Topics Worth Investigating

  1. Compare John Stuart Mill's view of the cultural and social function of art to Leo Tolstoy's view that art is the transmission of feelings from the artist to others. In what sense can Mill's characterization of poetry as soliloquy be conveyed culturally? Is the difference between the two theories of art merely a question of an accented point of view?

  2. Mill at several points states poetry is "overheard" not "heard." He also states, "Who can imagine 'Dove sono' heard? We imagine it overheard." Explain the distinction between "heard" and "overheard."

  3. Jeremy Bentham, reminiscently of the view expressed in Book X of Plato's Republic, writes of the untruth of poetry:

    Indeed, between poetry and truth there is natural opposition: false morals and fictitious nature. The poet always stands in need of something false. When he pretends to lay has foundations in truth, the ornaments of his superstructure are fictions; his business consist in stimulating our passions, and exciting our prejudices. Truth, exactitude of every kind is fatal to poetry. The poet must see everything through coloured media, and strive to make every one else do the same. It is true, there have been noble spirits, to whom poetry and philosophy have been equally indebted; but these exceptions do not counteract the mischiefs which have resulted from this magic art.[1]

    On the one hand, from a utilitartian point of view, Bentham concludes from this passage, "[T]he game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and science of music and poetry." On the other hand, Mill's ęsthetics is often characterized as a kind of romanticism where poetry is the expresssion of personal emotion. Mill writes in our selection, "Poetry, when it is really such, is truth; and fiction, if it is good for anything, is truth…" How does Mill find utility and social purpose in poetry? What, according to Mill, is the cultural significance of poetry? How can this view of art be reconciled with Mill's utilitarianism?

  4. Is Mill's distinction between poetry and prose a distinction of degree or of kind? In principle, would Mill allow for a kind of scientific poetry?

  5. To what extent does Mill's contrast of matters of fact in science with emotive significance in poetry anticipate I.A. Richards' notion of emotive value and Charles L. Stevenson's distinction between statements of belief and statements of attitude? Stevenson writes:

    Let us begin by noting that "disagreement" has two broad senses… The difference between the two senses of "disagreement" is essentially this: the first involves an opposition of beliefs, both of which cannot be true, and the second involves an opposition of attiutdes, both of which cannot be satisfied.[2]

    Does Mill hold that there is a clear distinction between empirical statements and emotive statements? Is the meaning of poetry only subjective for Mill?



Jeremy Bentham. The Rationale of Reward. In The Works of Jeremy Bentham. John Bowring Edition. Edinburgh: Tait. 1843. Volume II. Book III. Chapter I.


Charles L. Stevenson. Facts and Values: Studies in Ethical Analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1963. 1-2.