Reeves on Mill : Chapters 6-7

Chapter 6

In the late 1830’s Mill once again became heavily involved with public political events. It was a time of hope for the Radicals; hopes which were centred on achieving a split in the Whigs between the progressive element and the rest, and the introduction of the secret ballot. Mill fretted that he could not be in Parliament organising the action; he had to fall back on his editorship of the now merged London and Westminster Review as a political weapon. The hopes of the Radicals came to nought however, as they were destroyed in the 1837 election. At the same time as he was agitating politically, Mill was also introducing a much wider range of voices to The Review (Carlyle, Sterling, Tocqueville) and writing his own summation of his thoughts on Bentham, which was so negative as to greatly anger many of his Utilitarian and Radical friends. Meanwhile his career was on the up, and he was earning a sum equivalent to £100,000 a year today – comfortably in the top 0.5% of the income distribution.

While in 1838 Mill was still calling for action, by 1841 he was writing ‘the progress of liberal opinions will again, as formerly, depend upon what is said and written, and no longer upon what is done‘ ; Reeves identifies this as part of a pattern in which Mill’s life oscillated between two poles of belief in immediate political change (early 1820’s, late 30’s, 1846, 1848-9,1862 and 1865-8) typically followed by ‘abrupt disengagement’, ‘denunciation of politics, politicians and sometimes the general population, and a re-commitment to the life of the mind.’. But his political activity ‘vitally informed’ his scholarly efforts; even his failures seemed to provoke ‘renewed commitment to the development of ideas’.  An important difference between the two Mills was the time-frame in which they worked. The active Mill was always concerned with the immediate – wider suffrage, greater freedom of speech, rationalisation of welfare and government etc.. The broad Mill was concerned with the longer term – and often with the consequences of the acts the active Mill was demanding – ‘collective mediocrity, a tyranny of public opinion, an over-weaning central state’; ‘this dual time-frame  explains what sometimes appear to be contradictory positions taken by Mill’.

Reeves then spends some time discussing the question of whether or not Mill and Harriet had sex, a question which does not particularly interest me. However there are ‘some philosophical implications’ as Reeves puts it, as well simple biographical curiosity.  He was the ‘century’s pre-eminent thinker on the content of a good life – of which sex must surely play a part’. In his own version of Utilitarianism it was not merely the quantity of pleasure which counted but its ‘intrinsic quality’ (Caryl Churchill very amusingly satirises Bentham’s possible quantification of the pleasures of sex in her play SoftCops – see ). Mill distinguished between lower pleasures – ‘animal appetites’, and higher pleasures – ‘of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of moral sentiments’.  To decide on which was most preferable Mill suggested sampling : ‘Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure’. In  Mill’s view the majority of people who sampled sex and poetry would find the latter ‘a more intrinsically valuable pleasure’ in Reeves’ words – I am not sure that this is a wholly realistic view! However, Reeves continues, ‘according to his [Mill’s] own philosophical rules he would have been prohibited from making any such judgement whatever unless he had himself experienced both’. Reeves notes that, whatever the truth about their sex life, there is no question that Mill’s adoration for Harriet was ‘lifelong and total’.

In 1841 Mill’s younger brother Henry died which led to his reflecting on mortality and giving a summary of his own faith: ‘There is only one plain rule of life eternally binding, & independent of all variations in creeds & in the interpretations of creeds & embracing equally the greatest moralities & the smallest – it is this – try thyself unweariedly till thou findest the highest thing thou art capable of doing, faculties and outward circumstances being both duly considered and then DO IT-‘ (which is both Victorian in its high-mindedness and Romantic in its emphasis on individual action). [1]

Chapter 7

In March 1843 the six book treatise whose full title was ‘A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation’ (thankfully better know as ‘System of Logic’!) appeared. Despite that fact that it was in competition with Ruskin’s Modern Painters, Carlyle’s Past and Present and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol the book was ‘an immediate commercial and academic success’. This came as a considerable shock to Mill who wrote in 1872, a year before his death, as he was preparing an eighth edition ‘How the book came to have, for a work of the kind, so much success, and what personas compose the bulk of those who have bought, I will not venture to say read, it, I have never thoroughly understood.’ Reeves comments that Mill has probably correct in his assumption that not all who bought the book read it! It was rather ‘a vital addition to the bookshelves of all self-respecting educated households’.

