A Middlesex University resource - Click for referencing advice
Other authors and other works
home page for social
science home page to Andrew Roberts'
web site the ABC Study Guide home page
Timelines: 1826, 1848, 1851, 1859, 1869

John Stuart Mill and

Harriet Taylor
on Freedom as Self Development

Draft by Andrew Roberts
Click on Harriet Taylor's picture 
for the essay on freedom as self development 
that she and Mill wrote in 1848

This is a chronological examination of the idea of freedom as self development in the works of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Harriet Taylor (1807-1858), two close intellectual companions after 1830.

Both were born during the wars with France when Civil Liberties in Britain were at an all time low. The years of war and the years after:

"..were plentifully bespattered with laws designed to crush out every form of Radical agitation or potentially dangerous combination among the lower classes." (Cole, G.D.H. 1938 p.101)

Both were life long advocates of the value of freedom. It was a key issue in their thinking and they developed their own intellectual brand: freedom as self-development. They believed in social progress through the development of mind and character and, in the Enlightenment tradition, believed this growth depended on people being free to exercise their own capacities (Compare with Kant on What is Enlightenment?)). They were social optimists who put their faith in freedom, democracy and education - themes they believed were linked - often in complex ways - and the key issue was freedom. When they were born few people could vote and there was no state education. They thought that if democracy was to be consistent with freedom it required education. It was partly due to their efforts that (shortly before John died) the vote was given to many working class men and elementary education was provided for all. The social life they witnessed appeared to them a mixture of progress and regression. When they were born some women had the vote. When they died, none did. In the mid-winter of Victorian chauvinism, they were amongst the few who advocated equality of the sexes. An equality that they believed had to be built on freedom.


For good and bad reasons Mill is often thought of as the great Victorian liberal. The bad reason is the false belief that he was primarily an apologist for laissez-faire. The good reason is because liberalism is about freedom. It is the freedom side of a debate or dialogue between authority and freedom that began (in English culture) in the late 17th century with John Locke's efforts to refute the absolutism of Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes. (See Roger Scruton's models of liberalism and conservatism.)

Mill and Taylor developed this debate in rich new directions.

Concepts of freedom come in a multitude of shapes and sizes. John and Harriet developed the concept of freedom as self-development. In On Liberty they called this "individuality as an element of well being".

To distinguish it from economic freedom, and from political and intellectual freedom, I sometimes call it: personal freedom.

The idea of freedom as self-development is radically different from the idea of freedom supported by Friedrich Hayek (1889-1992), one of the intellectual mentors of the British New Right. For Hayek, freedom is first and foremost economic freedom: all aspects of it depend on the free market. Many things that John and Harriet would have counted as essential com- ponents of freedom are dismissed by Hayek as "so called positive freedoms", which are not really freedoms at all. John was certainly not opposed to the free market. But he would not have accepted it as the essential component of freedom. For him and for Harriet, freedom was first and foremost personal freedom: a quality of the mind and character of human individuals. Whether economic liberties fostered or hindered personal freedom was, for him, an open question. There was no doubt in his mind, however, that economic practices had to be judged not just from efficiency grounds, but also by their effects on personal freedom. Locke was primarily concerned with political and intellectual freedom, Hayek, like Adam Smith, with economic freedom. Personal freedom is central to John and Harriet's thought. What it is I can show with a few quotes from the book that demonstrates most vividly their ideas on freedom: not On Liberty ( Mill, J.S. 1859), but The Subjection of Women ( Mill, J.S. 1869). Personal freedom is not a luxury, it is something we need for our human development. John says that:

"After the primary necessity of food and raiment, freedom is the first and strongest want of human nature." ( Mill, J.S. 1869 par 4.19)

"There is nothing, after disease, indigence, and guilt, so fatal to the pleasurable enjoyment of life as the want of a worthy outlet for the active faculties." ( Mill, J.S. 1869 par. 4.21)

John accepted Aristotle's belief that the main object of government is to promote virtue and intelligence in the people (Mill, J.S. 1861 pp 207-208). In The Subjection of Women he makes it clear that in his view a free government promotes the highest virtue and intelligence. He writes of:

"the ennobling influence of free government - the nerve and spring which it gives to all the faculties, the larger and higher objects which it presents to the intellect and feelings, the more unselfish public spirit, and calmer and broader views of duty, that it engenders, and the generally loftier platform on which it elevates the individual as a moral, spiritual and social being." ( Mill, J.S. 1869 par. 4.20)

