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Born: 1806, London, England

Died: 1873, Avignon, France

Major Works: A System of Logic (1843), Principles of Political Economy (1848), "on Liberty" (1859), "Utilitarianism" (1863), An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865), Three Essays on Religion (1874)

Major Ideas

All knowledge is derived originally from sense perception.

Matter, or the external world, can be defined as the permanent possibility of sensation.

Mind is reducible to successive conscious states.

Trite inference is always accomplished through induction rather than deduction.

Pleasure alone is intrinsically good and pain alone is intrinsically bad.

Pleasures differ from each other qualitatively as well as quantitatively, a "higher" pleasure being intrinsically better than a "lower" pleasure.

The only justification society has in interfering with the liberty of action of any individual is self-protection.

Given the existence of evil, God cannot be both omnipotent and morally good; if he exists, he must be limited in power.

Although John Stuart Mill published substantial works in almost 'every area of philosophy, his main interests were in ethics and social thought. The reason for this is understandable. His father was James Mill, who was, along with Jeremy Bentham, a leading member of the Philosophical Radicals. This group of reformers was dedicated to the task of ridding society of its injustices and modeling it according to the utilitarian tenets advanced by Bentham in his influential work, An introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Brought up in surroundings of constant discussion and ferment concerning social issues, Mill soon found himself following in the footsteps of his father and Bentham.

Mill was educated at home. He began to study Greek at the age of three and Latin at eight. By fourteen, he had read widely in the ancient classics, history, economics, mathematics, and logic. He began publishing scholarly writing at sixteen.

Mill's remarkable education had a special purpose--to groom him for leadership in the reform movement of the Philosophical Radicals. In this goal it was eminently successful: Mill became the chief spokesman for liberal causes in nineteenth-century England. But it had an unfortunate side effect: Intellectual force-feeding led him to a nervous breakdown at the age of twenty.

Mill never held an academic post. Instead he worked for thirty-five years in the offices of the East India Company. His position gave him considerable free time, and he wrote on a wide variety of topics, ranging from technical philosophy to current social problems. Much of his writing consisted of short pieces, but he also published several substantial books and influential essays. After his retirement, he spent much of his time in Avignon, in southern France, although he served from 1865 to 1868 as a member of Parliament.

Although Mill was educated to carry on the utilitarian tradition and although he clearly attempted to do so, a study of his writings reveals a gradual but widening gap between his thought and that of his teachers. In particular, Mill found himself unable to confine himself to the narrow and rigid tenets of Bentham's philosophy. Its stark intellectualism, he concluded, unduly ignored the emotional side of human nature, and its egoism offered no satisfactory account of our social feelings. In his development of the Benthamite position, Mill added a strong, and needed, humane dimension. But, in doing so, he often reached conclusions that seem inconsistent with his utilitarian assumptions.

A System of Logic

Although A System of Logic is concerned in part with logic, its scope is much broader, most of its voluminous contents being devoted to what Mill called "induction," or scientific method. The reason for this emphasis lay in Mill's empiricist theory of knowledge. If all of our knowledge has its origin in sense perception, we cannot expand on what we know through the method of deduction, which only makes explicit the knowledge we already possess. We need, therefore, a logic of discovery: This is induction.

An apparent exception to Mill's view is mathematics, which seems to be deductive yet expands our knowledge. Mill argues, however, that mathematics is an inductive science, its foundations lying in experience. When, for example, a geometer concludes that two straight lines cannot enclose a space, he means that he has never observed such a phenomenon and is unable to conceive of its occurrence. The necessity expressed in the word "cannot" is psychological rather than logical.

Induction rests on the principle of the uniformity of nature, or the view that causes operating in the past will continue to operate in the future. Since the ultimate aim of science is prediction, the notion of the uniformity of nature is fundamental to it. But this raises a question: How can we justify this axiom? It is certainly not self-evident; rather, Mill holds, we must found it on past experience. The axiom is, itself, an inductive generalization, based on our past experiences of uniformities in nature. But, according to some critics, this justification begs the question. All that our repeated experiences tell us is that nature has been uniform in the past, but what we need is to justify our belief that it will continue to be so in the future and, of this, past experience offers us no guarantee. Nevertheless, Mill made an important contribution to scientific method through his analysis of four methods of inductive reasoning. Now known as "Mill's methods," these are the methods of "agreement, differenc e, residues, and concomitant variations." No full account of these methods can be given in a limited space. Suffice it to say that they are designed to aid the scientific investigator in his or her work by helping to locate, among the complex array of data, the precise cause producing the particular phenomenon he or she is attempting to explain.

An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy

Written as a critique of the philosophy of the Scottish philosopher William Hamilton (1788-1856), the Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy would appear to be of little importance, as was its target. Nevertheless it is important, not because of its criticisms of Hamilton but because of its inclusion of Mill's own views on epistemology and metaphysics. The basis from which Mill argues is the epistemological thesis that everything we can know must be known through sense perception. Hence our knowledge must be limited to what our senses reveal-conscious experiences of sounds, colors, and so forth. Nevertheless, we believe in the existence of an external material world independent of our conscious states.

The belief in an external world is to be explained, Mill maintains, by the psychological association of ideas. Some of our perceptions repeatedly go together, forming a group--say, our ideas of color, brightness, warmth, and roundness. We associate this group of ideas together, calling it the sun. But that does not mean we are aware of an external, physical object; rather, all we know are the conscious experiences we group together and give a name. Mill uses this epistemological theory to draw an ontological conclusion. By the concept "matter" we mean the "permanent possibility of sensation." By defining matter in this way, Mill was able to avoid postulating the existence of an external world, which, if it actually existed, would in any case be unknowable.