So what was its content? It was ‘a search-and-destroy mission against intuitionism’; intuitionism being all philosophies which start from the position that there are certain truths (such as Kant’s a priori truths) which exist in the world and it is the job of science to discover them. Most intuitionists claimed a divine origin for these truths and said they were known to be true ‘because their falsehood was simply inconceivable’; an example would be that 2+2=4. Mill was unconcerned with the basis of mathematics but ‘he knew that intuitionist thinking provided an important foundation for conservative political philosophy.’ What Mill wanted to do, as he explained in a letter, was make an attempt at ‘placing metaphysical and moral science on a basis of analysed experience, in opposition to the theory of innate principles….the regeneration so urgently required, of man and society…..can never be effected under the influence of a philosophy which makes opinions their own proofs and feelings their own justification’ (this insistence upon experience provides a fascinating link between Mill and existentialism). The existing political and social order could all be seen and justified as ‘natural’, innate and therefore the idea of the innate had to be combatted.

In System of Logic Mill’s ‘principal task was to out-line a non-intuitionist version of…epistemology – a theory of knowledge, or how we know what we know.’ Mill started by questioning the validity of syllogism as a source of knowledge: in the syllogism ‘All men are mortal, The Duke of Wellington is a man. Therefore, the Duke of Wellington is mortal’ Mill asks what is the basis for the starting position (‘All men are mortal’) – do we know it intuitively? Mill says no – it is the result of ‘an accumulated store of examples’ – ‘All inference is from particulars to particulars’. Given this ‘Disproof of any opinion, by way of a new experience, had to be a constant possibility’. ‘For Mill all human knowledge was based on human experience, and alterable through experience’. We construct truths and concepts to help us explain the world in the knowledge they could, some day, be disproved; ‘for him there was simply no such thing as a self-evident truth’. One of his pet hates was the tendency of intuitionists – like Carlyle – to use ‘upper case letters to highlight the innateness of certain truths: The Infinite, The True’ and so on.

Reeves claims that Mill’s philosophy of knowledge looks dated from a 21st perspective but does not really explain why. He says that phenomena which scientists work with today (Black holes, relativity) could not be arrived at by inferring from particular to particular – without accepting Mill’s epistemology I would say this is rubbish; the very last things I am going to accept as ‘knowledge’ are things like Black holes and relativity as I have absolutely no idea what they mean – they are just as abstract as Carlyle’s Infinite.

Of course the most radical implications of System of Logic were theological – ‘Although Mill steered clear of theology in the Logic, formally leaving open the question of supernatural power, it was clear to careful readers that his assault on intuitive truth left God on pretty shaky ground’ (!!).

In the chapter on ‘Liberty and Necessity’ Mill….

attempted to rescue his growing insistence on freedom of choice and autonomous character-formation from his continued belief that psychology was a science

Reeves calls this ‘circle-squaring’, which I suppose any attempt at reconciling free will with some form of predestination (obviously not theological in Mill’s case) always is. In the first place Mill attacked what he termed ‘fatalism’ ; by this he meant the belief that……….

not only whatever is about to happen will be the infallible result of the causes which produce it (the true necessitarian doctrine), but moreover that there is no use struggling against it; that it will happen however we may strive against it.

Mill disliked the political implications of fatalism. For instance the Owenites had argued against the punishment of criminals on the grounds that they were shaped by their circumstances and therefore not responsible. Mill ‘agreed that character was the spring of action’ but insisted that it could be reshaped ‘both by external factors and by the individuals themselves.

‘We are exactly as capable of making our own character, if we will, as others are of making it for us…the work is not so irrevocably done as to be incapable of being altered.’

What was required was a science which delineated how character was formed: this science ‘which would be ‘An Exact Science of Human Nature’,was dubbed by Mill ‘ethology’. It would use psychology to…

gauge the influence of the moral and physical environment on individual as well as ‘national or collective’ character

The intention of this was political ……………

The subject to be studied, is the origin and sources of all those qualities in human beings which are interesting to us, either as facts to be produced, or to be avoided…..and the object is to determine….what actual or possible combination of circumstances are capable of promoting or preventing the production of those qualities.

But for Mill it was also personal: he wanted to prove that he was not just a creature of his father’s creation but his own, free, man.

