupposed that we do possess knowledge in more or less all of the areas in which we think that we possess it, and focused instead on the descriptive question of what methods we use to arrive at this knowledge and the normative question of how these methods can be improved. Mill’s answer to the first of these questions has a radically empiricist character. He was not disposed to challenge Hamilton’s principle that ‘the evidence of Consciousness, if only we can obtain it pure, is conclusive’ (Collected Works, vol. 9, p. 125). Beliefs or convictions that are ‘original’, as opposed to having been acquired by experience, are to be regarded as knowledge – intuitive knowledge. Mill conceded this much to his intuitionist rivals, but he claimed that they greatly overstated the amount of our intuitive knowledge; the ontogenesis of a number of beliefs that they thought must have been original can instead be accounted for by experience. Just how thoroughgoing Mill’s empiricism is can be seen from the fact that it extends even to his epistemology of mathematics and logic. With respect to algebra, for example, it is through experience that we learn that the sums of equals are equals, and that ‘collections of objects exist, which while they impress the senses thus’ * * *, ‘may be separated into two parts, thus’ * * *, a fact that we might express by saying that three is defined as ‘two and one’ (ibid., vol. 7, p. 257).

It is also experience that teaches us the principal rules and axioms of deductive logic: Mill maintained that the principle of contradiction, for example, is ‘like other axioms, one of our first and most familiar generalizations from experience’ (Collected Works, vol. 7, p. 277). If this were not the case, he held, then all deductive inferences would merely be (as some indeed are) circular ‘verbal’ inferences, rather than ‘real’ inferences that are genuinely productive of new knowledge. In fact, Mill believed that enumerative induction is ultimately the only kind of real inference, to the exclusion, for example, of inferences to the best explanation. Strictly speaking, from a logical standpoint, ‘all inference is from particulars to particulars’ (ibid., p. 186). The syllogism obscures this fact, even though it is a valuable heuristic aid. In syllogistic reasoning the true inference is always from the minor premise to the conclusion. The general statement that is called the major premise is in essence a rule that directs us to draw certain inferences – to infer, for instance, from the fact that a being is a man that it is mortal – but what really warrants the inference are the particular facts that we have previously observed that exemplify this general statement (e.g. all of the particular men whose deaths have been observed). We could take the ‘shortest cut’ and forgo formulating the general statement altogether, but doing so helps us to see which inferences our evidence warrants and to avoid overlooking evidence that contradicts an inference rule whose employment we are considering.

Mill’s moral epistemology is avowedly anti-intuitionistic, but it is far from clear that he fully delivered what he promised. More will be said about Mill’s moral theory below, but it is well known that he believed that the moral standing of actions depends in some way upon the promotion of happiness (depending upon how one reads Mill, what matters could be how well happiness is promoted by individual actions, classes of actions, obedience to rules of action, the punishment of certain actions, etc.). The purported ‘proof’ of this point is in Utilitarianism, but it shows at most that only happiness is desirable as an end. It does not show that, as Mill asserted, morality must be teleological in structure, that ‘[w]hether happiness be or not be the end to which morality should be referred – that it be referred to an end of some sort … is essential to the very idea of moral philosophy …’ (Collected Works, vol. 10, p. 111). Rather than seeing this assertion as resting on his unpersuasive claim that this must be the case in order for rational arguments about morality to be possible, it may be nearer the truth to see it as resting on an appeal to intuition.

