In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Stuart Mill

  • Introduction
  • Collected Works
  • Biographies
  • General Overviews
  • Companions, Handbooks, and Edited Volumes
  • Epistemology and Metaphysics
  • Psychology
  • History
  • Utilitarian Art of Living
  • Political Economy
  • Representative Government
  • Feminism
  • Religion
  • Intellectual Impact

Philosophy John Stuart Mill
Jonathan Riley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0396


John Stuart Mill (b. 1806–d. 1873) was a brilliant philosopher who also displayed a passion for justice and equal rights. He represents the British empiricist “school of experience” at its finest, a school that includes luminaries such as John Locke, David Hume, David Hartley, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and Alexander Bain. He was a naturalist who held that humans are to be understood as belonging to the natural order. He was also a phenomenalist, which has epistemological and metaphysical aspects. For him, human knowledge is confined to appearances; that is, occurrences, memories, and expectations of sensations: we have no means of knowing the real essence of things in themselves, which we may believe produce our sensations but lie hidden behind them. He was neither a metaphysical idealist nor a materialist: he makes the epistemic claim that humans cannot know whether a fundamental substrate is matter or spirit or both, but he never denies that it exists. Remaining agnostic about fundamental ontology, he endorses a “psychological” approach to metaphysics, according to which we can analyze how the human mind constructs complex mental states, including ideas, desires, emotions, and volitions, out of sensations on an a posteriori basis in accord with psychological laws, with the caveat that some mental phenomena may remain inexplicable. This psychological approach is admittedly compatible with George Berkeley’s idealism, but it is also compatible with a belief in the existence of matter defined as “permanent possibility of sensation,” where the permanent possibility exists independently of whether we are actually experiencing the sensations. We cannot know that the possibility necessarily exists, but we observe that it always does, and this supports an enumerative induction that a fundamental substrate lies behind our sensations, although we have no idea of its real nature. Mill goes on to construct a pluralistic liberal version of hedonistic utilitarianism in accord with his naturalism and phenomenalism. His argument that utilitarianism can support a system of strong liberal rights, including a distinctive right of absolute liberty for self-regarding conduct that does not cause any nonconsensual harm to others, which he considered a suitable extension of the right of religious liberty, continues to inspire interest, although most scholars are not convinced. He was also a prominent political economist, theorist of representative democracy, and radical feminist. But his defense of the British Empire and of despotic government for barbarian populations now provokes outrage from modern critics, even if he had in mind a “tolerant imperialism” and a “self-abolishing” despotism designed to prepare the natives for self-government.

Collected Works

Robson 1963–1991 is the standard variorum edition. As a general rule, the introductions by various scholars to the volumes composing this edition are very helpful and repay study. Many other fine editions of Mill’s main works are in print, such as the Oxford World’s Classics editions.

  • Robson, John M., ed. The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. 33 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–1991.

    Includes Mill’s books, articles, letters, public and parliamentary speeches, newspaper writings, writings on India, and editorial comments on the 1827 edition of Jeremy Bentham’s Rationale of Judicial Evidence and on the 1869 edition of James Mill’s Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind. The final volume provides extensive indexes for the collection.

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