We also believe that we have minds, Mill writes. But it is apparent that we cannot be directly aware of our minds as real entities. All that we can introspectively observe are our conscious states. As in the case of matter mind must be defined as the permanent Possibility of introspection. As Mill concludes: "We have no conception of Mind itself, as distinguished from its conscious manifestations. We neither know it nor can imagine it

Such a theory of the mind has problems, which Mill recognizes. If the mind is only a series of conscious states, how to explain memory? Can a series of conscious states remember previous states or, if memory is to occur, must there not be a permanent entity different from the states themselves to perform this task? Mill confesses himself unable to account for memory: "I think, by far the wisest thing we can do is to accept the inexplicable fact [of memory] without any theory of how it takes place...."


Mill's "Utilitarianism is the centerpiece of his philosophy After beginning by reaffirming the hedonistic theory of his mentor, Jeremy Bentham, Mill soon wanders from the strict hedonist path. His first diversion turns on the evaluation of different kinds of pleasure Bentham had maintained that qualitatively pleasures are all on a par and, therefore in evaluating them we must rely on quantitative measures alone Mill could not accept this narrow doctrine He believed that some kinds of pleasure, whatever their quantity, are intrinsically superior to others It is better to be a human being:. dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied." Whether the distinction is consistent with hedonism or not, most people would surely agree with Mill on this point.

Mill's second major divergence is his rejection egoism Although he was a psycho of Bentham's logical hedonist (in that he believed each person seeks his or her own pleasure), Mill denied that this theory of human motivation implies egoism. Even though we are by nature pleasure-seekers, we can be trained through proper development of our feelings to find pleasure in the pleasure of others.

"On Liberty"

Mill's essay "On Liberty" is one of the great defenses of individual human liberty in Western literature. Mill states his theme near the outset, writing: "The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute." The denial that society has any right to impose on the private activities of citizens was extraordinarily influential, particularly in the development of liberal ideals and practices in nineteenth-century Britain and elsewhere. It remains a living defense of freedom today. Nevertheless, as a theory, Mill's concept of individual liberty raises problems. In particular, we can ask: How do we distinguish between those activities that affect ourselves only and those that affect others as well? In fact, do we ever do anything of importance that affects us alone, and has no effects on anyone else?

Mill's essay "On Liberty" is a defense of a liberal social order and Mill himself was a believer in democracy. Nevertheless, he saw dangers in democracy because it could result in a tyranny of the majority. Warning against this danger, he wrote: "If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."

Principles of Political Economy

The Principles of Political Economy is devoted to economic theory. Although its details are of importance mainly to the economic historian, the book has interest for a wider audience, for Mill's analyses of economic arrangements and conditions are carried out against the background of a system of values. This system, grounded in his utilitarian ethics, is enriched by his constant concern for individual liberty, self-development, and social justice.

For the student of Mill's thought, the most important features of the Principles are the changes Mill made in it. The book went through seven editions, from 1848 until 1871. The first edition was dominated by the laissez-faire theory of the classical economists, but succeeding editions revealed a steady movement in Mill's mind in the direction of socialism. Although Mill did not embrace socialism, fearing that too much governmental power would pose dangers to individual liberty, he came increasingly to be convinced that social justice can hardly be realized through the economics of unbridled capitalism.

Three Essays on Religion

The Three Essays on Religion, though written earlier, were published together in one volume only after Mill's death, in 1874. They reveal an ambivalence in his views on the fundamental questions of religion. Two points in the essays are of particular philosophical importance--the existence of God and the problem of evil. Mill rejected any a priori "proof" of the existence of God but was willing to concede that the argument from design, because it was based on empirical evidence, had at least some plausibility. On the problem of evil, he was vehement. Given the obvious existence of evil, God could not be both omnipotent and all-good. Rather, an omnipotent being who would allow such evil is not worthy of our worship. Mill's most forceful statement of this judgment, though it appears in his Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy, sums up his argument in the Essays: "I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go." To summarize Mill's religious views, although he found some basis for belief in a deity if that deity is limited in power, and he conceded the utility of religious belief, he was more inclined toward what he called a "religion of humanity" than to one that trusted in the supernatural.

Further Reading

August, Eugene. John Stuart Mill. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975. A survey of Mill's philosophy designed for the general reader rather than the specialist.

Bain, Alexander. John Stuart Mill. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1882. This intellectual biography is important because written by a distinguished philosopher who was both a follower and friend of Mill.

Berger, Fred R. Happiness, Justice, and Freedom. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1984. A detailed exposition and analysis of Mill's moral and political philosophy.

Mill, John Stuart. Autobiography. The World's Classics. London: Oxford University Press, 1924. In this famous autobiography, Mill tells the story of his life to 1870. Of special interest is his account of his remarkable education.

Schneewind, J. B., ed. Mill: A Collection of Critical Essays. Modern Studies in Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1968. In this collection of essays, a number of distinguished philosophers discuss various aspects of Mill's thought.

Stephen, Leslie. The English Utilitarians. 3 vols. London: Duckworth, 1900. This classic work, by an eminent nineteenth-century English intellectual historian, is devoted mainly to the utilitarianism of Bentham and the two Mills. Volume 3 contains an account of John Stuart Mill's life and thought.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999

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