This romantic idea of freedom is foreign to the economic liberalism of Hayek. For him, an unselfish public spirit and a calmer and broader view of duty are throwbacks to a more primitive age: residues of the virtues and emotions that were appropriate to societies that hunted in packs. (See Hayek, F. 1983 and 1988)


John and Harriet did not meet until 1830. So we must look first at the development of his ideas on freedom before that date. We will look at the development of his personal psychology in the mid 1820s and then at how these experiences were reflected in his thoughts on academic psychology expressed in his first major work: ( A System of Logic (1843). Although written long after he met Harriet this is a book on which he is quite clear they did not collaborate "except in the minuter matters of composition". ( Mill, J.S. 1874 ch.7 p.147)


The most important episode in the development of Mill's ideas on freedom was a period of depression he experienced in his early 20s. This was associated with his discovery that utilitarian philosophy (as taught by his father and Jeremy Bentham) was inadequate to his inner needs and was resolved by his recognition of the importance of the Romantic poets, psychologists and philosophers to his self-development. (See Halliday, R.J. 1976 and Stillinger, J. 1969)

The romantic poets were concerned with freeing the imagination from the restraints of classicism. (See WILLIAMS 1976). One of the greatest of them, Coleridge, also explored the limitations of empirical philosophy and psychology, and argued that imagination is essential to perception. Coleridge, S.T. 1817 pp***) This caused serious problems for John. He was quite sure that the liberation of feeling and imagination is essential to self- development, but he was equally sure that empirical reason is essential to freedom. In his A System of Logic the claims of empirical reason were predominant: but not without some concessions to the claims of imagination.


John Stuart was privately educated by his father, James Mill (1773 - 1836) a close friend and disciple of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). James had strong ideas on education. John started learning Greek when he was three years old and proceeded to Arithmetic, History, Latin, Algebra, Geometry and Political Economy by the time he was fourteen. His recreation was a daily walk with his father, who examined him as they walked, to see how much he had learnt.

When John was fourteen he went for a year to France. This seems to have been a bit of a holiday. When he came back his father gave him a French edition on Bentham's works to read. Mill was familiar with Bentham. Nevertheless a passage near the beginning on the interpretations people give to standards of right and wrong (Bentham, J. 1789 chapter 2 footnote to section 14 in the English) struck him very forcibly. He had something like a religious conversion. When he picked the book up he was an ordinary human being with mixed opinions. When he put it down he had a "philosophy", even, he suggests, "a religion" ( Mill, J.S. 1874 par.3.3).

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that claims "good" is what avoids pain and maximizes pleasure. Bentham thought this was the key to reforming the whole legal system. He said the aim of good legislation should be the "greatest happiness of the greatest number". Some might argue that this could be achieved under a dictatorship. So there is no obvious reason to link utilitarianism with liberals or freedom. Bentham, however, argued that the individual is the best judge of his or her own happiness. The way to maximize happiness is to leave people free to make their own choices. So, in Bentham's philosophy, utilitarianism and liberalism are neatly related.

John's new philosophy was a progressive, reforming one. In Bentham's principle that the "greatest happiness of the greatest number" should be the object of morals and legislation, John thought he had discovered the great tool for reforming all laws and social institutions - and for making everyone as good and as happy as they can be. For the next five years he busily and happily got on being a reformer of the world. His main reform activity was writing articles, but he also propagandized more directly. In 1823, aged 17, he was arrested for distributing pamphlets on birth control. He was walking along throwing them into the "areas" in front of houses - that is, he was throwing the pamphlets down to where they would be found by the servant girls. John was a new Malthusian. Malthus had argued that the working class would breed to the limits of subsistence. John reversed the argument: If it was possible to control numbers it would be possible to improve conditions.


For five years John found happiness in his reform activities. Then, in the autumn of 1826, when he was 20, he found he was in a "dull state of nerves" and not interested in the things that normally gave him pleasure. In this state he asked himself:

If I got all the reforms I seek - would I be happy?

