John Stuart Mill; His Life and Works eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 72 pages of information about John Stuart Mill; His Life and Works.

W. A. HUNTER.

VIII.

HIS WORK IN POLITICAL ECONOMY.

The task of fairly estimating the value of Mr. Mill’s achievements in political economy—­and indeed the same remark applies to what he has done in every department of philosophy—­is rendered particularly difficult by a circumstance which constitutes their principal merit.  The character of his intellectual, no less than of his moral nature, led him to strive to connect his thoughts, whatever was the branch of knowledge at which he labored, with the previously-existing body of speculation, to fit them into the same framework, and exhibit them as parts of the same scheme; so that it might be truly said of him, that he was at more pains to conceal the originality and independent value of his contributions to the stock of knowledge than most writers are to set forth those qualities in their compositions.  As a consequence of this, hasty readers of his works, while recognizing the comprehensiveness of his mind, have sometimes denied its originality; and in political economy in particular he has been frequently represented as little more than an expositor and popularizer of Ricardo.  It cannot be denied that there is a show of truth in this representation; about as much as there would be in asserting that Laplace and Herschel were the expositors and popularizers of Newton, or that Faraday performed a like office for Sir Humphry Davy.  In truth, this is an incident of all progressive science.  The cultivators in each age may, in a sense, be said to be the interpreters and popularizers of those who have preceded them; and it is in this sense, and in this sense only, that this part can be attributed to Mill.  In this respect he is to be strongly contrasted with the great majority of writers on political economy, who, on the strength perhaps of a verbal correction or an unimportant qualification of a received doctrine, if not on the score of a pure fallacy, would fain persuade us that they have achieved a revolution in economic doctrine, and that the entire science must be rebuilt from its foundation in conformity with their scheme.  This sort of thing has done infinite mischief to the progress of economic science; and one of Mill’s great merits is, that both by example and by precept he steadily discountenanced it.  His anxiety to affiliate his own speculations to those of his predecessors is a marked feature in all his philosophical works, and illustrates at once the modesty and comprehensiveness of his mind.

It is quite true that Mill, as an economist, was largely indebted to Ricardo; and he has so fully and frequently acknowledged the debt, that there is some danger of rating the obligation too highly.  As he himself used to put it, Ricardo supplied the backbone of the science; but it is not less certain that the limbs, the joints, the muscular developments,—­all that renders political economy a complete and organized

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John Stuart Mill; His Life and Works from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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