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Sympathy and Self-Interest: The Crisis in Mill's Mental History*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 January 2009


John Stuart Mill's crisis of 1826 has received a great deal of attention from scholars. This attention results from reflection on the importance of the crisis to Mill's mature thought. Did the crisis signal rejection or revision of Benthamism? Or did it have little or no effect on Mill's view of his intellectual inheritance? Ultimately, an interpretation of the cause and resolution of the crisis is integral to an understanding of the nature of Mill's moral and social philosophy. Scholars, in their zeal to understand Mill's crisis, have suggested various reasons for both the onset of the crisis and the recovery. Yet Mill's own perception of his crisis has often been overlooked or rejected.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1989

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I wish to thank Profs. Sydney Eisen and John Robson for their most helpful criticisms and suggestions.


1 See for example, Packe, Michael St. John, The Life of John Stuart Mill, London, 1954, p. 79Google Scholar, who suggests that Mill really had no clear idea of what happened to him.

2 Bain, Alexander, John Stuart Mill: A Criticism with Personal Recollections, New York, 1886, p. 38Google Scholar; Stephen, Leslie, The English Utilitarians, 3 vols., London, 1900, iii. 19Google Scholar; Ellery, John B., John Stuart Mill, New York, 1964, p. 28Google Scholar; and Robson, John, The Improvement of Mankind: The Social and Political Thought of John Stuart Mill, Toronto, 1968, pp. 21–2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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4 Levi, , 93–4, 100Google Scholar; Mazlish, Bruce, James and John Stuart Mill, Father and Son in the Nineteenth Century, New York, 1975, p. 211Google Scholar; Kowalewski, David, ‘Politics and Emotion in the Thought of John Stuart Mill’, Journal of Psychohistory, vii (1979), 455–66Google Scholar; and Glassman, Peter, J. S. Mill: The Evolution of a Genius, Gainesville, 1985Google Scholar, chap. 1, present Mill's crisis as an Oedipal conflict.

5 Borchard, Ruth, John Stuart Mill: The Man, London, 1957, p. 31Google Scholar; Sharpless, F. P., The Literary Criticism of John Stuart Mill, The Hague, 1967, p. 131Google Scholar; Paul, Ellen Frankel, Moral Revolution and Economic Science: The Demise of Laissez-Faire in Nineteenth-Century British Political Economy, New Haven, 1979, p. 147Google Scholar; and Kann, Josephine, John Stuart Mill in Love, London, 1977, pp. 30–2.Google Scholar

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9 Thomas, William, The Philosophic Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice, 1817–1841, Oxford, 1979, p. 151Google Scholar; see also Thomas, William, ‘John Stuart Mill and the Uses of Autobiography’, History, lvi (1971), 341–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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11 Within a year of his letter to Sterling, Mill would find that sympathetic relation he so desired with Harriet Taylor.

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16 The rejection of this passage conforms to Mill's tendency to mitigate his harsh presentation of James Mill. See Robson, , ‘Introduction’ (CW), i. xxvixxvii.Google Scholar

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18 Ibid., 139. See also Stillinger, Jack, The Early Draft of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, Urbana, 1961, pp. 1920Google Scholar, and Smith, Adam, Theory of Moral Sentiments, eds. Raphael, D. D. and Macfie, A. L., Bloomington, 1982, p. 15.Google Scholar

19 Cf. Feuer's psychological account: ‘But the child whose own need for affection has not been satisfied will grow up lacking spontaneous social feelings and affections for others.’ Feuer, Lewis Samuel, Psychoanalysis and Ethics, Urbana, 1955, p. 57.Google Scholar

20 Mill, , Autobiography (CW), i. 139.Google Scholar

21 Bentham, Jeremy, Handbook of Political Fallacies, ed. Larrabee, Harold, New York, 1952, p. 248.Google Scholar

22 Mill, , Autobiography (CW), i. 157Google Scholar. On self-interest and sympathy in Bentham, see Rosen, Fred, Jeremy Bentham and Representative Democracy, Oxford, 1983, pp. 206–11Google Scholar, and Postema, G. J., Bentham and the Common Law Tradition, Oxford, 1986, pp. 379–80.Google Scholar

