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John Stuart MillReview - John Stuart Mill
A Biography
by Nicholas Capaldi
Cambridge University Press, 2004
Review by Duncan Kelly, Ph.D.
Aug 12th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 33)

This biography attempts to synthesize a disparate array of interpretative assessments of various aspects of John Stuart Mill's thought, in order to arrive at a broadly coherent assessment and delineation of the relationship between the man and his work. As a work of biography, it succeeds in forcefully presenting Mill as a theorist concerned above all with defending liberal culture in general, and highlights the absolute centrality of individual autonomy to that defense. Thus, Capaldi suggests that previous interpreters, even those to whom he is sympathetic like Skorupski, have marginalized aspects of Mill's work that do not fit into the traditional categorical boxes into which he is usually placed, particularly that of modified utilitarian. For Capaldi, Mill was certainly a 'genetic' utilitarian, but his reaction against Bentham and his father, James, was more thoroughgoing and profound than is typically recognized. However, as he candidly notes at the outset, the primary worry for any potential biographer of Mill is the existence of his own, seminal Autobiography, which often works to constrain any attempt at rethinking the intellectual, thematic and chronological ordering of material pertaining to both the life and work of Mill. The structure is already so thoroughly laid down, and so thoroughly well known, that it is something of a burden for the new biographer, and probably explains the dearth of attempts to write an overall history of John Stuart Mill.

Capaldi's prefatory defense of his enterprise is fivefold. First, simply laying out the connections in Mill's life and thought is a worthwhile endeavor for such an intrinsically important figure. Second, and a corollary of this, new contextualization and interpretation might allow us to better see the true complexity of his thought. Third, and a theme that Capaldi implicitly and explicitly utilizes throughout the study, is the idea that the evolution of Mill's own thought is itself the subject matter of his thinking; to this extent, Capaldi's later focus on the importance of romanticism, conservatism, and the influence of Harriet Taylor upon his performative notion of human autonomy in particular, is an attempt to view Mill's writings as elaborations of his own identity. He develops here Eldon Eisenach's account of Mill's Autobiography as a work of political theory in its own right. The classically romantic idea of making one's life a work of art is, for Capldi, personified in Mill's own oeuvre. Fourth, and correlatively, he hopes that a new biography might help to get around some of the practical limitations of using Mill's Autobiography, which constrains interpretation and presents a rhetorical, partial and necessarily distorted, or at least distorting picture. The fifth and final defense concerns the need to reassess Mill in the context of a fuller understanding of the intellectual life of Victorian Britain based on more recent historical work.

The biography serves a useful function in its attempt to justify itself along these grounds, and will certainly be appreciated by those coming to Mill both for the first time, and more grudgingly, I suspect, by those familiar with his thought. The former are likely to be impressed by the sheer scope of Mill's undertakings which, as Capaldi rightly notes, are in the main often only thought of in terms of the seminal (and late) texts On Liberty, Utilitarianism, Considerations on Representative Government, and On the Subjection of Women. The latter will look to this for a précis and summation of various aspects of different scholarship, and will find plenty in their own areas of expertise to rethink, reject or amend. For all this, however, it is certainly noticeable that Capaldi is, despite his self-consciousness about it, heavily reliant on Mill's own self-presentation in the Autobiography, as well as on contemporaneous biographies like that of Alexander Bain, for the structuring of his assessment of Mill's early years. Noting that Mill is here 'his own best storyteller' (p. 35), Capaldi coherently outlines the radical nature of Mill's early education, and notes the importance of passing vacations both in France noting the impact of Jean-Baptiste Say, and with Bentham at Ford Abbey near Somerset. The hothouse atmosphere of Mill's studying and relationship to his patriarchal master is very well accounted for. Mill's place as a constructed individual, educated so as to become a leader capable of instantiating the political and social reform so desired by his father and Jeremy Bentham, his godfather, seemed to be almost predestined. This only appeared to continue with Mill's steady progression along the career path at India House, as a civil servant employed by the East India Company. Therefore, it is quite a staggering fact that we would do well to remember, and which Capldi rightfully points out towards the end of the biography, that Mill would become the leading philosopher and public intellectual of nineteenth-century Britain without ever having received a university education—he would later also decline university posts, including the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow—having moved straight from home into official work after first becoming acquainted with the Austin's. The concern with aristocratic cliques and corruption, as well as the religious requirements of a classical university education in Britain, were enough to make James Mill forego this aspect at least of his son's education.

