Nineteenth-Century Prose

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Vol 47.1 (Spring 2020)

Special Issue on John Stuart Mill, edited by Sven Ove Hansson


Sven Ove Hansson, “John Stuart Mill in Context: Introduction” (1-26)

John Stuart Mill wrote in a clear style on topics that we can easily relate to, and in a language composed almost entirely of words that we still use. However, the facility with which we believe ourselves to understand him is largely deceptive. This article presents five reasons why we can easily misunderstand him: (1) He often assumed knowledge about circumstances that were well-known when he wrote, but are now largely unknown. (2) Although the central words in his texts are still used today, many of them have undergone considerable changes in meaning. (3) In his discussions on social reforms he often shifted between different time perspectives. These shifts are often unobtrusive enough to be missed by modern readers. (4) He applied several rhetorical devices, in particular practical eclecticism and tactical overreach. (5) He chose to be silent for tactical reasons in some issues concerning religion and sexual relations. For all these reasons, it can be a difficult task to understand what Mill meant, but it is certainly not a task with no chance to progress. To the contrary, it is one of those tasks in which perfection is never possible but improvement always is.

Bruce Kinzer, “J.S. Mill and London” (27-54)

In “The Spirit of the Age,” written in 1831, J.S. Mill observed that a man “may learn in a morning’s walk through London more of the history of England during the nineteenth century, than all the professed histories in existence will tell him concerning the other eighteen.” Schooled at home by his father, Mill never matriculated at college or university. He gave speeches not in the Cambridge or Oxford Unions, but in the London Debating Society or (much later) at Westminster election meetings and in parliamentary debates. For thirty-five years he was employed at India House, the Leadenhall Street headquarters of the East India Company. When not living in Westminster, Kensington, or Blackheath, he resided in Avignon (for nearly half of each year between the death of Harriet Taylor Mill in 1858 and his own death in 1873). Mill almost certainly felt more at home in parts of France than he did in any place in England outside the capital. He was quintessentially a metropolitan intellectual. This article considers some of the manifold ways Mill’s London identity influenced his thought and activity.

David Stack, “The Pleasures of Office Life: Mill at East India House” (55-90)

John Stuart Mill spent thirty-five years of his life working at East India House. For many years, and following Mill’s own lead, Mill scholars consistently underestimated the importance of Mill’s place of employment in shaping his development. This began to change with a growing recognition of the centrality of India to Mill’s thought, but even then the focus remained primarily on intellectual influences rather than Mill’s immediate work environment. This article attempts to put Mill back into the context of East India House and to explore the myriad ways in which office life and office culture—the art and architecture by which he was surrounded, the literary and botanical interests of his colleagues, and the workplace friendships that he formed—helped to shape Mill’s development. The article concludes by arguing that Mill’s work experiences and the culture of East India House need to be more fully integrated into the ongoing attempts to form a full understanding of Mill’s life and thought.

Albert D. Pionke and Emma Annette Wilson, “John Stuart Mill in the Context of His Own Marginalia” (91-120)

It is extremely unusual in the case of a writer as well known and thoroughly documented as Victorian Britain’s leading philosophical empiricist and liberal theorist, John Stuart Mill, to discover a substantial amount of new, unpublished work. However, that is precisely what is contained in the textual margins, endpapers, flyleaves, and title pages of Mill’s private library, once housed at his residence in Blackheath, London and now conserved in the John Stuart Mill Collection at Somerville College, Oxford.  The now-just-under 1700 books and 50 unbound offprints and pamphlets contain tens of thousands of original handwritten marks and annotations that provide a diverse, unique, and largely under-examined context for future research. In this essay, we explore the multiple biographical, historical, logical, and material contexts for Mill’s childhood education provided by the marginalia in his personal library. Without minimizing either the practical or the theoretical difficulties that attend any attempt such as this to extract meaningful knowledge from haphazard archival information, we shall perform a deep dive into a single well-marked book, Franco Burgersdijk’s Institutionum Logicarum (1637), in order to balance Mill’s rather smoothly understated memory of his learning against the extraordinary effort, anxiety, and occasional exasperation recorded by his precocious younger self.

