A Blupete Biography Page

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) [Mill Quotes]

John Stuart's father, James Mill (1773-1836), was a "grim and exacting man." James Mill and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) were close friends, together they founded the utilitarian school in philosophy ("the greatest happiness of the greatest number"). James Mill accepted the theories of Malthus and was a friend of Ricardo; he was an admirer of the French encyclopaedis Claude Helvetius (1715-71); he was a "doctrinaire believer in laissez faire."1

John Stuart Mill's education came from his father, and his father's friends, particularly, Bentham.

When it came time to go to work, John joined his father as his assistant at the India House; Mill rose through the ranks to become the chief of office in 1856 and retired with a pension, when, in 1858, the East Indian Company dissolved.

John Stuart Mill's great writings were written in his spare time. They are on the 'NET. On Liberty (1859) is probably his most famous work. Among his other books are Principles of Political Economy (1848), Utilitarianism (1863), and his celebrated Autobiography (1873) .

While he set out to follow the strict utilitarian line, John Stuart had a severe mental crises (1826-27), after which he departed somewhat from "the utilitarianism of Bentham and his father by humanizing it and adding a note idealism." In time he developed utilitarianism into a more humanitarian doctrine. Mill became a strong advocate of women's rights and such political and social reforms as proportional representation, labor unions, and farm cooperatives. As an empiricist Mill was to subscribe to the notion that all knowledge comes to us through experience; and that there is no such thing as innate ideas, no such thing as moral precepts.

To gain an appreciation of Mill's philosophy it will be necessary to be acquainted with a school of philosophy known as positivism. The French philosopher, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), is considered to be its founder. No one will question the laudable goals of those who subscribe to positivism, including the "social scientists" of today; it is just that the premises on which these people proceed, are wrong. Human beings are individuals and a collection of them is but just that, a collection of individuals; and the collection will not take on a different life of its own: society is not an independent creature with a separate set of governing laws. It was on this basis that Sir Karl Popper formulated his criticisms. Popper thought that both Mill and Comte were wrong in treating collections of people as if these collections were physical or biological bodies, such that scientific methods might be employed to predict future events.

"That Mill should seriously discuss the question whether 'the phenomena of human society' revolve 'in an orbit' or whether they move, progressively, in 'a trajectory' is in keeping with this fundamental confusion between laws and trends, as well as with the holistic idea that society can 'move' as a whole - say, like a planet."2
Sir Karl, however, gave full credit to Mill and Comte as having made "great contributions to the philosophy and methodology of science." But, their doctrine that the course of society might be predicted by "historical laws of succession is little better than a collection of misapplied metaphors."

Another thinker3 was of the view that John Stuart Mill treated "his assertions as if they have scientific authority, as if they have been demonstrated, when they have not been at all. ... Mill's fundamental principles have neither proof nor philosophical authority, but are commitments to action, the outcome of assertions to claim knowledge of the nature of the world and the direction men's duty ought to take within it: ... it is difficult to avoid feeling that much of what we will characterize as his arrogance is connected with want of clarity at this point."4

I should also say, that while Mill advanced the cause of democracy to a considerable degree -- in 1869, he eloquently argued for the right of women to vote -- he nonetheless believed, like Plato, that "higher minds" should set the tone of society.5

And, finally Sir James Fitzjames Stephen on Mill:

"He [Mill] thinks otherwise than I of men and of human life in general. He appears to believe that if men are all freed from restraints and put, as far as possible, on an equal footing, they will naturally treat each other as brothers, and work together harmoniously for their common good. I believe that many men are bad, a vast majority of men indifferent, and many good, and that the great mass of indifferent people sway this way or that according to circumstances."6


A featured sketch in a book


Biographical Sketches: The Thinkers


1 "Mill takes the ground of the Golden Rule, that a man may do anything that he wishes to if he does not therefore injure his fellowmen. The "government" has no right to interfere with him, not even for his own good, as long as he is not injuring other people. ... The primary function of government as seen by Mill and his school was the protection of people from force or fraud, that is defence in war, safety in peace against violence, and security against cheating." (Stephen Leacock, Our Heritage of Liberty (London: Bodley Head, 1942) p. 48-9.

2 See Popper's 1957 work, The Poverty of Historicism, pp. 118-9.

3 Maurice Cowling. See his work, Mill and Liberalism, as quoted in Friedman on Galbraith.

4 From Cowling's book as quoted by Friedman on Galbraith, p. 31.

5 Fifty years, plus, were to pass before woman suffrage was to come: 1920, in the United States; and 1928, in Great Britain.

6 Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873); (University of Chicago Press, 1991) at p. 226.


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2011 (2019)

Peter Landry