And the answer that came back was no. He says:

"At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for." ( Mill, J.S. 1874 ch.5 p.81)

But this period of depression opened him to new influences. He read the romantic poets: particulary Wordsworth ( Mill, J.S. 1874 ch.5 pp 88-92), and he studied Coleridge's philosophy (Turk, C. 1988 pp 44-59, Mill, J.S. 1874 pp 92 + 97). He came to believe that for human happiness, the internal culture of the individual is just as important as the external structures of society:

"I, for the first time, gave its proper place among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances, and the training of the human being for speculation and for action. I had now learnt by experience that the passive susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities, and required to be nourished and enriched as well as guided." ( Mill, J.S. 1874 p.86)


Mill was an empiricist: he believed that all ideas are the result of sensations. Empiricist psychology had been challenged by the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Coleridge pointed out that if empiricist psychology is correct it means that sensations, not poets, write poetry. The empiricist model is no good for understanding poetry. It is a passive model. What is needed is a model that stresses the active imagination of the poets. Coleridge, S.T. 1817)

John attempted to reconcile empiricism with the imagination. In A System of Logic he suggested that the mind is in fact active. It is capable of synthesizing ideas and sensations into new forms. The analogy he used was that of chemistry. What the mind makes of sensations, he argued, is very different to what the elements are separately. An example we could take is the production of water by using an electric spark to force two gasses, hydrogen and oxygen, to combine.

He argues that "complex laws of thought and feeling ... must be generated from ... simple laws", but adds that:

" ... the effect of concurring causes is not always precisely the sum of the effects of those causes when separate, nor always an effect of the same kind with them." ( Mill, J.S. 1843/1987 6.4.3, p.39)


Harriet was the daughter a surgeon, a Mr Hardy, who was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons and the Unitarian Church. She had five brothers and a younger sister, Caroline. An unhappy childhood is said to have driven her into an early marriage in 1826 with John Taylor, a prosperous wholesale druggist.

Harriet was linked intellectually to a group of radical men and women who wrote for a magazine the Monthly Repository (editor: William J. Fox). She met John Stuart Mill in 1830. Over the years an intellectual partnership developed. She introduced him to her favourite poetry and they both wrote for the Monthly Repository. John's interest in feeling alarmed his utilitarian friends - some of whom blamed Harriet. Their views were sufficiently close for a friend, Eliza Flower, to ask Harriet whether a recent article she had read (June 1831) was by John or Harriet. ( Hayek, F. 1950 quoted Rossi, A. 1970 p.20.)


Sometime in 1831 or 1832 Harriet and John exchanged essays on women and their place in marriage -

Harriet's short essay is a plea for freedom of affection. Freedom of affection is needed for the full development and refinement of character:

"Love in its true and finest meaning, seems to be the way in which is manifested all that is highest best and beautiful in the nature of human beings."

"Are we not born with the five senses, merely as a foundation for others which we may make by them - and who extends and refines those material senses to the highest - into infinity - best fulfils the end of creation - that is only saying, who enjoys most is most virtuous."

Freedom in the expression of affection between people, she argued, is vital to the development of human character. So she wanted very liberal divorce laws that would allow people to separate without giving reasons and without great expense, but subject to a minimum two year pause between suing for divorce and contracting another marriage.

The physical senses are stepping stones to higher senses. Women, however, were required to be virgins when they married and so were completely ignorant of the content of the relationship they were legally entering into. Boys, on the other hand, grew up with habits of freedom and low indulgence. So that (with exceptions) men were generally sensualists whilst women were generally not. The result was unbalanced relationships. Unbalanced in that men had all the pleasures (such as they are) and women all the pain. The consequent relationship was detrimental to the companionship and character of both:

"One observes very few marriages where there is any real sympathy or enjoyment or companionship between the parties."

One day, divorce will be unnecessary because:

"I have no doubt that when the whole community is really educated, though the present laws of marriage were to continue they would be perfectly disregarded, because no one would marry."

(The essay and Mill's are in Hayek, F. 1950 and Rossi, A. 1970)


The ideas on freedom and self-determination expressed in Harriet's early essay were taken further in an essay she eventually had published in 1851. In this she wrote:

"The proper sphere for all human beings is the largest and highest which they are able to attain to. What this is cannot be ascertained without complete liberty of choice."

In the Enfranchisement of Women Harriet discussed the effect that the amelioration of manners had had on character.

"improvement in the moral sentiments of mankind.. has tended to make home more and more the centre of interest.. The tendency has been strengthened by the changes of tastes or manners which have so remarkably distinguished the last two or three generations. In days not far distant,men found their excitement and filled up their time in violent bodily exercises, noisy merriment, and intemperance. They have now, in all but the very poorest classes, lost their inclination for these things, and for the coarser pleasures generally; they have now scarcely any tastes but those they have in common with women, and for the first time in the world, men and women are really companions."

The effect on character had not proved entirely beneficial however (ETC)


The two essays on gender relations are not the only surviving works of Harriet Taylor. John said that many of his writings after 1840 were "joint productions" with her, and in some cases we can identify parts that are more specifically hers.


