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John Stuart Mill, who has been called the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the 19th century, was a British philosopher, economist, and moral and political theorist. His works include books and essays covering logic, epistemology, economics, social and political philosophy, ethics, and religion, among them A System of Logic, On Liberty, and Utilitarianism.
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In 1826, John Stuart Mill experienced what he would later call in his autobiography a “mental crisis,” during which he suffered a nervous breakdown marked by depression. It was likely triggered by the intense stress of his education, the continual influence of his domineering father, and other factors, but what emerged from this period is in the end more important than what caused it: Because of the depression,
Mill started to rethink his entire life’s work thus far and to reformulate theories he had previously wholly embraced.
Mill’s new path began with a struggle to revise his father’s and Bentham’s work, which he suddenly saw as limited in a number of ways. This new drive was perhaps triggered by the poetry he had begun reading, most notably that of William Wordsworth. Mill found something of a mental balm in the verses of Wordsworth. Over the course of several months, his depression disappeared, and with it many of his former firmly held ideals.
Mill came to believe that he had been emotionally stunted by his father's demanding analytical training, that his ability to feel had been compromised by the constant cultivation of his intellect, and that this emotional component was lacking from what the radical philosophers had been espousing. He therefore sought a philosophy that could overcome the limits imposed by culture and history (e.g., natural rights) on any possible reform movement and would advance the roles of feeling and imagination.
Mill began to dismantle much of the negative (and therefore limited) polemic of Bentham and his father. He understood that fighting the negativity against which he was rebelling with more negativity was futile, so he allowed himself to see the good and to view the defenders of the old ways not as reactionaries but as those who have always advanced the good aspects of their generally flawed ways of thinking.
Mill must have considered his own role in advancing his formerly held beliefs, as he did not abandon Bentham’s utilitarianism entirely, but now centered his thoughts on its “positive” elements instead of attacking it critically and destructively; he focused on how its best parts could be used constructively in the creation of a new society. He advanced in his endeavor by immersing himself in the writings of a wide variety of thinkers (and corresponding with many as well), including John Ruskin, Auguste Comte and Alexis de Tocqueville, and editing a new journal that he co-founded with his father and Charles Molesworth, the London Review.
In 1832, Jeremy Bentham died, followed closely by James Mill in 1836. With the deaths of his two mentors, Mill discovered that he had even more intellectual freedom. He used that freedom to create a new philosophic radicalism incorporating the ideas of thinkers such as Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle. He also acknowledged that while he was breaking away from Bentham, there were aspects of his mentor’s philosophy that he intended to preserve.
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