Piers Norris Turner, “The Arguments of On Liberty: Mill’s Institutional Design Approach” (121-156)

This paper addresses the question of whether all that unites the main parts of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty—the liberty principle, the defense of free discussion, the promotion of individuality, and the claims concerning individual competence about one’s own good—is a general concern with individual liberty, or whether we can say something more concrete about how they are related. I attempt to show that the arguments of On Liberty exemplify Mill’s institutional design approach set out in Considerations of Representative Government and related works. Mill’s approach reflects both his debt to Bentham and his own progressive development of the utilitarian tradition. The essay proceeds by setting out the elements of Mill’s institutional designs and then showing that On Liberty neatly applies them, thereby clarifying the structure of the arguments of On Liberty.

Jonathan Riley, “Mill’s Radical Liberal Feminism” (157-196)

Mill’s liberal feminism is genuinely radical thought. As Martha Nussbaum has argued, he anticipates the central insights of today’s radical feminisms without their crippling defects. He consistently extends the liberal philosophical critique of unreasonable hierarchies into the domain of gender; he rejects the traditional public-private dichotomy associated with patriarchy and defends equal justice and rights for all; he dismisses as baseless claims that men and women have different inherent natures and that each gender has its own “normal” sexual lifestyle; and he recognizes that men and women need to cultivate their feelings and emotions as well as their reason and intellect to become well-developed human beings in possession of an admirable moral character. Even so, Nussbaum and other leading feminists have underestimated how deeply radical his liberal feminist thought is. Radical rights of sexual liberty together with freedom from imposed gender identities are among the clear practical implications of his doctrine of individual liberty as outlined in On Liberty. He and his wife Harriet cannot properly be seen as conformists who remain committed to traditional marriage and display conventional attitudes to the division of labor. They are rather committed to an ideal marriage of equals in which the partners enjoy complete liberty to determine and alter their respective roles and functions as they please while fulfilling their obligations to make due provision for their children.

Helen McCabe, “Harriet Taylor and the Development of John Stuart Mill’s Socialism” (197-234)

John Stuart Mill’s assertion that his politics were best described as “under the general designation of Socialist” is often ignored, and—where acknowledged—blamed on his wife, Harriet Taylor. In this article, I explore this particular “Harriet Taylor Myth,” considering in detail Mill’s account of their co-authoring of Principles of Political Economy; Taylor’s own socialism; and the development of their views in the context of events in France in 1848. I conclude that there may be some evidence that Taylor thought France ready for communist experiments in 1849, whereas Mill disagreed, and that she thought the utility gained by securing subsistence would be more significant than he did. In itself, however, this is not enough to claim she was radically “more” socialist than Mill, or that the positions that were included in Principles are not authentically “his” as well as “theirs.” Instead of seeking to avoid Mill’s socialism by ascribing it solely to the (malign) influence of his wife, we ought to take more seriously both their co-authoring relationship and their commitment to a decentralized, peaceful, and voluntaristic—but nonetheless radical—socialism.

Gregory Claeys, “Mill and Marx on Inequality” (235-258)

John Stuart Mill is usually considered chiefly as a theorist of liberty, and Karl Marx, of equality. This essay argues that both writers are closer to one another, particularly vis-à-vis equality, than such a binary juxtaposition suggests. Mill’s views on co-operation, inheritance, land nationalization and feminism are contrasted to parallel positions adopted by Marx. The issue of the persistence of “capitalism,” of social classes, and of inequality of reward is considered. The means of achieving such ends—through political innovation, trades unionism, co-operation or revolution, are also briefly contrasted. Some clear areas of divergence are also indicated, notably in Mill’s neo-Malthusianism, his exposition of the “harm principle,” and his promotion of a positive vision of the “stationary state,” none of which finds a parallel in Marx’s thought.

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