Mill’s radical empiricism led him to the phenomenalist metaphysics that he propounds in Hamilton. Mill was committed to the associationist psychology of David Hume, David Hartley and James Mill, and contra the intuitionists he contended that the belief in matter could be produced by the association of ideas acquired via experience. However, this belief is justified only insofar as matter is conceived of as nothing more than ‘a Permanent Possibility of Sensation’ (Collected Works, vol. 9, p. 183). Mill asserted that associationism can explain why some philosophers conceive of matter as a substratum of our sensations, and why non-philosophers are likely to maintain that this is how they conceive of matter if they are presented with the two conceptions and asked to choose between them (even though the ‘Permanent Possibility’ conception adequately captures the meaning of everyday talk about material objects), but belief in a substratum is unwarranted. One piece of intuitive knowledge that Mill did admit that we possess is that there is more to the mind or self than a mere series of sensations. This we do know from the testimony of consciousness, because experience cannot account for my belief that my occurrent memories and expectations are representations of sensations that have been had or will be had by me. If there is one thing that even a radical empiricist will allow that we do know intuitively then we should expect it to be that the memory is typically reliable, for if we cannot claim to know this then we can hardly claim that people learn from experience, and any empiricist account of how we acquire this knowledge would appear to be question-begging. But as to how it is possible for the memory to function and for the self to be more than a mere series of sensations, Mill earned the derision of critics such as F.H. Bradley by saying that this is the ‘final inexplicability’ (ibid., p. 194).

As a partial answer to the normative epistemological question stated above, that of how we can improve our methods for acquiring knowledge, Mill formulated several eliminative experimental methods for the establishment of the causal laws that he, as a believer in universal causation, took to govern completely every sequence of events. These methods are the heart of his philosophy of natural science. The method of agreement, to choose one, is captured by the following canon: ‘If two or more instances of the phenomenon under investigation have only one circumstance in common, the circumstance in which alone all of the instances agree, is the cause (or effect) of the given phenomenon’ (Collected Works, vol. 7, p. 390). (Mill did recognize that this method as stated only works on the assumption that causes are necessary and sufficient conditions, although he failed to restate it or the other methods in light of the possibility that an effect might be produced by any of a plurality of causes.) Mill was a determinist; he did not exempt human thoughts, feelings and choices about how to act from the law of universal causation. For this reason he believed that these can be the subject of scientific study, and the last book of the System of Logic lays out the fundamentals of his philosophy of the human or ‘moral’ sciences. His work in this area, and especially his philosophy of economics, which he developed at greater length elsewhere, remains highly influential.

Mill’s views in epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophies of logic and science cannot be regarded today as entirely adequate. Some elements of his work in these areas are now out of date, which is inevitable in light of developments ranging from the predicate calculus to Peano arithmetic to quantum mechanics. Other elements have been the targets of influential criticisms, for example Gottlob Frege’s attacks on his epistemology of mathematics (Frege suggested that, on Mill’s empiricist view, three could not be defined as two and one in a world where everything was nailed down) and various criticisms of his philosophy of language, the most distinctive feature of which is his contention that the meaning of a name is that which it denotes. Of course, not all of these criticisms are necessarily valid, and Mill has his defenders on many points. Contemporary analytic philosophers who have been influenced by W.V.O. Quine’s naturalized epistemology and his rejection of the view that logical and mathematical statements are analytic propositions that are insulated from experience have an especially strong reason for appreciating Mill, as John Skorupski has noted, for they can see him as a figure who was asking many of the right questions (and refusing to ask many of the wrong ones) relatively early on, and whose answers were at least of the right general kind.

Mill’s thought enjoys even greater esteem in the areas of ethics and social-political philosophy. Undoubtedly the significance attached to his work in practical philosophy was very low during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, due in large part to the scathing criticisms directed at it by Bradley and G.E. Moore. In the last few decades, however, a number of scholars have endeavoured to interpret Mill with somewhat more charity. The result has been that a number of readings have been advanced according to which Mill’s views are sensible and sophisticated, and highly relevant to current debates.

