Liberty Matters

Emphasising the “Originality” of Harriet Taylor-Mill Mill

In her contribution to this interesting debate, Sandra J. Peart rightly emphasises that John Stuart Mill’s feminism was well-formed and deep-rooted, even before he met Harriet Taylor-Mill, and that this, as he notes in his Autobiography, is the cause of her initially being attracted to him. I particularly appreciated the way Peart also turned this round at the end of her essay: it was Taylor-Mill’s well-developed views on a range of topics, and her “originality” as a thinker, which was a significant element of her attractiveness to Mill. Mill continued to emphasise this throughout his life, particularly when charting all the different ways in which they had collaborated on a range of articles (including via generating a “pool of ideas” on which he drew even after her death, notably – as Peart rightly reminds us– in The Subjection of Women) (Mill (1981), 251-5).
In many respects, he saw himself as the “interpreter” of Taylor-Mill’s original ideas. “[T]he most valuable ideas” of their “joint productions”, he said,
those which have been most fruitful of important results, and have contributed most to the success and reputation of the works themselves – originated with her; were emanations from her mind, my part in them being no greater than in any of the thoughts which I found in previous writers, and made my own only by incorporating them with my own system of thought.
Indeed, this was what Mill thought was his own great strength – being “an interpreter of original thinkers, and mediator between them and the public.” He had, he says, “always a humble opinion of my own powers as an original thinker” except in “abstract science” (by which he mainly meant what we now call philosophy, as well as the more theoretical elements of politics and economics). However, he:
thought myself much superior to most of my contemporaries in willingness and ability to learn from everybody; as I found hardly any one who made such a point of examining what was said in defence of all opinions, however new or however old, in the conviction that even if they were errors there might be a substratum of truth underneath them, and that in any case the discovery of what it was that made them plausible, would be beneficial to the truth. I had, in consequences, marked out this as a spere of usefulness in which I was under a special obligation to make myself active.
I noted in my earlier essay that one area of this originality was Taylor-Mill’s defence of individuality. In this passage, though, we also see Mill’s long-standing commitment to one of the other core claims in On Liberty: his rationale for free speech. In particular, we see the Mill’s fundamental commitment to the idea that, as most opinions are (at best) “partially true”, free discussion helps us to see what is true and what is false – and that even falsehoods should not (prima facie at least) be censored, because there is always benefit to be gained from examining falsehood and understanding why it is false (not least to save “living” truths from becoming “dead” and meaningless, a mere “shell and husk”) (Mill, 1977, 243-8).
David Levy also rightly notes Taylor-Mill’s input in The Principles of Political Economy. Mill’s account of their co-construction of that text, and particularly the chapter on “the probably futurity of the labouring classes” shows that Taylor-Mill was indeed responsible for the clarity by which the dichotomy facing contemporary society is presented: a choice between working people being dependent, or being independent. It should not be surprising, given what we already know of her defence of individuality and both her and Mill’s strong anti-paternalism, that they both supported “independence”. This had far-reaching implications, particularly for the organisation of work via work-place democracy, and “associations of the labourers among themselves”. (On this, see also McCabe 2021 and Baum 1999).
The full extent of the potential consequences for supporting the independence of working people was something Mill and Taylor-Mill could glean because they saw all institutions (including private property) as “merely provisional” (Mill, 1981, 241), something which is closely related to their view (as noted by Levy) that the laws of distribution were malleable, and could be changed by human endeavour. (On this, see also McCabe, 2021, 29-34.) They considered “[t]he social problem of the future … to be, how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with common ownership in the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour” (ibid. 239). They made no prescriptions for what “ideal” institutions would actually look like, or how soon they might be achieved, given the necessary changes which must also occur in the character of members of all classes.
Indeed, the need to change character (and the invidious impact of social institutions on character) is a key theme in both Mill and Taylor-Mill’s work, including their writing on marriage and divorce. Mill described the nuclear, patriarchal family as “the citadel of the enemy” which would need to be “attacked” before women could really be free and equal citizens (Mill, 1984, 325). As Peart and Becchio rightly note, much of Mill and Taylor-Mill’s answer lay in education, but they also noted the need for institutional reform, and as public campaigners both Mill and Taylor-Mill’s daughter Helen Taylor-Mill were active in trying to achieve both.
In her original essay which prompted this stimulating conversation, Becchio rightly highlighted Taylor-Mill’s insistence on the important of women working (and earning money outside the home) in undermining the existing power-balance in marriage, and establishing women (and men) on a more equal footing, something which has not yet been achieved, given stark gender pay gaps even in the most developed countries. Nor have we really achieved a state of being where women are seen as fully independent and worth-while moral beings, and not as “a mere appendage to a man”, even if we are allowed more scope for our activities than to only be “a part of the furniture of the home”. Increasing understanding of women’s role in doing emotional labour (in the home and outside) shows that women are, though, still expected by society to provide “a resting-place” for men “returned from business or pleasure” (Taylor-Mill, 1998, 107).
Taylor-Mill’s feminism, as well as her thinking around political and economic freedom, all still mark Taylor-Mill out as an “original” thinker. We ought not to underestimate her role in works we usually think of as being “Mill’s”, and take him seriously when he ascribed a series of roles to her, not least as the generator of “original” ideas which he “mediated” to the public in a variety of ways, from theoretical works through to on-the-ground activism.
Baum, Bruce. 1999. “J.S. Mill’s Conception of Economic Freedom”. History of Political Thought. 20/3: 494-530.
McCabe, Helen. 2021. John Stuart Mill, Socialist. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.
Mill, John Stuart. 1981. Autobiography in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill edited by J.M. Robson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Mill, John Stuart, 1977. On Liberty in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill edited by J.M. Robson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Mill, John Stuart. 1984. Subjection of Women in in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill edited by J.M. Robson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Taylor-Mill, Harriet. 1998. Complete Works of Harriet Taylor-Mill Mill edited by Jo Ellen Jacobs. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.