Mill thus attempted to steer a middle course between the extremes of free will and fatalism. Of course our characters are shaped by our circumstances, he said: this is why the social science could fuel human improvement, by changing the environment appropriately. But at the same time he maintained that our desire to shape our own destinies was itself one of those circumstances.

Each of the opposing doctrines contained a ‘half-truth’. Reeves comments of Mill’s argument here that, while Mill was pleased with it, it does not stand up to close scrutiny. It is true that people can desire to change their characters ‘But where does the desire to change our character come from in the first place? Only, surely, from the same source as our character.’ The Mill scholar Alan Ryan wrote…

Either there is already in the agent some element which will lead to his wanting to change and being able to change, or else there is nothing he can do about it. And in either case, the picture we get is of the agent sitting watching the character’s behaviour – not the picture Mill wanted to give us.

In the end Reeves observes Mill’s attempt to reconcile free will with ‘strict laws of psychology’ was doomed to failure. Perhaps Mill realised this. Certainly he abandoned his attempts to found a science of ethology. In later works he veered between stressing that characters were shaped by circumstance (The Subjection of Women) and issuing a ‘manifesto for freedom’ (On Liberty).

Mills’ convictions about individual responsibility made him dismissive of what he called ‘pseudo-philanthropy’, and were in fact very small sociological improvements: this may have been influenced by Mill’s personal dislike of Peel under whose Government they were enacted. But Mill also disliked the idea that people should rely on others to improve their lot.

Mine is the masculine species of charity which would lead me to inculcate in the minds of the labouring classes the love of independence, the privilege of self-respect, the disdain of being patronised or petted,the desire to accumulate and the ambition to rise

This is from the free-trader and radical Richard Cobden but Reeves says they would suit Mill perfectly. How fascinating that Cobden genders his charity! Presumably a ‘female species’ of charity would be seen as one which provided for people (whether by the state or the private individual) – fed, clothed, housed them and so on. One where people looked after each other in fact! Indeed this sentence is so wonderfully rich in terms of its application to all kinds and manner of mid-Victorian thought that I have highlighted it. It is important to remember that Cobden was ‘radical’ although the statement comes straight from the Thatcherite text-book ( and probably the vast majority of American presidents’ ones!). Why radical? Because the conservative version was exactly opposite. It would provide the charity, but it wanted and expected the deference – and perhaps it was usually female? (although I would have thought there are plenty of examples of male paternalism). Marvellous examples in Trollope – see Lady Lufton and the Lady of Launay: here is the latter….

It must be acknowledged that in the performance of her duty she had become a rural tyrant. She gave away many petticoats but they all had to be stitched according to her idea of stitching a petticoat. She administered physic gratis to the entire estate, but the estate had to take the doses as she chose to have them mixed.

(how powerful is great writing : Trollope conveys an entire political philosophy in a couple of witty sentences). This is exactly the opposite of Cobden’s ‘masculine charity’ and he would have detested the Lady of Launay: we remember too Lady Lufton’s opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws – free trade would have been a horror to her. One needs to be quite clear here and remember that we are talking about false opposites: that is not to say that, gendered or not, they are not opposites – they are – but to remember that there are many other alternatives, not the least of them the creation of a society in which no-one needs to be given charity because all are adequately fed, housed and cared for, but equally no-one needs to ‘accumulate’ or ‘rise’ because avarice and competition are no longer values worthy of emulation. In other words socialism. Which would have been anathema to both Cobden and the Lady of Launay!

I think however that there are serious problems with Reeves’ arguments here. And I am not so sure that Mill would have aligned himself with Cobden’s statement (this is pure speculation on Reeves part which is why I have italicised above). There is a certain tendency running through Reeves to attempt to reclaim Mill from what he would see as the left. The problem is with his definition of the latter. It is quite extraordinarily statist. Obviously if you see the left as represented by various forms of state paternalism, either the benign and limp type of European social democracy (the Labour Party) or the horrific Stalinist variety, then you will see Mill’s position as anti-Left. But these are hardly the only forms of the Left (not mine for a start!). Thus Reeves writes that Mill was silent on the great issue of the working day, which was limited to 10 hours in 1847: Mill wrote privately that….

