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John Stuart Mill

(1806—1873) philosopher, economist, and advocate of women's rights


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(1806–73)

English philosopher and economist, and the most influential liberal thinker of the 19th century. As the son of James Mill, John Stuart was given an intensive private education, in which he began Greek at the age of three, and Latin (and six of the Dialogues of Plato) at the age of eight (Mill himself remarks that the Theaetetus might have been a little much for him). As a teenager he was immersed in his father's philosophical and political interests until a nervous breakdown at the age of twenty led to a revaluation, and softening, of his Benthamite position. Thereafter, influenced by Saint-Simon and others, Mill maintained a more sophisticated appreciation of the historical forces moulding peoples' ideas, and a less cynical view of the forces of reaction. From 1831 his friendship with the married Harriet Taylor was central to Mill's life; in 1849 after the death of her husband they married. In general philosophy, Mill was an empiricist whose aim was to construct a genuine system of empirical knowledge for use in social and moral affairs as much as in science. To this end he set about rescuing the doctrine from its sceptical, Humean associations. His major discussion of the foundations of knowledge and inference is the System of Logic (1843), whose six books treat of deductive inference in general, mathematical knowledge, induction (see Mill's methods), observation, abstraction and classification, fallacies, and finally social, political, and moral sciences. His distinctions, between connotation and denotation, and between general and singular terms, influenced the later semantics of Frege (who, however, roundly rejected his empiricist ‘pebble and gingerbread’ view of arithmetic); while his work on induction is still the foundation of methodologies of discovering causal laws. As in his later Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865), Mill's project is that which has subsequently been called naturalized epistemology: the attempt to understand mental operations as the upshot of known laws of psychology working on the data of experience.

In ethics, Mill is best remembered for his Utilitarianism (1861 in Fraser's Magazine, 1863 as a separate publication), and On Liberty (1859). Each is a classic of its kind, although Utilitarianism suffers a Victorian strain in its combination of hedonism with distinctions of quality between pleasures, as well as an uneasy blend of act-utilitarian and rule-utilitarian elements (see utilitarianism). It was the principal target of all subsequent critics of utilitarianism, and especially the idealists Green and Bradley. On Liberty is the classic defence of the principle of freedom of thought and discussion, arguing 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’. Among his other works, Mill wrote Principles of Political Economy (1848), and The Subjection of Women (1861, published in 1869).

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_20060518.shtml An audio discussion of Mill by three experts

http://www.phillwebb.net/History/NineteenthCentury/Mill/Mill.htm Bibliographies of writings by or on Mill


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Works by John Stuart Mill