23 Mill's awareness of discrepancies between thought and action, theory and practice, forms a recurring motif in his work. For example, in the Autobiography, as part of his introduction of his father, he points out that their large family contradicted James Mill's belief in Malthusianism. Later Mill declared that his education fitted him more ‘to know than to do’. Even his hobby, science, was, according to Mill, theoretical rather than practical. He read about experiments, he did not perform them. And then there was the confrontation with his father over the use of the terms theory and practice; see Mill, , Autobiography (CW), i. 7, 39, 35Google Scholar, and Robson, , Improvement of Mankind, pp. 35–6.Google Scholar

24 Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, eds. Burns, J. H. and Hart, H. L. A., London, 1970, pp. 116–17Google Scholar; Mill, John Stuart, ‘Remarks on Bentham's Philosophy’, Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society, ed. Robson, John M., Toronto, 1969Google Scholar (Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. x), x. 14.Google Scholar

26 Mill, , Autobiography (CW), i. 111, 113.Google Scholar

26 Ibid., 113.

27 Halévy, Élie, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, London, 1972, pp. 288–9.Google Scholar

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32 Cumming, Robert, ‘Mill's History of His Ideas’, Journal of the History of Ideas, xxv (1964), 241Google Scholar. See also Lord Blachford's analysis: ‘[Mill] was confronted by the perception that the pleasures of benevolence were beyond his reach unless he had an antecedent desire for the happiness of his fellow creatures. And this, if true, is the contradiction and refutation of the cardinal principle which gives method and completeness to Benthamism’; see Blachford, , 521.Google Scholar

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36 See for example, Kowalewski, , 455–66.Google Scholar

37 Mill uses the term ‘conceptive genius’ in reference to acts of sympathetic imagination in his essay, ‘On Genius’ (1832)Google Scholar. Mill, , ‘On Genius’, Autobiography and Literary Essays, eds. Robson, John M. and Stillinger, Jack, Toronto, 1981Google Scholar (Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. i), i. 333Google Scholar; Mill, , Autobiography (CW), i. 145.Google Scholar

38 Smith, , p. 9.Google Scholar

39 Mill, , ‘Sedgwick's Discourse’ (CW), x. 61.Google Scholar

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41 Levi, , 101.Google Scholar

42 Patmore, Brigit, trans., Memoirs of Marmontel, London, 1920, Bk I.Google Scholar

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44 Ibid., 143.

45 Ibid., 145–7.

46 Ibid., 137.

47 Halévy, , pp. 465–6Google Scholar. See also Berger, , p. 19Google Scholar, and Robson, , Improvement of Mankind, p. 128.Google Scholar

48 Schwartz, Pedro, The New Political Economy of J. S. Mill, London, 1972, p. 55.Google Scholar

49 Mill, , Autobiography (CW), i. 147.Google Scholar

50 Ibid., 115.

51 Ibid., 151; a number of scholars have argued for the importance of sympathy in the poetry of Wordsworth, pointing to his familiarity with the Scottish school's exchanges on the nature and extent of sympathy and with the tenets of associationist psychology. Bate, Walter Jackson, ‘The Sympathetic Imagination in Eighteenth Century Literary Criticism’, English Literary History, xii (1945), 144–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Beatty, Arthur, William Wordsworth: His Doctrine and Art in Their Historical Relations, Madison, 1969, pp. 1720, 215Google Scholar; Buchen, Irving H., ‘Wordsworth's Exposure and Reclamation of the Satanic Intellect’, University Review, xxxiii (1966), 43–5Google Scholar; Britton, , p. 217Google Scholar; and Abrams, M. H., The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, New York, 1953, p. 103.Google Scholar

52 Although Peter Morgan has claimed that Mill's crisis was akin to the situation presented by Wordsworth in Book IV of ‘The Excursion’, Mill did not make that connection; see Morgan, Peter, ‘Mill and Poetry: The Central Years’, The Wordsworth Circle, xii (1982), 50CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Mill, , Autobiography (CW), i. 151.Google Scholar