The first work they did together was Principles of Political Economy, published in 1848. This was privately dedicated to Harriet and John described the whole book as "a joint production", but one part as specifically hers. In the first draft there was no chapter "On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes" (Mill, J.S. 1848 Book 4, Ch. 7.) - this was included at Harriet's suggestion and:

"the more general part of the chapter, the statement and discussion of the two opposite theories respecting the proper condition of the labouring classes, was wholly an exposition of her thoughts, often in words taken from her own lips." ( Mill, J.S. 1874 ch.7 p.148)

The two opposite theories were those of dependence, paternalism or other- determination, which Harriet criticised, and self-dependence or self- determination which she saw as the likely and desirable future of both the working class and women.


John argued that freedom, self-development, democracy and happiness are linked. Imagine, he asked his readers, a benevolent all powerful dictator. Would not the society he ruled by the happiest in the world? John did not think so:

"What should we then have? One man of superhuman mental activity managing the entire affairs of a mentally passive people. "

"The food of feeling is action". People, he argued, have to do things for themselves if they are to develop morally and intellectually. (Mill, J.S. 1861 p 218). This is the same argument Wollstonecraft's uses in chapter one of her Vindication of the Rights of Women , but whether her book had any influence on Mill or Taylor I do not know.

The benevolent despot is a "paternalist", and Mill owed his consciousness of the inadequacies of paternalism to Harriet. Political controversies in the 1840s over the "moral and social aspect" of the state of the labouring people had demonstrated to her:

"the existence of two conflicting theories, respecting the social position desirable for manual labourers. The one may be called the theory of dependence and protection, the other that of self-dependence."

The first approximates to the theories of a Tory paternalist such as Lord Ashley (1801-1885), the second was the one that John and Harriet argued for. According to the paternalist theory:

"the lot of the poor, in all things which affect them collectively, should be regulated for them, not by them. They should not be required or encouraged to think for themselves..."

"The relation between rich and poor, according to this theory, (a theory also applied to the relation between men and women) should be only partly authoritative: it should be amiable, moral, and sentimental: affectionate tutelage on the one side, respectful and grateful deference on the other."

In opposition to this idea John and Harriet argued that:

"Of the working men, at least in the more advanced countries of Europe, it may be pronounced certain, that the patriarchal or paternal system of government is one to which they will not again be subject. That question was decided, when they were taught to read, and allowed access to newspapers and political tracts; when dissenting preachers were suffered to go among them .. when they were brought together in numbers, to work socially under the same roof; when railways enabled them to shift from place to place, and .. when they were encouraged to seek a share in the government, by means of the electoral franchise."

"..it cannot be doubted that they will increase in intelligence, even by their own unaided efforts; while there is reason to hope that great improvements both in the quality and quantity of school education will be effected..."

"From this increase of intelligence, several effects may be confidently anticipated.. they will become even less willing than at present to be led and governed, and directed into the way they should go, by the mere authority and prestige of superiors .. The theory of dependence and protection will be more and more intolerable to them, and they will require that their conduct and condition shall be essentially self-governed." (Mill, J.S. 1848 Book 4, Ch. 7)

In On Liberty John and Harriet argued that this progress towards self government is essential for human well being.


On Liberty was a joint work produced in the last years of Harriet Taylor's life, which John had published as soon as he could after her death as a memorial. He published it without any alteration of the text they had edited together. ( Mill, J.S. 1874 ch.7 p.152)

On Liberty deals with arguments for two different forms of freedom: freedom of thought and speech (chapter 2) and personal freedom or freedom as self-development (chapter 3). What I am calling personal freedom, John and Harriet call "individuality". They give chapter three the title Of Individuality as one of the Elements of Well-being and as the phrase "as one of the elements of well being" indicates, there is a difference between the case made for freedom of thought and discussion and the case for individuality. The broad case for freedom of thought and speech, analyzed below, is that they are necessary for human progress. Freedom of thought and speech is presented more as a means to an end than as something desirable for it own sake. Individuality on the other hand is presented as an element of well-being: as something desirable, and even necessary, for its own sake.


The arguments for freedom of thought and speech are analogous to the arguments for competition in Principles of Political Economy (Mill, J.S. 1848 4.7.7). In economics John argues that competition is indispensable to progress because human beings have a tendency to indolence. Competition provides the necessary stimulus to keep them going. On Liberty argues that freedom of speech is necessary to scientific, social, moral and political progress. The reasons it gives for this are:

  1. An idea we silence may be true: ideas are tested in combat.

  2. Even true ideas are not the whole truth and false ideas may contain an element of truth - it is by combat of ideas that we move nearer the truth.

