The Fictive Worlds of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism

By Schweik, Robert | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

The Fictive Worlds of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism


Schweik, Robert, Nineteenth-Century Prose


In his Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill presents his readers with two very different visions of the world--two fictions, each endowed with selectively featured pasts, presents, and futures. These are populated by a personification of Utilitarianism itself and partly shaped by conflicting analogies that are sometimes obviously contrived but more often appear to have been used unconsciously. In short, Mill's Utilitarianism is the product not only of a calculated rhetoric but also of a mind persuaded by its own partial and conflicting images of reality.

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The phrase "fictive worlds" in my title refers to those partial and conflicting images of reality Mill presents to readers of Utilitarianism by exploiting selective details, analogies, personifications, and other such devices in ways that vary over the course of his argument. From the 1960S onward, interest in these kinds of imaginative elements in scientific and philosophic prose has been heightened by the work of such diverse analysts as Gillian Beer, Max Black, Georges Canguilhem, Paul Feyerabend, Mary Hesse, Paul Ricoeur, Donald Schon, and Hayden White to all of whom in various ways have called attention to the prevalence of fictive elements, both heuristic and rhetorical, in nonliterary discourse. In view of their conclusions, Mill's own assertions--that a philosopher can advantageously unite both reason and poetry (1:343) and that "poetry ... may exist in what is called prose" (i:364) (1) --seem remarkably prophetic adumbrations of what has become a widely accepted twentieth-century recognition of the fundamental role that fictions play in even the most scientific and philosophical of writings.

It is not surprising, then, that since the 1970s a series of studies of such elements in Mill's prose have appeared, spearheaded by Eugene August's wide-ranging analyses that systematically point out some of the multifarious ways that fictive elements underlie Mill's writings. (2) Since then, although the role that such elements play in the Autobiography, On Liberty, and The Subjection of Women has continued to attract further study, in this respect Mill's Utilitarianism has been all but completely ignored. (3) No doubt this is in large measure became the relatively more philosophical cast of Utilitarianism makes it seem unlikely to exhibit anything other than the few elements August had already noted--Mill's creation of a persona that is a mixture of temperate earnestness and sunny rationality, his use of plant metaphors to illustrate that moral feelings are a natural growth, and his animal references that dramatize human appetite divorced from reason (John Smart Mill 170- 180). In fact, there is much more, and some of the observations August has made require significant revision.

Consider, for example, just this brief passage from Utilitarianism in which Mill is discussing the sources of human suffering:

   As for vicissitudes of fortune, and other disappointments connected
   with worldly circumstances, these are principally the effect either
   of gross imprudence, of ill-regulated desires, or of bad or
   imperfect social institutions. All the grand sources, in short, of
   human suffering are in a great degree, many of them almost
   entirely, conquerable by human care and effort; and though their
   removal is grievously slow--though a long succession of generations
   will perish in the breach before the conquest is completed, and
   this world becomes all that, if will and knowledge were not
   wanting, it might easily be made--yet every mind sufficiently
   intelligent and generous to bear a part, however small and
   unconspicuous, in the endeavour, will draw a noble enjoyment from
   the contest itself, which he would not for any bribe in the form of
   selfish indulgence consent to be without. (4)

One obvious literary dement in this passage is an extended analogy in which Mill represents certain people as battling against the "conquerable" sources of human suffering, where "many will perish in the breach before the conquest is completed"; yet, unbribable by any selfish indulgence, they "will draw a noble enjoyment from the contest. …

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