Though initially employed thanks to his father's contacts, John soon established a reputation in the company, and indeed was almost immediately employed on 'political' correspondence. This early and long-lasting (he was employed there thirty-five years) exposure to issues of colonialism and the rule of imperial colonies from a modern state thousands of miles away would clearly inform his later practical meditations on the role of government and intervention, as well as culminating in his official report on the importance of the East India Company after its decline in the wake of the 1857 mutiny. Capaldi nods to the complexities here, but doesn't really engage with much of the scholarship about Mill and India, beyond noting the importance of Lynn Zastoupil's work. The 1820s, covering the period before his pronounced mental crisis—on which Capaldi is sensitive, and though he offers the occasional psychobiographical explanation of sublimated resentment against his father and others, gives a balanced assessment—were a decade when Mill helped to launch the London and Westminster Review. His initial attempts to promote an open, distinctively liberal periodical were first presented through this forum, which seemed a logical extension of the activities he was engaged in as a keen member of the London Debating Society.

Capaldi contextualizes Mill's mental state in terms not only of familial resentment, but also of a desire to assert intellectual independence from both his father's crude associationism and also from Macaulay's famous critique of James Mill's 'Essay on Government'. As a philosophic radical, Mill thought that our ultimate goal is indeed happiness, but that we can only achieve happiness indirectly, so that the prerequisite for this end goal is, as Capaldi asserts throughout the work, the active seeking and maintenance of individual autonomy or flourishing. Nevertheless, the individual good must also be reconciled with the common good in Mill's account, so that the struggle for autonomy can only be operationalized in conditions where both paternalism and particularism are absent. Although there is always likely to be an irreconcilable clash of values between individuals, there can be no meaningful autonomy if it is incapable of being fully exercised, and this capacity must be made available to everyone. It is this active role for political education and the cultivation of character that feeds into both his proposals for parliamentary reform and the question of female suffrage, as much as it does his idealist philosophy of mind. Capaldi succeeds, to my mind, in presenting a complete picture of Mill when understood against the background of this concept of autonomy.

To make his case convincing, however, the use of the term 'autonomy' is perhaps surprising in a work that claims to be contextually nuanced, and Capaldi suggests that the twin sources of Mill's concern with the issue were religious Puritanism and secular romanticism (p. 252). But, at least as far as I am aware, Mill uses the term only once, and it is in a late letter of 1871 to Emile Acollas outlining the central thesis of On Liberty as pertaining to 'l'autonomie de l'individu', and which Capaldi quotes from (p. 268). The general sense of what was important to Mill might be well understood by us as 'autonomy', and Capaldi certainly convinces in his argument that there is a clear developmental focus to Mill's thinking based around such an idea, but was it actually Mill's term? Indeed, Capaldi is quick to assert the importance of contextualizing such terms as 'socialism' in order to present a properly historicized account of Mill's writings and to defend him from various more recent writers who have tried to claim Mill for a socialist tradition. It seem to me that the focus on the concept of autonomy seems to try and do an awful lot with a term Mill didn't himself use very much; this is not just semantics, if we are to historically consistent with one term, we should be so with all. Similarly, the presentation of Mill's attempt to reconcile the virtues of a truly or ideally (as opposed to what actually exists) free market economy with technological and civilizational advance against the overweening contemporary spirit of commerce (which seeks simply pecuniary gain) requires some adroit conceptual maneuvering. Mill is presented as a Hegelian theorist of recognition and reconciliation, a quasi-Kantian proponent of the categorical imperative of treating individuals as ends, and as an idealist who had as his favorite philosopher, Berkeley. This broadening out of Mill's corpus into a European context is very welcome; it does, nevertheless, on occasion sound both odd, and given what we know of Mill's relationship with much German philosophy, quite forced. Capaldi also requires, both for his interpretation of Mill's later more famous writings and for his interpretation of Mill's philosophy (especially as outlined in the critique of Hamilton) a distinction between negative liberty understood traditionally as restraint, and freedom as an internal condition over which it is a priori impossible for any other individual to have control. This distinction is not only also mechanical, but also quite problematic I think both conceptually as well as practically, especially given Capaldi's concern to point out the external requirements for the cultivation of character that can enhance the freedom of an individual and a community in the first place.