It is striking, however, just how diverse the positions attributed to Mill are, especially in the area of moral philosophy. Among contemporary philosophers, Mill’s views on moral theory are perhaps the most frequently discussed aspect of his thought. Nevertheless, no confident consensus has emerged concerning the content of his views. Of course, no one hesitates to describe Mill as a utilitarian, yet it is virtually impossible to say anything more specific than this without finding oneself contradicted by other interpreters. Commentators disagree, for example, over whether Mill subscribes to act utilitarianism, to some form of rule utilitarianism, or to some more exotic position; there are passages in Utilitarianism and Mill’s other discussions of morality that apparently lend support to each of these possible readings. Interpreters also disagree over the fundamental question of whether he was a hedonist. Mill’s claim that only happiness has intrinsic value, together with his definition of happiness in terms of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, appears to amount to a clear affirmation of hedonism. This is called into question, however, when he says that virtue, money, etc. can be part of a person’s happiness (Moore commented upon Mill’s apparent identification of money with pleasure that ‘We shall hear next that this table really is really and truly the same thing as this room; that a cab horse is in fact indistinguishable from St. Paul’s Cathedral …’, Principia ethica, p. 71). And when it comes to Mill’s notorious proof which is not a proof of the ‘principle of utility’, there is sharp disagreement not only between those who do and those who do not believe that the argument is coherent, but also between the members of the former camp over precisely how it goes.

What is clear is that Mill’s utilitarianism differs from that of the earlier Benthamites in several respects. Many of these differences stem from Mill’s belief that Bentham’s conception of human nature was too limited and too simplistic. Unlike Bentham, Mill believed that we are able to distinguish qualitative differences between pleasures, and that a lesser quantity of a higher-quality pleasure can contribute more to a person’s happiness than a greater quantity of a lower-quality one. Another dimension of human nature that Mill accused Bentham of slighting is that of character. As Mill used the term, a person’s character consists of his ‘habits of mind and heart’, along with his ‘dispositions’, which are the habits of his will or faculty of choice (Collected Works, vol. 10, p. 7). In other words, his character is made up of the ways of thinking, of feeling and of choosing what to do that have become, for him, a matter of habit. A concern with what people’s characters are like and how they are formed is a recurrent theme in Mill’s thought. He looked forward to the development of ‘ethology’, his term for the science of the formation of character. Early in his life he had the ambition of developing it systematically himself, although he was eventually forced to abandon this project.

Mill attached considerable importance to the fact that the individual is able to exert a fair amount of control over the make-up of her own character, especially the habits of her will. He saw that this point is particularly significant in the context of the ‘free will’ controversy. Mill was a compatibilist: he believed that determinism is compatible with our being morally responsible for our choice of actions. He thought that one of the main reasons that people resist the idea that their choices about how to act have causes is that they conflate this proposition with the ‘depressing’ doctrine that they are fated to act in certain ways and that they cannot act differently no matter how much they want to or how hard they strive. ‘Asiatic’ fatalism says that the proximate causes of actions are entirely external to the agent, whereas the ‘modified’ Owenite version acknowledges that actions are caused by the agent’s character but maintains that the makeup of her character is wholly beyond her control. Mill rejected both versions: a person’s actions are caused by her desires and habits, and a person who so desires can make changes to her habits. On the other hand, however, he has a number of definite and specific ideas about what character traits it is most desirable for people to possess; while not an advocate of ‘virtue ethics’, as that term is used today, he has a great deal to say on the subject of moral and non-moral virtue. Much of Mill’s social and political philosophy is concerned with promoting the institutions and arrangements that he believed would be most conducive to the inculcation of desirable character traits. For Mill, of course, the desirability of character traits will always be a function of their tendency to promote the happiness of their possessor and those whom she directly or indirectly affects.

Mill’s On Liberty is, as he foresaw, another work that is still read and that still exerts a tremendous influence. On Liberty is dedicated to the defence of what Mill disarmingly described as ‘one simple principle’:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

 --(Collected Works, vol. 18, p. 223)

Mill emphasized that this was a principle meant to apply not only against the state but also against other individuals and society at large. In terms of the book’s impact on realworld social and political decision making, Mill’s powerful defence of freedom of expression may be its most important component. He maintained that baneful consequences follow the suppression of ideas, whether the ideas in question are wholly true, partially true, or even wholly false; in the latter case, the danger is that in the absence of a need to defend them against challenge, true ideas will become practically impotent ‘dead dogma’. Philosophically, the richest section of the book is the discussion of ‘individuality’, where Mill argued for the importance of resisting the ‘despotism of custom’ and allowing individuals to choose their own ways of life. He thought that this is important for a variety of reasons. Individuals are best suited to decide what ways of life will offer them the most happiness. Unique individuals of genius may engage in ‘experiments in living’ that will discover new ways of living suitable for adoption by others. Only by choosing a lifestyle can an individual exercise his power to shape his own character. And placing artificial restrictions on individuals’ choice of a way of life will prevent them from developing the active, vigorous character that Mill considered highly desirable.

