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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Editions
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Essay Collections
  • Historical Background
  • Poetry and the Feelings
  • Method
  • Political Economy
  • America and Democracy
  • Government and Reform
  • The Subjection of Women and Feminism
  • Autobiography
  • Comparative Studies
  • New Economic and Ethical Criticism

Victorian Literature John Stuart Mill
Lucy Hartley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0100


John Stuart Mill (b. 1806–d. 1873) was the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the 19th century. He was taught by his father, James Mill, who set out a rigorous and strictly rational system of education on utilitarian principles. He learned Greek by the age of three, and Latin by the age of eight, followed by arithmetic and geometry before commencing a thorough study of logic at the age of twelve and political economy at thirteen. He also spent a formative year in France with the family of Jeremy Bentham’s brother at the age of fourteen. The demands of his education and the isolation of his childhood contributed to what he later described in his Autobiography (1873) as his “mental crisis” of 1826. The experience caused him to reevaluate utilitarian philosophy, and he began reading Wordsworth, Coleridge, Goethe, and Carlyle, as well as Comte and the St. Simonians, and considering the possibilities for a “Radical philosophy” that could improve humanity by cultivating the feelings and imagination as well as the intellect. Mill worked as a civil servant at the East India Company (like his father) for more than thirty years, beginning in 1826. In addition, he became a regular contributor to the Westminster Review, founded by the philosophical radicals in 1824, and he published important essays on “Civilization” (1836), “Bentham” (1838), and “Coleridge” (1840) and a long review of the first volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835). In 1830 Mill met Harriet Taylor and they began a close but unconventional relationship, because Taylor was already married. Mill and Taylor eventually married in 1851 after the death of her husband; the marriage lasted for seven years until her death in 1858. On Liberty (1859) is the most widely read and influential of Mill’s works; it presents an argument for an open society and individual freedom in terms of moral rights, shared values, and the “harm principle.” It is often considered alongside The Subjection of Women (1869), in which Mill compared the legal status of women to the status of slaves, and argued for equality in marriage under the law. Utilitarianism (1863) is also immensely important because it represents Mill’s modification of Benthamite utilitarianism through an ethics that links the rightness of actions to the promotion of happiness. His other major works are: A System of Logic (1843), Principles of Political Economy (1848), and Considerations on Representative Government (1861).

General Overviews

The following texts represent a few of the many general accounts of the work of John Stuart Mill. Robson 1968 is the key work and well worth reading, because it explains the coherence of Mill’s social and political ideas and reevaluates his ethical theory. Ryan 1987 follows Robson in presenting a persuasive case for the connections between the social and moral thought. The Mill Newsletter, published from 1965 to 1988, is a valuable repository of information about Mill. Semmel 1984 interprets Mill’s moral thought via the concept of virtue and is a useful introduction to this difficult topic, while Skorupski 2006 is a succinct overview of the most important themes in Mill’s work; it is accessible to the general reader and undergraduate students.

  • The Mill Newsletter. 1965–1988.

    A publication of the Mill Project, edited by John Robson, Michael Laine, and Bruce Kinzer, and published by the University of Toronto Press from 1965 to 1988, after which it merged with the Bentham Newsletter to form Utilitas. It published short articles on themes, questions, and issues relating to Mill, book reviews, and a list of recent publications. Available online from the website of the UCL Bentham Project.

  • Robson, John M. The Improvement of Mankind: The Social and Political Thought of John Stuart Mill. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968.

    An important work that explores “the unity of Mill’s thought” from the Benthamite influence on his formative years to his mature attitudes toward morality, social progress, and the reform of government. Argues against the view that Mill’s social and political theories are inconsistent and unsystematic, and for their coherence via the ethical notion of improvement. Now out of print but available in large research libraries.

  • Ryan, Alan. The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill. 2d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1987.

    Argues for the consistency between Mill’s views on freedom and his views on morality as part of a project to establish a science of human nature. Discusses Mill’s philosophical program for understanding human nature and demonstrates how it was part of a systematic defense of empiricist epistemology and utilitarian ethics. (Originally published in 1970.)

  • Semmel, Bernard. John Stuart Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

    Offers an account of Mill’s characteristic opinions in the context of ethical, philosophical, and historical conceptions of the theory and practice of virtue. Considers the significance of the myth of Hercules, exploring its personal meaning for Mill and its relevance to his view of a good society.

  • Skorupski, John. Why Read Mill Today? London: Routledge, 2006.

    A polemical introduction to the major themes of Mill’s writing, which argues for the relevance of Mill in the 21st century. The last two chapters place Mill in relation to modernity and are especially useful on the continuing importance of his views of democracy, culture, and liberalism.

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