  3. True ideas need to compete with false if people are to know the reasons for holding them.

  4. True ideas loose their vitality - their conviction - if they are not vitalised by conflict.


Freedom of speech has its end exterior to it: it is necessary for progress. Personal freedom, however, is an end in itself. On Liberty argues that individuality is a valuable feature of human development. Human beings, it says, should make their own choices - not have them made for them.

On Liberty contrasts individuality and custom. Custom is what is established, what everybody does, what a person copies. Individuality is self-activity, creativity, doing something because it is what you want to do or because it is what you think is right.

"though the customs be good as customs.. yet to conform to custom, merely as custom, does not educate or develop.. any of the qualities which are the distinctive endowment of a human being. The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice."

John and Harriet think that individuality and self development are either the same thing, or intimately connected.

"individuality is the same thing with development.. it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings.. what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be?"


In Principles of Political Economy, Mill argued the importance of the campaign for democracy for the self development of a class.

"Although the too early attainment of political franchises by the least educated class might retard, instead of promoting, their improvement, there can be little doubt that it has been greatly stimulated by the attempt to acquire them." (Mill, J.S. 1848)

As the quotation indicates, Mill had fears as well as hopes for democracy. These fears were centred around the possibility that democracy would restrict freedom instead of encouraging it. Mill's response to this problem involved an increasing emphasis on the concept of freedom as self- development.

Mill says that as he grew older he became less of a democrat and more of a socialist. Even if this is so, he never ceased to be a democrat. What changed was his reason for being a democrat. In his younger days he took his reasons from his father's essay on Government, in his maturity his reasons were based on self development.


Rousseau argued that to restore human freedom it is necessary to bring the laws into accordance with the general will of the population: i.e.: to establish democracy. According to Rousseau democracy and freedom are partners. We have nothing to fear from the general will because it is our own will. Rousseau's position seems to have been taken over lock-stock and barrel by Marx.

A very similar idea (without reference to Rousseau or, of course, Marx) is criticized by Mill at the end of Principles of Political Economy:

"many.. have been prone to think that limitation of the powers of the government is only essential when the government itself is badly constituted; when it does not represent the people, but is the organ of a class, or a coalition of classes: and that a government of sufficiently popular constitution might be trusted with any amount of power over the nation, since its power would be only that of the nation itself"

"Experience, however, proves that the depositories of power who are mere delegates of the people.. are quite as ready when they think that can count on popular support) as any organs of oligarchy, to assume arbitrary power, and encroach unduly on the liberty of private life. The public collectively is abundantly ready to impose, not only its generally narrow views of its interests, but its abstract opinions, and even its tastes, as laws binding on individuals." (Mill, J.S. 1848 5.11.3. 1900 edition p 570)

Mill disagreed with the idea that we have nothing to fear from the General Will. Whatever our political institutions, he argued:

"there is a circle around every individual human being, which no government.. ought to be permitted to overstep." (Mill, J.S. 1848 5.11.2 1900 edition p 569)

The only question is "how large the circle?"

In On Liberty he provided an answer: Everything concerning the inner and outer life of the individual that does no harm to others should be inside the circle. The Principle that he set up was

"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant." ( Mill, J.S. 1859)


The idea of freedom as self-development was no empty abstraction. John and Harriet believed that it had enormous practical consequences for men, women and children throughout the world. It was not just a concept that they had thought up, it was part of their analysis of the course of human history.

We have already seen this outlined by Harriet Taylor in Principles of Political Economy. In The Subjection of Women Mill took the idea further.

You are right - it is not finished

You can read my notes on Subjection of Women

Roberts, A. 5.4.1997 John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor on Freedom as Self Development - A chronological examination of the idea of freedom as self development in the works of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Harriet Taylor (1807-1858). Unfinished. Available at http://studymore.org.uk/ymillfre.htm

Study links outside this site
Picture introduction to this site
Andrew Roberts' web Study Guide
Top of Page Take a Break - Read a Poem
Click coloured words to go where you want

Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
To contact him, please use the Communication Form



Varieties of Freedom

John without Harriet

Romantic Origins

Harriet Taylor

Essay on Freedom of the Affections

The Enfranchisement of Women 1851

Joint Works

On Liberty 1859

freedom of thought and speech
personal freedom

Democracy, Freedom and the Limits of Social Power

Self Development and Real Life

Other Authors. Other Works

Mary Wollstonecraft

James Mill on Government

Thompson and Wheeeler

J.S. Mill on the Subjection of Women

Mill and Taylor 1848

my notes on conservatism versus progress