As with Utilitarianism, a number of interpretative controversies swirl around On Liberty. One important issue concerns the relation between Mill’s ‘Liberty Principle’ and his utilitarianism, for it seems clear that in some circumstances violating the Liberty Principle would yield more utility than would abiding by it; this seems like a very urgent problem if we interpret Mill as an act utilitarian, but it is less pressing if we take him for a rule utilitarian. Another concerns Mill’s conception of ‘harm’. Critics often point out that almost all of our actions affect other people in some way, so that the sphere of ‘self-regarding’ conduct that the Liberty Principle purports to protect from interference is vanishingly small. It seems clear that Mill actually defined ‘harm’ more narrowly than ‘any perceived negative effect’, but his precise definition is not obvious; his characterization of harm in terms of damage to interests is of marginal help since this latter notion is itself quite slippery.

Politically Mill was a cautious democratic. He believed that ultimately the franchise should be made nearly universal (although he would have denied it, for example, to the illiterate and those on public relief), but he insisted on finding a way to allow the wisest and most morally advanced members of the polity to wield disproportionate political influence. He favoured the idea of allowing those with more education to cast more votes, but became convinced that it would be sufficient to have a system of proportional representation that allowed the geographically dispersed moral and intellectual elite – the existence of which was not, for Mill, in question – to be certain of selecting a few members of Parliament, who would then be sure to exercise a great deal of influence over their colleagues. He took very seriously the idea that enfranchised citizens have an obligation to vote, and to vote disinterestedly, on the basis of their judgement about how the public good could best be promoted rather than on the basis of personal or class selfishness. One of Mill’s primary reasons for favouring widespread political participation, in addition to the fact that government tends to be unresponsive to the needs of those without the vote, was that participation tends to have an improving effect on the moral and intellectual character of citizens. This point has been very influential with contemporary participatory democrats.

Mill’s liberal feminism may be rather tame by contemporary standards, but it still has many adherents and it was very radical in the Victorian context. At the time Mill was writing women had little realistic choice in life except to marry, and once married they had little opportunity to be anything more than homemakers; legally, they were virtually property owned by their husbands. In addition, women were entirely excluded from the political sphere (except, of course, for the Queen). Mill sought to end ‘the subjection of women’ by changing the laws and, indirectly, the attitudes, that govern relations between the sexes. He called for the recognition of women’s rights in his writings, particularly The Subjection of Women, and also became more directly involved in the campaign for them; in 1867 he proposed an amendment to the Second Reform Bill that would have given women the vote on the same terms as men. In the Subjection Mill argued that the power which the men of his day enjoyed over women was not only a direct source of unhappiness to the latter but that in addition it had a perverting effect on the characters of both.

Mill is frequently described as a socialist, and in fact he applied this appellation to himself, at least with respect to a certain period in his life (see Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 239). But it is important not to be misled here. Mill was no advocate of ‘state socialism’, and he repudiated centralized ‘revolutionary socialism’ in the strongest terms. (Whether Mill was aware of Karl Marx’s existence is another matter of speculation.) Mill predicted that the members of the working class would reach a point in their moral and intellectual development where they are capable of owning and managing commercial enterprises; at this point, he said, they would insist upon working at employee-owned firms. He also hoped for experimentation with more radical ventures such as socialist and communist villages, although he vacillated over the course of his life over how probable it was that these types of communities would conduce to the happiness of their members. Yet Mill said that workers should only come to own their firms through saving capital and then starting their own enterprises or buying them from capitalists, and that the role of the state in facilitating these transactions should be minimal. Until workers have reached a stage in their moral and intellectual development that would let them acquire firms without simply seizing them, they are not yet ready to manage them on their own. Once they have reached this point, however, the experience of workplace democracy will propel their development still further. While he admitted that there should be limits on the application of the doctrine of laisser faire, Mill was firmly committed to the need for competition between firms, whoever their owners.