The doctrine of averting revolutions by wise concessions does not need to be preached to the English aristocracy. They have long acted on it to the best of their capacity, & the fruits it produces are soup-kitchens  and ten-hour bills

Reeves cites this as an example of Mill’s ‘anti-philanthropic’ dimension which his ‘left-of-centre’ admirers ‘gloss over’. But in fact it would be a truism for those on the far Left (and I include myself). This is the problem when you have someone who does not seem to have any understanding whatever of what is meant by the Left, and identifies it entirely with statism, writes about politics. The reality is that Mill’s position on these matters makes him far more left-wing than I imagined him to be.

Reeves says that what Mill saw as the danger of this ‘renewed paternalism’ was that English workers would become quiescent : he pointed out that there were workers who were provided with food, lodging and clothes and they were slaves. Against this Mill preached the need for universal education and the formation of co-operatives (once again a position which certainly aligns him with neither Cobden nor Trollope’s ladies). When standing for Parliament in 1865 Mill made his views crystal clear..

‘The rich had sympathies enough for the poor when they came before them as objects of pity,’ he told an apparently supportive crowd, ‘they had almost universally a kind of patronising and protective sympathy for the poor, such as shepherds had for their flocks (laughter and cheers) – only that was conditional upon the flock always behaving like sheep (renewed laughter, and hear, hear)

Note that ‘apparently supportive’: if Reeves was less wrapped up in his own ideology, he would surely understand that if, among the crowd, were victims of the type of ‘charity’ practised by the Lady of Launay they would indeed have been supportive, and understood exactly and implicitly the point that Mill was making. Reeves goes on to claim ‘that Mill was wrong’. His basis for this is that the working classes of the 1840’s ‘were a very long way from the personal economic circumstances necessary for any reasonable conception of individual choice and agency.’ This is wrong on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin! It rests of course an assumption that there is a desired model of progress in which individuals become wealthy and educated enough to be responsible members of a democracy in which they can then, and only then, be ‘free’. This is in itself a political model. It is paternalistic and gradualist. It obviously denies the possibility of revolutionary action – those who stormed the Bastille and overthrew the French monarchy, those who created the Russian Revolution, the Paris Commune etc.etc. would certainly not be considered by Reeves as having the ‘economic circumstances’ which would enable them to have ‘individual choice and agency’ – and being a reactionary I imagine he would argue that these were examples of mass choice not individual choice. But I do not want to pursue this political investigation too far: my point is that the extremely limited nature of Reeves’ political understanding means that he is unable to do justice to or comprehend the nature of Mill’s argument, which is a serious disadvantage in a work of this kind. Reeves sets up a wholly false opposition between the social reformers concerns with food, money, health and Mill’s concern with freedom. For his variety of statist leftism (which is how he identifies the left – that is with the first position) there may be an opposition; for many other varieties there are not, and there also plenty of varieties – anarchism to begin with – which would side with Mill. My conclusion is that Reeves writing on Mill’s politics, blinded as it is by his own biases, is not to be relied upon.

Turning back to Mill’s personal life he received a tremendous blow in 1844 when his great friend John Sterling died. Mill sent a ‘moving farewell’….

I have never wished so much for another life as I do for the sake of meeting you in it….I shall never think of you but as one of the noblest, & quite the most loveable of all men I have ever known or ever look to know.

Harriet and Mill withdrew more into private life and deepened ‘both their emotional and intellectual relationship’…..

In the Autobiography, Mill said that Harriet’s cerebral strengths lay in two main areas: in the description of ‘ultimate aims; the constituent elements of the highest realisable ideal of human life’, and also in the delineation of ‘immediately useful and practically attainable’ social changes

where his own strengths lay in the region between the two, that of moral and political theory.

In 1853 Mill wrote a long review of George Grote’s massive history of ancient Greece: this review contained Mill’s ‘most important writings on classical history’ and show how he was influenced by his perception of Athenian democracy. Mill wanted  to wrest back control from ‘Tory perverters of Grecian history’ who were attacking Athens [I have seen a couple of television programmes in recent years which do the same thing so this is an on-going battle]. For Mill his picture of Athenian democracy represented something of an ideal, in far as he believed it combined the ‘solidaristic’ feelings which he regarded as necessary for nations at all times, with freedom of individual thought and action….

Indeed much of his [Mill’s] political philosophy can be seen as an attempt to recapture what he saw as the best features of Athenian democracy, for an industrial world.