Capaldi is on firmer and better contextual ground in discussing the relationship with Harriet Taylor and what this did to Mill's own self-perception, his place in Victorian polite society, and in his own family. He successfully shows the remarkable restraint shown by Harriet and John in maintaining a close relationship whilst she remained married to John Taylor, and is sensitive to their short but intellectually stimulating time together after he passed away. The social scandal of Mill and Taylor brought approbation from Mill's family and from many friends. The steely side of his character came to the forefront here, when Mill actively cut himself off from numerous siblings, after they refused to either meet or congratulate Harriet upon her engagement to him. Equally, Capaldi is also excellent in rebutting the crude characterizations of Mill's position by the likes of Hayek and Himmelfarb, who suggest that Harriet's influence was malign, Mill's praise of her impact upon his writings forced, and that it was under her pressing that Mill became far more interested in the condition of the working-classes and of socialism than was proper to his investigations. Capaldi shows the nonsense of these claims, by detailing the importance of both romantic and conservative elements to Mill's thinking, especially the legacies of Carlyle, and Coleridge's notion of intellectual leadership in particular, and by illustrating the long-standing nature of his concern with the nature of political freedom. His discussion of the 'transitional' essays on the idea of civilization, on Bentham and Cole ridge, and on 'The Spirit of the Age', drawn from the periodical he was then editing, are very well-done, and the link to the legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment in the essay on civilization are well-made, if a little underdeveloped. The importance of Guizot and Tocqueville to Mill's formulations are equally well expressed, with Capaldi focusing more on the latter's discussion of democracy really than the formers' account of civilization. Yet a more detailed focus on Guizot—who was Gibbon's editor in France—could have made the connection to the Scots even more clear, as well as outlining Mill's reliance on French political and social theory.

Mill's individualism, however, was drawn from Humboldt in particular. Capaldi is again convincing in suggesting that On Liberty was essentially a joint production by Harriet and John, that it was something they saw as illustrating a major public legacy of their thought, and that it was effectively a reworking of Humboldt with a recognition of Tocqueville's arguments about the social and political characteristics of modern democracy. Capaldi's book also discusses Mill's brief stint as MP for Westminster, noting some of the more interesting details about his candidacy (his chief opponent was W.H. Smith) and his independency of mind. His embroilment in the Governor Eyre controversy, in questions of Irish independence and women's suffrage are all considered, and flow well out of earlier discussions of his voluminous writings on political economy and the 'utopian' socialism of Comte, Fourier and Owen especially. Mill's relationship to socialism in general, and Christian socialism in particular, is equally capably discussed.

Overall, therefore, this is simultaneously a satisfying and a frustrating book. Clearly limitations of space (even in a relatively large volume such as this) must determine the relationship between intellectual and personal biography. But ultimately it is difficult to think of this book as in any sense definitive, even if such a term is resolutely unfashionable, which to be sure is a criticism likely to affect anyone who attempts to write the life of a polymath like Mill (one thinks of the great trouble of writing a life of someone like Max Weber too, where again a posthumous account, though this time written by his wife, has effectively structured for nearly a century the limits of interpretative latitude). If this sounds overly harsh, it is not meant to be so, but where Capaldi is judicious in his criticisms of some (usually older) literature, for example, he neglects a lot of the more recent work done that would both corroborate and challenge his presentation. Equally, he seems broadly content in this work to attempt to contextualize Mill's own Autobiography by using the bounty that is the Collected Works of Mill. These are a treasure trove for scholars, and are indispensable to the writing of any biography of Mill. Yet they cannot be the end point; to have read them is a necessary, but it is not a sufficient condition for the writing of a history of Mill and of Mill's political thought. There are so many controversies within Mill's thought that has engendered such a vast literature, that it is likely to remain impossible for all but the most dedicated and single-minded scholar to devote their life's work to untangling some of the issues. For now, Capaldi's book is a welcome step along the way towards that time.

 

© 2004 Duncan Kelly

 

Duncan Kelly, Ph.D., Department of Politics, University of Sheffield, UK


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