Happy Birthday John Stuart Mill
” Under the tutelage of his imposing father, himself a historian and economist, John Stuart Mill began his intellectual journey at an early age, starting his study of Greek at the age of three and Latin at eight. Mill’s father was a proponent of Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of utilitarianism, and John Stuart Mill began embracing it himself in his middle teens.
Born in 1806, John Stuart Mill was the eldest son of James Mill and Harriet Barrow (whose influence on Mill was vastly overshadowed by that of his father). A struggling man of letters, James Mill wrote History of British India (1818), and the work landed him a coveted position in the East India Company, where he rose to the post of chief examiner. When not carrying out his administrative duties, James Mill spent considerable time educating his son John, who began to learn Greek at age three and Latin at age eight. By the age of 14, John was extremely well versed in the Greek and Latin classics; had studied world history, logic and mathematics; and had mastered the basics of economic theory, all of which was part of his father’s plan to make John Stuart Mill a young proponent of the views of the philosophical radicals.
By his late teens, Mill spent many hours editing Jeremy Bentham’s manuscripts, and he threw himself into the work of the philosophic radicals (still guided by his father). He also founded a number of intellectual societies and began to contribute to periodicals, including the Westminster Review (which was founded by Bentham and James Mill). In 1823, his father secured him a junior position in the East India Company, and he, like his father before him, rose in the ranks, eventually taking his father’s position of chief examiner.”
” 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.” “
” John Stuart Mill’s view on liberty, which was influenced by Joseph Priestley and Josiah Warren, is that the individual ought to be free to do as he wishes unless he harms others. Individuals are rational enough to make decisions about their good being and choose any religion they want to. Government should interfere when it is for the protection of society. Mill explains,
“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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right…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 him, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Freedom of speech
An influential advocate of freedom of speech, Mill objected to censorship. He says:
I choose, by preference the cases which are least favourable to me – In which the argument opposing freedom of opinion, both on truth and that of utility, is considered the strongest. Let the opinions impugned be the belief of God and in a future state, or any of the commonly received doctrines of morality… But I must be permitted to observe that it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. And I denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less if it is put forth on the side of my most solemn convictions. However, positive anyone’s persuasion may be, not only of the faculty but of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of opinion. – yet if, in pursuance of that private judgement, though backed by the public judgement of his country or contemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal. “
Further Reading & Resources
John Stuart Mill (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Mill, John Stuart [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
John Stuart Mill – Philosophy Pages
John Stuart Mill – Utilitarianism
John Stuart Mill : Biography – Spartacus Educational
John Stuart Mill – The ultimate collection of online works, papers …
John Stuart Mill – Papers and essays on his philosophy
John Stuart Mill: On Liberty