53 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Biographia Literaria, eds. Engell, James and Bate, Walter Jackson, Princeton, 1983Google Scholar (The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. vii), vii. part 2, 5.Google Scholar

54 Wordsworth, William, ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads’, Selected Poems and Prefaces, ed. Stillinger, Jack, Boston, 1965, pp. 454–5Google Scholar; Abrams, , pp. 103, 330–2Google Scholar; Grob, Alan, The Philosophic Mind: A Study of Wordsworth's Poetry and Thought, Columbus, 1973, pp. 154–9Google Scholar; and Wellek, Renée, A History of Modern Criticism: 1750–1955, 5 vols., New York, 1955, ii. 140Google Scholar. Wordsworth's definition of ‘good’ poetry in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads indicates the need to balance sympathy and reason: ‘For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.…’ Later in the Preface Wordsworth spoke of the poet's role in exciting ‘rational sympathy’; see Wordsworth, William, Selected Poems and Prefaces, pp. 448, 457Google Scholar. See also the discussion of Mill's appreciation of the balance between sympathy and reason in Wordsworth's poetry in Robson, John, ‘J. S. Mill's Theory of Poetry’, University of Toronto Quarterly, xxix (1960), 423–53.Google Scholar

55 Mill, , ‘Wordsworth and Byron’, Journals and Debating Speeches, ed. Robson, John M., Toronto, 1988CrossRefGoogle Scholar (Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vols, xxvi and xxvii), xxvi. 440–1.Google Scholar

56 Ibid., 442; see also Robson, , Improvement of Mankind, pp. 26–7.Google Scholar

57 Wordsworth, , ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’, Selected Poems and Prefaces, p. 16Google Scholar. For a discussion of sympathy and the poem, see Grob, , pp. 154–5, 159Google Scholar; and Brooks, Cleanth, ‘Wordsworth and Human Suffering: Notes on Two Early Poems’, From Sensibility to Romanticism, eds. Hilles, F. W. and Bloom, H., New York, 1965, pp. 376–7.Google Scholar

58 Mill, , Autobiography (CW), i. 151.Google Scholar

59 Mill, , ‘Wordsworth and Byron’ (CW), xxvi. 440Google Scholar; Abrams, , p. 330Google Scholar; Averill, James A., Wordsworth and the Poetry of Human Suffering, London, 1980, p. 135Google Scholar. See also Grob, , pp. 154–5Google Scholar: ‘For Wordsworth concern for nature establishes the foundation of the moral life by calling forth feelings curtailed by self-interest and thus proving that there does exist in man a capability for genuinely disinterested action.…’; Hartman, Geoffrey, ‘Romanticism and Anti-Self-Consciousness’, Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. Bloom, Harold, New York, 1970, p. 55.Google Scholar

60 Mill, , Autobiography (CW), i. 151.Google Scholar

61 Wilson, John, ‘John Stuart Mill: Notices of his Life and Work’, Quarterly Review, cxxxv (1873), 171.Google Scholar

62 Mill, , Autobiography (CW), i. 153.Google Scholar

63 Ibid., 139; Trilling, Lionel, The Liberal Imagination, London, 1951, pp. 150–1Google Scholar; and Bloom, Harold, The Visionary Company, London, 1962, pp. 170, 181.Google Scholar

64 Wordsworth, , ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’, Selected Poems and Prefaces, p. 190.Google Scholar

65 Bloom, , pp. 181, 171–2Google Scholar, and Rader, Melvin, Wordsworth: A Philosophical Approach, Oxford, 1967, p. 167Google Scholar. In fact Bloom understands sympathy to be the ‘immortality’ of the poem; the poem is ‘about separateness and consequent mortality, and about the imaginative power that can bridge separateness and so intimate an immortality that is in turn first and only, primal sympathy of one human with another’.

66 See Thomas, , Philosophic Radicals, pp. 150–2Google Scholar, for a summary of the various interpretations of the effect or impact of Mill's crisis.

67 Berger, , p. 10.Google Scholar

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