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John Stuart Mill - Biography

John Stuart Mill was born in London on May 20, 1806 and died May 8, 1873 in Avignon, France. He was a philosopher, economist and political theorist. He was the eldest son of the historian and economist James Mill who, later assisted by Jeremy Bentham and David Ricardo, gave John Stuart his prodigious education. The rigorous upbringing did bear its fruit, by the age of 14 Mill was well versed in both Greek and Latin, and in the subjects of history, mathematics, logic and, what became his specialty, political economy.

At the young age of 14, John Stuart Mill went to pursue his studies in France where he then met Henri Saint-Simon. Over the following few years he edited Bentham´s fragments on the theory of legal evidence. He then refused to study further in Oxbridge and was instead secured a position in the East India Company in 1823; he continued to work there until 1858. Mill had had a nervous breakdown at the age of twenty and suffered from severe depression. This is often considered a consequence of his rigorous education. He eventually recovered, in part due to his engagement with the poetry of William Wordsworth. As well, during this time he distanced himself from Benthamism, working to add a more idealist note to it. He was also influenced by August Comte’s work during this period and such reflections can be seen in Mill. Yet during this growth period Mill never entirely discarded utilitarian principles. Empiricist by nature, Mill instead worked to use such principles in a positive rather then a critical sense. This positivistic stance, he was convinced, was the way towards a real progress in human knowledge and the possibility of freedom to be attained.

In 1865 Mill was elected as a Member of Parliament for Westminster, where he remained for three years. During this same period he also served as Rector of the renown University of St. Andrews. Mill was very pro-active and worked to implement reforms towards proportional representation and labour unions, and supported women’s rights. He was the first parliamentary deputy to support a woman’s right to vote and was a co-founder of the first women’s suffrage organization.

It was not until 1843 that John Stuart Mill became known as a philosopher. In this same year he published System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, his most systematic work.

Whatever is known to us by consciousness, is known beyond possibility of question. What one sees or feels, whether bodily or mentally, one cannot but be sure that one sees or feels. No science is required for the purpose of establishing such truths; no rules of art can render our knowledge of them more certain than it is in itself. There is no logic for this portion of our knowledge. But we may fancy that we see or feel what we in reality infer.

Attacking “intuitionist” philosophy, he argues in favour of logic as the most adequate method of proof. Despite the fact that truth “may seem to be apprehended intuitively,” Mill stresses the fact that, “it has long been ascertained that what is perceived by the eye, is at most nothing more than a variously colored surface.” It thus the object of logic to “distinguish between things proved and things not proved, between what is worthy and what is unworthy of belief.”

In 1848, Mill published Principles of Political Economy, which soon became the most important text of his time. The book examines the conditions of production, namely labour and nature. Following Ricardo and Malthus, he emphasizes the possibility of change and social improvement and examines environmental protection needs. In order for these to be obtained, he considers a limitation of both economic growth and population growth, as the polis itself is indispensable. Furthermore, Mill argued in favour of worker-owned cooperatives, which clearly reflect his views.

On Liberty, published in 1859, caused the greatest controversy of John Stuart Mill’s career and has since become a classic of liberal thought. Written and developed in close collaboration with his wife, Harriet Taylor, Mill examines the nature of power and argues for an absolute freedom of thought and speech. For Mill it is only through such “freedom” that human progress can be attained and preserved. As he states: “The subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, […] but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” He thus asserts a „very simple principle“: “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 civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others[…] The only part of the conduct of any one, 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. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

One of his main trajectories is that in the course of democratization there is always the danger of tyranny of the majority. This is a danger one cannot be protected from, even though the majority might be wrong. In general, for Mill such liberty is only applicable and possible for people who are able to decide for themselves, therefore such notion excludes children and those he calls “Barbarians.”

John Stuart Mill develops a utilitarian ethical theory in Utilitarianism (1861/63). Once more he distinguishes between theories of intuition and those of experience, whereby it is the “greatest-happiness principle” that is the foundation of all utilitarian ethical principles. The ultimate goal of utilitarianism, Mill argues, is to achieve such happiness for the majority of people: “To do as one would be done by, and to love one's neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”

John Stuart Mill's works have never shied away from controversy. Mill’s Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865) is said to contain the first secular appearance of Phenomenalism. It was only after this work that this doctrine became the standard among scientific philosophers during this time. Co-written with his wife, The Subjection of Women (1869), was quite radical for its time, and caused yet another controversy. The essay argued in favor of equality of the sexes employing utilitarian arguments. Mill was convinced that the inequality of women would impede human progress in general. For Mill the only way to find out whether there are actually differences between men and women, he argues, is by experiment.

Mill chose to publish this essay relatively late in his life, possibly to avoid controversy. For similar reasons he did not want to have his Three Essays on Religion published during his lifetime (they only appeared in 1874), though these were not as radical as his followers had hoped. Convinced that they would impede progress, Mill here argues against an all-powerful god and traditional religious views in general. Instead, he proposes a “religion of humanity,” wherein humanity itself is reverenced.

During his lifetime, Mill was quite prolific and produced a great number of works in various fields such as economics, social philosophy, logic, but also religion and ethics. Among his most important ones are Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy (1844), Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (1859), Considerations on Representative Government (1861), Auguste Comte and Positivism (1865), England and Ireland (1869). His fragmented Autobiography was posthumously published in the same year of his death; he died on May 8, 1873 in Avignon, France.

John Stuart Mill was a British Philosopher. (May 20, 1806 – May 8, 1873)