Mill showed the concern for the schooling of children that one would expect from someone with such an interest in the educational value of various social, political and economic institutions and arrangements. He believed that all parents should be required by the state to send their children to school, and that where necessary the state should provide them with subsidies to make this possible, but he was not enthusiastic about the prospect of the state actually running all or even most of the schools. This, he thought, had too great of a tendency to produce uniformity. Instead, he favoured the widespread use of what is today known as a ‘voucher’ system, whereby the state provides funds to parents to allow them to send their children to privately run schools. Mill’s willingness to see the state coerce parents to send their children to school shows that a reading of On Liberty according to which Mill believed that the family is a ‘private sphere’, within which the state or society should not intrude, is mistaken. He did not even think that the Liberty Principle prohibited the state from forbidding couples who could not afford to care for children to marry. Mill also called for the state to be vigorous in its protection of women and children against domestic abuse.

Mill’s views on religion are an appropriate topic on which to close. He was somewhat cagey on this subject, both in public discourse – he refused to answer questions about his religious beliefs while running for Parliament – and in his writings. In correspondence Mill said that he had never had a belief in God (Collected Works, vol. 13, p. 560; trans. in Haac, 1995, p. 118). He did write that there is enough evidence for a divine designer/creator in nature to ‘afford a large balance of probability in favour of creation by intelligence’, yet he added that it was possible that a recently proposed alternative explanation for this evidence might turn out to be a better one; this alternative explanation was Darwin’s theory of evolution (Collected Works, vol. 10, pp. 449–50). He was adamant that the existence of evil in the world established that no being could exist who was both omnipotent and perfectly morally good. Mill had a tremendous amount of respect for the moral teachings of Jesus, which he saw as only one part of a complete morality, but he believed that these teachings had been perverted by modern Christianity. He contended that the social benefits attributed to belief in supernatural religion could better be attained through the establishment of a ‘religion of humanity’ (an idea that he borrowed from Auguste Comte, but developed in his own way), which would cultivate in its practitioners a sympathetic identification with the human race.


Collected Works of John Stuart Mill , ed. John Robson, 33 vols (Toronto, 1963–91).

Other Relevant Works

Bradley, F.H., Ethical Studies (1876; 2nd edn, Oxford, 1962).

Moore, G.E., Principia ethica (Cambridge, 1903).

Frege, Gotlob, The Foundations of Arithmetic , trans. J.L. Austin (Oxford, 1950). First published in German in 1884.

The Correspondence of John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte , ed. and trans. Oscar A. Haac (1995).

Further Reading

Bain, Alexander, John Stuart Mill: A Criticism with Personal Recollections (1882; repr. New York, 1969).

Berger, R., Happiness, Justice, and Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Berkeley, 1984).

Crisp, Roger, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism (1997).

Eisenach, J., Mill and the Moral Character of Liberalism (University Park, Pennsylvania, 1998).

Halliday, R.J., John Stuart Mill (1976).

Hayek, Friedrich, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor: Their Correspondence and Subsequent Marriage (Chicago, 1951).

Himmelfarb, Gertrude, On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (New York, 1974; repr. San Francisco, 1990).

Hollander, Samuel, The Economics of John Stuart Mill , 2 vols (Toronto, 1985).

Lyons, David, Rights, Welfare, and Mill’s Moral Theory (New York, 1994).

Packe, John, The Life of John Stuart Mill (New York, 1954).

Robson, M., The Improvement of Mankind (Toronto, 1968).

Ryan, Alan, The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill , 2nd edn (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, 1990).

Scarre, Geoffrey, Logic and Reality in the Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (1989).

Skorupski, John, John Stuart Mill (1989).

Skorupski, John ——— (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Mill (Cambridge, 1998).

Thompson, F., John Stuart Mill and Representative Government (Princeton, 1976).