Meanwhile Mill was at work on his next major work, Principles of Political Economy, which would be published in 1848. He was also in 1846 heavily engaged in propaganda on the Irish question, producing 39 Morning Chronicle articles on the Condition of Ireland. He was incensed when Queen Victoria ordered her subjects to fast for a day in sympathy…

a piece of empty mummery…on the occasion of a public calamity…belonging to an entirely by-gone order of religious ideas

For Mill the only long-term solution was the recovery and redistribution of uncultivated waste-lands. He described the state of Ireland as ‘ an abomination in the sight of mankind’, ‘the work of England’s ignorance, England’s prejudice, of England’s indifference’, and very specifically the result of an entirely wrong ‘social relation’ between the owners and cultivators of the soil. This article was not published at the time but laid the ground for his England and Ireland 20 years later. Reeves says that Mill’s solution was imaginative but that he failed to understand, as did most of the political class, the reality of the famine. Reeves is on surer ground here than earlier because clearly the immediate need was for an enormous and unprecedented relief effort. And in the end Mill was ignored on both sides of the Irish Sea. He despaired, retired from the day-to-day political struggle and went back to his book. As Reeves writes ‘As 1847 closed, a quietly successful new year beckoned’. Whether or not this is actually how Mill felt, 1848 obviously changed everything for him as it did for so many others: ‘He would be, for the last time, a French revolutionary’.

My reading of these two chapters has made me more and more intrigued by Mill; indeed I am growing to like him more by the chapter. Which is the opposite in the case of Reeves!



1) Ellen responded on Trollope-l as follows…

 “ Thank you so much for the review and summary, Nick. I enjoyed reading it, and learned things. I’ll start with what I liked best. The quotation from Mill with which you concluded:
There is only one plain rule of life eternally binding, & independent of all variations in creeds & in the interpretations of creeds & embracing equally the greatest moralities & the smallest – it is this – try thyself unweariedly till thou findest the highest thing thou art capable of doing, faculties and outward circumstances being both duly considered and then DO IT”

What a beautiful thing to hold to. I shall try to remember it as I read for and write my book today — all the while never knowing if anyone would want
to publish it or I’ll even finish. But such a thought helps me to finish.

It’s moving to think he wrote it after his brother’s death.

I find the distinction between two Mills, while artificial, helpful. One man who thought the way to achieve progress was through changing the minds and hearts of people and as a single person the only way you could hope to do that and reach people then was writing and somehow disseminating that writing. (Today you can make films too) Mill’s legacy is today in his books which people remember and turn to when they are trying to achieve something.  The other is the pragmatic. No use to have understanding of health care for real even if you have it for decades and more, if the reactionary and powerful who are making money from the situation right now and will do anything anyhow to forestall change whether for 3 months or 300 years. So  Mill the activist.

It’s interesting to know a little about the 1830s; all I’ve can remember now is things I’ve read about Ireland where the situation was dire.

Last thinking about whether Mill and Harriet had sex, how would it rate in Benthamism? Amusing thought. Since most people would probably rate sex higher than reading poetry, we must assume Mill would think it important and go for it. This is an absurdly academic way of looking at it, no? I assume they did as people do, and didn’t write about or admit it, as people do that too, to protect themselves. The Churchill was clever. For my part I remember when my advisor told me why he chose to do a Ph.D. in literature, he said after food and sex, books were what he loved best, reading. I used to have sex and books right up there in the first category together with food much further down; now I probably like books best, not just poetry and I probably (to tell the real truth) prefer prose more as a regular diet because you can say so much more in it. ”

I responded…

“A terrific insight as usual; when we start to attempt to apply Utilitarianism at a personal level its lack of understanding of human needs and the crudity of its definition of happiness becomes apparent. Having said which the fact that it does at least make happiness central still makes it – for me – more attractive than many philosophical systems; however inadequate it may be there is something human-centred buried there which I value.”

But it is the personal application which I value. For me I don’t think food has ever featured that highly as a pleasure (and luckily I have never really had to go hungry, which would of course alter my perception). When I was younger sex was certainly my main desire; indeed an all-consuming and obsessive one at times. How much of it was a pleasure is more difficult. I was extremely bad at it when young. Now I think there is no question that reading is my greatest pleasure. Although there are of course others, mostly reflected on this blog somewhere or other. Depression has a great effect on the perception of these matters in its ability to destroy all possibility of pleasure, which is one of its’ most devastating effects. One becomes aware of the fragility of pleasure, the extent to which it is subjective.


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